Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

‘At first glance, the sisters of ultra-exclusive Kappa Rho Nu – the Ravens – seem like typical sorority girls. Ambitious, beautiful, and smart, they’re the most powerful girls on Westerly College’s Savannah, Georgia, campus.

But the Ravens aren’t just regular sorority girls. They’re witches.

Scarlett Winter has always known she’s a witch – and she’s determined to be the sorority’s president. But if a painful secret from her past ever comes to light, she could lose absolutely everything…

Vivi Devereaux has no idea she’s a witch. So when she gets a coveted bid to pledge the Ravens, she vows to do whatever it takes to be part of the magical sisterhood. The only thing standing in her way is Scarlett, who doesn’t think Vivi is Ravens material.

But when a dark power rises on campus, the girls will have to put their rivalry aside to save their fellow sisters. Someone has discovered the Ravens’ secret. And that someone will do anything to see these witches burn…’

What I enjoyed most about the The Ravens is its magic system, which isn’t terribly complex and does call on some common tropes for spellcasting, but I liked the use of the tarot deck and the fact that it felt that this magic could exist in the contemporary setting without hauling the whole story into more high-fantasy territory. If magic fits in comfortably with the more ‘modern’ features of the narrative and feels ‘believable’, if that makes sense. The story and its magic both read as very ready for television as concepts, and I could imagine this easily making the jump to a TV show for the younger end of the young adult audience. I admittedly was expecting something darker, given the blurb and the cover (maybe I fell into the ‘never judge a book by its cover’ trap!), and while there is some violence and the magic wielding does get a little bloody at times, the narrative stays largely on the lighter side of things, focused on relationships and hints about events that happened off-camera.

The story focuses on Scarlett, a member of a sorority with witchcraft at its heart (unbeknownst to the wider university population, though they have their suspicions) and Vivi, who has dismissed any potential for magic despite her mother trying to draw her into its world. It’s in joining the Ravens that Vivi begins to learn that magic is real and not a series of tricks, and starts to unlock her potential as a witch. The only problem is that Scarlett has already taken against her for associating with her boyfriend and has been assigned as her big sister. Scarlett’s focus is on becoming everything her family expects, including leader of the Ravens, while concealing what the more petty side of her nature has led her to do in the past. It’s unfortunate that the Raven sisterhood is precisely not a sisterhood – the girls very easily become jealous and judgemental, even though they keep insisting that they have each other’s backs. However, this is something that they more consciously realise over the course of the story’s events and learn that they have to put it to rights before they can become a real sisterhood and genuinely look after each other.

I’ve said this about romances in YA fiction before and I’m afraid I’m going to say it again: I think this book could have done without the insta-love plots. I got to the end of the novel and I was left wondering what either of the romances had brought to the story. Other than to set up the rivalry between the girls, I wasn’t really sure what purpose they served, and, if I’m honest, I’m really not a fan of girls being made to be rivals for a boy’s interest. Thankfully, both girls seem to realise that this isn’t something that should influence their own relationship, albeit rather late into events. The boy they’re both interested in doesn’t demonstrate any particular qualities that paint him as being worth getting jealous over – especially as he isn’t exactly painted as faithful in the first place. I guess I’m just a little tired of women being written to fight over men.

The Ravens is an interesting read and likely best suited for the younger to middle range of young adult readers. I think, in this instance, the romance and the bickering place it as a book more suitable for readers who enjoy slice of life/light fantasy television series aimed at teens. Thank you to Hodderscape for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

‘Meet Nora. Also known as Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley – the girls she’s been.

Nora didn’t choose a life of deception – she was born into it. As the daughter of a con artist who targeted criminal men, Nora always had to play a part. But when her mother fell for one of the men instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con herself: escape.

For five years Nora’s been playing at normal – but things are far from it when she finds herself held at gunpoint in the middle of a bank heist, along with Wes (her ex-boyfriend) and Iris (her secret new girlfriend and mutual friend of Wes… awkward). Now it will take all of Nora’s con artistry skills to get them out alive.

Because the gunmen have no idea who she really is – that girl has been in hiding for far too long…’

The Girls I’ve Been introduces the reader to Nora, currently a hostage in a bank heist, and not only Nora, but the other girls that she has lived as – girls who may well have existed for longer than Nora’s true self. If there is a ‘real’ Nora at all. Raised by a con-artist mother, Nora has been acting her way through life, becoming who and what her mother wishes her to be, to con criminals and dangerous men – arguably her mother’s own kind. Even her name has been taken from her, made to live and breathe each new girl her mother has created, and meant to absolutely embody each new persona, supposedly to keep her safe, but truly just to make her mother’s cons run smoothly and seem all the more real. Nora has been manipulated since her early years by a woman who plays at creating a new daughter for each new role she herself takes on, and fails to see her child as her ‘real’ daughter or what she is doing to her. As long as the con succeeds, that’s all that matters. And Nora has learned – not just from the girls she has been, but from a mother who pushes the limits of human understanding – just what is sometimes necessary for survival. And if she’s going to get out of the bank heist alive, she’s going to need all of the girls she was. Or is it the girls she is?

