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Month: October 2018

Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

‘Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.’

Firstly, I have to say that I absolutely loved this book. I honestly had to resist posting about a hundred miniature hearts instead of a review, but I will try and to be more eloquent than that.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a richly constructed world where society is divided into three groups depending on overall species, with the highest being the Moon caste and the lowest being Paper, the entirely human caste that Lei belongs to. Against her will, she is removed from her home and taken to the palace of the demon king for a year to be a Paper Girl, one of eight girls (Lei an unprecedented ninth) made to become his concubines. At the palace, the girls are housed together and expected to attend both a variety of lessons and the king’s bed when he summons them. Understandably, Lei dreads this and finds herself gravitating towards one of the other girls, Wren, whom she finds intriguing.

Given where Lei’s narrative is headed, it must be said that there are scenes surrounding rape, sexual abuse and heavy violence, often all at once. This is not done gratuitously or simply for dramatic effect, particularly as the nature of said scenes has nothing to do with desire, but with power and the king’s need to exert it over others. He doesn’t have the Paper Girls taken from their homes because they are beautiful and he desires them, but to show the Paper caste that his power is absolute and that he can do as he pleases with their women. There is very little indication that he has any sexual interest in the girls other than to use them as objects to prove his own superiority and ensure that they feel helpless and completely at his mercy. He doesn’t take them to bed because he wants them, but simply because he can and believes he is entitled to, highlighting some of the most disturbing issues about male entitlement in today’s society.

Lei’s relationship with Wren is beautifully written, the focus not on their sexual relationship (though they do spend nights together), but on their slowly growing to understand each other and discovering different facets of themselves along the way. One of the many things that Girls of Paper and Fire does well is women looking out for and being supportive of each other in a world that would have them silent and divided, and this extends beyond Lei and Wren finding solace with each other. It’s not only Lei and Wren who learn from each other, the other girls finding ways to survive and examining how they feel through conversation with those in the same situation, as worrying as they sometimes find the reactions and feelings of their fellows. In this, they are primarily concerned and not judgemental, as women are so often portayed in the media. Though some of the girls are almost content in their new roles, others are very much not so, the journey of the latter presented with positive messages about reclaiming body and mind after such traumatic experiences.

Each of the Paper Girls that the reader gets to know demonstrates that there are different kinds of strength and ways to survive, themes that are all too relevant to women across the globe today prevalent in what is an immersive fantasy world written in lyrical prose. Girls of Paper and Fire is one of my top five reads of 2018 and I hope it will be so for many, many others!

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Pub date: 6th November 2018

Review: Girl Squads by Sam Maggs

Review: Girl Squads by Sam Maggs

‘A collection of true stories from around the world of diverse and powerful female friendships that changed history.

A fun and feisty tour of famous girl BFFs from history who stuck together and changed the world.

A modern girl is nothing without her squad of besties. But don’t let all the hashtags fool you: the #girlsquad goes back a long, long time. In this hilarious and heartfelt book, geek girl Sam Maggs takes you on a tour of some of history’s most famous female BFFs.

Spanning art, science, politics, activism, and even sports, these girl squads show just how essential female friendship has been throughout history and throughout the world.’

Firstly, thank you to Quirk Books for my copy of Girl Squads! It was a lovely surprise and a book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Girl Squads is a read that had me from the first page (from the very first paragraph, if I’m honest). In her introduction, Maggs effectively reaches the heart of what it is to be a woman, questioning the presentation of female friendships in the media and pointing out the glaring differences in how television and film portray them compared to the real experiences of women. That the matter of male dominance in the world of script writing (and writing in general) is so immediately addressed as what it is – a real problem and a means of control – only made me more sure that I was going to love this book.

And I did. Covered in a series of chapters, including warriors, artists and scientists (among others), Girl Squads tells the tales of important and inspiring female friendships and collaborations from across the world. Beyond the content itself and Maggs’ engaging and familiar tone, what I most appreciated was the use of historical evidence to support the stories being told, including a bibliography at the end of the book, which can be found in full on the Quirk website. This in particular helps to reinforce the idea that, though some of the stories may contain elements which seem fantastical, that we have historical accounts suggests that the women themselves truly existed, if not always necessarily how the history has been passed down to new generations. That it is most often men who have sought to twist the tales to suit their purposes and make them seem unbelievable (or to paint women in a negative light) is addressed on more than one occasion and is a reminder of the importance of the female narrative.

