Robyn Reviews: Book of Night

Holly Black, best known for the ‘Folk of the Air’ trilogy but a prolific author of YA fantasy, makes her adult fantasy debut with ‘Book of Night’ – an urban fantasy about con artists, power, and messy characters living messier lives. In much the vein of ‘Ninth House‘ – another adult debut by a popular YA author – it’s a darker book, almost to emphasise that this is Definitely Not Aimed At Children. (There’s probably an entire debate to be had there about why female YA authors feel the need to do this, but I digress). In short, ‘Book of Night’ is a solid and enjoyable dark urban fantasy, but probably not a book that will appeal to many fans of Holly Black’s other work.

Charlie is a (mostly) retired con artist, working as a bartender and trying to distance herself from her previous life of crime. She’s got a steady, boring boyfriend and a steady income – if not enough of one to save up for her younger sister to go to college. However, when Charlie accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from work, she finds herself thrown back into her old life of shadow crime – with her life potentially on the line. Never one to make a good decision when she could make a worse one, she throws herself wholeheartedly back into a world of secrets, power, and murder.

The magic system in this book is simple but effective. Everyone starts off with a shadow – but some people develop the power to alter them, using them to alter appearances, increase power, or even as weapons. Shadows can be traded and even stolen, leaving one shadowless – a lesser in society. The shadow trade is at its depths a dark and ugly thing, but to the populace at large, shadow alterations are seen as glamorous accessories. The choice of magic system adds to the darkness of the book in a quite literal way, but it’s cleverely done, and Holly Black weaves explanation into the story well, avoiding long passages of exposition.

Charlie, the protagonist, is a highly relatable Millennial-type character, the sort of person who keeps screwing up and whose life seems fated to go wrong in a hundred different ways – partially because Charlie herself can’t keep her nose out of trouble. She’s creative, curious, and kind-hearted, but also headstrong and reckless. Her relationship with her younger sister is intriguing, and one of the parts of the book I wish was explored further.

The plot is fast paced with plenty of twists and turns, with just about the right balance between foreshadowing and surprise. Most revelations can be predicted with enough mental gymnastics, but it’s satisfying having deductions proven right and there are still shocks along the way. Naturally, the book uses some genre tropes, but there’s plenty to make it feel original. The ending provides a satisfying conclusion that fits with the tone of the rest of the book, whilst leaving the door open for a potential spinoff or sequel.

For an adult fantasy this is on the shorter side, and there could have been more exploration of the world and characters, but overall this is a solid, entertaining adult debut. Recommended for fans of Ninth House and fast-paced darker fantasy.

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 3rd May 2022


Robyn Reviews: A Master of Djinn

‘A Master of Djinn’ is a fun alternate history novel, exploring a version of early 1900s Cairo where djinn roam the streets and, rather than being a British colony, Egypt has shaken them off and struck out as its own world power. At times it can get a bit too sucked into description and context, but for the most part its a fast-paced read packed with strong characters and an intriguing mystery. This is P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, but is set in the same world as some of his previous short stories including ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’. Reading those stories provides context but is not necessary to enjoy the book.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, but she’s no rookie – she even prevented the destruction of the universe last summer. So when a wealthy English expatriate’s secret society are all mysteriously burned to death, she finds herself put on the case. The society was dedicated to al-Jahiz – the man who opened the gate between the mundane and magical realms fifty years ago before vanishing into the unknown. Fatma’s case becomes more complicated when a mysterious figure appears, proclaiming himself to be al-Jahiz returned and instigating unrest on the streets of Cairo. Alongside her new partner agent Hadia and her fiery girlfriend Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery before Cairo is thrust into chaos.

Fatma is a brilliant protagonist. As the first young woman to crack the Ministry, she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a small boulder and an independent streak wider than the Nile. She’s smart, a strong fighter, and takes her job seriously, but she’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. Adjusting to having a new partner is difficult for her, as is taking other people’s advice on a case where even she might be out of her depth. Her growth throughout the novel is excellent, and she has some wonderful interactions with both Hadia and Siti.