I liked that, despite what could be suggested by various blurbs of the book, the relationship between Nora, Iris and Wes doesn’t devolve into petty jealousy or squabbling over elements of past and current relationships. This is something they really don’t have time for in the circumstances in which they find themselves and I was glad to see that romantic jealousy didn’t get in the way of looking at the more important features of Nora’s relationships with Iris and Wes – namely what her past has done to her ability to function in relationships and what both Wes and Iris have happening in their own lives that affects their bond with her. Nora’s past is certainly dark and she has suffered hugely, but what the reader learns of Iris and Wes brings to light their own struggles, the subjects handled sensitively and not exploited for overly dramatic purposes, but to examine the facets of trust and what people will keep hidden and why. Each of them has secrets and is forced to show features of themselves that surprise the others, but to accuse Nora of being false is to shine a light on what they too have kept hidden and why. They all have pieces of themselves that they do their best to keep hidden, not because they fear being judged, but as a matter of survival and protecting themselves from themselves, and Nora’s way of surviving is far from the only way. Their relationships are a warm contrast to the one that she has with her mother, if coloured by similar pain and guardedness.

There is a huge amount to unpack about the behaviour of Nora’s mother, for while I found myself unable to gather much sympathy for her, given all that she makes Nora do and just how unwilling she is to see her own child as a little girl and not a tool that she can use, it can’t be denied that she becomes a victim too. I think there is more than one sign that suggests that she is mentally unwell, even before the last job that becomes her life, and between her games and those that Raymond plays, she becomes trapped in a world of her own delusional creating and his manipulation. It’s as if her mother never really exists in the real world and has forgotten who she was to begin with – it even feels as though she has children to use as tools and nothing more, simply to exist as accessories she can use to make her games seem more real. She is out of sync with reality and her treatment of Nora is abhorrent – even when her daughter is suffering and is in danger she has put her in, she never seems to summon any maternal feeling and is only concerned with how the rest of the game will play out. Though she takes the various cons seriously, they remain all she takes seriously, as if she cannot exist in the same reality as others or face being ‘normal’. Nora comments more than once that she can’t understand how her seemingly clever and perceptive mother falls for Raymond’s manipulation, but that she has demonstrated absolutely no understanding of emotions and feelings (beyond a notion of provocation, cause and effect) makes it easy to see how it happened: she was just conned on another level that she was unable to plan for. That the reader may intensely dislike Nora’s mother and yet sympathise with her for becoming the victim of all that she has orchestrated is a testament to the author’s skill.

The Girls I’ve Been was released on February 4th and is a sharp, brilliant thriller that I’m so glad to see has already been picked up for television. I would definitely recommend reading the book before any further media release, as the writing is simply fantastic and the book impossible to put down. Thank you, Team BKMRK, for sending me a proof!

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

‘The year is 1998: Titanic just won 6 Oscars, boy bands are dominating MTV’s airwaves, and like any other teenager Jess Flynn is just trying to survive high school. Between a crush on her childhood best friend, overprotective parents, and her sister’s worsening health, the only constant is her hometown of Swickley, which feels smaller by the day. Jess is resigned to her small-town life, until the day she discovers a mysterious device with an apple logo, causing her to question everything and everyone she’s ever known. As more cracks appear in Jess’s world, she faces a choice: can she live the rest of her life knowing it’s a lie or should she risk everything for the truth?’

This is Not the Jess Show is a brilliant book that looks at our relationship with the media and what it stands to become – or is becoming and already is, for some people – if we allow our world to revolve around accumulating likes, followers and attention on social media. I couldn’t put it down and read through it cover to cover in one go! In the world of 2037, things have got so out of hand that the lines between reality and fiction have blurred to the extent of morally questionable choices being made in the pursuit of media attention, money and public interest (I’m not suggesting this isn’t happening already, only that the novel’s world takes it another step further). For all she knows, Jess is living in the 1990s and has no idea about the world beyond that which has been crafted around her. She has never experienced true freedom, nor spent a day with absolute privacy. And yet she is unaware of this – and unaware that she is the only one who doesn’t know.

