Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

‘When sixteen-year-old Chloe replies to a DM from a gorgeous stranger, she has no idea what she’s inviting into her life. As her online fan becomes increasingly obsessive, her real life starts to come apart at the seams and Chloe realizes she needs to find a way to stop him before things spiral out of control.

Misfit Amber’s online obsession with her personal trainer begins to creep into the real world. But when she hears a terrible rumor about him, she drops everything to try and prove his innocence – even if it means compromising her own.

In Follow Me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager, Amber and Chloe might find that the truth is much harder to swallow than the lies.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for the new YA thriller, Follow Me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager and I’m here with a review and a post from Charlotte about writing thrillers for young adults!

Writing Thrillers for Young Adults

When writing a thriller, you’re always trying to keep the reader guessing. Teasing just enough information through the story to keep the reader intrigued and the characters on edge.

There can also be difficult – and frightening – scenes to write. In Follow Me, Like Me one of the main characters, Chloe, is sexually assaulted, which was the pivotal point for her losing confidence and beginning to doubt herself. I was particularly keen to show how the use of derogatory words and phrases by men can change and shape the behaviour of young women.

There’s also a thread of coercive control throughout the novel. It can be easy for romantic relationships which at first appear fun and escapist to slip into something more insidious. 

One idea that I wanted to deconstruct throughout the novel was the concept of the ‘nice guy’ who calls you twenty times a day and is always ‘there for you’ so deserves your attention. No one deserves your attention if you don’t want to give it, regardless of how nice they’re acting. If you’ve asked someone to leave you alone and they persist, this behaviour can then slip into disrespecting boundaries and – at the extreme end – stalking. All under the guise of being a ‘nice guy’ who is protective.

One of the challenges to writing thrillers is capturing the right balance of drama and sensitivity to the topic you’re covering. You want the story to feel as realistic as possible. In Follow Me, Like Me I was also keen to weave in the social implications of new technologies, looking at the ways people can use platforms like social media to feed their obsessions and addictions. 

Ultimately, writing a thriller is about putting a quirk of life under the microscope – and using this magnified lens to teach us all something new.

Thank you, Charlotte!

Follow Me, Like Me is a novel that highlights how much social media has become a core component of interacting and socialising for young people, to the extent that there is little escape from the expectations and judgements of others. Both Amber and Chloe use various social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp, not only to communicate with their friends, but to keep tabs on what they are doing and to compare their lives to their own, the latter of which has been shown to have a hugely negative impact on the self-esteem of school students in particular (and adults). Chloe falls into the trap of using social media to seek attention for other reasons that have impacted her life, making connections that become increasingly dangerous and frightening for her, while Amber exploits the same technology in her blind quest to prove to herself that the boy she likes is a good man, demonstrating some of the same features of behaviour (and worse) that Chloe finds threatening. Each of the girls has to, unfortunately, learn through experience that how obsessively they use social media has a negative impact on their lives, including putting them in physical danger, let alone the emotional strain, and while it is common knowledge that these kinds of interactions occur every day, the more the novel continued, the more I found myself wishing that more children were better educated about what the effect the online world can have.

Another theme running through the story that I found particularly relevant to women (not only young adults) today is, as mentioned by Charlotte, how they are perceived by the male gaze and what negative behaviours are demonstrated towards women when men don’t get what they want. Derogatory terms are thrown at Chloe when she does not behave as Sven wishes, the words used ones that tend not to have a male equivalent, drawing to attention the double standards of society (I would say modern society, but this goes back many hundreds of years) and how women are expected to modify their behaviour for fear of the male reaction. Chloe does nothing to warrant such language being used, and Sven’s interpretation of a traumatising incident that occurs early in the novel is an especially worrying example of male expectations and arrogance, and while she does make mistakes in the handling of her online interactions and security, much of it is innocently done and shows a lack of understanding of what she is doing.

Follow Me, Like Me is out now from Pan Macmillan and would make an excellent class reader to tie in with PSHE lessons about the dangers of social media and how to use it responsibly. Thank you, Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour, and thank you very much, Charlotte, for your insights into writing YA thrillers!

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

‘Orphaned, exiled and hunted, Cerulia, Princess of Weirandale, must master the magic that is her birthright, become a ruthless guerilla fighter, and transform into the queen she is destined to be.

But to do it she must win the favor of the spirits who play in mortal affairs, assemble an unlikely group of rebels, and wrest the throne from a corrupt aristocracy whose rot has spread throughout her kingdom.’

