Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

My Side of the Diamond – Sally Gardner Review

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Rating: ★★★

I went into this book completely blind, having been sent it a few months ago by the publisher. This isn’t a book I would typically pick up, but it did impress me. It also confused me a bit, as I couldn’t quite figure out the genre or the age of the intended audience. I wish it had been a little bit longer with some more exploration of some of the characters, but the short length was also part of its appeal.

The main narrator of the book is Jazmin, who has been shunned by everyone since the disappearance of her best friend Becky, who jumped off of a tall building, but never landed. Jazmin told people what happened, but nobody believed her, and now, she is telling her story again. Other narrators also tell their story, in separate but linked tales that eventually interweave in order to tell us what really happened to Becky when she jumped off that building. It’s a slow-burn drama, but mystery is enough to keep you hooked, and the narrators’ voices are strong and clear.

I really liked the narrative style of this. It is told in a second person narrative by various people who are being interviewed about their experiences. They tell the events of the story as they unfolded in their perspective. This means that you don’t have the same reading experience as you would in another novel, where you might feel like the events are happening to you. It isn’t really possible to disappear into the story, so to speak, because at no point does it stop feeling like you are just reading about it, rather than living it. If the book was longer, this might have ended up bothering me, but for its short length that meant I finished it in two days, I didn’t mind this.

Although it wasn’t completely clear from the blurb or even the first few chapters, this book is science fiction. Aliens are mentioned pretty early on, but for a big chunk of the book I couldn’t figure out if the characters were mad or not. This made reading it a bit strange. Also, the age range of this book wasn’t clear either. I was sure from the cover art and the simple style of the narrative that this was a children’s or young adult book, but the narrators are all adults, so I’m not so sure. If you prefer your genre fiction to have very strong elements of that genre, this might not be for you, but otherwise, I enjoyed the mystery and gentle unfolding of the truth.

Whilst the short length worked well in some respects, I think that the book failed to explore some elements of the story. For example, the characters themselves were not very well developed, and many of them simply felt like they were there to push the plot without their identities really being clear. This was especially confusing when they all resulted to be relatives or friends of each other in some way, because I couldn’t tell one apart from the other in order to remember their significance. The romantic storylines also felt forced and very shallow, as the characters seem to fall in love out of nowhere, with no real reasons for their attraction or development in their relationship. This was a major flaw for me as Gardner tried to make love a central theme of the book.

Overall, there were strong and weak points in My Side of the Diamond. I liked the style of narrating, especially the parts where the second-person perspective was clear, and I liked that the book was short. However, I would have preferred for there to have been more character exploration. There were sections of the story that, in my opinion, could have been sacrificed for more character development, or the book could have been a little bit longer to make room for that.

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Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns – Julie C. Dao

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Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve been following this book for what feels like ages, ever since I stumbled upon a tweet by Julie C Dao celebrating getting a book deal. In the months since, I’ve seen excitement for the book continue to grow, with readers and authors alike talking about it, so I was chuffed when I finally got a copy. I’m so pleased to say that this book actually surpassed my expectations, feeding my love for morally grey characters and leaving me wanting more and more of Julie’s writing.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East-Asian inspired fantasy novel about a young girl, Xifeng, who is determined to become Empress of her kingdom, Feng-Lu. It seems impossible, after all, she is only a seamstress, far from the Imperial City, but her aunt’s fortune telling cards tell of her destiny as Empress, and she does not question fate. After leaving home to head to the Imperial City, it seems that the stars have aligned to help Xifeng reach her goal. She is accepted into the Emperor’s household, but as a maid. A bigger problem is the fact that the Emperor has a wife, two other concubines, and four sons. How will Xifeng secure her fate, and how far will she go to get it?

My favourite thing about this book was that Xifeng was not a nice girl. That seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but it’s also true. I don’t mean this in a nitpicking way. Xifeng is selfish, ambitious, and determined to the point of being willing to walk over anyone else to get what she wants. She has set her sights on being Empress, and she will do anything, and does more than the unimaginable, to get it. There were scenes that were difficult to read, and events in the book that change your opinion of Xifeng for good, but it all adds to the complexity of the tale, and of Xifeng herself.