The book is reminiscent of The Truman show, for Jess is unaware that her life is being broadcast to the rest of the world and that nearly everyone she knows is an actor. Not only this, but her day to day existence is run largely like a script, with storylines scheduled and those around her told what to say and how to behave. What I found particularly disturbing about her situation is that her parents have chosen this for her and are complicit in the deception for their own gains, less interested in her than they are in maintaining their followings, brands and earnings. To them, she is a means to an end; an object they happily manipulate to maximise drama and keep their lives in the spotlight, to the extent of lying to her about her true family and orchestrating emotional responses based on what the public want to see and which of the cast is or isn’t particularly popular. They demonstrate no true interest in her as their daughter or even as a human being, their morals completely non-existent and behaviour deplorable. Everything is okay in their world as long as the attention is on them and they are making gains from the show, and even as she begins to show signs of emotional distress and quite plainly needs their support, they refuse to help her or address her worries, instead lying and trying to divert her attention from anything that might disrupt their money-making venture.

Among those who behave most deplorably is the boy that Jess is interested in, who remains so utterly focused on his role in the show that he tries to convince her that she ought to remain where she is based on his intentions to get better storylines and become a bigger star. Not only he is intent on emotionally manipulating her for his own means, but he too outright lies about her to others, even taking items that she’s used to sell on and make more money. He is but one of the show’s cast that demonstrates a remarkable lack of empathy and emotional awareness, too obsessed with ratings and maintaining the audience’s interest to really care about what Jess feels or what happens to her. This lack of awareness is one feature that many of the characters demonstrate, their moral compass and ability to consider the feelings of others destroyed by their obsessive self-interest and focus on making themselves look as good as possible in-front of the wider media. The world of 2037 is worryingly recognisable as our own and discomfortingly similar, especially given just how much control social media and tech giants increasingly have over our lives, ‘news’ and the disseminating of information, let alone the information that they collect and share about us.

This is Not the Jess Show is a hugely enjoyable and addictive read, released yesterday, February 2nd! Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

‘Londinium, the last stronghold of the Romans left in Britannia, remains in a delicate state of peace with the ancient kingdoms that surround it. As the only daughter of a powerful merchant, Cassandra is betrothed to Marcus, the most eligible bachelor in the city.

But then she meets Devyn, the boy with the strange midnight eyes searching for a girl with magic in her blood.

When a mysterious sickness starts to leech the life from citizens with Celtic power lying dormant in their veins, the imperial council sets their schemes in motion. And so Cassandra must make a choice: the Code or Chaos, science or sorcery, Marcus or Devyn?’

Please be advised that the following review contains spoilers.

Cassandra is the daughter of a wealthy merchant, soon to complete her schooling, make a politically advantageous marriage, and have everything that she has been led to believe she ought to dream of. Unfortunately for her, she has lived her life in a very safe and rather spoiled bubble, which has never truly invited her to question the world around her, and when she begins to notice that which doesn’t fit with her view of society, she takes steps down paths that she cannot turn back from. Her world is not that which everyone experiences, the history she knows is not necessarily true, and even she may not be the person she has been led to believe she is.

The Once and Future Queen takes place in a future where the Roman system of governing is still firmly in place. As a Classicist, I found this an intriguing concept and, though not everything in this respect is accurate, that we live in a society that has so many features that can still be traced back to ancient civilisations, I enjoyed reading about a technologically advanced future with prominent Roman aspects. In terms of accuracy, you cannot expect a society that has developed over hundreds of years to absolutely still contain its original elements in their complete and unchanged entirety. I liked the contrast between technology and the aspects of society that it hasn’t managed to subsume, which may say more about human nature than our willingness to embrace science and tech. Both Roman history and that of the Britons in the story has been intertwined with myth and warped for creative purposes to create a universe-specific history (what Cassandra and others know of which may or may not be the whole truth as we go through the series, I’m sensing). I love reading about politics, and the matching system is something quite horrendous to entertain as a future, used essentially as a system of arranged marriages for genetics/economic prosperity/power and other elements I’m sure we don’t hear of, akin to the ancient system and one that we truly aren’t even a hundred years past at this point. Ultimately, I feel was most engaged in reading about the history of how society had developed and what links had been forged between those beyond the wall and not permitted outside the city in the name of a supposed peace, when it’s very evident that it is anything but.

