Robyn Reviews: The Devil Makes Three

‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a contemporary young adult fantasy following two students – Tess, a cello prodigy on a scholarship, and Eliot, the headmaster’s wealthy son – at an exclusive private school in Pennsylvania. It weaves a dark tale of bargains, demoncraft, and possession alongside commentary on elitism, family, and growing up too fast. The execution isn’t always there, but it’s a bold and ambitious story that makes an interesting read.

After Tess’s father spends all the family’s savings on his failing stationery business, Tess uses her family connections – and her abilities as a cello prodigy – to get both herself and her sister accepted into an exclusive private school. There, she works two jobs to try and earn enough money to fulfil her sister’s dream of going to medical school. It’s through her job at the library that she makes the acquaintance of Eliot Birch, the charming, entitled son of the headmaster. But there’s more to Eliot than there seems – he’s a witch, looking for a piece of magic powerful enough to save his dying mother. In search of a forbidden grimoire, Eliot enlists Tess’s help. However, instead of a grimoire, they find themselves unleashing a demon from his book bound prison – and he’ll stop at nothing in his quest to take Tess’s body for his own and ensure his freedom forever.

Tess and Eliot make excellent protagonists. Tess wants nothing more than to be left in peace to play her cello, but instead she’s found herself stepping into the figure of surrogate mother for her sister, Nat. She’s sacrificed her own dreams – and a place at a prestigious art institute – to get her sister into a school with the connections to get her into medical school. She works herself to the bone to earn money for her sister’s college fund, and earns her sister’s ire telling her off every time she steps out of line. Tess is a tough character, hardened by adversity and sheer force of will, but she has plenty of guilt and insecurity too – it’s impossible not to respect and feel sorry for her.

Eliot, meanwhile, at first glance seems every inch the entitled private school boy, but it doesn’t take much more than that to realise he’s the human equivalent of a marshmallow. All Eliot wants is to save his mum – but instead, he’s trapped on the other side of the Atlantic with his tyrannical father. With considerable resources at his disposal, Eliot doesn’t care how many toes he steps on – or how many librarians he drives to despair with endless book requests – as long as he can find a spell to help his mum. Eliot and Tess’s interactions are golden – the way they meet is hilarious, and Eliot quickly realises that Tess is way out of his league. Their growing relationship is adorable, and surprisingly free of many YA cliches.

This is a dark book in many ways. The devil torments Tess – and to a lesser degree Eliot – in a way that’s both gory and has significant elements of psychological horror. There are some graphic descriptions of corpses and decay. Eliot and his father also have an exceptionally unhealthy relationship – Headmaster Birch is controlling to the extreme and there’s a scene of physical abuse. It’s still a YA book, with nothing too heavy for the teenage reader, but it’s worth bearing in mind for those with sensitivities around horror or abuse.

I did have a few issues. There’s a little too much ‘telling’, with elements just stated to the reader rather than being discovered organically or even left a mystery to heighten the suspense. Certain elements are also a little too black and white to be believable – Eliot’s father has absolutely no redeeming features yet somehow manages to have a nice girlfriend, which I personally couldn’t understand. However, for a book which tries to pull a lot off, it mostly succeeds in telling an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Overall, ‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a solid entry into the YA dark fantasy or horror genre, with some interesting commentary on elitism and education too. Recommended for fans of psychological horror, soft male love interests, and complex family dynamics.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 14th September 2021


Robyn Reviews: Wendy, Darling

‘Wendy, Darling’ is a feminist exploration of the aftermath of JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘. It’s a dark tale, looking at the price of growing up, what is means to be a parent, and how society treats those who don’t conform. It also explores some of the issues within the original ‘Peter Pan’ seen through a modern lens, especially around the role of women and racism towards indigenous peoples. The flow isn’t always there, but for those who enjoy a darker story it’s a worthwhile read.

Neverland is a children’s paradise, perfect for the boy who never grows up. Wendy, on the other hand, has given up Neverland, and finds growing up inevitable. By the time Peter returns for her, Wendy has married and had a daughter of her own – but Peter refuses to believe that the adult woman is Wendy. Instead, he steals her daughter Jane. Desperate to get her daughter back, Wendy sets off for Neverland once more. In returning, Wendy must confront some painful truths about Neverland – and about herself. There’s a darkness in the heart of the island, and for all his charisma, there’s darkness in Peter too.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jane’s and Wendy’s – and across two timelines. There’s the present, with Jane and Wendy in Neverland, but also flashbacks to Wendy’s life in the years after leaving Neverland the first time and the impact that had. In many ways, the flashback scenes are the more compelling. Neverland completely upended the trajectory of Wendy’s life, and the lasting struggles it left her with are stark. Her brothers quickly forgot Neverland, but Wendy never did – and in her desperation to hold on, she managed to alienate herself from everyone around her. The loneliness of being the only one to remember something, and the way it makes them doubt their own mind, is brilliantly – if somewhat horrifically – portrayed. At one point, Wendy even ends up instituitonalised – this being the early 20th century, where women who did not conform were shut away – and the brutality of this is again not shied away from.

