Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

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

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021

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: Deeplight

‘Deeplight’ is a brilliantly crafted young adult fantasy about the sea, the power of stories, and surviving toxic friendships. A difficult but powerful read in places, it’s a moving and highly worthwhile tale. I’ve never read a Frances Hardinge book before, but on the basis of this I can see why she’s so highly regarded.

Hark, a fourteen-year-old street urchin and scavenger, scratches out a living diving for relics of the lost gods. However, his best friend Jelt is now content with them remaining mere scavengers, and insists of them taking more and more dangerous missions. Jelt’s risk-taking almost costs him his life. But Hark will do anything to protect his friend – even if it means compromising not just who Jelt is, but what he is.

There are several layers within ‘Deeplight’. There’s Hark and Jelt’s friendship – a complex bond of brotherhood after being abandoned by everyone else, with all the strength of family but also so much toxicity and resentment. There’s stories and their power – Hark is, at heart, a storyteller, and the way he regards them will resonate with any reader. Then there’s the mythology of the world – the history of the gods of the Undersea, and the cataclysm which destroyed them all, leaving a society dependent on history and scraps of their once mighty power. These are all brilliantly combined, creating a story as changeable and as captivating as the sea.

Hark is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He’s had a difficult life – but where Jelt has been hardened by it, Hark has been softened, becoming as slippery and hard to pin down as an eel. An accomplished liar, Hark is made of secrets and stories. However, Hark has a heart of gold. Both he and Jelt are ambitious – but where Jelt’s ambition is entirely selfish, Hark is less comfortable leaving others behind or compromising his morals for his own gain. Hark’s growth throughout the novel is amazing, and while it can be difficult reading about his struggles at the start, it’s worth it to see just how far he’s come by the end.

‘Deeplight’ was written after Hardinge was asked by a Deaf fan if she’d ever write a book with Deaf characters, and it features a number of Deaf characters – known as sea-kissed. In this society, being Deaf is highly respected, and everyone is competent in both spoken and sign language. This is a brilliant addition, seamlessly fitting into Hardinge’s world. The vast majority of the novel is from Hark’s perspective, but there are occasional passages from the point of view of Selphin, a Deaf girl who gives a fascinating insight into what it’s like living with no hearing. Not being Deaf, I can’t speak about the accuracy of the representation, but its very apparent that Hardinge has done her research.

This is a slow burn of a novel. The first 100 pages are a little less engaging, mostly setting the scene for everything to come – but it’s worth it for the power and brilliance of the ending. Once this finds its feet, it’s a real page-turner, easy to read in a single sitting. It’s definitely one to persevere with even if the start feels a little sedate.

Overall, ‘Deeplight’ is an excellent novel, covering a lot of important and powerful themes in a highly enjoyable and readable way. Recommended for all fans of books about the sea, along with those who like to read about complex human relationships, the power of stories, and incredibly fascinating monsters – human and otherwise.

Published by MacMillan Children’s
Hardback: 31st October 2019
Paperback: 2nd April 2020

Robyn Reviews: Cemetery Boys

‘Cemetery Boys’ is a delightful contemporary YA fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community. Combining paranormal fantasy with topical issues of gender, immigration, and class, it’s an engaging and moving read. The plot is predictable, but the brilliant characters, Latinx fantasy elements, and fast pace make it heartwarming and enjoyable anyway.

Yadriel is determined to prove himself a real Brujo. In his community, women are homemakers and healers, whereas men are Brujos – people who lay restless spirits, or ghosts, to rest. Yadriel has always known he’s a man – even if his family refuses to accept it – and decides to prove it, performing the Brujo ritual in secret with the aid of his best friend, Maritza. He succeeds in summoning a ghost – except rather than the ghost he’s looking for – his missing cousin Miguel – he accidentally summons resident school bad boy Julian Diaz. Julian refuses to go quietly into death. Instead, he’s determined to figure out how he died. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian – with the assurance that once they have answers, Yadriel can send Julian into the afterlife and finally prove himself to his family. Except, the longer Julian is around, the less Yadriel wants him to leave.

Yadriel is a wonderful protagonist. All he wants is to feel accepted – by his family, his contemporaries, and most of all by himself. He’s deeply insecure, but also incredibly caring and hardworking. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and every time his family misgenders him or insinuates he can’t be a real Brujo it’s like a punch in the heart – both for him and the reader. Yadriel has been through a lot, including the death of his mother, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him and root for him throughout.