I’m not sure whether the ages of the characters in the book have been adapted over drafts and edits, as I admit I wasn’t ever too sure exactly what age Cassandra is meant to be. When Devyn reveals his actual age and what he’s been doing for several years, it’s something that makes their relationship unsettling, if I’m honest. It’s made a little clearer late in the book that she’s in her twenties, but she is written as a young woman who behaves in a much more immature way. This said, given that The Once and Future Queen is set in a society where women appear to be shielded from society in some similar ways to the Roman source material, that she isn’t wise in the ways of the world or used to making her own choices of a more serious nature is not surprising. In more ways than one, she’s been brainwashed by her family and those around her – as is everyone else, it seems – and I hope we see develop a little more as the series unfolds. Her story and what different worlds want from her, in that she has been manipulated, suppressed and has the pressure of Devyn’s desperate belief in who she could be, makes for a read composed of twists and turns as different ‘truths’ come to light and more than one character has to decide which side they’re on and what they want out of life.

I will say that I found the last quarter of the book somewhat discomforting, in that one of the key plot points revolves around the fact that Cassandra is put under the influence of a device that alters her thoughts, feelings and essentially removes her body autonomy. It’s said that this is done routinely to couples in this universe, as love matches no longer exist with everyone matched by the Code, and to ensure that there is ‘affection’ and that couples sleep together, they’re first put under the influence of something that alters their personalities and interest in their partner, then drugged into wanting to. That Cassandra and Devyn’s first sexual encounter happens while she admits to being rather under the influence – and that her reaction afterwards is painted as immediate regret – simply doesn’t sit right and I’m afraid it coloured my reading of the book. Cassandra spends much of the last hundred pages unable to conclusively make her own choices, fooled into believing she is content with her life, which I think would have worked in a more comfortable manner were there not to be the question of physical intimacy with either of her potential partners.

All in all, I enjoyed the history, the politics and the technological features of society, but the romance didn’t really work for me. This said, I’ve mentioned before that I tend to find a lot of romances in YA fiction somewhat problematic, and I’m much more focused on political threads and societal commentary.

The Once and Future Queen is out on January 21st! Thank you, One More Chapter, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Felipe is fat. And he doesn’t need anyone to remind him, which is, of course, what everyone does. That’s why he’s been waiting for summer: a break from school and the classmates who tease him incessantly. His plans include catching up on TV, finishing his TBR pile, and watching YouTube tutorials on skills he’ll never actually put into practice.

But things get a little out of hand when Felipe’s mom informs him that Caio, the neighbour kid from apartment 57, will be spending the next fifteen days with them while his parents are on vacation. Felipe is distraught because A) he’s had a crush on Caio since, well, for ever, and B) Felipe has a list of body image insecurities and absolutely NO idea how he’s going to entertain his neighbor for two full weeks.

Suddenly, the days ahead of him that once promised rest and relaxation (not to mention some epic Netflix bingeing) end up bringing a whirlwind of feelings, forcing Felipe to dive head-first into every unresolved issue he has had with himself – but maybe, just maybe, he’ll manage to win over Caio, too.’

Here the Whole Time opens with Filipe looking forward to a summer where he’ll no longer have to endure the torment of attending school, where his peers mock and bully him for being overweight, going out of their way to draw attention to what they think is wrong with his appearance and make assumptions about his lifestyle and who he is. Knowing that he’ll not have to interact with anyone he doesn’t choose to is a huge comfort that he’s been clinging to, but this is abruptly taken away from him when he’s informed by his mother that they’re going to have a house guest in the form of the boy from next door: Caio, who Filipe used to be friends and swim with when they were much younger – before his insecurities about his appearance and sexuality meant he no longer felt comfortable doing as he used to. Having Caio is such close quarters threatens to be a nightmare for Felipe, who is embarrassed about his hobbies and appearance… and a little bit in love with him from afar.

When Caio moves in, Felipe is panicked by numerous things, such as having to try and make conversation, which is something he struggles with, and being near to him in any way that might make what he perceives as his physical flaws more obvious. He expects Caio to be as judgemental as his classmates, but soon finds that they are not so dissimilar and that Caio too has worries of his own, for all he appears more outwardly confident about his sexuality. With encouragement and guidance from his therapist and his mother, he gradually opens up to Caio about his insecurities and learns that he isn’t the only one to suffer from such feelings – and that what he thinks of himself and has been reinforced by his peers isn’t true. As the two grow closer, he’s introduced to Caio’s friends and begins to build the confidence to stand up to those who have been tormenting him at school and well as to be more open about his interests and what he enjoys. Their relationship feels like a natural progression as they learn more about each other and try to be honest about their hopes and fears, while starting to share what they love and find more common ground. They’re respectful of each other’s boundaries and Caio is particularly patient with Felipe, knowing that his insecurities are no small thing to be cast aside so easily, and that what he sees in Felipe and what he feels about himself are two different things.