When the book begins, we don’t yet know if she is an unwilling pawn in a game of her aunt’s, whether she even wants to follow this path that has been set out before her, but as Xifeng takes step after step down the path, and as she knocks opponents and obstacles out of her way, we see her accepting her own desires, and embracing her ambitious selfishness and the darkness that lies within her soul. By the end of the novel, there is no doubt that Xifeng is not the pure, innocent girl that we thought she was at the start of the novel. She is dark, evil even, but having followed her along her whole journey, it is difficult to ignore the humanity in her that even she has set aside. Xifeng’s characterisation made this book so easy to read for me.

I loved seeing the exploration of her character reach new depths, and couldn’t get enough of deciphering her morals, or lack of them. What seemed like a bit of a cookie cutter female protagonist in the first pages, turned out to be a character of many layers, with surprises lurking beneath each and every one. When the book ended, I was shocked. I kept expecting a redemption arc, a sorrowful and repenting protagonist, eager to right her wrongs, but Xifeng doesn’t regret anything that she has done to get what she wants, and as horrifying as that is, I also found it refreshing and exciting to read a character do so confidently.

Overall, I really adored Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I’d love to read it again in the future to explore Xifeng some more. Whilst this book might not be for readers who like to like their protagonists, or for those who don’t like violence and gore, I would still recommend giving it a try and letting it challenge you. I like morally ambiguous characters, and still, Xifeng even challenged me. Julie C Dao writes Xifeng in a way that you still hold out some hope for her, and you’re so reluctant to let go of it, and that made reading Forest of a Thousand Lanterns a really interesting experience for me personally. I really think that this book has pushed the boundaries of YA fiction, and I hope to see more books like it.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Gilded Cage – Vic James Review

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Rating: ★★

Gilded Cage was my first foray into the dystopian genre in a while, and while I was really excited, it failed to deliver. I liked the blend of dystopian and fantasy in a modern, urban, British setting, which we don’t see very often. There were also certain characters that I liked and would happily read more about, but overall, I found the story boring, and some aspects of the story and characters were just not quite there.

In the world of Gilded Cage, society is divided in two. At the top, are the ‘Equals’. They have Skills, or magical powers, and rule Britain. Then, there’s everyone else, and they are each required to spend 10 years of their lives in slavery to the Equals. These 10 years can be taken at whatever point in life they wish, and most people are sent to slavetowns, where they work in factories. At the heart of this story is the Hadley family, who elect to sign up to do their ‘slavedays’ as a family while they are still young enough to survive it. Whilst they think that they are all being sent to the estate of the Jardine family, one of the ruling families of Britain, Luke Hadley is actually sent to Millmoor, a slavetown. There, he gets wound up in a revolution, whilst back at the estate, his family serve the Jardine family, trying not to fall foul of the rules of the imposing Lord Jardine, and his three sons,  Gavar, a brute, Silyen, a mysterious figure with dark powers, and Jenner, the Skill-less disappointment.

I’ll start with what I did like about this book, and that was the whole concept behind the world. I really liked the way that Vic James’s Britain has some alternate history aspects to it, dystopian aspects, and fantasy. All of that together was very interesting. I liked reading about the political set up of this alternate Britain, the way that the Equals governed and their families, and the political intrigue. Quite a few of the Equals are scheming constantly, trying to outsmart each other to get to the top spot. My favourites of these were Bouda, who in my opinion did not appear enough. She is set to marry the Jardine heir, and is only in it for what it can do for her. Her goal? To be the first female leader. I don’t care that she’s a bit evil, she’s like a mini-Cersei, a Slytherin through and through, and I want more of her. Even more interesting, and also unforgivably underrepresented, was Silyen Jardine. He’s the slightly creepy middle son of the Jardine family, and there were hints of him being ready, and almost eager, to betray even his own family to get what he wants. The only parts of the book that I really enjoyed included Silyen, including an eerie chapter in the middle of the book where he steps right into someone’s memories. I loved Silyen and his dodgy ways. Give me more Silyen. In fact, I propose abandoning the story, and just following Silyen.

Now, for the not-so-good parts.