The other standout characters, Maritza and Julian, are both firecrackers. Maritza is completely confident in her own identity and determined to forge her own path. She’s a vegan, and as the healing all women in her community practise involves animal blood, she refuses to have any part in it, instead seeking a career crafting potajes – talismanic daggers carried by all Brujos. Maritza will always stand up for Yadriel when he’s too scared to, stalwartly loyal – but also unafraid to challenge him when she thinks he’s making a bad decision. She’s the sort of friend everyone should have.

Julian is a bit of a petulant child, but like Maritza he’s fiercely loyal. Julian has a quick temper, regularly lashing out with words or throwing things, but he’s also deeply caring about those he loves and will always stand up for a friend. He challenges everything, unwilling to admit he’s ever wrong, but is also incredibly astute in many of his observations. Julian is far from perfect, but it’s hard not to like him anyway – and the way he looks out for others is heartwarming.

The worldbuilding is exquisite. Yadriel’s family speaks partially in English and partially in Spanish, building a real sense of atmosphere, but always with enough context that the gist of the phrases can be understood. There are spooky elements – Yadriel’s family lives in a graveyard, and there are hidden crypts and both friendly and less friendly ghosts – but also a sense of a tight, protective Latinx community, with overbearing family members, communal Mexican staple meals, and traditional Mexican celebrations. The two blend together seamlessly, with an overarching sense of simultaneous unease and protection. It’s clear that Yadriel loves his community, but also that he doesn’t entirely feel at home there because not everyone accepts him for who he is.

Its also wonderful reading a YA fantasy with a transgender main character. Yadriel’s identity and his struggles with it affects everything he does. He wears a chest binder, and he’s constantly self-conscious how it looks – whether it’s masculinising his chest enough. Yadriel doesn’t pass as male, meaning things other people take for granted – like which public bathroom to use – are difficult and traumatic for him. These elements are also woven seamlessly into the book, adding another thought-provoking dimension to a multi-layered story.

The plot is the weakest element. This is a YA fantasy, and while it uses fewer tropes of the genre than some books, the twists still feel relatively predictable and it’s always clear how things will end up. However, the other elements are strong enough that the plot is almost secondary -this is more a novel about relationships and belonging than it is about the central mystery element.

Overall, ‘Cemetery Boys’ is an excellent contemporary YA fantasy with delightful characters, strong relationships, and brilliant worldbuilding. The plot is predictable, but it’s still an enjoyable and highly worthwhile read. Recommended for all YA fantasy fans along with fans of great LGBTQIAP+ books and those who enjoy character and relationship-focused books.

Published by Swoon Reads
Hardback: 28th September 2020 / Paperback: 1st July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Shadow of the Fox

‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an entertaining, gentle-paced young adult fantasy novel packed with intriguing Japanese mythology and delightful characters. The start of a trilogy, it’s packed with tropes of the young adult fantasy genre – but the Japanese elements lend it originality, and each trope is brilliantly executed. From a plot standpoint, its not the strongest, but the characters and setting are excellent enough that it doesn’t matter.

Yumeko has spent her entire life at the Silent Winds temple, being raised by reclusive monks. Half-kitsune, her heritage makes her shunned by society – but in her solutide she’s blissfully unaware, and dreams of exploring the world. Her wish comes true – but in the worst way. The temple is attacked by demons searching for an ancient scroll, leaving Yumeko the only survivor. Her master’s dying wish is for Yumeko to protect the scroll – by journeying across the land to another temple, one lost to myth and legend. Yumeko has no idea where to start – but fate thrusts her into the path of Kage Tatsumi, a mysterious samurai of the Kage shadow clan. Tatsumi agrees to help her find the temple. There’s just one problem – his masters have sent him after the scroll too, and if he finds out Yumeko has it her life might be forfeit. Together, the two set off on an uneasy journey across the country, each hiding their true purpose. But the more time they spend together, the more their fragile alliance starts to come something more – potentially something even more dangerous.

Its unusual in a dual perspective novel for both perspectives to be equally compelling, but Kagawa manages it. I couldn’t pick a favourite between them.

Yumeko is a sweet, naive character – but also exceptionally mischievous, part of her heritage as half kitsune. She plays up the innocent side to everyone she meets, and even the reader is regularly taken in – but she also comes out with comments that prove that whilst she’s a gentle and caring soul, she’s far more of a trickster than she first seems. Yumeko wants to believe the best in everyone, and can come across as overly trusting – but she has many secrets, and those she trusts to no-one but herself. She’s a delightful protagonist, surprisingly complex, and more subtle and nuanced than many mainstream YA characters are allowed to be.