What is immediately evident about A Queen in Hiding is that the world in which events unfurl has been planned out and developed in a convincing and detailed manner, enough information about the happenings beyond Cressa’s domain shared for the reader to get a solid grasp on world politics and the concepts that govern the lands without being overwhelmed with facts that aren’t relevant to the threads of narrative that twine together to bring to light the issues that both Cressa and the reader see on the horizon. This is not to say that there isn’t a lot to learn, but it’s done in such a way as to experience it through the lives of key players, without pages given over to exposition instead of story. It’s a world in which the reader can almost immediately feel comfortable, which is in no small part down to the behaviour of Cressa herself.

One of the common features of fantasy novels that involve royalty seems, at the moment, to be a rift between mother and daughter, the former inevitably finding the latter to be a disappointment of some kind, leading her to treat her daughter poorly and distance herself from her. The thing I think I loved most about A Queen in Hiding is that Cressa and Cerulia clearly care for each other and have a positive relationship; that their connection isn’t solely based on the fact that Cerulia is the continuation of the line of queens. That Cerulia has yet to be Defined (have her particular power identified) worries her mother, yes, but Cressa demonstrates empathy based on her own experience with her talent and does not treat her child as if she is a disappointment. Much of what we see of Cressa has her focused on ensuring her daughter’s safety, not only because she is someone the kingdom needs, but because she plainly loves and cares for her. It was lovely to see a parent-child relationship portrayed so positively within a genre where parents are often a cause of strife, and Cressa and Cerulia were easily the characters that I grew to care for the most quickly. In the same vein, that we get to meet other members of Cressa’s family and see her in roles other than queen of her kingdom were some of the sections that I loved most, particularly what we learn of her childhood visits with her father and the easy teasing between her and her half-brother.

I adore a good magic system and I enjoyed reading about both the talents of the line of queens and how their powers function, and the magical properties of the waters of Nargis and its connection to royalty. I particularly liked the fact that the water does not confine what magic it has to the use of royalty and can grant healing and other positive benefits to ordinary citizens in need without there being a huge price to pay in return (though whether there truly is no price, given certain events in the novel, is, perhaps, debatable). The catamounts too, were a feature that I especially found interesting, their role one of protecting the queen, but more on their own terms than as any form of tamed creature at anyone’s beck and call, and I hope we see more of them.

Cerulia is written in a manner that convincingly portrays her age and upbringing, which I find is often something that is not always done well in fantasy when it comes to children with magical gifts. She adapts to her varying circumstances in a fashion that one would expect of a child of her age, which is to say not immediately and not altogether successfully, her sadness, petulance and lack of understanding of the ‘real’ world contrasted with her desire to try and do well and not repay kindness with poor behaviour or her inability to contribute as well as anyone else. She tries and fails and struggles (and sulks), and there are elements that she never quite gets to grips with, but her attempts are endearing and ultimately leave you wishing for positive things for her in a world where she can never be entirely who and what she is. Given the direction of the narrative, I feel that it is so important that Cerulia is easy to connect with and care for, and Kozloff does a fantastic job of making her an interesting and compelling character.

A Queen in Hiding is out on the 21st, to be followed by The Queen of Raiders in February, then A Broken Queen and The Cerulean Queen through the spring, making the quartet available to read over the course of a four month period. If you’re looking for a new epic fantasy series to read (without the usual year long wait between books!), I highly recommend the Nine Realms books, published by Tor in the US and UK! Thank you to Tor for sending me a copy of A Queen in Hiding! I enjoyed it hugely and look forward to reading the rest of the series!

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

‘When everyone is watching you can run, but you can’t hide…

2051. Marlow and her mother, Floss, have been handpicked to live their lives on camera, in the closed community of Constellation.

Unlike her mother, who adores the spotlight, Marlow hates having her every move judged by a national audience.

But she isn’t brave enough to escape until she discovers a shattering secret about her birth.

Now she must unravel the truth around her own history in a terrifying race against time…’

Today is my stop on the Followers blog tour! Followers is a fantastically haunting look at the rise of social media (and the media in general) and the power it has gained over our lives, a present day not so dissimilar to our own contrasted with a future where the internet and media companies have a stranglehold on people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations, to the extent where an entire community, Constellation, has been created for entertainment purposes and to satisfy the needs of particular individuals to be in the spotlight. Marlow has been raised in this closed community, less by her parents and more by the company in charge of Constellation, which, as she ages, claims more and more control over her life, from keeping her heavily medicated, to deciding who she will marry and have children with, including when she will have children as part of her ‘storyline’. It’s as this latest plot point in her scripted life starts to unfold that Marlow decides that enough is enough, the secrets that come to light ones that drive her to seek the truth of who she is and what the world has become.