Wendy is by far the more interesting character. Enormously complex, she struggles with her identity and her feelings on Neverland. She’s gone from being forced to be a mother to the Lost Boys to choosing to be a mother herself – and then that child is torn away from her too. With the trauma of her life after leaving Neverland, her memories of it have become her comfort and shield against the world – so when Neverland itself becomes a source of trauma, she struggles to know where to turn. Wendy is flawed and struggling, but immensely strong, and she loves her daughter fiercely. Its impossible not to empathise with her. Her relationships with Mary and with her husband Ned are also delightful to read about. While the term is never used on page, Wendy reads as aromantic, possibly with an element of bisexuality. AC Wise does well to foreshadow this before Wendy mentions it on page, and its lovely to see her find happiness and companionship in a time less accepting of those identities.

Jane is a very typical child protagonist. Smart and plucky, she wants to be a scientist and fiercely stands up for herself. Unlike Wendy, who in the original ‘Peter Pan’ mostly went along with Peter and his ideas – only rebelling by leaving at the end – Jane fights from the start. She has no interest in being anyone’s mother, and she’d much rather look at rocks than spend all day play-fighting. Her rebellion makes Peter more malevolent, highlighting the darker side that was present in the original but far mote subtle. Jane’s sections are made more readable by the inclusion of Timothy, one of the Lost Boys who has grown tired of Peter’s games – and scared of Peter as a consequence. Jane is kind-hearted and caring, and her interactions with Timothy are lovely. Unlike Wendy, Jane doesn’t stand out as a character – she reads much like a wide variety of children’s book protagonists – but she makes an interesting counterpoint to her more complex mother.

The ending is powerful, with clear messages about motherhood and what it means to grow up. There are a couple of minor irritations – Jane’s characterisation slips a bit at the climax, becoming a little too subserviant – but overall it works well.

The main issue with ‘Wendy, Darling’ is that it takes a risk by telling two simultaneous stories, and one is so much more gripping and complex that it makes the other seem a little weak. The flashback scenes are probably intended to be a minor part, but to me their story is more compelling than the main plotline. I would happily read an entire book just dedicated to the psychological impact of Neverland on Wendy and her life, and how she navigates the aftermath. This definitely says more about me as a reader than it does the book, but it colours my ability to look at it objectively.

Overall, ‘Wendy, Darling’ is a clever look at the story of ‘Peter Pan’ and what might have happened next. Unlike the original, it’s definitely not a children’s book, but it’s an intriguing addition to the world of ‘Peter Pan’ spinoffs. Recommended for existing ‘Peter Pan’ fans, along with those who enjoy tales about motherhood, women who survive, and psychology.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Lights of Prague

‘The Lights of Prague’ is a lovely historical fantasy novel about a Prague filled with a secret monster underworld, only protected by the Lamplighters – men responsible for lighting the gaslamps around the city, and for fighting off the monsters no citizens would believe were there. The ending is a tad rushed and predictable, but other than this it’s an excellent, creative novel with insight into a beautiful city rarely portrayed in urban fantasy.

Domek Myska is a Lamplighter – a man who roams the streets at night tasked with protecting the city from the monsters who dwell in the dark. He’d rather be a mechanic, but his uncle can’t afford to give him a full-time job, and his family has long known about Prague’s monstrous secret. One night, Domek saves a woman from a Pijavica – a bloodthirsty vampire – and suddenly finds himself the target of multiple brutal attacks. They all seem to centre around a mysterious jar he took from the creature. Now, Domek must figure out what’s in the jar – and what the Pijavice are planning with it – before they seize the power to unleash terror on Prague and all its inhabitants.