Hadia and Siti are only seen through Fatma’s eyes, but they’re also complex, strong characters. Hadia, like Fatma, has struggled to crack the Ministry’s patriarchal system – but unlike Fatma, who wanders around in tailored Western suits and cows others with the force of her personality, Hadia has done it all in colourful Hijabs and a polite, unassuming manner. Between her devout Muslim faith and rule-abiding attitude, Hadia is constantly underestimated – including by Fatma. However, Hadia is just as competent as Fatma, and seeing how she constantly surprises people with her ability is both wonderful and sad to read. Hadia and Fatma are interesting case studies in how women are expected to change in order to be taken seriously, and their similarities and differences are brilliantly written.

Siti is an incorrigible flirt, a passionate devotee of the forbidden old Egyptian religions, and a generally mysterious character. Her and Fatma’s relationship is intriguing – there’s a lot of attraction there, but its clear at the start that the two don’t really understand each other. As the story goes on, that starts to change, and Clark does a great job of making the transition feel authentic.

This is an audacious novel. It creates an entirely new world filled with djinn, goblins, ghuls, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, alongside crafting an alternative history for Cairo from the point the British tried to invade in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside its main mystery plotline, there are subplots on women’s rights, colourism, and the rights of the half-djinn. The scope is admirable, but in trying to fit everything into a four-hundred page book, Clark sometimes finds himself bogged down in paragraphs of rote description, losing some of the tension and flow. This is his first step from short stories to novels, and he’s simply taken on a bit too much for a single urban fantasy. However, the potential for his world is exceptional, and hopefully any sequels will smooth out some of the rough edges and flow much more smoothly.

Overall, ‘A Master of Djinn’ is a solid historical urban fantasy exploring an intriguing alternative version of Egypt. It has a few teething issues – as is to be expected of a debut novel – but still tells an excellent, fast-paced story with a cast of likeable and complex characters. Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, steampunk, and Islamic mythology.

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 19th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: The City We Became

‘The City We Became’ is one of the most inventive urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read. The premise is spectacularly creative and Jemisin carries it out brilliantly, with a real sense of tension and atmosphere throughout. The ending is a little weaker than the rest of the novel, but this is the start of an intended series so some loose ends are inevitable. A highly recommended read.

Every city has a a soul – an identity. When cities get big and established enough, that identity starts to manifest – always choosing a human caretaker for this process. New York is finally coming of age. But New York is too big and too diverse to have just one soul – instead, its got five. Five new city protectors. Each of the five is waking up confused, unsure what’s happening to them as the city takes hold. But they don’t have long to figure things out – for cities have an enemy just as ancient and powerful as them, and its coming for them. The five new protectors must come together and learn to trust each other or it will spell New York’s doom.

Distilling an entire city down into a character is a daunting task. Jemisin makes her job slightly easier by dividing New York in five – each a major New York borough – but its still an unimaginably complex idea. Not being a New Yorker, I can’t say how believable her characterisations are – but I can say that they’re all brilliant, diverse characters, fully fleshed out and powerful. Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx), and Aislyn (Staten Island) are given marginally more page time than the others, with Bronca a favourite. An older lesbian artist who marched at Stonewall and spent her entire life fighting the system, she has bags of guts and attitude – but she also feels like she’s fought her fight and it’s time for others to take up the mantle. She wants no part in some sort of war between the city and an ancient enemy, content to help run the Bronx’s art gallery and look out for those who otherwise slip through the cracks. It’s wonderful seeing an older female heroine in fantasy, and it’s fascinating seeing how she views the present day. So much has been achieved since she was young and marching, yet so much hasn’t changed. Her observations on the internet – which has almost entirely passed her by – are also interesting; she makes some very astute points about how protest now is simultaneously easier and harder than it was for her.