The 2015 timeline that alternates with Marlow’s 2051 life in Constellation follows two young women, Orla and Florence (Floss), who set out to use social media to become ‘famous’. Each of the girls has a dream of their own that they have been pursuing, but gaining little traction with, and while Orla in particular deludes herself into believing that she is making steps towards her dream of being a published author as she travels further and further down the road of media stardom, they both throw themselves blindly and disturbingly enthusiastically into exploiting the tools at their disposal to create their ‘best lives’ for the public to see and consume, while concealing the reality of it and leaving behind their better intentions. Having been working for a women’s online magazine, Orla uses the skills she has been employing to create her rather vacuous ‘articles’ and manipulate public opinion to turn Floss into a popular influencer, taking control of her Instagram and Twitter while using the platform of the brand she works for to gather further attention. From here, they work on further catapulting her into the public consciousness, culminating in a reality TV show and near constant attention from adoring fans of all ages, which ultimately does not end well. The ambiguity of the medium of online communication is highlighted in a horrific incident that paints none of the characters in a positive light, for their focus becomes not grief or regret, but how to stop their fall from fame and grace.

The most unsettling elements of the narrative are ultimately those that shine a light on the ways that social media has created a desire for attention within society that brands and various facets of the media can then exploit. None of the characters in Followers are creative because they wish to be, for their own enjoyment, or able to leave behind the notion of public opinion: they create content with the audience’s reaction in mind and with the intention of eliciting a particular response, and spend their lives focused on presenting everything in their world as something that should be aspired to, in order to gain more attention. They are obsessed with maintaining their celebrity, likes, follows and clicks, unable to disconnect from social media – something that becomes an all the more threatening feature of people’s lives by the time that Marlow is acting out a scripted life in Constellation. The fact that this hyper-fixation and all its pitfalls is presented as fiction while at the same moment being very much not fictional makes for an often uncomfortable and highly relevant read, for there is very little in Marlow’s 2051 that the world is not necessarily on the cusp of attempting. Given that the media has managed to get its claws into our everyday lives, from home hubs, advertising and reality TV, to our use of social media and its influence on what we may choose to purchase and participate in, that someone reading Followers would not recognise some feature of their own lives in the narrative is, I believe, highly unlikely.

Followers is a disquieting study of our relationship with the media and what stands to happen to individuality, truth and creativity if we fail to continue to inform ourselves of the power of language, presentation and the material that we consume on a daily basis. If we do not question what we are shown and our own response to it, we stand to continue walking down some dangerous paths. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and highly recommend it as a look into a frighteningly believable future.

Followers was released on January 9th from HQ Stories (Harper Collins) and is available in bookshops now. Thank you to HQ Stories for sending me a copy for review and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Review: The Unforgetting by Rose Black

Review: The Unforgetting by Rose Black

‘Her fate was decided. Her death was foretold. Her past is about to be unforgotten…

1851. When Lily Bell is sold by her father to a ‘Professor of Ghosts’ to settle a bad debt, she dreams of finding fame on the London stage. But Erasmus Salt wants Lilly not as an actress, but as his very own ghost – the heart of his elaborate illusion for those desperate for a glimpse of the spirit world…

Obsessed with perfection, Erasmus goes to extreme lengths to ensure his illusion is realistic. When Lily comes across her own obituary in the paper, and then her headstones in the cemetery, she realises that she is trapped, her own parents think she is dead, and that her fate is soon to become even darker…’

The Unforgetting follows the story of Lily Bell, who has the misfortune to be sold to Erasmus Salt to act as the ghost he will summon on-stage in a time when the public were nigh obsessed with magic, gothic and the supernatural. Believing she is going to perform the likes of Shakespeare, she grows more and more concerned as her freedoms are severely restricted, she is made to dress in black and wear a veil, and discovers that she has been announced in the paper as having died, fallen from a cliff. However, for Lily, this is only the beginning of a life that turns progressively darker at the hands of a delusional, selfish and frighteningly controlling Salt, who uses her for his own purposes in more ways than one. The threads of Lily’s story are told primarily from her point of view, but also includes chapters that visit her mother and her love interest, which often rob more hope from her tale, while also offering a hint of light here and there.