Tatsumi, at first glance, is Yumeko’s opposite. Trained to be a warrior for the Kage, he shields his emotions, not allowing himself to form attachments. He follows orders, killing who he’s told to kill and trying not to think about why. However, Yumeko accidentally finds all the cracks in Tatsumi’s armour, allowing a different man to shine through – a man who does care, a dangerous trait in an assassin. Where Yumeko’s layers are subtle, Tatsumi’s are obvious and compelling. He wants to care, but he can’t allow himself to, and the dichotomy is heartbreaking to read about. Tatsumi does horrible things, but like Yumeko, his heart is in the right place.

The story is inspired by ancient Japan, and absolutely packed with Japanese mythological creatures, Japanese turns of phrase, and clear references to ancient Japanese culture. The sense of place is incredible. Kagawa does a brilliant job of avoidong info-dumping but still making everything accessible to those less familiar with Japanese history and customs. Everything flows brilliantly, and the reader is completely transported into Kagawa’s world.

The plot is the novel’s weakest element. This is a journey novel, moving at a very sedate pace as all the individual chess pieces are assembled on the board. Parts feel a bit like a video game – there’s the overall quests, but also side quests, as Yumeko and Tatsumi solve problems for villages they pass through and take on occasional random enemies. The overarching plot – the scroll that Yumeko must protect – is mostly a footnote. In itself, none of these things are bad – each minor skirmish is well crafted, revealing more about the world and allowing Yumeko and Tatsumi’s relationship to change and grow. However, the sedate pace and trope-packed plot lend everything a sense of predictability. There are no real twists. The ending has a sense of inevitability that, rather than feeling satisfying, feels a bit anticlimatic. It’s still impactful, but less impactful than it would have been with a little more originality to lend suspense and mystery.

It should be mentioned that, in many ways, the entire book feels like setup. It reads more like a part one than a complete story on its own. With all the worldbuilding out of the way, I have high hopes that the later books in the trilogy will launch straight in and elevate the series to a true five-star read.

Overall, ‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an enjoyable tale, worth reading for the excellent characters and creative worldbuilding. The plot is very standard YA fare, but the Japanese mythology elements and Yumeko’s surprising depth elevate this to an enjoyable read. Recommended for fans of slower paced novels, in-depth worldbuilding, nuanced humour, and YA fantasy in general.

Published by HQ
Paperback: 2nd October 2018

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: Shadow and Bone

‘Shadow and Bone’ is a solid, fast-paced example of the YA fantasy genre, now back in the spotlight due to the new Netflix adaptation. Its not perfect, but its creative, eminently readable, and a very strong debut novel.

For centuries, the nation of Ravka has been divided in two by the Shadow Fold – an area of near-impenetrable darkness filled with monsters that feast upon those who enter. The nation’s only hope lies in the legend of the Sun Summoner – a Grisha who can summon light, finally destroying the Shadow Fold once and for all. Alina Starkov, an orphan and cartographer, has never put much stock in Grisha legend – but when her regiment’s crossing of the Shadow Fold goes awry, she finds herself suddenly being proclaimed the Sun Summoner of legend. Whisked away to the luxurious world of the Grisha, Alina struggles with her new identity. Can she, a mere orphan, possibly be the saviour of Ravka – or is she doomed to fail them all?

Alina is the sort of strong character you want to root for. Stubborn and in many ways childish, she’s full of flaws, but she has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. Her struggles with identity are beautifully written and very impactful. Alina is an example of the Chosen One trope done well – despite being powerful, her naivety and moral dilemmas prevent her ever being too strong, and its abundantly clear that she has her limits.

This being an early 2010s young adult novel, naturally there’s a love triangle. Love triangles aren’t a trope I’m particularly fond of, but this is one of the strongest examples I’ve read, simply because it’s never entirely clear which character she’ll choose. There’s Mal, another orphan who grew up as her best friend – steadfast and loyal, but uncomfortable with Alina’s new power and status. Then there’s the Darkling – General Kirigan, the commander of the Grisha armies and the most powerful Grisha alive. The Darkling is captivated by Alina, proclaiming her his only equal – but he has many secrets, and Alina is never sure how much she can trust him. Alina’s dilemma between the two always feels authentic. The romance elements develop very well, with less predictability than might be expected, and it makes the situation much more readable than love triangles often are.

The setting is one of the book’s strongest parts. Ravka is inspired by Eastern Europe, but the way the Shadow Fold has influenced politics and society is fascinating. There’s also clear tension between Ravka and the surrounding nations, which despite not being the story’s focus is well woven in. Ravka is a very two-tiered society,with clear differences between the powered Grisha and ordinary humans, and again the tensions this creates are well explored. Bardugo has gone on to explore neighbouring areas like Ketterdam and Fjerda in subsequent spinoff series’, and her talent for worldbuilding is undeniable.

