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