The story is told from two perspectives – Domek’s, and a wealthy widow called Ora Fischerova, a woman fascinated by Domek – but also secretly a Pijavica herself. Domek is a solid main character – kind-hearted, strong, and determined – but he’s also infuriatingly stubborn, with a set of incredibly black and white morals. He’s a talented mechanic and fighter, but otherwise not the brightest, and his inability to compromise or see other sides of the argument regularly leaves him in trouble. Domek always wants to do the right thing – but he’s convinced that his way is the only right way. Domek’s growth across the novel is good, but his stubbornness in the middle would be hard to deal with without Ora as a counterpoint.

Ora is a far more multifaceted character. As a Pijavica vampire, she’s been alive – or undead – for hundreds of years, seeing Prague change from the height of an empire’s power to a smaller, somewhat forgotten city. Previously part of an exclusive vampire family, she escaped decades ago, hiding herself amongst the humans. She even found love and married one – but has now been left a widow torn apart by loss. Ora is a very damaged character who struggles with the loss and death associated with vampire life. She’s a glamorous lady, enjoying the trappings of high society – but also one with a great deal of guilt. At first, she sees Domek as a bit of a diversion – a plaything to seduce and then discard – but she finds herself more and more enraptured by his heart and unshakeable moral code. However, she has no idea that he hunts those like her – and that makes her conquest dangerous. Ora makes an excellent protagonist, with a surprisingly good sense of humour, and an interesting perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of immortal life.

The plot is clever, with multiple layers of mystery that are hard to parse out. Its reasonably fast-paced, with constant action and developments, but not so fast it leads to confusion. It also heavily features creatures seen less often in fantasy, like will-o-the-wisps – a form of sprite or ghost in European folklore. The ending does feel a little rushed – Domek, in particular, seems to change without enough time or explanation – but it’s satisfying, coming to a strong conclusion whilst leaving room for a potential sequel.

The setting of Prague works brilliantly. Prague is a beautiful city, and elements of its history and culture are evident throughout. There are references to the decline of empire, the uneasy coexistence of new Germans with old Czechs, and the resident Jewish population who have only just been permitted citizenship and still aren’t seen as on par with their Christian neighbours. Jarvis creates a real sense of time and place, with an insight into a fascinating and turbulent piece of history that works perfectly with her fantasy additions. For those who have spent time in Prague, there are also recognisable landmarks. I don’t know enough about Central European history to know how accurate the historical elements are, but they feel authentic.

Overall, ‘The Lights of Prague’ is an enjoyable slice of historical fiction with a brilliant setting and clever use of European folklore. The ending is rushed, but otherwise its a solid read. Recommended for fans of historical, urban, and paranormal fantasy and books with an exceptional sense of place.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Forest of Stars

‘The Forest of Stars’ is an enjoyable, if dark in places, middle grade novel about a floating girl who finds a home in a magical circus, but finds her new home under threat from a hidden foe. The mystery elements are relatively predictable, but the atmosphere and found family elements are lovely.

All her life, Louisa has been hidden away by her mother. Her bones are full of too much air, so she glides around without her feet touching the ground – and a wind too strong could blow her away, just like her father when she was young. When her mother dies, twelve-year-old Louisa is left to fend for herself – but the world is dangerous for those who are different. However, her fortune changes when she receives an invitation to a mysterious carnival. The carnival is full of those who are different like her. Louisa finds herself torn between making the carnival her home and going in search of her missing father. Her decision is complicated when a mysterious magic starts attacking the carnival’s residents, leaving Louisa and her friends to track down a hidden foe.

Louisa is a sweet, naive girl, loyal to her friends but hindered by a lack of knowledge of the world. She also has little to no control over her magic, regularly drifting into the sky then finding herself unable to come back down. For a child so young, Louisa has experienced a lot of grief,and the way this is handled – with a twist of fabulism – is excellent. Louisa isn’t the strongest protagonist, but she’s likeable enough and her determination to do the right thing is admirable.

The fabulism is the strongest part of the book. The magic those at the carnival possess, from Louisa’s floating to Mercy’s control over shadows, is great, but there are other elements too, like the love bugs which appear any time anyone is sad. All these elements are well woven into the narrative, adding to the atmosphere. The fabulism has a darker twist than in many books – rather than a fortune teller, there’s a misfortune teller – and this works well, lending gothic undertones without ever being too much for a child.

The main weakness of this story is the plot. There are two core mysteries – Louisa’s missing father and the mysterious foe targeting the circus – and both are relatively obvious from an early stage. Admittedly, this is a children’s story, so the elements being obvious to an adult is not necessarily a bad thing, but the hints dropped could be more subtle. The denouement is still satisfying, but it lacks the shock factor that would really elevate it to the next level.