Overall, ‘Shadow and Bone’ is very much a novel of its time, packed with the tropes pervasive in all early 2010s young adult novels, but its one of the strongest examples of those books. For those interested in the show, the book is definitely worth a read first. Recommended for fans of strong worldbuilding, the Chosen One trope, and general young adult fantasy.

Published by Orion Children’s
Paperback: 6th June 2013

Robyn Reviews: Ace of Shades

‘Ace of Shades’ is the first book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy set in the fictional gambling town of New Reynes. It’s a brilliantly fast-paced read, packed with likeable characters and intricate worldbuilding – very easy to sit down and devour in one sitting. It’s also beautifully written, and generally one of the strongest additions I’ve read to the YA fantasy genre.

Enne Salta is a proper young lady, about to start her final year of finishing school – not the sort who would ever visit the famed City of Sin. However, when her mother goes missing on a visit to the city, Enne must leave her reputation behind in search of answers. Her only lead is a name, Levi Glaisyer – but Levi is not the sort of gentleman Enne is used to. He’s a street lord and conman, and one who doesn’t have time for Enne’s problems. However, he does need money. Spurred on by Enne’s offer of payment, the unlikely pair start an investigation that will take them into the criminal heart of New Reynes – something neither of them can escape unscathed.

Enne starts the novel naive, entitled, and petulant. She hates New Reynes, finding it horribly uncouth compared to the finishing school she’s used to – but her character development is brilliant, and as the story progresses she becomes more and more likeable. Her best attribute is a determined streak a mile wide – one which regularly gets her into trouble, but that more often than not gets her out of it too.

Levi is one of my all-time favourite characters. He’s a conman and runs a gang in the City of Sin, but he has a heart of gold and really cares about everyone in his crew. He’s also flamboyantly and unapologetically bisexual, leading to some hilarious moments. Levi’s strong, tough, and smart, but his big heart will always be a weakness – not that he’ll ever let that change.

The worldbuilding is simple but exceptionally effective. Each character inherits two gifts – one from each parent, with one always stronger than the other. These blood talents are brilliantly utilised, never making a character over-powered but adding an extra dynamic to an already fascinating story. The talents can be absolutely anything, from better dancing ability to the ability to physically enslave another person to your will – and the way these influence the politics of the city is fascinating.

Overall, this is a strong and immensely readable YA fantasy with gorgeous writing and a simple yet creative world. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, Queen of Volts, can be found here.

Published by HQ
Paperback: May 17th 2018

Robyn Reviews: The Prison Healer

‘The Prison Healer’ is a surprisingly dark and gritty YA fantasy. The individual elements and twists are relatively predictable, but the unique setting and darker undertones make this an engaging and worthwhile read.

Kiva Meridan has been at the notorious Zalindov prison for ten years, imprisoned as a seven year old alongside her father for being part of the rebel uprising. Now seventeen, she works as the prison’s healer – treating the inmates’ ailments, but also carving the prison’s mark into new arrivals and reporting intel to the prison’s warden. The other inmates shun her for her compliance – all except Tipp, an eleven year old she’s taken under her wing. When the Rebel Queen is captured, it’s Kiva’s job to keep her alive long enough to face punishment – a job which becomes even more important when a coded message from her family arrives, making it clear that Kiva’s own life is tied to the Queens. Kiva’s only chance at survival is to volunteer to sit the Queen’s punishment in her place – a punishment no-one has ever survived.

Kiva is an excellent protagonist – strong, mature beyond her years, and absolutely determined to survive. Outwardly compliant, her inner thoughts are nothing but, and she knows exactly how to game the system to her advantage. However, the Rebel Queen’s arrival throws all her careful plans and systems into disarray, leaving her almost helpless. Its this that is Kiva’s main issue – she’s so powerless against her own fate it can be a bit irritating to read, as she continually survives with almost no input of her own. She’s clearly a highly intelligent woman – it would be nice if she was allowed to play a larger role in her own fate.

The other major characters are also great – especially Tipp, the sweetest character in the book. Tipp is an element of light and joy in an otherwise dark story. He also has a speech impediment, not something seen very often in fantasy novels. Naari is another fantastic character, a strong and moral prison guard in an institution otherwise filled with corruption. The friendship between her and Kiva is excellent, and the way they come to gradually trust each other feels entirely natural.

