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: Full Disclosure

‘Full Disclosure’ is a delightful contemporary YA novel about navigating school, identity, and relationships with a slight twist – the protagonist, Simone, has HIV. A debut by a teenage author, it keeps the perfect balance between a fun YA contemporary and providing an honest look at the struggles of living with HIV – not because of the disease, which is easily controlled, but because of the stigma surrounding it. Simone makes a delightfully relatable protagonist, with authentic teenage worries compounded by the added stress of her secret. This is an incredibly important book, and highly recommended to teenage and adult readers alike.

Simone Garcia-Hampton has only been at her new school for a few months, but she’s determined that things will be different. Here, she finally has best friends, she’s respected and using her talents as the director of the school play, and she’s got a crush – Miles, the only Black boy on the school lacrosse team. She’s doing great – which is why it’s paramount that her HIV status stays a secret. After all, last time it got out, things got ugly. However, when it becomes apparent that Miles actually likes her back, things get complicated. She knows that undetectable means untransmissible – but will Miles still like her when she tells him her status? Then she starts receiving threatening notes – someone in the school knows, and if she doesn’t break up with Miles by Thanksgiving they’ll tell the whole school. Now Simone is juggling a new relationship, her classes, the school play, and desperately trying to keep her secret – and sooner or later, she knows it’ll all come tumbling down.

Simone is a fantastic protagonist. Brought up by two gay dads, who adopted her as a young child, she’s had a liberal and loving upbringing – other than having to take medication every day to control the HIV she was infected with by her birth mother. Her dads and doctors have always impressed the importance of taking her medication and being careful – and she is. But now, at seventeen, she’s ready to start exploring relationships and sex – and with her diagnosis, that’s a whole can of worms beyond what most seventeen year olds have to deal with. Simone is a strong, intelligent young woman, but having bad experiences with people finding out her HIV status before has knocked her self-esteem, and she’s terrified of the idea of having to disclose it to anyone else. She’s scared to confide her worries in anyone because that would either involve having to disclose her status or talking about sex with her parents. The stress of Simone’s predicament is wonderfully portrayed. It’s clear that she always wants to do the right thing but is terrified of being hurt again, especially when her life seems to be finally going well.

Being written by a teenager, all the characters feel believable. Simone and her best friends – Lydia and Claudia – are accepting and sex-positive, yet simultaneously awkward about sex and relationships in a way that feels completely authentic. Claudia is an asexual lesbian and Simone bisexual, and its great seeing them navigate those identities and figure out which labels suit them. There are also discussions on exclusion within queer spaces – being not bisexual enough when being in a male-female relationship, for example – which are important, and it’s great seeing them handled so well in a YA book. They’re not perfect – Claudia has a very black-and-white worldview common to teenagers figuring out the world, and Lydia can be passive and indecisive – but their imperfections make them three-dimensional and generate discussion.

The most impressive thing about this book is how, despite covering some important and heavy-hitting topics, it always remains first and foremost an enjoyable YA contemporary. It never feels preachy, and it’s packed full of lighthearted and fun moments as well as the more difficult ones. Discussions around the stigma of an HIV diagnosis, bisexual exclusion in queer spaces, the importance of safe sex and consent, and the difficulty of navigating school cliques and stereotypes are woven naturally and seamlessly into the overarching plot, enhancing rather than detracting from the central story about a girl navigating her first serious relationship. It’s an incredibly mature novel yet accessible to its teenage audience.

Overall, ‘Full Disclosure’ is a powerful YA contemporary covering some crucial topics in an engaging and enjoyable way. Highly recommended for all teenagers and young adults, anyone who works with them, and anyone who wants to educate themselves on what growing up with HIV is like while enjoying a great read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 30th October 2019

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: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Ones We’re Meant to Find

‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is an exceptionally clever science fiction dystopia. The first half is shrouded in mystery, many elements strange and confusing, but the payoff is spectacular.

Cee has been trapped on an island for three years, with no knowledge of how she arrived or concrete detail of her previous life. All she knows is she has a sister, Kay. Determined to find her, Cee spends her days scavenging parts, trying to build a boat to take her away from the island. Meanwhile, 16-year-old science prodigy Kasey is grappling with the sudden disappearance of her sister Celia. Kasey lives a life of isolation, preferring logic to people. Her eco-city’s lifestyle – spending as much time as possible indoors, socialising using holos and regularly using stasis pods – suits her in a way it never suited Celia. However, the more she thinks about Celia’s disappearance, the less sits right with her – and she decides to retrace her sister’s last steps, solving the mystery once and for all.

Of the two protagonists, Kasey is the more initially interesting, although Cee does her best to equal her at the end. Intensely logical, Kasey doesn’t understand people. She looks at life through a lens of science and numbers, analysing situations to determine the most sensible course of action – and not understanding why everyone else doesn’t do the same. Kasey cares deeply about her sister – they’re extremely different, but Celia is important in a way that defies Kasey’s otherwise logical life. Practical but un-streetwise, Kasey can concoct a solution to any problem – but possibly not a solution that anyone else would accept.

Cee is also practical, but her emotions are bright and all-encompassing where Kasey’s are a mere inconvenience. Alone on an island – apart from her robot companion, U-Me – Cee’s only concern is to get to her sister. She’s smart and practical, but throws caution to the wind in her desperation to find Kay. Cee is easy to empathise with, and her desperation is striking. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear there’s far more to her than initially meets the eye – and it’s this complexity that really makes her character compelling.