Overall, ‘The Forest of Stars’ is a fun, creative children’s book with some lovely found family elements. Its not the most original storyline, but the magical elements make it an enjoyable read.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 11th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Witch’s Heart

‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a retelling of Norse mythology, chronicling the life of the witch Angrboda from the time of her imprisonment by Odin to the end of the gods at Ragnarok. It’s slow to start, but packs an emotional punch – likely more so for anyone who has experienced motherhood.

When a witch refuses to provide Odin with a prophecy of the future, he casts her into the fire and cuts out her heart. However, she survives. Left injured and powerless, she flees to a cave in the mountains of Jotunheim, renaming herself Angrboda and setting out to rebuild her life. There, she is found by the trickster god Loki, who returns her heart. Gradually, Angrboda falls for her unlikely helper, leading to three highly unusual children. However, their fragile peace is threatened by the return of Angrboda’s prophetic powers – and the greed of Odin and the other Aesir to use them. When the treachery of the gods reaches new heights, Angrboda must decide whether to leave her family to their prophesised fate – or to try and reshape the future.

Angrboda is a fascinating character. At the start of the story she’s a mystery even to herself, remembering only her torture by Odin. The more she discovers, the more it becomes apparent that she’s both ancient and powerful – but she struggles between the dichotomy of her peaceful existence as a wife and mother, and her apparent past as a powerful and feared witch. Angrboda is strong, but the quiet sort of strong not often given widespread appreciation. She doesn’t fight any battles or seek any glory – instead, she maintains her home and raises her children and has strength in living exactly the life she wants to live. When that peace is disrupted, she uses her wits and seeks vengeance in a similarly quiet way -and her actions are all the more meaningful for it.

Angrboda has two main romantic relationships across the course of the book – one with Loki, and one with the giantess Skadi. Her relationship with Loki is innately unbalanced and always feels fragile, but Gornichec does well to weave in enough to show why Angrboda stays with him anyway. In contrast, her relationship to Skadi – a long friendship which eventually becomes something more – feels far more natural, although again it’s always clear it isn’t meant to last.

The more interesting relationships, however, are between Angrboda and her three children – Hel, Fenrir,and Jorgamund. Angrboda is widely known from Norse mythology as the mother of monsters – but from her perspective, she is merely a mother. Angrboda fears for her children as any mother would – especially as she is cursed to know their fates. Her fierce protection and desire to protect them above all with resonate with anyone who has experienced parenthood.

The story is split into three parts. The first, Angrboda’s life in Jotunheim, is the slowest and probably the least interesting, although it lays essential groundwork for the later action. The second is the part of Angrboda’s story I was least familiar with before reading this, and I found it fascinating uncovering the missing part of her mythos. There are also some heartbreaking moments. The third, very short part chronicles Ragnarok. This is the most emotionally hard hitting, and really elevates the story from a basic retelling to something with more depth.

Overall, ‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a solid addition to the growing genre of mythological retellings. It doesn’t quite have the impact of stories like Circe or Ariadne, but it’s an accomplished debut and a worthy addition to the shelves of any Norse mythology fan. Recommended for fans of retellings and stories of motherhood.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 4th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: If We Were Villains

‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.

Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.

Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.

This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.

Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017

Robyn Reviews: All the Murmuring Bones

‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a beautifully atmospheric tale, winding folklore and fantasy together to create something dark and gothic. There are family secrets, lapsed bargains, a crumbling fortune – and at the heart of it all, a young woman who just wants to be free. The tale winds slowly, filled with lingering descriptions, painting a vivid picture tinged with the salt of the sea.

Miren’s grandmother, Aoife, is the last of the O’Malley’s – a family who prospered due to a bargain struck with the mer. All their ships would have safe passage across the sea in return for one child sacrificed per generation. However, pride in the bloodline has become their downfall – generations of intermarriage have left producing enough healthy children impossible, with Aoife only able to bare one child. With the bargain broken, the legacy is collapsing: the O’Malley fortune has dwindled to nothing. Miren is left to bare the burden of the family misfortune. Trapped by her grandmother’s scheming, Miren desperately seeks a way out – but in a family full of secrets, there’s only so far she can go.

Miren makes an excellent protagonist. Shrewd and determined, she fights for what she wants the quiet way – biding her time, outwardly appearing to acquiesce whilst secretly gathering information and plotting her next move. She’s spent her entire life under her grandmother’s thumb, experiencing cool disinterest rather than warm affection – but she loves her family, and wars with contrasting desires to protect the family legacy and tear down every root of it. She has her weaknesses – but she knows them, every last flaw, and she turns them into weapons. Miren might not outwardly seem like the most special or talented woman, but if there’s someone you don’t want as your enemy then it’s her.