The love interest, Jaren, is probably the weakest character. He’s very easy to like, and the chemistry between him and Kiva is evident, but he also feels incredibly stereotypical of a YA love interest. Other than his affection for Kiva, he comes across two-dimensional. However, he has the potential to be a much stronger character than he is, and I hope he’s developed further in the planned sequel.

The setting is the high point. Zalindov prison is a horribly bleak place, a place where people are sent to die, and Lynette Noni does an exceptional job painting a picture of it. The situation always feels dark, and the horrors – whilst carefully age-appropriate – always feel real. Kiva’s role as the prison healer shelters her from some of the worst elements, and her horror and revulsion as they come to light is deeply impactful. The healing itself also has a reasonable scientific basis. The terminology is kept simple and accessible, but none of it feels out of the realms of possibility.

The major issue with this novel, unfortunately, is the plot. The secondary plot, involving the outbreak of a plague, is very interesting, but the major plot – a series of trials Kiva must take for the Rebel Queen – is well-trodden territory in YA fantasy, and there isn’t enough innovation to stand out. It isn’t helped by the fact Kiva is continually saved rather than saving herself. The twists in the plot, including the ending, are clever, but all are predictable before they happen, giving the ending a lack of impact.

Overall, this is a solid entry to the YA fantasy genre, worth reading more for the innovative setting and darker undertones than the overarching narrative. Recommended for fans of YA fantasy novels like Shadow and Bone and The Hunger Games.

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: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: Children of Blood and Bone

‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is a solid YA fantasy with an intriguing mythological basis, but aside from the magic system it’s not terribly unique. It’s an enjoyable read, but not one that differentiates itself from the rest of the genre.

Once, Orisha was a place of magic – a place where clans lived in relative harmony with power over fire, water, and even death. However, under the rule of a new king, magic has been purged from Orisha, all capable of it persecuted. The few still alive must hide. Zelie is one such person – left without a mother, she hates the crown and dreams of the day she can strike back against it. When a rogue princess appears in her village, she seizes the chance to move against the monarchy. But the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that the princess isn’t her enemy – and her magic might be a danger after all.

Initially, Zelie is a hard character to like. She’s angry at a world which has taken so much from her – her mother, her magic, her safety – and she’ll burn it all down to get her vengeance. Her anger is understandable, but that doesn’t make her head an enjoyable place to be. She softens a little as the book progresses, but she still remains a slightly off-putting protagonist, which is a shame – her magic and culture are both fascinating, and she’s capable of so much more than hate.

In contrast, Amari – the princess – is easy to love. She’s sweet and undoubtedly has the best character arc of the main trio, even if she has fewer chapters and is kept as a secondary character. Her character is stereotypical but feels more believable than her brother Inan and more likeable than Zelie. Her evolving relationship with Zelie is well-written and enjoyable, and it’s great seeing the fierce side that she keeps hidden pop out every now and then. She does have an entirely unnecessary romantic subplot, but then it’s unusual to see a YA fantasy without one.

The final point-of-view character is Inan – Amari’s brother, the son of the King of Orisha, charged with hunting down Zelie who, the crown believes, kidnapped his sister. He hates Zelie’s magic, which historically killed so many of his people – but he changes his views so often and so abruptly it gives the reader whiplash. He starts off as an antagonist, but despite getting more point of view chapters than Amari it’s difficult to tell which side he’s actually on – possibly because he isn’t sure himself. He’s a more interesting character than the others in many ways, but he sometimes feels more like two alternating people than one whole character.

The plot and setting are the strongest parts of the book. The descriptions of the kingdom of Orisha are gorgeously written, and the trials and tribulations faced by Zelie, Amira, and Inan are engaging. The descriptions of the tribal magic are beautiful, and Adeyemi doesn’t flinch from how difficult magic can be to control and how dangerous it is. This is a YA fantasy, and you never doubt that the “good” characters will win, but there’s plenty of hardship along the way. The main issue with the plot is Inan – his constant changes are the main driver towards the end and it’s too confusing to keep up with. The peeks we get inside his head regularly don’t correspond with his actions and it can make events seem hollow, designed to drive difficulty in the plot rather than character authenticity. His indecision is understandable, torn as he is between the beliefs he’s been raised with an the new things he’s learnt, but the writing doesn’t quite pull it off.

Overall, this is a good, solid YA fantasy, but not a great one. Recommended for those interested in reading about West African mythology and plot-driven stories – but for those who prefer their stories character-driven and unique, I’m not sure there’s enough here.

Published by Macmillan Children’s
Paperback: 8th March 2018