There’s always a risk with a novel like this of the characters becoming stereotypes, but all of them feel three-dimensional enough for this to be avoided. They also all have elements the reader can sympathise with – even the enemy. Whilst the setup initially appears to be good versus evil, it turns out to be a lot more complicated – all villains have propaganda which sounds good and rational, otherwise they’d never accrue their power.

The writing is excellent. Each character has a distinct voice, with the writing subtly changing depending on whose perspective is taken. The novel moves at a rapid pace, with constant action and new developments and a permanent undercurrent of tension. There aren’t many plot twists until the end – instead, there’s a gradual accumulation of knowledge, changing the reader’s perspective and understanding alongside the protagonists. The final plot twist is blindsiding but also strangely unsatisfying – it feels like a cop out. It’s a single stain on an otherwise excellent book.

This is an urban fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements have most of their roots in science fiction. Saying more would be a spoiler, but this is definitely a novel with crossover appeal to fans of both genres.

Overall, ‘The City We Became’ is a brilliant urban fantasy novel with a creative premise and strong execution. The pacing makes it a fast and engaging read, and the characters are all complex and intriguing. Elements of the ending are unsatisfying, but otherwise this is another excellent offering by one of fantasy’s greatest contemporary authors. Highly recommended for all fans of fantasy and science fiction, along with anyone who’s been to New York.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 24th March 2020 / Paperback: 29th July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Threadneedle

‘Threadneedle’ is a hard book to categorise. Part urban fantasy, part young adult contemporary, and part a dark and harrowing tale of abuse, it’s not an easy book to read. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a complex book, and Thomas has packed it full of great ideas and creativity – but unfortunately, they didn’t mesh well for me, and I found the darker elements hugely affected by enjoyment of the story. I’m sure many readers will love this, but it wasn’t for me.

All her life, Anna has been warned of the dangers of magic. Magic killed her parents when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her aunt – a member of a strict order known as the Binders, who believe magic is a sin to be locked away. Anna only has one year left before her magic will be bound. However, Anna’s carefully planned life is thrown into turmoil when her mum’s old friend Selene returns to town, bringing her daughter Effie – a rebellious New Yorker due to spend her last two years attending Anna’s strict school – and Effie’s mysterious friend Attis. With Effie and Attis throwing the school social order into disarray, Anna finds herself rethinking truths she’s believed all her life – and whether she really wants her magic to be bound after all.

The book’s actual blurb only talks about magic, but the majority of this book is a young adult contemporary about Anna’s life at school. Magic is a secret from the wider world, so Anna’s chief concerns are staying under the radar of the school bullies, getting the grades she needs for medical school – and keeping her magic hidden. I read plenty of young adult contemporary, so I didn’t mind being thrown into one, but it wasn’t what I expected when I picked up the book. Anna’s school is reminiscent of every TV show boarding school, with clear social cliques and a constant mean undercurrent. Anna has survived so far by being Nobody – not reacting to the bullies, and generally remaining so quiet and anonymous she’s not seen as important enough to even tease. The way Effie’s arrival affects this is one of the best parts of the book – it’s great to see Anna come out of her shell, and the eclectic group of friends she makes are fun to read about. However, they fall just a little too far on the side of a TV show caricature to be believable. One in particular is a passionate Christian, very devout and studious – but this is written in a very two-dimensional way, and her character changes so much throughout the book it almost creates whiplash.