Honestly, the story at the Jardine estate was plain boring. Abi is the main protagonist of this part, and she is a completely passive character for most of the book, doing next to nothing (until the last two pages). The only thing that she does do is, of course, fall in insta-love with Jenner Jardine. This relationship was difficult to buy into because (apart from the slave/master thing) both Jenner and Abi had zero personality, apart from just being nice, so not only could I not see what had attracted them to each other, but I literally could not care less. Further, I was disappointed in the way that the Hadley parents are completely ignored. They might as well have not been mentioned, and it made the whole family dynamic and the premise of the story – their family decision to become slaves – difficult to understand. The only remotely interesting character in this set-up was Daisy, the little sister, who showed potential to be spunky, but wasn’t quite there. Even so, I still found her story flawed, as I found the idea that a ten year old would be charged with taking care of a baby quite hard to believe. Am I the only one? Maybe it’s just because I’m 21 and children terrify me.

Luke’s story was far better, although the characters still suffered from the same one-dimensional characterisation issues. They were just popping up randomly, and then disappearing, and apart from a few central characters, I couldn’t tell you much about his gang of rebel misfits. Still, Luke actually does stuff, and so this story was more exciting.Towards the end of the novel, the action really amps up, and over the course of a few chapters there is literally stuff going on left, right, and centre. It’s full on. Guns are going off and things are blowing up. BUT I had literally no idea what was going on. I think Vic James was trying to capture the characters’ shock in her writing, but it just felt too disjointed in parts and confusing.

Overall, this book had potential, but I think it just failed to deliver in terms of plot and characters. The characters were flat, and the plot was slow. While I didn’t enjoy Gilded Cage, I do feel that it has potential. It is a shame that the book waited until the end to delve into action, but I see a lot of promise for where the story is going in the sequel, Tarnished City, and for the characters themselves. I really hope that the characters are developed more in the sequel, as I think that this was the main flaw of Gilded Cage and was what really held back the story.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

A Court of Wings and Ruin – Sarah J. Maas Review

 

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Rating: ★

It’s very apt that this post follows my last post on learning to give up on books, because the A Court of Thorns and Roses series is a series that I have stuck through despite not actually enjoying any of the books that much. ACOWAR is the third book in the ACOTAR series – and what I also thought was the final book before I realised that a further four had been added (why?). It suffered many of the same problems that I found with the previous two, mainly being that it just fell completely flat, and was hard to follow.

This post will probably become a structure-less rant, and will also probably be quite spoiler-y, so be warned if you want to keep completely spoiler-free!

I was initially intrigued by this book because of where the second book ended. Feyre was going to rejoin Tamlin’s household at the Spring Court, pretending that Rhysand had manipulated her mind to make her stay with him, and become a sort of spy with him. Apart from a few moments, one including Ianthe and a truly great little exchange with Lucien, she was the most boring spy in the history of spies. I was expecting lots of intrigue and tension, but for most of this part of the book, Feyre was just pretending to be the ‘old’ Feyre whilst being mentally furious. I find this sort of behaviour boring, and this part definitely did not need to drag on for as long as it did. However, the one positive of this was Lucien, who I genuinely have missed.

Much like the first section, the rest of the book was unsurprisingly boring. There were long periods where nothing much happened except for character talking about Hybern and the wall and other courts, only for one big thing to happen, and then another hundred pages of nothing. I understand that there is a lot of discussion and plotting that takes place in war, but I just don’t think that Sarah J Maas captures the suspense and intrigue that these passages should have. In my my opinion, I found these passages boring for a few reasons. The first is that Prythian as a world does not feel like it has been very well-crafted, and the only way I can explain what I feel about the world-building in this series is that it is disharmonious. The second is that the overall tone of the book felt a bit too all over the place, and just like the world, the characters feel random and disunited. Basically, it was all just a bit too messy to get into.