Girl Squads has something inspiring for all women, its range of topics such that it’s sure to contain a story will appeal, no matter the reader’s personal interests or preferred area of study. It’s a book about women working together and supporting each other in a world that still seems all too frightened of what we can achieve by doing so. With so much in the media determined to try and turn women against each other and insistent upon competition and jealousy, Girl Squads is a much needed breath of fresh air and valuable look into female achievement and what it means to look out for each other.

Review: A Time of Dread by John Gwynne

Review: A Time of Dread by John Gwynne

‘The Ben-Elim, a fierce race of warrior-angels, burst into the Banished Lands over a hundred and thirty years ago. They were in pursuit of their eternal enemy, the Kadoshim demon-horde. On that day a great battle was fought, the Ben-Elim and Kadoshim joined by allies from the races of both men and giants, and a great victory was won.

Now much of the Banished Lands is ruled by the Ben-Elim, who have made this world their home, extending their influence and power as they swallow ancient kingdoms into the protective grasp of their ever-extending borders. But peace is fragile within the realm and the Kadoshim that remain are now amassing on the edges of the empire…

Threats long in the shadows are about to strike.’

I’ve not read Gwynne’s other series in this universe, so my introduction to the world in which A Time of Dread is set was through this second series opener. There’s nothing in A Time of Dread that requires particular knowledge from the previous series (that opens with Malice and conludes with Wrath), world and races revealed by the thoughts and feelings of the characters without the inclusion of vast expository passages to ‘catch up’ the reader, and so while I was initially a little concerned that I wouldn’t always understand the happenings in the story, this was not the case at all.

Depending on a reader’s preference for action, it could be said that the pacing is a little slow, but one thing that I really love to read about is the politics between peoples and A Time of Dread certainly delivers on that. The action within each characters’ point of view is not always game-changing or set to have consequences beyond them, yet that the action impacts them and those they care about is much more engaging than constant, high stakes conflict. This is not to say that this variety of conflict doesn’t occur, but that it isn’t always the focus keeps the narrative fresh and the reader from being exhausted by constant battles.

At this point, I’ve probably already betrayed that my favourite of the point of view characters was Riv (though followed by Bleda as a close second). For me, one of the most fascinating facets of the novel was the Ben-Elim’s rule over the different clans and their manipulation of them to achieve ‘peace’ – but at what cost to the clans? Humans are raised to fight for them and to revere and respect them, something that some characters more easily identify as wrong than others, who want them to recognise their skills and gain approval. Riv in particular seems under the spell of the Ben-Elim, while Bleda remains more on the fence, trapped between worlds and primarily in need of affection and approval from sources not likely to provide it.

A Time of Dread is an excellent and absorbing work of fantasy with a cast of compelling characters. Thank you, Pan Macmillan, for my copy!

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Pub date: 6th September 2018 (Paperback)

Review: A Blade so Black by L.L. McKinney

Review: A Blade so Black by L.L. McKinney

‘The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.’

I love a good retelling and A Blade so Black is one of my favourites of recent years. After being attacked by a Nightmare from Wonderland, Alice is recruited to become a Dreamwalker and instructed in the use of magical weapons called Figment Blades and close combat. It’s her job to keep the Nightmares at bay and in check following a war that has had awful consequences for both the people of Wonderland and the human world.

What I loved most about Alice is that she reads like a real person. She may be drawn into a fantasy world and find herself with superhuman powers, but this doesn’t distance her voice from the reader or alter her behaviour to the extent that she is more powers than person. You see bits and pieces from her life, such as her love of Sailor Moon and ability to sew her own cosplay outfits, her relationships with her friends, and moments from her past that continue to impact her alongside the devastating events that impact her community, balanced alongside the time she spends in Wonderland living a different life. Wonderland is an important part of who she is, yet being a Dreamwalker does not define her absolutely and does not absorb her storyline so completely that she is less character than concept. Alice is a vibrant young woman whose dialogue is easy to ‘hear’, aiding the process of connecting with her early in the novel.