Joan He’s worldbuilding is intricately detailed. Earth is facing ecological disaster, with pollution and climate change threatening humanity with extinction. The privileged have fled to eight eco-cities – floating cities where people live in the smallest possible amount of space, minimising their carbon footprint by leading predominantly virtual lives. Science has advanced to almost eradicate disease, and each citizen is fitted with an implant that functions as both a health monitor and a miniature computer. He makes all the advances seem believable, and whilst the complexity of the setting takes some time to fully understand, the way the reader is left to figure everything out for themselves fits in what is a generally tricky and mysterious novel.

While this is definitely a science fiction novel, its also a story about moral ambiguity and what it means to be human. Joan He is constantly exploring humans and their differences. Kasey, as a prodigy, is working towards saving humanity, despite not fully understanding humanity herself. Cee, alone on an island, is trying desperately to remember and figure out who she is. The juxtaposition between Kasey’s life in an eco-city and Cee’s on an abandoned island highlights the differences between Kasey and Cee themselves. The struggles with identity and humanity are beautifully written, making the denouement even more powerful.

Overall, ‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is a novel worth persevering with. The start can seem slow and confusing, but by the end the depth and cleverness is staggering. Recommended for all fans of dystopia, ethics, and complex science fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing an eARC – this does not affect the content of this review

Published by Text Publishing
Paperback: 24th June 2021 / eBook: 4th May 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: These Feathered Flames

‘These Feathered Flames’ is a queer retelling of the Russian folktale of the Firebird, but reads more like a beautifully layered political fantasy. Packed with secrets, betrayals, and ethical dilemmas, it twists and turns, ensuring the reader never knows what’s coming next.

When twins are born to the Queen of Tourin, their fate is certain – one will be raised to rule, and one will become the feared and revered Firebird, tasked with maintaining the balance of magic in the realm. Separated as young children, Asya and Izaveta live completely different lives. However, when the Queen dies suddenly, both are thrust into their new roles unprepared. Asya grapples with her power – the Firebird must commit terrible atrocities to maintain stability, but the consequences of her soft heart could be even worse. Izaveta, meanwhile, finds her position as heir precarious, older and more powerful advisers moving from all sides to depose her. The sisters must decide who they can trust – and what they will sacrifice for the sake of the Queendom.

Of the two sisters, Asya is definitely my favourite. The Firebird is a ruthless creature, balancing out the use of magic by exacting tithes – and leaving death and destruction in its wake. Its carrier, however, is gentle and kind-hearted, always seeking to defend rather than attack and wanting peace above all else. Asya loves her sister, despite their differences, and will do anything to ensure the Firebird hurts as few people as possible. Her kindness makes her vulnerable – including to her own power – but it also gives her a sense of strength and resolve. Asya’s many mistakes are all borne from good intentions. It’s hard not to like such an intrinsically nice person – and it doesn’t hurt that she has a beautiful friendship with her pet bear, Mischka.

Izaveta, meanwhile, has been raised by a Queen renowned for being a hard, uncompromising ruler – and she had no soft side for her daughter. Izaveta is seen as weaker, unfit for rule, and fights this by trying to be even colder than her mother was. She trusts few, and sees other people more as pawns than fellow humans. However, Izaveta is human, and she does care – perhaps too much – about her Queendom, and especially her sister Asya. She might not be a nice person, but she’s not an evil one. Raised to care about power and control above all else, she struggles to see the world as anything other than a chessboard for her to shape – but she has a heart, and its when she listens to it that she’s at her strongest. Despite everything, its hard not to sympathise with Izabeta and her plight.

The plot is the book’s highlight. Alternating in perspective between Asya and Izabeta, it follows their separate quests – Asya’s to control her power and track down a magic user who has unbalanced the scales, and Izabeta’s to garner enough support to be elected queen. Asya’s storyline is faster paced, with threats around every corner – to Asya, from an unknown foe, to the world, from the unbalancing of the magic scales, and from Asya, as she struggles to control the Firebird within. Izabeta’s is slower, but no less fraught with tension. She has few allies, and even those she doesn’t know if she can trust. Every move she makes is a gamble, every move she doesn’t make an opportunity lost. Like Asya, she grapples with her conscience – although while Asya wears her heart on her sleeve, emotions burning like flame, Izabeta’s heart is hidden away with only small cracks in her icy facade.

The majority of the book takes place in the palace, but there are hints of the Russian inspired setting. Outings are made riding bears, rather than horses, and the surrounding forest has the feel of a cold, snowy place. The palace itself also feels cold – but more because of its inhabitants than its setting. There are no sanctuaries for the characters – only hard choices with bitter consequences.

The sapphic romance is a slow-burn enemies-to-lovers and beautifully written. Every element feels authentic – the hatred at the start is clear, and the gradual move to begrudging friendship and finally more is carefully done. Its very much a side element, with the central relationship that of the sisters – and even to an extent between Asya and the Firebird – but it provides an element of warmth to the story.

Overall, ‘These Feathered Flames’ is an excellent political fantasy novel with intriguing elements of Russian folklore. Its marketed as YA, and has clear coming-of-age components, but very much has cross-market appeal to adult fantasy fans. Recommended for all fans of political fantasy, folklore, and morally grey characters.

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 10th June 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