Anna is actually an excellent character. She’s lived a horrendous life, and is terrified of magic – and stepping a toe out of line – but she’s actually a passionate, smart girl who cares a lot about others and has a surprisingly intuitive grasp of new concepts. She also loves music, and it’s the scenes where she plays the piano that her character really shines through. Anna struggles to trust anyone else, and she’s been taught to be quiet and passive – reverting to this automatically in times of stress – but the way she develops through the novel as she’s given a bit of freedom is amazing to read about. Her character arc is a shining light and a reason why, despite my reservations, I’d still recommend this novel to many people.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is love, and its many iterations. Anna has always been told that love, along with magic, was responsible for the death of her parents, and told to avoid it at all costs. Her relationship with her aunt is twisted and abusive, but Anna still loves her – her aunt is her only surviving family, and she claims everything she does is for Anna’s protection. Anna, at sixteen, is also starting to explore romance – and this again is very well written. With little frame of reference. she doesn’t fully understand her own feelings – but Thomas writes them in such a way that the reader gets hints before Anna even knows herself. Finally, there’s platonic love, with Anna making friends for the first time in her life. Her friendships aren’t all healthy, but the way she discovers and explores boundaries and standing up for herself within them is great to read.

I feel it’s very important that readers going into this book know about the abusive content. Anna experiences mental, emotional, and physical abuse, her aunt keeping her under complete control. Anna also experiences abuse from the other Binders – mostly emotional, but some physical as well. This is incredibly harrowing to read. I usually enjoy darker stories, but something about this one got under my skin. Books about abuse are essential – it’s important for people to be aware of its impacts, and to give survivors space to explore their experiences – but the abuse here is stark and insidious with the way it impacts every aspect of Anna’s life, and could potentially be very triggering. It also makes it very hard to definitively classify this as a young adult or adult book. The school aspects are exceptionally young adult, but many teenagers will likely find the abuse scenes very difficult to process.

The magic system is very creative. I won’t give too much detail to avoid spoilers, but the scenes of the characters discovering magic and experimenting with spells and potions are another highlight. Some of the magic can feel too easy, but Anna herself struggles, another facet which allows the reader to connect to her. Anna’s aunt’s magic is also very interesting – very different to the other magic seen in the book, and possibly deserving of another book all on its own. I will say that the magic aspects can feel very told rather than shown, with information sometimes thrown at the reader rather than unfolding organically, but in a book with so much else packed in there possibly wasn’t space to impart it in any other way,

Overall, I personally feel this book tries to do too much and loses some of its impact. I also feel it suffers from the blurb not really summing up the book’s content, leading to a surprise which can alienate readers. With adequate warning of the darker content, this is a book that plenty will enjoy – the creativity is undeniable, and Anna’s character arc is excellent – but, unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. Recommended for fans of young adult and adult fiction who enjoy creative magic systems, coming of age stories, and stories full of darker elements.

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

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 27th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: A Dark and Hollow Star

‘A Dark and Hollow Star’ is a fun contemporary urban fantasy, blending Fae magic with modern Toronto. Packed with pop culture references and great characters, it tells an entertaining, twisty tale sure to appeal to the young adult fantasy audience.

Toronto isn’t just a thriving Canadian city – hidden from human eyes, its also the home of the High King of the Fae and his Court of Seelie Spring. One of eight Fae Courts around the globe, its greatest job is to keep all faeries secret from their human counterparts. However, a series of gruesome, ritualistic murders of the Ironborn – half-fae, half-human children – threatens to reveal their existence. Enter four unlikely heroes. Arlo, of royal blood but outcast due to her half-human heritage, is naturally curious about a threat to those like her – and she can’t understand why her family seems determined not to investigate. Nausicaa, an immortal Fury cast out of the Immortal Realm over a century ago, sees an opportunity to sow more chaos and exact revenge on her family. Vehan, a dutiful prince of the Seelie Summer Court, feels honour-bound to investigate. And Aurelian, Vehan’s reluctant bodyguard, must follow Vehan wherever he goes – and keep a terrible secret. As the four delve into the Mortal Realm’s underworld, it becomes clear there’s more at stake than just secrecy – perhaps even war between the Mortal and Immortal Realms. The players can tip the scales – but which way?