In terms of the world-building, I didn’t understand the reasoning behind the war, who the different forces in the war were and why they were acting the way they were, and how the magic worked. The King of Hybern, the big bad villain threatening the whole world, has almost no real reason for his actions. All that we are told is that he has brainwashed his people to hate the wall, but not even this made sense to me because Hybern is an island. Does the wall only extend across Prythian, or the entire world? Why does he care about the wall, if his island is miles away from it? Second, there are just so many courts in this book, and they aren’t explored enough for me to remember them all. Maas introduces us to one High Lord on one page, his lovers and guards, and the next page to another High Lord, his lovers and guards, then another, and another, and another – or is this the same one from before? This isn’t even restrained to the other courts. Honestly, I can barely tell some of the main characters apart. Mor and Amren? Honestly, half the time I just guessed which one was which. What exactly does Azriel do with his shadows? Who is in love with who again? Eventually, as with the previous two ACOTAR books, I just gave up and started skim-reading.

Finally, the magic. There was a huge, glaring plot twist that I cannot believe nobody noticed and cannot believe nobody in the entire writing and editing and publishing process decided to fix that it has made me genuinely mAD. When Feyre is brought back to life by the other High Lords at the end of ACOTAR, she takes some of each High Lord’s magical skills. Now, why did the same thing not happen to Rhys? This was one of the only points that really grasped my attention. I was buzzing to see what Maas would do with this. The morbid-Morticia-Addams part of me was eager for him to stay dead, but of course, Maas rarely lets her beloved characters die, so I just wanted to know how he would be saved. I could have actually lived with the repetition of the same technique to save his life, but for him not to take their powers? And for this not to be addressed? Consider me disappointed.

Finally, the tone of this book just cements it as a hot mess in my opinion. This is a book about war. The entire world is being threatened by the mysterious evil baddie Hybern. Everyone could die. They are all terrified. Or at least, that’s the vibe I was getting until Rhys and Feyre keep sh*gging every other chapter. Have these two ever heard of a time and place? Is a war camp, just after a huge battle, when there are people dying, really an appropriate time? You know, I can accept that maybe some people have no qualms about this sort of thing – actually, no I can’t. This is unrealistic. It’s like having sex in a morgue. Or a hospital. Or a cemetery. No. No. Just no. Not to mention Maas’s sex scenes just became painful to read. Does Maas have a problem with ‘normal’, sensual, sweet love scenes? Does she have a problem against characters simply cuddling? Does she really think that talking to your lover about licking blood and dirt off their body is romantic? Am I really supposed to enjoy reading about faeries getting off by stroking each other’s wings? Honestly? Did anyone actually enjoy these scenes? Cannot. Relate.

I cannot believe I actually made it through this book, because to be honest, most of it was like trudging through waist-deep mud. I had initially kept reading these books because I thought that it would pick up and become more fun as it went on. After all, the author who wrote Throne of Glass could not write an entire series this boring? Well, it appears I have been proved wrong. I know that a further four books have been announced in this series, but I think that if you have read this review to the end you can probably guess for yourselves that it would take a lot for me to continue reading. Frankly, at the moment, I’m packing up my ACOTAR books to take to the nearest charity shop.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy – Ameriie Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★★

I didn’t know a lot about this book before it was released because of a relatively low social media presence at the time, but I’m sure there was a big fuss about it. After all, included in the list of contributors to this anthology of ’13 Tales of Villainy’ are none other but Renee Ahdieh, Susan Dennard, Marissa Meyer, Victoria Schwab, Samantha Shannon, and BookTubers like Sasha Alsberg and Christine Riccio. Either way, I didn’t need to know all of this for the book to catch me eye – all I needed to convince me to read this was the excellent cover art, the authors mentioned on the cover, and promise of 13 stories about villains. Who doesn’t love a good villain?

I’ve never actually read a short story anthology – short stories are typically not my thing. I prefer to delve into a novel, or even better, a series. I like the scope and span of them. Nevertheless, these 13 authors show that sacrificing length doesn’t mean sacrificing depth. The stories had everything that I seek in novels – complex characters, captivating setting and world-building, interesting plot. Among my favourites were Susan Dennard’s Moriarty, Marissa Meyer’s version of The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, and Cindy Pon’s Medusa. Particularly, I loved the creative liberties that the authors took with the prompts that they were given. There was everything from gender bending of well-known characters, to transporting them to different cultures and historical eras, and using different story-telling formats like Instant Messaging or narrative forms like Adam Silvera’s use of the second person. Every story felt completely distinct to the previous one and brought something new to the table.

