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: Rebel of the Sands

‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a young adult fantasy novel that truly embodies its genre. It features all of the standard tropes and characters reminiscent of those from many other novels – but for all of that, it’s a highly enjoyable read and proof that novels don’t have to do something different to be great fun.

Amani Al-Hiza grew up in the backwater town of Dustwalk. She’s a gunslinger, and a good one – with near-perfect aim – but she knows she’ll never be able to escape, instead winding up either married to a local boy or dead. Her family dreams of making an advantageous match, while Amani desperately tries to save enough money to pay for a train ticket to her cousin in the city. Enter Jin, a strange – but handsome – foreigner on a mythical horse, who might just be the escape route she’s always dreamt of. Suddenly, Amani’s thrust into the middle of a rebellion and grappling with desert magic she previously took to be a myth.

Amani is a bundle of cliches – an orphan in a small town who dreams of escape, a strong heroine fighting against a patriarchal society – but she’s undeniably a likeable and fun protagonist. Her dreams are relatable, and whilst she’s exceptionally skilled she also makes a lot of mistakes and has a great deal of naivety. She also has a fiery temper and a smart mouth which constantly gets her into trouble. It’s impossible not to root for her and get drawn into her journey.

Jin, equally, is the classic handsome stranger who comes to rescue the heroine – even if the heroine is more than capable of rescuing herself. He’s a mysterious figure, but fortunately Alwyn Hamilton reveals just enough details to make him into a three-dimensional character rather than simply a plot device. I’m not the biggest fan of his relationship with Amani – the development is rushed, always a risk in a shorter fantasy novel – but Jin himself is a nice character with clear potential for future books.

The setting and world-building is where ‘Rebel of the Sands’ stands out from its peers. Inspired by a mixture of Middle Eastern mythology and the US Wild West, it’s set in the desert nation of Maraji. There are towns with weapons factories and shooting competitions in local taverns, but there’s also the desert – the home of vengeful spirits and skinwalkers and other things which go bump in the night. The intersection works perfectly and the magic feels right at home amongst the more traditional Western influences. There are no in-depth explanations, but this is the first book in a series so that wouldn’t be expected at this stage.

Overall, ‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a solid young adult fantasy novel that exemplifies all of the tropes of the genre done well. If you’re looking for an easy but enjoyable fantasy book, this might just be the one for you.

Published by Faber & Faber
Paperback: February 4th 2016

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: Infinity Son

Jackie’s thoughts on this book can be found here

‘Infinity Son’ is the fantasy debut of well-known young adult contemporary author Adam Silvera. As is perhaps to be expected, it reads much more like a contemporary than a fantasy novel – and unfortunately, it also highlights how unlikeable protagonists can detract from the entire reading experience.

Brothers Emil and Brighton grew up in New York obsessed by the Spell Walkers, a vigilante group blessed with magical powers. The Spell Walkers defend magical creatures from specters – however, in doing so, New York has become embroiled in violence and brawls. Brighton, an amateur YouTube vlogger, has always wanted to manifest powers of his own and join the Spell Walkers. Emil just wants his brother to be safe. However, when the time comes, it’s Emil – not Brighton – who manifests powers.

The heart of ‘Infinity Son’ is the relationship between the two brothers. They’re total opposites – Emil is quiet, studious, and has no wish for the spotlight, whereas Brighton is entirely driven by his pursuit of fame and glory. They love each other, but Brighton looks down on his brother for many reasons, and Emil’s love for his brother blinds him to Brighton’s many flaws.

The chapters alternate between Emil and Brighton’s perspectives. Unfortunately, Brighton’s chapters are a chore to read simply because Brighton is so unlikeable. He’s an exceptionally selfish person, only interested in fame for himself, and enormously shallow. He’s a teenager, so some emotional immaturity is to be expected, but it doesn’t make his head a pleasant place to be. I found myself tolerating Brighton’s sections only to get to Emil’s.

Emil is an absolute sweetheart of a character. He loves phoenixes, and all he wants is to live a quiet life with his family, study phoenixes, and meet a nice guy. The sudden development of celestial powers throws him completely out of his comfort zone, and his journey learning to manage them is incredibly relatable. He also has a very sweet will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot which is endearing to read about and a nice contrast to the difficulties elsewhere in his life.

The setting and worldbuilding has huge potential. Celestials have powers connected to constellations, but these powers can be stolen and used by others if someone takes their blood. ‘Infinity Son’ is the first in an intended series, so the magic system is barely explored, but it’s one of the strongest parts of the book. However, even for a debut I think it’s under-utilised. New York is barely different with magic to the New York we know without magic, and the phoenixes – extremely cool creatures who feature surprisingly rarely in modern fantasy – play a much smaller role than they could. It definitely feels like a contemporary novel which happens to feature fantasy elements, instead of like a fully-fledged fantasy novel.

Overall, ‘Infinity Son’ isn’t my sort of book, but it will likely appeal to fans of contemporary young adult novels looking for something a bit different. The potential is there for a sequel to be much stronger.

Published by Simon & Schuster
Paperback: January 14th 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Cousins

‘The Cousins’ is Karen McManus’s latest YA mystery. It’s slower paced than some of her other novels, with more of a contemporary focus than crime thriller, but equally as enjoyable and compelling. With each new novel, McManus continues to cement herself as a stalwart of the YA mystery genre.