One of the things I really liked about Here the Whole Time is how supportive Felipe’s mother is of him, and how she very quickly realises that Caio may not have the same sort of relationship with his mother and would benefit from the same sort of affection that she shows her son. She doesn’t see Caio as just a boy she’s agreed to host and look after, but makes him part of her family and treats him as she does Felipe, encouraging him to join in with their traditions and things that she thinks he’ll enjoy. She has a good heart and it’s obvious that she wants what’s best for her son, while genuinely caring for Caio. There are times when she seeks to encourage Felipe to take steps that are outside his comfort zone in terms of socialising, yet she isn’t forceful or unkind in trying to expand his horizons, and is just as supportive of that which she knows he enjoys and what makes him happy. It’s obvious that she knows her son very well and it was lovely to see a parent in such a caring and loving role, when all too often books that have similar subject matter have a parent as a negative force (this is not to say that all the parents in Here the Whole Time are as supportive as she is), as can too frequently unfortunately be the case in reality.

Here The Whole Time is a cute and fun read, and a beautiful story, out on 21st January! Thank you to TeamBKMRK for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

‘The Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties – so when Prince Taam, key figure in a political alliance, is killed, a replacement must be found. His widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with the disreputable aristocrat Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control. But Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and when Jainan himself is a suspect, he and Kiem must navigate the perils of the Iskat court, solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war.’

The following review contains SPOILERS for Winter’s Orbit.

Winter’s Orbit introduces the reader to Kiem, a royal without any real ‘royal’ duties or position to recommend him as more than one of what is implied to be a reasonably stable and large family, and Jainan, a scholar and widower of Kiem’s cousin Taam, married to secure a treaty and maintain his people’s position within a vast alliance. While Kiem is on the more notorious side of things for enjoying a somewhat wild lifestyle, Jainan is a relative unknown (save for in academic circles), seemingly defined by his marriage to Prince Taam and his supposed assimilation into Iskat society. Shortly after Taam’s death, Kiem is summoned by his grandmother, the Emperor, and informed that he will be marrying Jainan and that there is to be no argument about it, all for the sake of ensuring that politics and the security of the empire run smoothly. Thrown together, the two try to learn how to navigate their new relationship and their role in broader political circles, while dealing with the news that Taam’s death does not appear to have been so much of an accident as has been reported.

Jainan’s behaviour has, since his marriage to Taam, become largely influenced by the abuse he has suffered at the hands of his partner, in that he has done all that he can to put his own wants, needs and interests aside and completely ignore them, simply in the hope of surviving his marriage and not drawing negative attention towards Taam. Upon meeting him, Kiem misinterprets his behaviour as distaste for him and a reluctance to be involved with him really on any level, assuming that he is still grieving for a man he loved and cared for. Unfortunately for the both of them, Kiem is primarily concerned with not making Jainan uncomfortable and giving him the space he needs, often eliminating any opportunity for them to communicate properly, as he is initially unwilling to press about why particular behaviours or actions make Jainan retreat or shut down, determined that he shouldn’t upset him any further than their arranged marriage already appears to have.

Jainan is clearly devoted to his people, having surrendered much of who he is to ensure that the treaty remains in place and that he fulfils what he believes to be his duty. One of the details that I immediately thought of after having finished the novel is that which focused on his unpacking and just how little he owns, but most importantly what he has felt he has to do to the items from his clan. These, he has crammed into a tiny box and hidden away, which, if this isn’t a metaphor for what Jainan has done to himself, I don’t know what is. He is genuinely surprised when Kiem shows an interest and essentially tells him he should be able to do whatever he wishes with their quarters to make them feel like his too, and is stunned by the invitation to display his clan flag – and that Kiem is racing ahead to try and find one to make him comfortable. He is so entirely focused on making sure that he is ‘acceptable’ and not doing anything to step outside the boundaries of what he has been taught (by Taam) is appropriate, offering up everything from his body to any form of privacy, and this, combined with the snapshots of what we see of his relationship with Taam, just makes considering what he must have endured utterly heartbreaking. In this, perhaps Kiem’s kindness is his undoing. It isn’t, as Jainan can only assume, that he’s uninterested in him, or suspicious, or willing to use him, but that he so wants him to be comfortable and for their marriage to be one in which he can be fulfilled (even if that means there being no romantic relationship) that he doesn’t want to elbow his way any further into Jainan’s life and be seen as his keeper.