Each of the 13 stories is inspired by a prompt given to the author by a BookTuber, and is then followed by a shorter commentary-style piece by the BookTuber. Some of these I enjoyed more than others, although there were a few times that this shorter piece felt a little random, and on one occasion, I didn’t quite understand how the prompt – which mentioned a Futuristic Setting – had been met in the short story. Nevertheless, generally the prompts were either humorous or made you think about a message in the story, which sometimes I hadn’t fully picked up on myself, and as they were usually less than 5 pages, you could quickly delve right back into the next story.

Because You Love To Hate Me was different to anything I’ve read recently, and it had so much diversity within its pages that it was like a rollercoaster ride. Ameriie has done an excellent job at gathering such a vast array of imaginative stories from some of the most successful YA authors around today. The Tales of Villainy are more than just entertaining, they make you think about the nature of good and evil, of choices, humanity, and society.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman Review

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Rating: ★★★

I love fantasy, but it can be difficult to find original twists on old ideas. This is a perfect example of that. Rachel Hartman’s novel takes dragons and makes them into something new and fresh, and crafts a world full of complexities, nooks and crannies. I loved reading Seraphina, and while I think that the plot could have been tightened up in parts, I really enjoyed it.

Seraphina is the newly hired assistant music mistress at the Goreddi palace, but she has arrived at a period of turmoil. Prince Rufus has just been violently murdered, and it appears that a dragon is to blame. Tensions rise between the humans and dragons, who have lived side by side in Goredd since a peace treaty between the two sides was signed forty years previously. In the novel, Seraphina gets drawn into helping Prince Lucian to investigate the murder, and balances this not only with court politics and her duties as the music mistress, but also with keeping a dark secret that could get her killed.

My favourite thing about this novel was Hartman’s world-building. I was sucked into this world where humans and dragons live side by side, and loved learning about all of the different facets of the society. I was intrigued by how dragons took on a human form, the rules that they lived by, and all of the more subtle details that Hartman included, like how a dragon in human form still had a particular smell, how dragons take care of their scales, how dragons are by nature logical and cold, and have to keep their emotions in check so as to not become too ‘human’. There is so much to unpick and love in this novel without even discussing the plot, and I am a sucker for a well-crafted fantasy world.

Although I did have some issues with the plot, I still found the story to be intriguing enough to keep me entertained. The plot was exciting and I loved how the different aspects and characters featured in the book all linked together like pieces of a puzzle. My main issue was that I found it difficult to care all that much about Prince Rufus, and I kept forgetting that he was at the heart of the investigation. I think I would have preferred it if we had at least seen a glimpse of him at the start of the novel to get a feel for his character, rather than jump right into a world that is grieving for him. Also, while I was excited when I found out Seraphina’s secret, I resented her ‘powers’ a bit for seeming a bit too useful, in a sense, and didn’t understand why they existed. I also found the ‘resolution’ to her secret being revealed to feel a little rushed.

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the weaker aspects of the plot reflected less than well on the characters. For example, Seraphina as a character was great to begin with. She was smart and ‘prickly’, and I admired reading about a YA female fantasy protagonist with a hard-earned and well-respected job. I liked her curiosity, her loyalty and her complicated feelings towards Orma and dragons. However, she seemed to fall in love with Lucian from one page to the next and with no warning apart from the fact that it was somewhat expected considering that he is a prince that kept popping up in her path. Although Lucian and Seraphina do spend time together and seem to get on, I wasn’t getting any romantic vibes, sexual tension, or flirtation going on between them, and the sudden declaration of love from Seraphina felt forced by the author, and in my opinion, makes her look a bit flighty.

Overall however, the world-building was enough to keep me hooked in this book. I wanted to know if the peace would survive, I wanted to know whose side the dragons were on, I wanted to know which dragons I could trust and who was secretly a dragon in disguise. This saved the novel from some of the less perfect aspects, and redeemed it in my eyes. Whilst I will definitely be putting the sequel to Seraphina, Shadow Scale, on my to-read list, I won’t be pushing it straight to the top of the list.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

The Dark Days Club – Alison Goodman Review

 

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Rating:★★★★★

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now after stumbling upon it on Goodreads, and it did not disappoint. It had a little bit of everything that I love the most. Historical setting, magic, romance, lively lead character. It was all there. There was honestly nothing about this book that didn’t impress me, and it actually far exceeded my expectations.