Lily is primarily put into the care of Faye, Salt’s sister, who is tasked with monitoring her and making sure that she is not permitted to go out alone or be seen in anything but the costume that he demands she wear when she must be seen in public outside her performances as the ghost. As Lily’s story unfolds and elements of Faye’s behaviour become more questionable, her own narrative is unveiled through a series of flashbacks to her time working as a governess and what leads her to treat Lily as she does – and what ultimately moves her to making the most important decisions of her life, for her and for Lily. Faye is a more sympathetic character than her twisted brother, particularly because of a past that, much like Lily, leaves her at the mercy of men and forced to surrender to what others demand of her, though it is also this that makes her a source of frustration at times, leading the reader to wonder why she is permitting a cycle to repeat itself (in context, the answer is partly that, in this time, women have next to no power to fight back or deny men anything). That the narrative is ostensibly written by Faye makes her representation and what she admits on its opening page that she has fabricated all the more intriguing and something I’d like to write much more about, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers!

Salt is not a villain with redeeming features that might grant him any measure of sympathy, despite what brief episodes from his past that the reader is shown. He is obsessed not only with his work, but with his right to execute his performances in any way he chooses, at whatever cost to those who have the misfortune to be involved with or related to him. In particular, his treatment of women is downright revolting and incredibly unsettling, from the way he treats and manipulates Lily and his own sister, to his sexual proclivities. He is so focused on bending the world to his will that it seems there are no lengths that he will not go to to achieve the desired outcome, intent on exploiting those around him and gaslighting them into behaving as he wishes them to.

The Unforgetting is a haunting and often disquieting read, brilliantly written with features of gothic fiction and threads of women taking control of their own destinies in a world that would deny them. It’s out on January 9th! Thank you, Orion Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi

Review: Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi

‘After battling the impossible, Zélie and Amari have finally succeeded in bringing magic back to the land of Orïsha. But the ritual was more powerful than they could’ve imagined, reigniting the powers of not only the maji, but of nobles with magic ancestry, too.

Now, Zélie struggles to unite the maji in an Orïsha where the enemy is just as powerful as they are. But with civil war looming on the horizon, Zélie finds herself at a breaking point: she must discover a way to bring the kingdom together or watch as Orïsha tears itself apart.’

My favourite things about this series so far have to be the worldbuilding and the magic. I love the way the use of magic is described, the way in which Adeyemi writes making it an almost tangible thing. I like that it it grounded in the physical and not all flashing lights and invisible strength, and that there is, more often than not, a cost for power wielded, consequences making it a system that feels more realistic and something that should be respected. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of overpowered characters who pay no price for the powers they can use, and while there are some characters that can use magic without direct consequence to themselves, the damage they cause to others is devastating, whether they mean it to be or not. Primarily, magic is honoured and not exploited, and there’s a real human impact felt whenever it goes awry in the course of learning how it can be used and uncovering all that has been lost.

Zélie has a lot to work through over the course of the novel, and in its opening pages is still attempting to come to terms with the events that occurred at the conclusion of Children of Blood and Bone, to the extent that her relationship with her magic is fractured and brings her immense guilt. That she has to constantly face the fact that what she has tried to do for her people has also gifted their enemies with what appears to be a more powerful and destructive force is something that she struggles with, especially when interacting with Amari, who only serves as a reminder of what she’s fighting against and the ‘mistake’ that she has made. Despite this, she still cares for Amari and initially attempts to conceal her feelings because of this, fighting against the urge to lash out at her for claiming what she has always revered of her heritage for her own, however without intent. While trying to work through the trauma of what she has recently lived through, she also has to handle her new role in her community and how others see her now, something else that she has difficulty coping with, particularly as her life all the more frequently asks for sacrifice after sacrifice from her for a broader good.