Though there is often not a huge amount of description regarding surroundings, this allows for the story to maintain a quick pace, with events driven by characters and the narrative not weighed down by pages of unnecessary detail. There are several instances of exposition, often in dialogue or as Alice performs a particular task in Wonderland, but these do not feel awkward or distracting, given as it’s just enough information to understand the mechanics of the world that is shared. These tales of Wonderland and the details, such as the use of mirrors and ‘verses’, are often what make the story light up the most and are another of the elements that had me get through the book so fast.

Twists on characters and facets of the original Alice in Wonderland story are woven into the novel in a fresh and interesting manner that makes them immediately recognisable, yet doesn’t make the narrative predictable for their appearance. It may be influenced by the original text, but the story is McKinney’s own and a thoroughly modern piece. It’s easy to get reeled in by Alice’s world (or should I say worlds) and a little jarring to have to leave it at the novel’s conclusion.

Thank you to Titan Books for the copy of A Blade so Black!

Publisher: Titan Books

Pub date: 25th September 2018

Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

‘Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong. 

When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? 

As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake. 

Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.’

The Familiars is an accomplished work of historical fiction that follows the path of Fleetwood, a seventeen year old woman in the early stages of her fourth pregnancy, and Alice, the midwife she first meets when they encounter each other in the grounds of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is desperate to produce a living child and heir for her husband, yet she soon encounters the news that she will not only not manage this, but is highly likely to not survive herself if she should try. Despite knowing very little about Alice, Fleetwood appoints her as her midwife, convinced that only her assistance will enable her to carry a child to term. However, accusations of witchcraft are claiming the lives of healers, wise-women and any believed to be behaving in a suspicious fashion, and Alice is not exactly forthcoming about the details of her life.

From the title of the novel, some may be expecting the presence of witchcraft as seen through the eyes of those perceived to be practising it. Though this is not the case, magic is nonetheless present throughout the story in the suspicions and paranoia of characters who claim that women they do not like, have acted against them or appear to have magical powers to heal are actually witches causing damage to the communities they live in. Here and there, there are hints of a more tangible magic, yet these remain subtle and without proof, down to the reader to interpret, just as for the characters in the story.

I have seen some comments that Fleetwood can be considered weak, but I really do have to disagree with this assessment of her character. Firstly, her rights, status and what she has been raised to believe are all very different in the context of the novel when compared with the modern day, and so it is rather unfair to judge her by modern standards and expectations. There is also the matter of the situation as regards her pregnancies and her age. Women were married younger and expected to be mothers sooner, yes, but the toll of so many pregnancies so young is bound to have had an impact both on her body (as addressed in the novel) and her mental state. Faced with the prospect of being unable to do what she has been raised to believe she is meant to, in terms of producing heirs, is it any wonder that she sometimes doubts her worth and capabilities and needs her husband’s reassurance? Her character development over the course of the story, both in her faith in herself and in acting against powers that would keep her quiet and subdued is a pleasure to see. That she does not merely accept her husband’s behaviour, as would be expected of many women, and takes steps to make him understand the impact of his actions is a huge risk for a woman in a time when their husbands had the ability to take everything away from them. There are moments where she is defiant in word and deed, her independence early in the novel often afforded owing only to her class. The world in which she lives does not provide her with the opportunity to act as she often attempts to, the restrictions placed on her not a personal failing.

The relationship between Fleetwood and Alice is an interesting one for many reasons, one of the most prominent being how much of a risk it is for the both of them. They appear to genuinely care for each other beyond the reason that brings them together, despite all that should keep them from doing so, and there need be no better reason for this than women looking to protect and aid each other in a time when one wrong step could mean death. Alice not only has the misfortune to be born a woman in a time when that alone is dangerous, but she is born into a class that further strips her of rights and agency. That it is a woman with only marginally greater advantages who speaks for her seems only right and further highlights the threats faced by women in a world of male power.