The Dark Days Club is the first instalment of the Lady Helen series which follows Helen Wrexhall as she navigates both high society in Regency England and a newfound underworld of demonic creatures that threatens everything she knows. Helen has been raised to be every part the lady so that she can marry well and escape the stain on her reputation left by her mother, who was a traitor. However, at the same time that she is introduced to society, she is also introduced to the Dark Days Cub, led by the dark and dangerous Lord Carlston, who tells her that she, like her mother, is a Reclaimer, with powers that can help to protect thousands of human lives. Helen tries to navigate both of these worlds simultaneously, trying to keep them from clashing, but when the time comes, she may have to pick one over the other.

This book surprised me in so many ways. I loved how fresh the whole novel felt, it was like nothing I had read before. I found Alison Goodman’s writing to be refreshing in that it was told from a third person perspective with quite a lot of detail and description but never felt boring or dense, and made the story as a whole come to life. The fantasy world that she has created is imaginative and well-crafted, and I loved all of the detail that she included, from the superhuman abilities of a Reclaimer, to the rules that they must follow, to the effect that this has on them. I loved the concept of the Deceiver monsters living alongside normal society, invisible to normal eyes, feeding on different aspects of the human spirit. This was all elevated by the Regency setting. I haven’t read any darker Regency novels, because it is typically associated so strongly with romance, and so I loved to see these two worlds collide. On the one hand, Helen is a lady in London society. She is going to parties and balls, and she catches the eye of a Duke. On the other hand, she is also part of this entirely different world.

The Dark Days Club has many interesting characters. Some favourites were Darby, Helen’s maid, and Lord Carlston, your typical dark, brooding hero with a secret. However, the character that really made this whole novel was Lady Helen herself. She is smart and witty, but not annoyingly so. I never tired of her humour and she never felt like a caricature. You really get to know her and understand her, and the choices that she faces. Sometimes I feel like authors take for granted that we will understand the societies that their characters are growing up in, but Goodman makes it really clear that Helen is none the weaker for being raised to be a traditional lady, for considering a safe and stable life of being married to a wealthy man, or for changing her outfit multiple times a day. She really brings to life the world that Helen lives in and this makes it easier to understand the decisions that she makes and the personal challenges that she faces. I also really enjoyed the fact that Helen has agency of her own throughout the story. Rather than being forced into being a Reclaimer, she consciously takes steps to learn more about the world that she has discovered, and she has a real choice. If she wants, she can leave the Dark Days Club behind and return to a normal life, abandoning her powers and responsibilities. This makes you respect her even more, and makes me doubly excited to read the next part of her story.

Now, I have to stop this review before I end up babbling on and boring you all. I’ve already had to force myself to cut out waffle, spoilers, and in-depth discussions of characters and plot points from this review. So, let’s just conclude this review with a repeated statement from me that The Dark Days Club is everything that I have been looking for in YA fantasy fiction. It has realistic, multi-faceted characters, a new and creative fantasy world, and a wonderful historical setting.

 

 

 

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Naondel – Maria Turtschaninoff Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

If you check out my review of Maria Turtschaninoff Maresi, the first book in the Red Abbey Chronicles, you’ll know how much I loved it. I had to read the second instalment in the series, and it was both more of what I wanted and something new and exciting. Maria’s writing is exquisite, and I love how she weaves her stories slowly and subtly, and the story in this book was so different to Maresi that it still felt new.

First of all, although this is the second book in the Red Abbey Chronicles, Naondel is a prequel to Maresi and not a sequel. It tells the story of the first women who founded the Red Abbey, the women-only society on the island of Menos that Maresi is set in. The majority of the story takes place in the palace of Ohaddin and starts with Kabira. She visits the Sovereign’s palace and meets Iskan, the son of the Vizier who sweeps her off her feet. Iskan is intrigued and obsessed by the mysterious source of magical power in Kabira’s lands, the spirit of Anji, and tricks Kabira into marrying him for control over it. Over the years, we see Kabira as well as Iskan’s subsequent wives, concubines, and slaves, as they suffer mercilessly under his rule, until they finally decide to escape. There is a reason why the Red Abbey Chronicles are being hailed as ‘feminist fantasy’, and that is because these novels focus on women – their strengths, their dreams, their fears, and their stories.