To my mind, one of the strongest features of Children of Virtue and Vengeance is the host of characters who spend a lot of time convincing themselves and manipulating others into believing that they are doing what is best for Orïsha. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time internally screaming at some of them to better anticipate the consequences of their actions and see through the deceptions that others were feeding them to use them for their own means. Amari’s mother in particular remains a despicable woman, both in her attitude towards her daughter and how she alters her behaviour to convince others that she is not a threat and only wishes the best for them and for Orïsha. The trauma that Amari’s formative years have caused to how she sees herself, her destiny and others becomes more and more evident as the story unfolds, making her more dangerous to herself and others as her idea of what is ‘best’ becomes more and more warped. I can’t really go into much detail about the main culprit and perhaps most self-deceiving of the cast (in my opinion), as I think it’s too much of a major spoiler, but that they let themselves be led and manipulated to the extent that they saw what they had been fed as truth was one of the main things that had me silently yelling (in a good way) at pages for them to wake up.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t too invested in the romantic elements of the story, as I felt that there was so much more at stake that it felt a little like an unnecessary addition, or something that wouldn’t be at the forefront of the character’s minds while in the situations that they are in. However, this is not to say that I was complete averse to them, and I particularly felt for Amari, as she struggles with what she feels she has to do and what she knows it stands to cost her, especially having experienced an upbringing where affection was not something that she received from any source that she could rely on (and she has already lost the one person who seemed to truly care for her in her youth). I’m not quite sure how I feel about the romances that Zélie engages in, particularly because they both read as quite unhealthy, made more so by the fact that it seems she is using one as a way of trying to forget the other. This said, her behaviour in terms of relationships often reads as quite instinctive and impulsive, and not necessarily always thought through, despite her attempts to, the weight on her shoulders and likelihood of impending death things that don’t afford her the opportunity to be entirely reasonable and rational about everything.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance is a brilliantly written and thought provoking read, and out today! I look forward to seeing how the story unfolds in the final book of the trilogy! Thank you to Pan Macmillan & MyKindaBook for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

Review: The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

‘After being pronounced Queen of Faerie and then abruptly exiled by the Wicked King Cardan, Jude finds herself unmoored, the queen of nothing. She spends her time with Vivi and Oak, watching reality television, and doing odd jobs, including squaring up to a cannibalistic faerie. When her twin sister Taryn shows up asking a favour, Jude jumps at the chance to return to the Faerie world, even if it means facing Cardan, who she loves despite his betrayal.

When a dark curse is unveiled, Jude must become the first mortal Queen of Faerie and break the curse, or risk upsetting the balance of the whole Faerie world.’

The Queen of Nothing was one of my most anticipated books of the year and I was lucky in that the bookseller that I’d ordered from shipped my copy nearly a week before release date, meaning I was far less paranoid about running into spoilers in the days around said date. However, I confess that I still sat down and read the whole thing almost as soon as I got my hands on the book, both because I was afraid others who had their copies might be posting spoilers (I would not assume deliberately) and because I am a terrible human being who, nine times out of ten, always reads the last page of any book before the first, and I knew that, despite being determined not to do this with The Queen of Nothing (as I hadn’t with The Wicked King), I would probably cave if made to put the book down for long.

My favourite elements of this series have always been the political intrigue and the manipulation that are a range of characters are capable of, which I feel is particularly well done in both The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King primarily because there are characters that are actually willing to go through with their threats and do whatever they must to achieve their goals. There are certainly some less than pleasant and manipulative characters in other series, but, in many instances, they shy away from executing the full extent of their plans, which rather takes away levels of characterisation and any tension created. Reading through the Folk of the Air series, I wasn’t 100% certain that any character was absolutely safe from the machinations of others or the meeting of a deadly fate at any time, which I don’t think I’ve experienced to the same extent with other novels (and is another reason I raced through The Queen of Nothing). I’ve seen commentary from others who say they don’t like Jude (and they’re perfectly entitled to that opinion!) because she is manipulative and is quite often selfish, but I can’t help but feel that she is a very honest character in how she looks at the world around her and herself. I’m not suggesting that she behaves particularly well towards others, but she takes on a world and people that have been a threat to her since she was involuntarily taken to Faerie and decides that she is going to take what she wants from it before it can destroy her. She knows what she can use against people and employs what tactics she must to ensure as best she can that she gets to strike first when she must, without apology – knowing she will not receive regrets or apologies from those who would view her as a plaything and mortal amusement.

I’ll admit that there was significantly less in terms of political machinations in The Queen of Nothing, which did disappoint me slightly, but there were other elements of it that I very much enjoyed, such as Jude and her sisters working together, when they have often been at odds for various reasons. I particularly loved what we see of Vivi and Heather and how they are trying to work through what Heather’s visit to Faerie has done to them and what she has learnt of Vivi’s powers – and her ability to make her see and believe anything she chooses. Some of my favourite things from the novel are actually not part of the standard edition, being the letters sent from Cardan to Jude during her exile, which are added at the conclusion of the story. The initial interactions between Jude and Cardan once she arrives in Faerie had me grinning and I really enjoyed the spans of the story where it was clear that neither of them quite knew where they stood and whether they could truly trust anything the other said or did. To my mind, there are a lot of threads introduced in The Wicked King that still need to be resolved, which gives me hope that we might see more material in this universe.