Winter’s Orbit reads in a manner akin to fanfiction (unsurprising, given its origins), and as someone who grew up reading fanfiction and is still a participant in fandom, when I say this it isn’t to be dismissive of the quality of writing – quite the opposite. It’s clear that the focus of the story itself is Jainan and Kiem, and while there is significant political worldbuilding (which is something I always love), the reader’s view never really expands much beyond them – which, in my opinion, is exactly right for the style of story Winter’s Orbit is. It’s a novel about them as individuals and their relationship first and foremost; too much ‘outside’ would detract from the impact of the tale. It includes some of the typical fanfiction tropes without seeming too cliche, and is, simply, a pleasure to read. Winter’s Orbit is set in a universe in which people may marry who they wish without societal remarks about gender or preference, with gender itself being something that people of Iskat can choose to indicate without inviting comments or judgement, with titles seeming to serve for all genders equally. Though the empire’s politics are certainly questionable in many respects, the wider universe suggests a future where today’s more judgemental attitudes are eliminated and people may be free to love and be who they choose to.

Out on February 2nd, Winter’s Orbit is a book to look out for! Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review.

Review: Beautiful Wild by Anna Godberson

Review: Beautiful Wild by Anna Godberson

‘Vida Hazzard can see her future: aboard the heralded “Millionaire’s Ship of the West,” she’ll charm the young scion Fitzhugh Farrar, resulting in a proposal of marriage.

But Vida didn’t plan on Fitz’s best friend Sal, a rough-around-the-edges boy with a talent for getting under her skin. Nor did she anticipate a hurricane dashing their ship to pieces, along with her dreams.

Stranded on an island with both Fitz and Sal, Vida is torn between the life she’s always planned for, and a future she’s never dared to want. As they desperately plot a course for home, Vida will discover just which boy can capture her wild heart—and where her future truly lies.’

Beautiful Wild follows Vida Hazzard and her efforts to find a husband (and one husband in particular) following events that have threatened to generate such a scandal as to ruin her chances of ever marrying well. It’s obvious in the opening chapters of the novel that Vida enjoys attention and expects to garner it wherever she goes, and thinks very little about a world that might entertain anything but doing exactly what she wants, when she wants. Her intention in setting sail on an adventure is to make sure that she maintains the attention of the ship company’s heir, Fitzhugh Farrar, and thus ensure that she marries well, into a family that will increase her social status and more than keep her in the manner in which she is accustomed.

For Vida, very little goes to plan. She gets her way insofar as leaving shore, but from then on nothing seems to go as she would wish it. This isn’t to say that things don’t go her way, for, despite the various crisis that befall her, she somehow always appears to be in control of much of what’s happening around her and doesn’t seem to particularly suffer, even after the ship has been wrecked. Vida doesn’t have an ugly personality, but it is rather difficult to root for her when she is still concerned so much about her appearance and romance when she’s in a situation where she should be prioritising survival. She does take a lead in several tasks and activities and shows an eagerness to learn, yet that so much of her focus remains on her two romantic prospects and whether she should perceive other women as a threat makes it hard to connect with her at times. Perhaps it is that her social status has her falling into a commanding position instinctively and without much ability demonstrated? This said, one of the most enjoyable features of the novel is seeing Vida learn what she truly wants and what she has been telling herself she ought to expect, namely that she desires adventure and to be challenged, and that that challenge is not seeking to attract men and their fortunes. The choices she makes demonstrate just how much she has been playing at her role in society; the ease with which she casts it off (though does she still have access to the family money?) is a testament to her willingness to insist on change where it is needed. In Vida’s case, that everyone around her is so understanding is a huge benefit, whereas, for most women, to dare to make such decisions would mean ruin.

Another of the things the narrative takes a good look at is the relationships between women in a society that forces them to be rivals, enemies, and, ultimately, able to orchestrate each other’s fates with a few well-timed words and rumours started. It is perhaps that Vida’s only female ‘friend’ is her maid, who she demonstrates concern for and endeavours to make sure that her choices don’t condemn her, but is this only because she knows her secrets by virtue of circumstance? Camilla is never quite a friend, but a rival and enemy who can’t entirely be trusted, even after all that they’ve been through together (Vida endeavours to see her as a friend, but she still doubts that Camilla would not ruin her, given the chance). With women dependent on men for their status and what freedoms they might ever be granted, it is easy for them to turn against each other simply to try and secure their own futures, a world where they have next to no power turning almost everyone into a threat.

If you enjoy historical romance and YA fiction, Beautiful Wild is a great choice for some Christmas reading and escapism. Thank you Harper360YA for sending me a copy for review!