The story alternates between the four perspectives, perhaps focusing slightly more on Arlo and Nausicaa. Arlo makes an excellent protagonist – at sixteen, she’s struggling with her dual lives in the Fae and human worlds, juggling adventures with her full-Fae cousin with normal human school and spending time with her human father, whose memory has been wiped of knowledge of the Fae. Arlo’s strong and caring, but constant judgement from her Fae family for her human heritage has knocked her self-esteem. Coupled with her difficulties with magic, she isn’t sure she fits in anywhere, and beyond her cousin has few friends. Arlo’s journey will resonate with most teenagers. I especially like the few scenes she has with her dad – they have an interesting relationship, given how much Arlo has to hide, and I hope it’s explored further in later books.

Nausicaa has a fascinating, but tragic, backstory. Once a fearsome immortal Fury, she was cast out for breaking the rules, stripped of her rank and most of her power and left to live amongst the Mortals she despised. A hundred years later, Nausicaa is still an angry, chaotic being – but to an extent she’s mellowed, and while her morals are very grey she’ll occasionally do the right thing. Nausicaa isn’t a nice character, but she’s an intriguing one, and she genuinely comes to care for Arlo. Nausicaa’s struggles with morality, depression, and loss are openly explored on page, and it’s great to see a fantasy character talking unashamedly about therapy and her mental health. Her character arc is more subtle than Arlo’s, but its still lovely to see a damaged character opening up and learning how to care about others again.

Vehan and Aurelian are separate for most of the story, living in the Seelie Summer Court in Nevada, and only joining Arlo and Nausicaa for the climax. Vehan is a delightful character – kind, caring, honourable, and determined to do the right thing no matter the costs. Much to Aurelian’s vexation, he’s an old-fashioned hero. Aurelian, meanwhile, is a bit of a mystery. Vehan’s childhood friend, now employed as his bodyguard, he’s a gruff, detached man, eternally frustrated by how hard Vehan makes his job. Their relationship is excellent, if sad. Both absolutely adore the other – but Aurelian, with his many secrets that Vehan can’t possibly know, has to hide it at all costs. Vehan, meanwhile, as an eligible eighteen-year-old prince, will have to marry for status – not for love. Throughout the book, there’s a constant tension between them – both wanting to confess, but also desperately avoiding the other’s confessions. Its a fantastic dynamic, and one that works well alongside the main plot rather than detracting from it.

The Toronto setting is one of my favourite parts of the book. I know very little about it, but it’s great to see a setting other than New York or London in urban fantasy, and the faerie elements are blended with the standard modern city brilliantly. I can’t speak for how accurate it is, but it feels authentic, with the bustling atmosphere of city life. There’s also a huge amount of casual diversity. Nausicaa is a lesbian, and actually uses the term on page – very unusual in fantasy, even sapphic fantasy. Several side characters are mentioned to be non-binary and use they-them pronouns, and of course the central relationships are sapphic and achillean. Its great to have a book where queerness is a casual feature without being a notable plot point.

There are a few minor quibbles. The start of the book is very slow, with the first hundred pages mostly exposition and scene-setting, so it takes perseverance to engage with the story. There are also times where things just feel a little too easy for the protagonists to have the full level of tension – Nausicaa is extremely powerful, and Arlo extremely lucky. There are reasons for both, but it can make elements less fraught than they might otherwise have been. I will also note that this is clearly inspired by roll-player games, with references throughout to Dungeons and Dragons and clear elements borrowed from similar media. This isn’t a bad thing, but some might find it difficult to engage with.

Overall, ‘A Dark and Hollow Star’ is an excellent contemporary urban fantasy with a strong plot and brilliant casual diversity. Highly recommended for fans of young adult fantasy, stories about the Fae, and LGBT+ literature.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Paperback: 25th February 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

Robyn Reviews: The Stranger Times

‘The Stranger Times’ is a debut comedy-fantasy by Caimh McDonnell, an Irish stand up comedian. The premise is excellent – a divorcee seeking a job to pay the bills accidentally ends up working for Manchester’s leading newspaper of the paranormal (or at least, what people claim to be the paranormal). The urban fantasy elements are solid, but unfortunately the comedy isn’t my cup of tea.