Decades ago, the wealthy Mildred Margaret Story – owner of a lavish resort on Gull Coast Island – suddenly disinherited her four children with a single sentence: ‘You know what you did’. They never heard from her again – until unexpectedly, each of her three grandchildren receives a letter inviting them to work at her hotel for the summer and meet their mysterious grandmother. The three barely know each other, but suddenly find themselves packed off to the island to untangle a family mystery that’s remained buried for years. However, the more time they spend on the island, the more it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems – and some secrets are better left well alone.

The story alternates between four perspectives – the three grandchildren, Milly, Audrey, and Jonah, and flashbacks of Milly’s mother Allison, Mildred’s only daughter. Milly is introduced as the typical heiress – entitled, obsessed with fashion and her appearance, more interested in scoring drinks off men in bars than obtaining the grades for college. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, and once you get past her caustic one-liners she becomes a caring and insightful character. She also shares her grandmother’s name – Mildred Margaret Story-Takahashi, for her Japanese father – and, despite her protestations, is more desperate for her grandmother’s approval than anyone else.

Audrey is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest characters in the book – however, she initially comes across as angry and petulant, throwing a competitive swim meet just to spite her instructor. There’s obviously a lot going on in her life behind the scenes, and her character development is probably the strongest of everyone’s. In many ways she’s naive and anxious, but she’s also incredibly smart and always wants to do the right thing.

Initially, Jonah seems like a typical entitled man, complaining about how going to the island is ruining his chances of going to an exclusive science camp and throwing insults left, right, and centre. His attitude and refusal to open up makes him a bit of a mystery – but as the story unfolds, he too becomes a far more sympathetic and intriguing character.

The plot is sedate, with more focus on family dynamics than the mystery until nearly the end of the book – but this works well, allowing each character to become established and their backgrounds to become clear. Towards the end, some of the revelations are pretty far-fetched, but nothing completely breaks the bounds of plausibility and McManus makes you want to believe it. The ending is excellent, with just the right amount of lingering mystery. The only part I’m less fond of is the romantic subplot – McManus always has one, but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary in this book. That being said, there’s a certain scene related to it involving a balcony which is absolutely priceless, so it might be worth it for that section alone.

This is a book about money, and the exploration of the lives of the rich – not the obscenely wealthy billionaires, but the sort of comfortably wealthy people who end up CEOs and politicians – is one of the most interesting parts. Their attitudes to money are so different, and there’s a complete gulf in understanding over what it actually means to be poor. It illustrates perfectly how those who have always had plenty simply cannot understand what it’s actually like to struggle to make ends meet.

Overall, this is a slower story than McManus’s previous books, but equally as well written with excellent characters and an intriguing backdrop. Some may not find it as engaging, but read for what it is rather than what it isn’t it makes a highly enjoyable read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd December 2020

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: The Witchling’s Girl

‘The Witchling’s Girl’ is a quiet young adult fantasy that burrows under your skin and refuses to let you go. The magical elements are intriguing, but the real heart of the story is in its emotions – sadness and longing and heartbreak and love. This is not a happy story, but it’s a profoundly impactful one that lingers long beyond the last page.

The story follows Haley – a perfectly normal child until, aged seven, she accidentally resurrects the family cat. The only people with the ability to resurrect the dead are the Witchling’s – healers and herbalists, but also those with death magic, who can resurrect the dead or take them to the afterlife for judgement. As she knows she must, Haley’s mother takes her to the current Witchling – Marion – and abandons her, leaving the Witchling to train Haley to be her successor. At first, Haley fights her fate – but every town needs a Witchling, and the costs of Haley not becoming the Witchling are worse than those she faces becoming one.

It’s impossible not to become attached to Haley. She’s introduced as a terrified seven year old, not understanding why her mother has left her behind in a strange place. She hates the Witchling and longs so badly for a freedom she will never achieve. As time passes, she grows and matures – but some of that defiant seven year old always remains, and it’s a flaw that’s eminently relatable. Haley is, at heart, a nice person – she cares about people, and wants to do the right thing – but she often cares too much and that starts to become her downfall.

The world Helena Coggan crafts is exquisite in its simplicity. In many respects it feels like Medieval Britain – small towns run by rival Lords, each with their own healer-herbalist who works to balance the humours – but Coggan has taken this framework and built a fantasy world out of it. In her version, there is death-magic – a way of healing severe wounds by giving some of your energy to another, and a way to resurrect the dead – but only once, and at the cost of that person never going to the afterlife. It’s a familiar feeling magic system, but one which works perfectly with the setting and is beautifully described.

The plot is nothing like what I expected when I picked this up. It’s cleverly crafted, with little hints dropped throughout, but still manages to catch you by surprise. The first few chapters are reminiscent of novels like ‘The Sin Eater‘ – historical fiction about a child outcast – but this goes in an entirely different direction, weaving in political upheaval and supernatural entities and, above all, a child forbidden from connecting with others trying – but failing – to follow that vow. Haley doesn’t make good, or logical, decisions, but each one is completely understandable, and the story doesn’t shy away from the consequences. This is magical realism, but the fact that the protagonist is allowed to make these childish decisions makes it feel more real than many similar novels that follow stricter historical fiction.

The writing is one of the best parts. It doesn’t try to be flowery or lyrical; doesn’t craft elaborate descriptions – it just tells the story, but it does it in such a way that every emotion is a stab through the heart. There are a few moments where the flow isn’t perfect, but beyond those this is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simplicity.

Overall, this is a story that’s far more than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for fantasy filled with action and bold characters this isn’t the book for you – but if you want to read something quieter, something that focuses on character and connection, something that crafts a little bubble of a world and explores the delicate dynamics within that, then this is a recommended read.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7th January 2021