Review: How to Be a Hero by Cat Weldon

Review: How to Be a Hero by Cat Weldon

‘When failing trainee valkyrie Lotta mistakes an unconscious viking thief, Whetstone, for a fallen hero and takes him triumphantly to Valhalla, things are definitely not turning out to be epic or glorious. Having lost a precious talking cup, Whetstone is also desperate to cover up his mistake and the two embark on a quarrelsome journey to find it and regain their heroic status. But Loki the trickster God is desperate to get his hands on the cup with a plan to unleash chaos across the nine worlds. Can Whetstone prove himself a hero after all when it matters most?’

How to Be a Hero is an adventure book for infant and junior school (around 6-8 years old) children that is not only a fun read, but would work well as an introduction to Norse mythology for those who’ve shown an interest in other histories and mythologies. I always try to avoid thinking that any books are specifically suited to a particular gender, but I had the feeling from this one, primarily owing to the nature of the language choices and the style of humour, that it might be aimed more at boys, but this is not to say that it couldn’t be enjoyed by anyone. The content of the story is certainly inclusive and allows equal opportunities for the messages within to be applicable to all, with the pressure both Whetstone and Lotta feel to fit in with their respective societies, each lingering on the outside because they don’t quite fit the mould that others want them to.

At the beginning of the story, the reader meets Whetstone, who only wishes to prove himself, but has got himself mixed up with those who are quite obviously using him to get what they want. They promise that their endeavour will earn him the glory he can’t otherwise see himself gaining, and, despite some misgivings, he goes ahead with the plan, which only begins his greater troubles. There’s more than one moment where Whetstone demonstrates that he is clever and able to think his way out of various situations, but, as this isn’t something especially valued by those around him, he tends not to consider this one of his strengths. His experience with doing what he feels could be wrong at the behest of others and trying to fit in by mimicking those around him opens up some important discussion points for young children about individuality and when it might not be right to do as others ask. Lotta’s journey addresses similar themes, in that she has been repeatedly told that she only has one purpose – and she finds herself failing to be anything like the valkyrie she is supposed to be. Others look down on her and tease her for not being exactly them, but fail to notice her more important qualities and that she is truly trying to do her best – which is exactly what leads her to Whetstone and their greater discoveries about themselves and all that is at play.

The tale is accompanied by maps and other artwork from Katie Kear (I particularly liked the drawing of Broken Tooth, the dog), which is delightful and often brings further humorous commentary with it. In my opinion, How to Be a Hero would be a great book for parents to read with their children, as the images will help engage those of a younger reading age, while the text itself is challenging enough to encourage those moving on from more simple narratives, or will invite confidence in those who may have a reading age beyond their biological age. It would be a lovely story to read together, taking turns with pages or characters, and has plenty of opportunities for play-acting and features of mythology that children may want to learn more about as they’re reading.

How to Be a Hero is out on January 21st, 2021. Thank you, Pan Macmillan, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

‘In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne.

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.’

Between work and my laptop quite literally melting down few weeks ago (hello, melted components), it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and write a review, and I’m glad to be writing about Andrea Stewart’s ‘The Bone Shard Daughter’ today! The story follows Lin and a varied cast of point of view characters to build a world with a good deal of dark goings-on, much of which can be linked back to the emperor’s hold on his subjects and his quite literal hold on their lives.

For the purposes of this review, I’m going to be sticking with Lin’s point of view and what the reader learns of the world through her eyes. If I were to pick the points of view that I enjoyed the most, I would have to choose hers, along with Phalue and Ranami, but I can honestly say that the use of so many characters with their own, clearly defined, narrative threads works well in this novel, as does the switching from first person to third person narrative. I’ve mentioned before that I tend not to be a big fan of books that switch from character to character all too often, but the fact is that The Bone Shard Daughter doesn’t include any point of view simply for the sake of it, but to demonstrate the impact on the world of the emperor’s decisions and the consequences of others’ choices, knitting their various plotlines together in a manner that manages to avoid being jarring (which is generally my biggest issue with frequent PoV shifts). This said, I have to admit that not all of the PoV characters held my attention equally, but I can appreciate the need for each of them.

Lin lives in a world that truly isn’t one. She’s largely limited to a solitary life within the palace walls, where she has so little information about herself and what lies beyond the palace that she struggles to understand the motives of those around her and what her purpose in life truly is. Having lost much of her memories and suffering through interrogation about what she cannot remember, she battles with her father’s judgement that she’s internalised – that she is broken – and a determination to prove precisely otherwise and claim her position as heir to the throne. Faced with the prospect of the throne passing to the boy her father has adopted, her focus becomes reclaiming more of herself than him (for he too suffers with memory loss) and learning all that her father has repeatedly refuse to instruct her in. Namely, the bone shard magic that maintains the constructs that work in the palace and maintain functions in the world beyond. It is easy to feel sympathy for Lin, who spends her life faced with the disappointment of a father who doesn’t bother to temper his behaviour towards her, sharing all too often how frustrating and lacking he finds her, while clearly favouring another as his heir. Lin has no-one to turn to and, it would seem, no-one who truly cares for her, her existence a lonely one that leaves her fending for herself both in terms of the investigation she conducts and emotional support. Having gained glimpses of what those beyond the palace grounds are suffering because of her father, her motivations are not entirely selfish, but it’s also difficult to describe her actions as for the good of others. If nothing else, Lin wants to learn so that she cannot be discarded and passed over for someone else – and because she wants to understand what has happened to her and why.