There’s a lot more that I’d like to go into detail about, but I don’t want to spoil specific pieces of the story for anyone so soon after its release date. When a few more months have passed, I hope to come back to this and discuss several character relationships in detail, especially things such as power dynamics and family ties.

In short: loved this series! It’s still one of my favourites and I hope to reread it soon!

Review: Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

Review: Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

‘Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?’

Song of the Crimson Flower follows the story of Bao, who has been in love with a girl he has grown to idealise, and Lan, the pampered girl herself. Though the book’s blurb claims that Bao ‘despises’ her after her rejection of him, I feel it’s important to point out that that isn’t a word that accurately portrays his feelings, nor reflects truly on him, as Bao is very much presented as someone who would not leap to such anger without incredibly good reason – certainly better than being rejected by Lan.

Bao is portrayed as an honourable soul who does his best to do right by as many people as he can, his past suffering something that drives him to try and ensure that he gives what he can to try and prevent others, even those he does not know, from experiencing what he has. The situation he finds himself in with Tam is more complex than it looks on the surface, for while Bao stands to suffer if he does not do as Tam’s mother directs, Tam is also trying to avoid being mistreated by his parents, for all that he does not go about it in the right way. Both of them are yearning for something different in the world, though it is much harder to sympathise with Tam, who comes across as arrogant and ungrateful, for all that to be forced into something he does not want is not something to wish upon a person. What is refreshing to see in Bao is a male protagonist who does not go out of his way to try and change the object of his affection, is not aggressive and not rude in his interaction with her or others. However, it could be said that he does need to stand up for himself more, as he accepts unreasonable behaviour on more than one occasion.

Lan is a difficult character to sympathise with, much as Tam, and though there are some moments (which I wish had been developed in greater detail) where it seems that she could have been a much different person, there are instances where it feels that she and Tam are much more on the same level than it would be kind to acknowledge. She appears to be very much someone who has been raised by a lifestyle and expectations rather than real human interaction, and once the one person that that there is evidence she truly cared about was gone, so was a good deal of her humanity. The thing is, Lan knows that she could and should behave better, but she spends a lot of time berating others and being annoyed with Bao for having feelings for her, often treating him very unkindly when he is only trying to do his best in the circumstances that he finds himself in. She does learn as the narrative unfolds, but whether it is enough is, I think, down to the individual reader.

If I were to be honest, I was more invested in Wei and Yen’s love story than that of Bao and Lan, as I kept hoping for more of their interactions as I was reading. Some of what the reader sees of them is clearly designed to try and teach Lan something, and while it’s true that she learns to reflect on her own behaviour and consider whether her desires are her own or those imprinted on her by circumstance, I was more intrigued by the story unfolding before her than I was in those realisations at that moment.

I would say that one thing I was quite conscious of as I was reading was the quite frequent use of heavy exposition. This, paired with the fact that there are some elements of the story that the characters accept without question, such as Bao’s visions and the very quick understanding of who his mother is, make the narrative a little clumsy in places. This is not to say that it is not an enjoyable read, because I did genuinely like the book, but these instances of easy acceptance take away a lot of suspense and tension and sign-point where events are headed quite early on. It is certainly well written and the description is often beautiful, and it’s a good addition to the other books set in this universe.

Song of the Crimson Flower is available in bookshops now!

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

‘At the end of one world, there always lies another.

Safire, a soldier, knows her role in this world is to serve the King of Firgaard-helping to maintain the peace in her oft-troubled nation.

Eris, a deadly pirate, has no such conviction. Known as The Death Dancer for her ability to evade even the most determined of pursuers, she possesses a superhuman ability to move between worlds.

When one can roam from dimension to dimension, can one ever be home? Can love and loyalty truly exist?

Then Safire and Eris-sworn enemies-find themselves on a common mission: to find Asha, the last Namsara.

From the port city of Darmoor to the fabled faraway Sky Isles, their search and their stories become threaded ever more tightly together as they discover the uncertain fate they’re hurtling towards may just be a shared one. In this world, and the next.’

The Last Namsara and The Caged Queen number among my favourite books and I’ve so been looking forward to The Sky Weaver (while also being sad that it’s the last book in this world and with these characters). I’m pleased to say that it was the same high quality that I’ve come to expect from this series and I loved the continuing structural device of using history/mythology between chapters set in the present to augment the story and reveal more of the world to the reader ahead of the moments in which threads draw together for the characters, ensuring the significance of these moments is not lost.