The Familiars is a layered and captivating read, out in February 2019. Thank you to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC!

Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre

Pub date: 7th February 2019

Review: Evenfall by Gaja J. Kos & Boris Kos

Review: Evenfall by Gaja J. Kos & Boris Kos

‘As if waking up in an unfamiliar world isn’t enough of a surprise, Ember gains a new title to her name. Savior.

Hunted by the Crescent Prince and his lethal shadows, she accepts a young Mage’s help to navigate the land of blood magic and its many illusions. But where Ada sees the good in her power, Ember discovers something else.

An icy darkness, designed to take lives, not save them.

The only thing worse than not being able to rely on her senses—or the reality she had once believed to be true—is knowing that she cannot trust her heart. Especially as it seems to draw her to the one person in whose hands she can never fall…’

This review contains spoilers.

Though Evenfall is a little slow to begin, the fact that Ember has fallen into a world where she has no understanding of where she is, why she’s there or who to trust, I feel that quicker pacing in this instance would have taken away some of that initial confusion. To have her immediately grasp the world around her and figure everything out more swiftly would be to make her decidedly less human and relatable. Ember has has her own confusion, the burden almost instantly placed upon her and the newness of both her environment and her own abilities to contend with, the reader taken on her journey with her as pieces begin to slot into place. The second half of the novel is much more quickly paced than the first, primarily because Ember is suddenly not running away and instead seems to be hurtling towards all that could save or destroy her.

What I loved most about Evenfall was its magic system – or should I say magic systems – and how there are different ways of activating distinct varieties of magic, such as the ability to create illusions or manipulate time, through processes specific to each of the worlds that exist within the story. The use of magic is further governed by the rules and laws of each society, such as it being confined to a specific gender in the world from which Ember travels. The magic that Ada wields is activated by the spilling of blood, whereas Ember can initially activate what she understands of her power by using an object of power – in her case the pendant of the necklace she wears – their different methods dictated by the worlds they come from and what they have been taught to believe.

The conflict presented in the character of Mordecai, otherwise known as the Crescent Prince, is another element of the story that I felt was one of its strongest. The exploration of whether evil has the right to be evil for a purpose, with ‘decent’ intentions for the broadest spectrum of people, is one of the moral issues considered through his character development. Does meaning to protect and defend give anyone the right to terrorise and control to ensure that that people stay safe and don’t step out of line? Can it ever be right to rule through fear? To me, Mordecai is most compelling in scenes where he attempts to explain himself and his heritage, with varying degrees of success.  Though he may have a good deal of evidence to back up his claims, I do wonder if he can have told the whole truth. Can someone with his history, no matter his intentions, be trusted at all?

Though Ember is considered to be the Saviour and The One, that she spends much of the novel afraid of herself and unable to accurately control the powers she has discovered sets her apart from many YA heroines, who all too often discover tremendous powers and can immediately and devastatingly wield them. Ember does, eventually, get to grip with some of her powers, mostly through trial and error or direct need, and though she can and does hurt and harm, her abilities have yet to make her appear all-powerful and indestructible, which is a refreshing change. By the end of the novel, she still seems somewhat off-kilter and fragile, her experiences having shaken her, which makes the cliffhanger all the more effective.

Thank you to Gaja J. Kos and Boris Kos for the ARC! I look forward to Ember and co’s future travels.

Publisher: Boris Kos

Pub date: 30th October 2018

Review: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

Review: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

‘The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.’

To say that I enjoyed Damsel isn’t to use the right word. I very much appreciated it as a work of feminist fiction and applaud it for the messages contained within, but I found that it was not an enjoyable or easy read. This does not mean that it isn’t an excellent book, as I feel that it is; indeed it would have less impact if it were not to make the reader uncomfortable. I read Damsel cover to cover in one sitting, as it agitated me so much that I had to finish it and find out how the situations in the story would be resolved.