The concept of bone shard magic is one of the most intriguing I’ve seen in a long time – and I read a lot of fantasy! What it entails is shards being harvested from the general population in a ceremony when they are children; one that can cause irreparable damage and death from the outset or mean a slow and painful death when an individual’s shard is put to use powering one of the emperor’s constructs. The shards are inscribed with a series of commands in a system a little like computer programming, using if/when variables and other sequences that work together to create a distinct personality and purpose in the more complex constructs that require multiple shards, or more simple functions in those with fewer. It’s this that Lin attempts to learn over the course of the novel, determined that she will be in a position to control the constructs, particularly because she needs them as it becomes more and more apparent that her father isn’t going to tell her even half of everything that she wishes to know.

All in all, The Bone Shard Daughter is an enjoyable read with some of the most effective twists and turns that I’ve seen executed. There are a few gaps in the narrative that are glossed over and that I hope are revisited in more depth in future instalments, but the world remains unique, convincing and well put together in a fashion that makes it easily believable and immersive. I look forward to the next book! Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

‘The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang-a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love… and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns-and grudges-aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.’

These Violent Delights is a hugely enjoyable read based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, taking the components at the heart of Shakespeare’s play and transforming them into something fresh and new, while still maintaining connections with the story that inspired it. I teach Romeo and Juliet to classes every year and I never failed to smile when there was a very subtle (or even a more precise) reference to the dialogue of the play, for the writing is so elegant that it never once feels as if it is simply a new interpretation. The characters, though they may share names with or be styled after their Shakespearean counterparts, are entirely the novel’s own and are beautifully nuanced.

My favourite character has to be Juliette, who is not what one might expect from the character who shares her name in the play. This Juliette is not downtrodden or completely commanded by the men in her family, and there’s more than a slight sense that she could, if she chose, take control of the Scarlet Gang and no longer have to worry about her father’s influence. However, her life has been heavily controlled by concerns for her safety, which has left her feeling trapped between worlds and not entirely sure of her identity, at one turn resentful and at another defiant, angry for what she has lost and how she has had to adapt for the sake of others. Her world is controlled by perceived expectations and a determination not to risk looking weak, in-case her position as her father’s heir should continue to be threatened by her cousin Tyler. Though she has a good deal of freedom, her choices are ultimately not her own, governed by loyalty to her family and the set of rules by which they operate, and while there are moments where she appears viciously proud of who and what she is, there are far more where she resents what she has been made to become and despises how easily she adopts violence, guilt weighing heavy on her for a variety of reasons as she mourns her former self and all else that she has lost.

Her relationship with Roma is a difficult one, and in this instance is not the courtship akin to the play, but the long awaited aftermath of what might have happened had Romeo and Juliet been caught by their families before the events leading to their untimely deaths. This Roma and Juliette have previously been involved, before their loyalties and love were tested by the interference of families more interested in harming each other and gaining the upper hand than considering what’s best for their children (of course, they believe they truly are doing what is best). Now, she is determined not to love him, but understands that needs must and he can be useful to her investigation of the madness that driving people to take their own lives. It’s quite clear that their continued association is going to lead to more than their simply locating information, yet it isn’t a sweet and kind renewing of their affections, but a pairing full of distrust, regret and frustration, the two too embroiled in their rival gangs’ business and their own bitterness over losing how and who they used to be to make anything easy.

The madness stalking the city revolves around the appearance of a monster in the river and the appearance of insects that somehow influence people to attempt to tear out their own throats. Gong doesn’t shy away from using language that provokes a a flinch-worthy response when it comes to description of just how characters succumb to being robbed of all sense and forced to rip into their throats with no weapon but their own hands, which, combined with the idea of the insects and fleeting views of the monster, makes for a rather chilling sense of external evil that meshes well with the simmering tension between the gangs and other residents.

These Violent Delights is a fantastic read and by far the best and most convincing re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet story that I’ve ever encountered. It’s out in the UK on November 17th! Thank you to Hodderscape for sending me an ARC!