Hannah Willis is desperate. After finally divorcing her serial cheater of an ex-husband – and accidentally burning down his house in the process – she needs a job, any job, to pay the bills. After a series of failed interviews, she finally responds to an ad she isn’t entirely sure is real:

“Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences, using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”

Suddenly she finds herself the assistant editor of ‘The Stranger Times’, a newspaper of the world’s weird and wonderful – from a parrot that its owner claims is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley to a haunted toilet in Scotland. She’s not sure what’s weirder – the paper’s subject matter or her new colleagues. However, when tragedy strikes, she finds out that the paper’s subject matter might have a grain of truth after all -and everyone at ‘The Stranger Times’ is in the firing line.

Hannah has great potential as a protagonist. A woman who’s gone from being a trophy wife in Knightsbridge to living in a spare room in Manchester, her entire life has fallen to pieces – and that’s without bringing the secret existence of the paranormal into it. However, whilst the novel is told through her eyes, she’s never developed as fully as she could be. She’s more used as a piece of normality amongst the strangeness of everything else in the book than as a fully-fledged character of her own. She’s likeable enough without being particularly memorable.

The other employees of ‘The Stranger Times’ are far more interesting – especially Banecroft, the paper’s editor who was once a famed media mogul and ended up at ‘The Stranger Times’ after a public mental breakdown, and Manny, a secretive man who runs the printing press. Banecroft initially comes across as incredibly unlikeable, but whilst he’d be an awful boss he becomes far more endearing as the story progresses. Manny plays a relatively small part but is an absolute sweetheart with a clearly fascinating backstory.

The plot is solid – the adventures of the employees of a paper about the paranormal – with some great twists and turns. Where it falls down is the humour. The approach is slapstick and over-the-top, making all the characters unnecessarily caricaturic. As the plot progresses, and starts to become a more conventional urban fantasy rather than a comedy, the novel improves – but the lack of subtetly at the start is hard to recover from. Those who like their humour brash and juvenile may love the approach McDonnell takes, but those who are more fond of biting sarcasm and clever quips will probably struggle with it.

My other big issue is with the dialogue. This isn’t a particularly fast-paced book – there’s a slow introduction to all the main characters before the plot takes off at all, and once it does there are regular interruptions – but it’s slowed to a turgid pace at times by the dialogue. Several of the characters are clearly intended to be very proper, which is shown by the omission of abbreviated words during speech – were not instead of weren’t, it is instead of it’s. I can see why McDonnell has chosen to do this, but it makes simple sentences take an awfully long time and feels very stilted. It says a lot that in a book featuring haunted toilets, the way characters speak is sometimes the least believable part.

Overall, I’m sure that some people will love this book, but unfortunately it isn’t the book for me.

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

Published by Transworld
Hardback: 14th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Queen of Volts


‘Queen of Volts’ is the final book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy trilogy set in the fictional city of New Reynes – the city of sin. It’s a taut, high-stakes, fast-paced conclusion to an action-packed trilogy, filled with unpredictable twists and heartbreaking losses. The ending fits the trilogy perfectly and, despite the tragedies, made me grin with delight. The Shadow Game trilogy is horrendously underrated – hopefully with this book it’ll finally get the attention it deserves.

‘Queen of Volts’ has five main point-of-view characters – Enne, Levi, Sophia, Lola, and Harvey – and alternates between them in chapters grouped by tarot cards (or shadow cards), a lovely touch. Initially, I cared about some perspectives more than others – but by the end, I appreciated them all and the different angles they offered. Harvey especially is a peripheral character in previous books but adds a different flavour here, complementing the others perfectly. His relationship with Bryce is brilliantly depicted and dissected, and his character arc is probably the strongest. Lola also has an exceptional arc – very different to the arc I expected, but cleverly done.