The writing takes a little time to adjust to, but once it draws you in it’s exquisite. The first chapters are packed with dense descriptions, and the plot ambles around them like a man picking his way through the fog – but eventually, the book ensnares you and leaves you enraptured. This is very much a novel about atmosphere rather than plot. The story is solid – an arranged marriage in exchange for a fortune, a secret kept for decades, a journey full of magical creatures and ethereal encounters – but not what lingers. Instead, it’s the eerie images of mer watching on from the sea, witches hiding behind herbs and smiles, ghosts of abandoned cottages preying on weary travellers, that make this book what it is.

There’s also an element of story within a story. The O’Malleys have a book of stories, passed down through generations. There are tales of dealing with the mer, of selkies giving up their pelts, of witchcraft and herblore and – above all – the importance of family. It’s never clear how much is fact and how much fiction, but Miren grew up with these stories and remembers them in times of hardship. They’re a source of comfort – the O’Malleys are children of the sea, and the sea protects its own. Each story is as beautiful as the tale which contains them, and they add a wonderful extra element.

The main weakness ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ has is the same thing which creates its lingering atmosphere, and that’s the descriptions. It takes a long time to get past the pages and pages of description and settle into the story, and even once there, it can detract from key moments of the plot. Personally, I found this a very minor thing – the writing is beautiful, and I adore books which create an atmosphere – but I suspect some readers will find it too slow going and tedious. If you’re the sort of reader who wants action to create tension, this isn’t the book for you.

Overall, ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a delightfully gothic tale that would feel right at home in a book of fairytales from several centuries ago. Recommended for fans of eerie stories and classical folklore: especially those which focus on the quiet power of women who have been wronged.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Unwritten

‘The Library of the Unwritten’ is a fun fantasy adventure with a highly unique premise. Fast-paced and engaging, it’s an easy and enjoyable read.

Hell isn’t just a place where damned souls go where they die – it also plays host to the largest library in all existence. Within this library is the Unwritten Wing, shelves containing every book left unfinished by its author. Occasionally, characters within these books rise up and escape, trying to get their authors to finish them – and it’s the librarian’s job to track them down. When a hero escapes his book and manages to flee all the way to Earth, it’s down to Head Librarian Claire, her assistant Brevity, and junior demon Leto to track him down. However, when their retrieval is unexpectedly interrupted by an angel, a chase begins – one that could lead to war between Heaven and Hell.

Claire is a strong woman, with all the positives and negatives that brings. She takes her job as head librarian seriously, ruling with an iron fist coated in ink. She has no sympathy for characters who go walkabout, no matter how they plead – unlike her more empathetic assistant, Brevity. Claire is all ruthless competence and hard lines. However, as the story goes in, cracks start to appear in her armour – and beneath it is a flawed, struggling, and far more interesting woman. Claire makes a solid protagonist, and her love of books and the library will resonate with all bookworms.

Leto, in contrast, is an absolute sweetheart. He’s terrible at being a demon – he’s not even the slightest bit demonic – and ruled entirely by his heart. His heart isn’t on his sleeve, it’s on a neon sign flashing above his head at all times, and he’s all the more endearing for it. Leto struggles with the morality of Claire’s actions – just because characters bleed ink not blood doesn’t make them any less real – but even more with himself.

Brevity is a weaker character. A failed muse, sentenced to the library in punishment, she has just as much heart as Leto – but she spends so much time trying to be what people want her to be, she loses who she actually is herself. It’s never clear what she actually wants, and she falls somewhat flat as a result. Ironically, she feels more like a character than Hero, who’s genuinely leapt out of the pages of a book.

The worldbuilding is primarily Judeo-Christian, with Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, but also encompasses other beliefs – Valhalla makes an appearance, as does an ancient Greek labyrinth. It’s superficial, but doesn’t need to go any deeper for a fantasy adventure. The plot isn’t the most original, with most of the twists and betrayals predictable – but this works reasonably well in a story that focuses on unwritten books and their archetypes. The real highlight is simply the idea of a library with unwritten books that characters can escape from as more-or-less fully fledged personalities. It’s clever, simple, and works brilliantly. AJ Hackwith winds in elements of found family and what is means to belong, creating a novel which might not be the strongest work of fiction but is a delight to read.