The novel is told through many different perspectives and these various stories take us to many different locations in Maria’s world. Sometimes I am apprehensive when authors do multiple perspectives as it can often feel confusing and the characters can feel superficial, but Maria Turtschaninoff does not fall into this trap. I have absolutely loved the way that she writes since I first opened Maresi, particularly in that her novel’s form is that of written accounts by the characters, looking back on their experiences. This novel consists of the written account of the women once they have arrives on Menos, and it is easy to believe that these are real women remembering their lives. You really get a feel for them as human beings through this structure, and this way of telling the story means that the story builds up over time, just as the characters become clearer and more distinct to you as the novel goes on. I also love how this format means you get a really good idea of the characters’ personal journeys over time. For example, when the novel begins, Kabira is a teenager, and we see her age until she is an old woman, and we see her not only through her own eyes, but through those of the other women as well, so we get a really well fleshed out image of her.

I’m constantly amazed by how Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing seems so effortless. I’m sure that endless hours go into crafting her work to make it so perfect, but as a reader, I felt like every choice of word was perfect, and even though the words are simple, there were many passages that blew me away. She also expertly manages to craft a unique magical world whilst not making it feel overcomplicated or confusing using the different characters to teach us this. Instead of having a huge info-dump, we learn through each of the characters’ different skills. Kabira has grown up with Anji, Garai has grown up with a close affinity to the land, Orseola is a dreamweaver (one of my favourite stories), and Sulani is a warrior woman. They each bring their own knowledge, talents and skills to the story and to the team, so that by the end of the novel, we see women who don’t even all like each other that much form a strong community together.

I honestly feel like I could talk forever about how much I love Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing. I enjoyed Naondel not only for the self-contained story within its pages but also because it adds another wonderful layer to the story that we see in Maresi. Learning about the origins of the Red Abbey and the way of life that Maresi lives was interesting and exciting. As I said with Maresi, I think a wide range of people could love this series. It has something for everyone, whether you are new to the fantasy genre or you have loved it for years as I have, whether you read adult or YA, whether you don’t read a lot at all. There is something in the Red Abbey Chronicles for everyone.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist – Renee Ahdieh Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I went into it. The only thing I knew was that I really, really wanted to read Renee Ahdieh’s previous series The Wrath and the Dawn, and so I hoped Flame in the Mist would grab my attention in the same way. Renee’s writing is really wonderful, and I liked the characters and the setting of this novel, but some aspects of the story and the fantasy system fell flat to me and didn’t feel properly brought to life.

Flame in the Mist is about Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked by the mysterious bandits the Black Clan as she travels to marry a man she has never met in the imperial city. Furious and determined to prove her worth to her family as more than a pawn to be sold in marriage, Mariko sets out on a mission to find the Black Clan, infiltrate them, and find out who paid them to kill her. She dons the disguise of a boy and does just that, and delves into a world of secrets, lies, intrigue and war.

I enjoyed Mariko’s character and the Black Clan as a group. At first, I thought that Mariko might be a typical feisty strong female lead, but she is more than that. I appreciated that her strength lay more in her mind than in her physical abilities – she is not a fighter, although she tries. I also liked that we see her grapple with doubts and questions, as well as with a desire to be brave even though she cannot escape the fact that she is terrified. Okami and Ranmaru are the other two central characters in the Black Clan, and Mariko’s brother, who we follow as he tries to track his missing sister. I enjoyed reading about the connections between these characters, and especially that there were different types of relationships. The romance does not overpower the story at all, but instead there is just the right amount of love for me, and there are also great friendships in the novel. My main issue was that the book swaps perspectives between these characters quite a bit, as well as some other minor characters, and sometimes the way this was done felt disjointed and confusing, and I felt like Renee Ahdieh spread the narration too thinly among too many characters.