Safire is a character we’ve met before and is the commander of her cousin’s forces, having worked to prove herself more than capable while others have looked down on her because of her birth, and while she presents herself as brave and fearless, she remains haunted by the treatment of those who attempted to drag her down – and, ultimately, her response to it when she finally had the upper hand and ability to decide their fate. Having been fighting against a particular kind of evil for much of her life, that those she holds dear are now free and in power tends to skew her beliefs to absolute faith and loyalty to them, something that she begins to question when Eris enters her life. What I find most interesting about what happens to not only Safire, but much of the main cast, is that they are often trying to find their way and make the best decisions based on choices which will ultimately end up hurting someone that they love, making it feel somewhat like damage control. None of those who have become leaders since The Last Namsara are particularly experienced by this point, and all are attempting to do what is right for as many as possible in a world that they are still changing and shaping, and I liked that there is not one character who is presented as infallible or so knowledgeable and powerful that they know absolutely what to do when presented with difficult situations that stand to make someone pay a price.

Eris’ story is slightly removed from that of the cast that the reader has got to know over the past two books, her narrative one that develops the already established storylines and brings them together and to their conclusion. Working as a thief, she steals that which her boss orders her to, using a magical device in the form of a spindle to appear and disappear, creating legends that she can walk through walls and evade capture. Between one point and another is a place that she calls Across, where she can weave doors to particular places or people as more fixed points, though even here she is not entirely safe from her enemies. Eris carries the buden of being unaware of her origins and having experienced the destruction of that which was her first home, and has long lived with the belief that no-one really wants her around. Having had to survive among those with very few morals, her world view is considerably wider than Safire’s and, while they stand to be enemies, it’s Eris who takes the first steps of kindness towards the other (and the first steps in deliberately irritating and annoying her too).

I loved that we saw more of the dragons in The Sky Weaver and got to hear more about how they are being treated now that Dax and Roa’s kingdom knows the truth of them. It was lovely to see dragons and humans working together and to see more established about how the bond between a dragon and rider works. Sorrow was adorable and I particularly liked his role in the story.

Thank you, Gollancz, for the ARC!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

‘Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan—it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?’

Girls of Paper and Fire is one of my all-time favourite books and I was both desperate to read and terrified of reading Girls of Storm and Shadow, fearing I would get my heart broken by something terrible happening to Lei and Wren, and while I can’t say whether or not that came to pass without too many spoilers, what I will say is that I think I loved Girls of Storm and Shadow even more than the first book. I love books with the exploration of ethics, morality and politics that its plot allows and I enjoyed the wider view of the world (though I feel that we have much of it left to see in the third novel).

Wren and Lei’s relationship is one of quiet affection, support and an understanding of pieces of each other that have been shaped by their shared experiences in Girls of Paper and Fire. While they both make every effort to not let these experiences take hold of them when they are in public, or even with those that they trust, when they’re alone they give each other the safe space to fall apart and help put each other back together again. Both are understandably suffering from their own forms of post traumatic stress, though seem to attempt to deal with it in different ways: Wren by throwing herself ever more dangerously into her mission and Lei by first learning how to fight and defend herself so that can know she is proficient, all the while haunted by her memories of the Demon King and the assaults she has suffered at his hand, both physical and otherwise. That their trauma is not seen as a plot device to be ‘got over’ is such an important part of the narrative, both in Girls of Paper and Fire and this instalment, and I wish there were more books that handled this subject in the emotionally sensitive manner that Ngan does.

Romantic without being needlessly and overtly sexualised, their relationship is often formed of little moments of simple physical contact and embraces. There are some potentially worrying moments where Lei continues to believe that Wren is all that is good and right in the world (which is understandable, given what she knows of her at these points), her beauty and strength something that she often lingers on in thinking of her, inching her admiration a little towards towards the grateful variety of infatuation one might form for someone who has done as Wren has for her (though this is not to say that Lei was not key to securing their freedom). As the story unfolds and Wren begins to become more and more willing to make unsettling sacrifices for the ‘greater good’, experiencing Lei slowly reaching the conclusion that she actually knows very little of all that Wren is and what she is determined to do, seemingly no matter the cost, is almost painful. Though what she witnesses doesn’t ultimately shake her love for her, what she believes and thinks of Wren take a dramatic shift as she finds herself unable to reconcile the price that she and others are willing to pay – and her own unwitting part in threads that others have drawn on.