Overall, this is a fun fantasy adventure which will appeal to any bookworm – especially if they’ve ever been an aspiring writer. Recommended.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 11th February 2020

Robyn Reviews: All the Birds in the Sky

‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a profoundly strange book. It’s extremely ambitious, bending genres and written in a very particular style, but it doesn’t quite manage to carry it off. It’s also quite different to what you might picture from the blurb, which can lead to confusion as the story unravels.

The novel follows two individuals – Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a technology-obsessed scientist – from childhood. Both are social outcasts, and thus thrown together. They’re too weird for school – nerdy before being nerdy was almost cool – and too obsessed in their own interests to be friends. Neither truly understands the other or believes they would be friends by choice. As they grow older, they lose touch – partially by choice, and partially through outside forces – but in adulthood, unusual circumstances force them to reconnect. Together, they could bring about the end of the world – or stop it.

The style of writing means there’s no connection between the reader and either Patricia or Laurence. It isn’t clear if this is a deliberate plot device – the reader failing to relate to them in the same way as their peers – or simply an accident, but either way it doesn’t work for me. They feel distant and two-dimensional, definitely stereotypes rather than people, and it makes it difficult to care what happens to them. It also makes them very forgettable – as soon as the novel is finished, its hard to remember any details you’ve just read.

The plot is the strongest part. The events of the novel are bizarre – Charlie Jane Anders has clearly done her research, because the science has a vague basis in reality, but coupled with witchcraft it becomes completely chaotic. The blend of science-fiction and fantasy is clever and intricately done. In many ways this boils down to simply magic vs science, but it feels ridiculous to dilute such a complex and confusing novel down to such a trivial description.

Unfortunately, what could be a strong and engaging novel is derailed by the writing. The entire novel is written in a detached and superficial manner – a bit like a newsreader telling an entire narrative in monotone without going into any details or justification. It reminds me of a poorly-written middle grade novel – not in content, which is definitely adult, but in the way it avoids explaining anything as if the reader won’t understand it. If the writing style is ignored it becomes an enjoyable, creative piece of literature, but without the connection with either the characters or the plot it becomes a bit of a slog to get through.

Overall, ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a creative attempt at fusion between science fiction and fantasy, with an intriguing premise and ambitious plot, but one which is let down by the writing. It may be enjoyed more by fans of experimental fiction than conventional science fiction and fantasy fans.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 26th January 2016

Robyn Reviews: Fable

‘Fable’ is an absolutely typical young adult fantasy book. For fans of the genre it makes an enjoyable enough read, but it lacks anything special to make it stand out.

Four years ago, Fable’s father – one of the most feared tradesmen in the Narrows – abandoned her on a remote island to prove her worth. Survive, and she’ll be allowed to come into her legacy. Anything else and she won’t be his daughter. Finally, Fable has scraped together enough coin to pay for passage off the island – but the seas are treacherous, and the man Fable enlists for help, West, is more than he seems. Fable’s salvation might turn out to be her downfall.

Fable couldn’t be a more typical YA protagonist. Lost her mother in a tragic accident? Check. Abandoned by her father to live as an orphan? Check. Possessing rare and unusual skills that she must keep secret from everyone else? Check. Beautiful despite years spent barely able to survive and feed herself? Check. Fable is determined and feisty, if very naive, and a likeable enough protagonist – but she doesn’t stand out. It can also be very irritating how she clings to her fathers rules and beliefs despite him being a horrible person. This is probably realistic, but it’s not pleasant to read.

The crew of the Marigold, the ship Fable escapes on, are an interesting bunch – although because they and Fable don’t trust each other one jolt, they remain a mystery for much of the book. Willa especially is a brilliant character, and West clearly has the obligatory tragic backstory for the main male character in a YA fantasy. It isn’t really a spoiler to call him the love interest because it’s so obviously choreographed from the beginning, and the plot is standard enough to throw up few surprises.

The best part about this book is the setting. The worldbuilding is exceptionally bare bones and basic, but most of this takes place on boats and the sea, and the way this is depicted is excellent. All the terminology is very well explained, without too much being dumped on the reader at once, and the highs and lows of life at sea are beautifully portrayed. There’s also a real sense of family amongst the crew – and clear reasons why this has to be the case. It’s a shame that everything else about the book is so bland, because the premise of rival merchant ship crews is packed with potential.

Overall, ‘Fable’ is a decent read, but lacks anything to make it stand out from other books in its genre. YA fantasy fans will likely enjoy it, but those who’ve read many YA fantasies before may find the story too familiar in territory.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 26th January 2021