I think that it should be said that Damsel is not what I would call a YA book, though it has been marketed as such. There are a number of sexual assaults committed against Ama over the course of the novel and a good deal of discussion of the bedroom and the rights of Emory to do as he pleases with women, discussion of such including frequent references to his genitalia. None of this is done in a particularly graphic way, but it is perhaps the matter of fact manner in which it is approached that makes it all the more disturbing. Ama’s deliberately crafted innocence and naivety, combined with the lyrical metaphors of the prose, is perhaps more evident to older readers, who may be more easily able to identify the myriad layers of meaning. For reasons of content alone, I could not, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone under sixteen.

There were elements of the novel that I loved, such as the use of the growing lynx cub and the name she’s given as an extended metaphor that is woven throughout the story.  Ama’s slow realisation of what is happening to her and gradual comprehension of the faults of the people around her is both frustrating and harrowingly highlights what manipulation in all sorts of relationships can do. I couldn’t help but appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of the tale as I was reading, despite growing anger towards the majority of its cast. The writing itself and the use of metaphors and wordplay such as the above is beautiful and often dreamlike, while simultaneously not allowing the reader to drop their guard at any given moment.

Damsel is a book that stands to haunt a reader long after reading it. A unique and memorable take on the age-old fairytale.

Thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC!

Publisher: Harper Collins

Pub date: 15th November 2018 (UK)

Review: The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

Review: The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

Junior year just got a lot more cutthroat.

This fall, six new students are joining the junior class at the elite Darkwood Academy. But they aren’t your regular over-achieving teens. They’re clones. And they’re joining the class alongside their originals.

The Similars are all anyone can talk about: Who are these clones? What are the odds that all of them would be Darkwood students? And who is the madman who broke the law against cloning to create them? Emmaline Chance couldn’t care less. Her best friend, Oliver, died over the summer and it’s all she can do to get through each day without him.

Then she comes face-to-heartbreaking-face with Levi—Oliver’s exact DNA copy and one of the Similars.

Emma wants nothing to do with the Similars, except she keeps getting pulled deeper into their clique. She can’t escape the dark truths about the clones or her prestigious school. No one can be trusted…not even the boy she is falling for with Oliver’s face.’

Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that the description of The Similars really does the book justice. I wasn’t sure about requesting it, based on the somewhat heavy emphasis on what sounded like a standard, predictable YA romance, and while the romance itself isn’t exactly much different from the stereotype, that there are more interesting and relevant ideas explored within the story make it a novel that ranks up there with my other favourites of this year so far.

There are hints of Never Let Me Go woven throughout the narrative as the story explores what is considered ‘human’ and how science and pride/arrogance can create difficulties for both creator and creation, much as in Frankenstein, which is referenced directly in The Similars. For me, the most intriguing elements of the novel are the reactions of the students and the outside world to the clones that have been created, and how in turn the clones react to being put in situations where they are dehumanised by those around them.

The novel is very well paced, with few lulls in the narrative, which makes it easy to want to continue reading. However, one of the reasons that it’s well paced is that a lot of information seems to fall into the protagonist’s lap very conveniently or with minimum effort (and often a lack of consequences) on her part. She witnesses several events and learns key information without paying any tangible price for it until the last third of the novel, which may be done to lull the reader into a false sense of security, but it also means that there are few opportunities to be worried for her. Emmaline is an easy character to care for, despite some quite nasty behaviour early in the story, but there lacks a feeling that she is ever in any real danger. This said, this doesn’t prevent the novel from being one that consistently engages interest, as it’s the discoveries made and ideas explored within, especially in terms of morality and ethics, that raise the most questions and make the reader wonder just how a character is going to react – and  to consider whether their reaction is one that they find themselves comfortable with.

Ultimately, the themes of power and responsibility, nature versus nurture, and science and society are what make The Similars an engaging and enjoyable read. It contains a varied cast of characters, many of which I’d like to see developed in greater detail in any novels that follow, and who mostly have a facet of their personality that suggests that even the worst may be redeemable – or, at the very least, that they are human.

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Pub date: 1st January 2019

I received an ARC of The Similars from Netgalley and the publisher.