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

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

Robyn Reviews: The Ravens

‘The Ravens’ is a cute, simple YA fantasy about a US college sorority which also happens to be one of the US’s largest covens of witches. The plot isn’t the most original, but the brilliant magic system and likeable characters make it a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

Vivienne Devereaux – known as Vivi – has always been the new girl. Her mother will suddenly pack up and move every year or two, claiming to have seen an omen in the tarot and tea leaves she reads for a living. Vivi couldn’t be more excited to finally be escaping her mother for the normal life of college – but when she arrives, she finds out her mothers witchcraft may not be as fake as it seemed. Witches are real – and Vivi’s one of them.

Scarlett Winter has a lot to live up to. She’s from a family of powerful witches going back generations. Both her mother and sister were sorority coven president, and becoming president herself is the minimum she can do to meet their expectations. However, she’s hiding a secret which could torpedo her dreams once and for all. When strange things start to happen, Scarlett must choose – what’s more important, her sorority sisters or her family’s ambition?

In all honesty, Vivi is a bit like the trope of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’. She’s always been an outsider, yet suddenly at college she’s popular and – to top it all off – secretly a powerful witch. However, she’s also a profoundly likeable character. She’s kind-hearted and studious and desperate to fit in. She’s not perfect – years of being the outsider have left her self-conscious and sometimes she lets her temper get the better of her – but she’s difficult not to like. In contrast, Scarlett initially comes off abrasive – but her character development throughout is excellent, and by the end she’s by far the more interesting and engaging character.

The magic system is the most creative part of the book. It’s based on tarot, something I’m not particularly familiar with, along with simple elemental magic. There are clear limitations, and without control and intent its impossible to use, so new witches don’t get instant access to major power – something I appreciate. It’s always too easy when new characters become all powerful in books. The magic use is often frivolous, but this helps to give the book a light-hearted feel, even with some of the darker content.

The plot has a few twists and turns, but can mostly be predicted by familiarity with YA fiction. I actually think this works well – the writing is engaging but basic, and the simple plot fits the overall style of the book. Reading this gives the best of two worlds – the familiarly of sliding into well-trodden YA fantasy but with the excitement of new characters and a new world. There are a few tropes I’m not fond of, such as hints of a love triangle, but they’re just about kept out of cringe-worthy territory.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant magic system that’s very easy to read. It’s not groundbreaking or experimental, but for those who just want something fun and well-written it makes an excellent addition to the YA fantasy genre.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 5th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: These Violent Delights

‘These Violent Delights’ is a brilliant concept – a loose Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a fantasy monster, gang warfare, and a fascinating look at colonialism – but suffers a little from the scale of its ambition. It’s certainly a fast-paced and intriguing YA fantasy, but it isn’t quite as gripping as I’d like it to be.

Juliette Cai has just returned home to Shanghai after completing her education in the USA. As the heir to the Scarlet Gang, her job now is to start integrating herself with her father’s contacts and cement her people’s loyalty to her – but instead, she finds herself entangled in a conspiracy with a mysterious – and invariably fatal – virus, and strange rumours of a monster. Even worse, her arch-enemy Roma Montagov – heir to the White Flowers – keeps showing up. Determined to solve the mystery before more of her people die – and before Roma beats her to it – Juliette embarks on a mission that will truly test her loyalty – to her family, to the Scarlet Gang, and to a particularly irritating enemy-turned-lover-turned-enemy who just keeps getting under her skin.

Juliette and Roma are both major POV characters, but Juliette is such a force of nature that she feels like the true protagonist. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s completely ruthless, almost uncaring of the feelings of others and willing to do anything to ensure her own success – but at her core is a heart of fragility and worry. Juliette has had to fight for her place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and she knows that one misstep will send everything tumbling down.

Roma, on the other hand, is far easier to like. He’s also a ruthless gangster, but makes no secret of how much he hates it. Roma’s position as heir to the White Flowers is just as tenuous as Juliette’s for the Scarlets, but for very different reasons – Juliette’s father is unsure of her suitability as a woman, and also slightly scared of her; Roma’s father thinks his son is soft and unworthy. He’s the sort of character you constantly want to give a hug, because everything keeps going wrong despite the fact he’s always trying to do the right thing.

The strength of this book is in the setting. It really draws you into the various microcosms of 1920s Shanghai, the feeling of multiple cities within cities, and the political tensions of a city and country in transition. Chloe Gong’s writing is gorgeous, and she absolutely captures a sense of place. I know very little about this time period or area of the world, and the way it’s depicted here makes me want to find out more.

The main issue I have with this book is that, for a Romeo and Juliette retelling, there’s very little emotional buildup. Roma and Juliette were together, then four years ago there was a massive betrayal resorting in them returning to mortal enemies. Now there’s a huge amount of tension – and potentially lingering feelings – but much of this is brushed over with a simple explanation of ‘things happened in the past’. The decision to tell us about their past relationship rather than show us a relationship developing weakens the romance, and thus the story. I struggle to understand why Roma likes Juliette when she does nothing likeable – it mostly seems to be nostalgia for a character we never see on page – and similarly, Roma seems like someone Juliette would despise for his weakness rather than fall in love with.

The other niggle I have is that the fantasy elements feel disjointed. The plotline about a virus and a monster feels discongruous with a story about gangsters in 1920s Shanghai. I absolutely adored the historical context and the glimpse into a time period and culture I know little about, and I almost wish the fantasy elements had been toned down to allow the history to shine through. The plot is mostly predictable, and I suspect part of the reason for that is so much exposition is required to make everything fit that some of the mystery is lost.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant setting, but perhaps one which takes on too much. Fans of enemies-to-lovers romance, Shakespeare, and strong characters who take no prisoners might love this, but it definitely feels like a debut.

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: 17th November 2020