Lei’s role in Girls of Storm and Shadow is an interesting one, in that, while she is attempting to rid herself of the control of a man who has dominated, exploited and assaulted her, she is simultaneously being used by another as a figurehead and a reason for people to rebel and take up arms against the king. That she is uncomfortable with her title and isn’t quite sure what she can do about the situation she now finds herself in is most evident when she directly interacts with Wren’s father, and while she clearly wants freedom for the Papers and to rid the world of the king’s grasp, being elevated to the position of the Moonchosen and admired for what she has done seems to sit very ill with her.

There is so much I want to write about Aoki, but I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll have to settle for saying I was internally yelling for much of her appearance. I both love her and am terrified for her.

One of minor detriments to my enjoyment at the novel was primarily at its beginning, when Bo’s humour often seems rather out of place and his continuous jokes can be a little jarring and irritating. This isn’t to say that I disliked him as a character – I’m actually half-convinced that he is meant to be slightly irritating at the beginning of the novel to give room for him to become endeared to the reader, as my opinion of him had changed quite drastically and I was rather attached to him by the middle of the book.

Girls of Storm and Shadow is a beautifully written and enchanting read and is out today!

Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

‘Skein Island, since 1945 a private refuge for women, lies in turbulent waters twelve miles off the coast of Devon. Visitors are only allowed by invitation from the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. Women stay for one week, paying for their stay with a story from their past: a Declaration for the Island’s vast library.

Marianne’s invitation arrives shortly before her quiet life at the library is violently interrupted, the aftermath leaving her husband David feeling helpless. Now, just like her mother did seventeen years ago, she must discover what her story is. Secrets are buried deep on Skein Island. The monsters of Ancient Greece and the atrocities of World War II, heroes and villains with their seers and sidekicks, and the stories of a thousand lifetimes all threaten to break free.

But every story needs an ending, whatever the cost.’

Skein Island follows the journey of Marianne, who, in the wake of a violent intrusion into her life, accepts an invitation to Skein Island, curious to know just why her mother visited the island and never returned to her. Her decision to visit the island forms part of her desire to take greater control over her life, determined that she will not be viewed as to be protected or ‘rescued’ by her husband and other men, and her need for answers presents the opportunity to examine multiple facets of her past and her present.

The story’s content primarily (and I use the term loosely, for there is a great deal covered by the novel’s themes and plot threads that I couldn’t possibly hope to examine in as much detail as I’d like in a single post) addresses imbalances of power and how the sexes view each other, particularly how women are historically seen as the weaker sex, to be footnotes in the stories of men and not permitted to take charge of their own stories. There are a good deal of references to Ancient Greek literature and mythology, which I very much appreciated, especially as it serves to highlight just how much society unfortunately hasn’t left behind the ancient belief that women are to be controlled and must behave only in particular ways – and that any woman who steps outside of those boundaries is to be considered unnatural and out of control. There are repeated instances of men growing frustrated with women when they do not behave as is desired or refuse to let their partners be the ‘hero’ that they wish to be, with the male point of view ultimately finding women unreasonable for not permitting them to always respond as they wish or in ways they appear to find instinctive.

What I’m not sure is deliberate or not, but will comment on as an interpretation as if it is, is that there appears to be an ironic presentation of different stereotypes of women. To go into too much detail would give away too much of the plot, but there seem to be characters who are deliberately crafted to fit a category, such as the ‘mother’ and the ‘homewrecker’, which I think is an interesting construct in a novel exploring female identity, especially as it makes the reader think just how much of the idea of these judgements passed on women is down to a society, media (etc) that has long been controlled by men.

The magic and fantastical elements of the story are chilling and there are no punches pulled in the execution of the more disturbing features of that which forms Skein Island’s core fantasy component. Coupled with the commentary about stories of women and their role in their own narratives, it makes for a haunting read that acknowledges the frustration and suffering of women through the ages – and addresses the fact that acknowledging such does not give even the most self-aware complete freedom from all that continues to bind them.

One thing that I feel I have to mention is that I don’t believe the blurb accurately represents the novel’s content. Given the content of said blurb, I was anticipating a great deal more to do with Ancient Greece and historical struggles, and though I did, as mentioned above, greatly appreciate and enjoy the references to mythology, it wasn’t quite what I was anticipating.

Skein Island is out November 5th! Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy for review!