I have tried to pick apart exactly why I couldn’t connect to this story fully, and I couldn’t find a single reason. The opening half of the story felt very flat to me, principally because I couldn’t really understand why Mariko was doing what she was doing. I understood that she resented being married off, and I understood that she wanted to prove that she was more than just a weak girl, but I couldn’t understand how she made the link from that to infiltrating the Black Clan to discover why they had tried to kill her. After the initial section of Mariko trying to find the Clan, we then have to sit through a large chunk which consists of her being treated as a sort of servant, and read as Okami and Ranmaru question whether they trust her. I think that because I was bored in this first section, I missed some vital details about the characters Okami and Ranmaru that made the second part harder to understand and get excited about, even though I felt like the story was picking up. I couldn’t remember the details about the pair’s history, and I’m still not sure I understand it.

The fantasy was also a bit vague. I found it so intriguing – there were trees that suck the blood out of people, and foxes made of smoke, and characters that could fly. But I had no idea where any of this came from and how it worked. I felt like the magical aspects of the book were quite randomly dropped into the book and for quite a large chunk of the book I wasn’t sure if this was a fantasy novel or a sort of historical novel. When magic did turn up, it was merely shown for a passage, then it vanished again. It felt so random that I felt like it could have been taken out of the novel altogether and the story would have still functioned equally well without it.

Overall, there were parts of this book that I liked a lot and others that, although I didn’t dislike, I just didn’t really get. I would have loved for the story to have picked up quicker and for aspects of the novel to have been a bit clearer, specifically the magic system and the characters’ pasts and goals. Although I didn’t love this book, I think that I will read the second instalment of this duology when it is released just to see where the characters end up and where the story goes.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Maresi – Maria Turtschaninoff Review

 

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Rating: ★★★★★

This book is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Everything felt different, from the setting, to the calm and soothing narrative voice of Maresi telling the story from her memory. I couldn’t recommend this more, whether you typically enjoy fantasy or not, this novel is so unique and wonderful that I wanted to disappear inside of it.

Maresi came to the Red Abbey when she was thirteen after a harsh winter. Since then, she has settled into the women-only community and can’t imagine leaving the sanctuary of their island again. Life at the Red Abbey, with its routine, safety, and knowledge is all that she wants. Jai’s arrival, after fleeing a violent home, only reaffirms Maresi’s view that life with the Red Abbey is the best option. However, Jai’s past has come back to haunt her, and the island is no longer safe from intruders. The women must fight to protect each other and her way of life, and Maresi must find the strength within her to face up to her destiny.

My absolute favourite thing about this book is the writing style. Maresi is the narrator, and she is writing down the events of the story so that they can be kept in the Red Abbey’s library for future reference. I really loved the tone of her writing, it felt very calm and assured, but you could also sense the emotion running beneath her retelling. You get a feeling that as Maresi is telling you the story, she herself is dealing with the events themselves. There is also a lot of foreboding because of this, because you know that something so big and important has happened to Maresi that she is being asked to write about it, you know that Jai is at its centre, and that this has made Maresi change her view on life, but you don’t know what it is for a while. This means you’re eagerly waiting for the action to begin.

This book starts off quite slow and descriptive. You learn quite a bit about the way of life at the Red Abbey as Maresi guides the newcomer Jai through her first few months on the island. We learn about their traditions and their routines, and also about Maresi and Jai’s lives before they arrived at the Abbey. I can’t really describe how the writing style in Maresi made me feel apart from comfortable. Turtschaninoff has a great way of making everything feel magical and wonderful but also cosy and homelike, so that I jut wanted to jump onto a ship and visit this amazing island. When the action does begin to pick up, the magical atmosphere of the island really comes to life. By the end, I was amazed at the depth and reality with which this entire culture and community was brought to life.

Overall, I absolutely adored this book. The writing style really made the characters and the location feel real, and I was really impressed at how there was such a good balance between a calm and quite reserved set of characters and daring action. It was nice to read about women who don’t have to be bold warriors wielding weapons to win, and about women working together. I was completely enchanted by this book, so look out for my review of the second book in the Red Abbey Chronicles: Naondel in the future!