The fictional setting of New Reynes – likely inspired by Las Vegas – is a town of street lords and casinos, conmen and gangs. Everything is a game, and everyone a player. Enne and Levi have come a long way from who they were in Ace of Shades – the uptight girl from finishing school and the egoistical crime lord packed away like ill-fitting suits – but they remain compelling, intriguing characters. The moves that they’ve made have given them powerful allies and even more powerful enemies – but figuring out which is which is more difficult than it might first seem.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling Ace of Shades or King of Fools, but the stakes have definitely been raised. Courtesy of King of Fools, no character feels safe, so the entire book is fraught with tension. It’s entirely implausible, but this is YA fantasy – plausibility isn’t the point.

The biggest strengths of this series have always been the creativity of the worldbuilding and the relationships between the characters. By the third book in the trilogy, the worldbuilding is established – but ‘Queen of Volts’ goes further than its predecessors in testing those relationships and really shines for it. As the characters are tested, their relationships entangle and fray in complex ways, and Foody absolutely nails the feelings and changes. While the plot might be farfetched, the relationships aren’t, and that makes the entire book relatable. I especially liked the family dynamics (although I won’t spoil the story by revealing whose).

Overall, this is a brilliant conclusion to a solid YA fantasy trilogy. I don’t understand why this series isn’t shouted about more – with a finale as good as this, I hope it gains its place on people’s shelves. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy, urban fantasy, morally grey characters, and complex character dynamics.

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

Published by HQ
eBook: 1st September 2020 / Paperback: 1st October 2020

Book Review: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge


Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger, is an urban fantasy that I suspect may appeal especially to older young adults. Set in contemporary Chicago it plays tongue in cheek with the idea that the magic induced by ingesting alcohol facilitates the fighting of demons. The story asserts that, when correctly mixed, certain cocktails grant the drinker superpowers. These may then be used to fight the dangers that lurk in the shadows of city streets.

The protagonist, Bailey Chen, is a recent business graduate from an Ivy League college who has yet to secure the dream job she has been working towards since High School. She is living with her parents and doing bar work, using whatever tenuous links she still has in her home town to find an entry into what she regards as the grown up world. Even her bar job required nepotism. Her boss, Zane, is an old school friend, a former one night stand she lost touch with believing that she could do better than retain an attachment to someone like him.

Bailey discovers that Zane is a member of an ancient order of city guardians who work as bartenders. Using mixology and magic they seek out beasts called tremens before the dangerous creatures can feed on inebriated passers by. The bartenders are overseen by Tribunes answerable to the Cupbearers Court. As with any powerful organisation there are those within it whose aim is to increase their personal influence by whatever means.

Bailey joins the order and works alongside Zane to serve customers, grapple with monsters, and deal with the feelings they still harbour for each other. Their loyalties are tested when an old feud comes to the fore and it is unclear who they should trust.

Alongside the nighttime excitement, a well paid job at a tech startup becomes a possibility and Bailey must decide what she wants to do with her future. Saving lives is all very well but she has been dreaming of a secure job with benefits for a long time.

Throughout the book are scattered recipes for the cocktails the bartenders use along with background details on the ingredients and the powers endowed. These are taken from a book of ancient lore and include the impossible elixir, The Long Island Iced Tea, which enables the drinker to

“manifest more than one magical ability simultaneously, withstand greater amounts of pain and damage, and even cheat death.”

Naturally many have tried to mix such a drink and thereby achieve immortality. One would think they would learn from every such plot ever written that these endeavours are ill advised.

Bailey breaks the order’s rules and, in so doing, uncovers an audacious plan. Who can she turn to for help, and can they summon the powers needed to protect the lives of city revellers? Magic and mayhem ensue.

The plot is fast and fun with plenty of in jokes and goofy awkwardness. The cast of characters are effortlessly diverse, their self styled foibles gently mocking but always good humoured. The play on words and ideas never tries to be too clever, understating the obvious to effect.

An enjoyable romp that takes many old tropes and mixes them up in original ways. The bartenders and barristas of this world can indeed be life savers. And none should wish others to suffer from the tremens.

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