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Month: July 2020

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

‘Two identical girls, one a princess, the other a rebel. Who will rule the empire?

Amani must make a devastating choice between revolution and family in this sequel to the instant Sunday Times bestseller Mirage.

After being swept up into the brutal Vathek court, Amani, the ordinary girl forced to serve as the half-Vathek princess’s body double, has been forced into complete isolation. The cruel but complex princess, Maram, with whom Amani had cultivated a tenuous friendship, discovered Amani’s connection to the rebellion and has forced her into silence, and if Amani crosses Maram once more, her identity – and her betrayal – will be revealed to everyone in the court.

Amani is desperate to continue helping the rebellion, to fight for her people’s freedom. But she must make a devastating decision: will she step aside, and watch her people suffer, or continue to aid them, and put herself and her family in mortal danger? And whatever she chooses, can she bear to remain separated, forever, from Maram’s fiancé, Idris?’

I absolutely loved Mirage (it’s remained one of my favourite reads since its release) and was a little worried when the date for Court of Lions kept being pushed back, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this sequel perhaps even more than the first instalment. I love reading about politics and court intrigue, which is what Court of Lions primarily focuses on, and I very much enjoyed reading about the different families and their histories – and how their pasts and loyalties could impact the future that seems so out of reach at the start of the novel.

I’m glad that the relationship between Amani and Maram remains central to the story and that there isn’t a huge span of the book where they don’t see each other or have any interaction. There are stretches of the novel where they don’t have a great many encounters, but what encounters they do have are significant, with consequences for them both or indications of character history or progress. Their journey doesn’t centre heavily around the imbalance of power between them, as the end of Mirage might have suggested, but how far they trust each other with their hopes and fears. Amani swiftly emerges as seemingly the stronger of the two, largely out of a desire to protect and be faithful to Maram, for she is the only one who has seen the struggles that she is experiencing and appears to understand that she is finally growing into herself and becoming more than the Vath would have her be. Though Maram is often inconsiderate in what she orders Amani to do (most ‘orders’ start this way and soon become requests) and can seem manipulative, she doesn’t have all of the information available that Amani does, nor does she understand what it is to have friends or family that she can trust with anything of her true self, and Amani has already been less than truthful to her before. They are often at their best when working together, and Maram ultimately wants Amani’s friendship and to forge relationships, in this instance and others, no matter how she struggles.

The majority of Maram’s story in Court of Lions centres around her trying to make peace with the two halves of her heritage: primarily, what her father wants her to be (and whether she has any desire to even attempt to please him any more) and her mother’s legacy. I loved what we get to see of Maram taking steps to learn about her mother’s people and the culture that her father has deliberately kept her disconnected and distanced from in her role as his heir, determined that she is his child, and therefore only one of the Vath, and not Kushaila at all. In the raising of her, he and Nadine have attempted to rewrite her own history and excluded her from learning all that her mother would have taught her and what Kushaila women know how to do, including leaving her struggling with the language barrier that bars her from experiencing literature and poetry in its original form, distancing her from her cultural birthright and what plays an integral role for other Kushaila. While her marriage and pressure of being her father’s heir threatens to force her into roles she doesn’t want, it’s the realisation that there are actually things in life that she wants for herself that begins to encourage her to explore her roots and feel that it’s her mother’s line she ought to honour and not her vicious father’s. This slow acknowledgement of herself as a person and not simply a heir to be used means that she does step back from the true political machinations going on in her name, making it look somewhat like Amani is the one doing all the work, but without Maram’s making this progress in terms of having her own thoughts, feelings and desires, there would be no potential leader with an investment in her people to rally behind.

I find that I’m not usually a huge fan of romances in YA fiction, but I found that both of the love stories in Court of Lions were compelling (Idris and Amani’s relationship in Mirage perhaps having been a little bit too along the lines on insta-love), and I especially liked Maram’s and how the time shifts in the first half of the novel are used to shed light on her behaviour in the present day.

Court of Lions is out on August 6th, from Hodder & Stoughton. Thank you to the publisher for the digital ARC!

I received an E-ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

‘There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away from everyone, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming . . . human or demon. Princess or monster.’

I did enjoy Girl, Serpent, Thorn, but I felt that, much as with the author’s previous work, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, around the 50% mark is where the story starts to get a little muddled. In terms of pacing and structure, it almost feels as if acts one, two and the majority of three are in the first half of the novel, leaving the second half of the third act to take up the rest of the story. However, this is only my opinion and may well not be an observation that has impacted other people’s reading. The writing itself is beautiful and I very much like the author’s style, particularly during moments of stillness and when characters’ emotions are running high.

Soraya is an engaging character for much of the first half of the book, her story and her need to uncover the truth about why she is how she is and what led to her being so interesting in its own right, but when one of her romantic interests (Azad) is introduced is when she begins to read as much younger and less capable than she is initially presented as. Though she has been without company for much of her life and feels isolated and alone, that she would so easily be drawn in by someone who flatters her so obviously doesn’t quite feel in keeping with what the reader has learnt about her. However, that she has been starved of human contact may well mean that she is not particularly well-versed in encountering deception, as is suggested by her behaviour throughout the story when faced with those who have failed to tell her the complete truth, or have chosen an edited version of it, believed to be for her benefit. Though both of her entanglements with her romantic interests involve manipulation, I was pleased to see that the other feels more based around a connection, affection, growing loyalty and a desire to see Soraya become who she could be so as to embrace all that she is, not simply to become cruel and powerful because she has the potential to be so.

Whether Soraya will embrace being ‘evil’ or try to atone for what she has done (I hesitate to call her actions a mistake, given what information she has available at the time and how she has experienced the world so far) is perhaps what takes up a good deal of the plot, yet is not quite as compelling as what I hope is the main message of the narrative (I won’t go into detail here, as I don’t want to spoil the ending). Soraya is a strong character – in that sense that her journey is compelling, not the ‘strong female character’ trope – who I would have gladly read much more about. Maybe the story would have worked better in terms of pacing and time for additional detail as a series?

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is certainly a well-written book, with a world and characters that I hope we get to see again in some form, despite it being a stand-alone.

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

‘On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.  

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.’

Bookish and the Beast is the third in the Once Upon a Con series, that takes fairytales and introduces them to a modern setting, focusing on the world of fandom, conventions and the media. It’s one of my all-time favourite series, primarily because Poston writes about fandom in a way that I’ve seen no other author authentically achieve when portraying characters who have a love of a particular TV show, game, movie, book, etc, showing a real affection and depth of understanding about what fandom brings to the lives of those involved in it. There is no subtle mockery or suggestion that the reader ought to think that what Rosie (or any of the other characters in the books) feels about Starfield is odd or not as fulfilling as anything else people choose to take part in for fun. Poston writes about friendship and fandom bringing people together and giving them creative outlets, which, in my experience, is what it’s all about. I know that one of the first things I said to one of my very best friends (Hi, Laura!) was a comment about the sci-fi show Farscape way back more years than I think either of would care to admit.

Bookish and the Beast is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the point of view of Rosie, a fan of Starfield, and Vance, who turns out to be playing ‘the bad guy’ in the movie adaptations of the Starfield Universe. After having damaged a book from a collection that doesn’t belong to her, Rosie agrees to make amends by cataloguing and arranging the library from which it came, leaving her often in the company of a taciturn and irritable Vance, who is trying to avoid the public eye and adding another scandal to his unfortunate list of incidents and poor decisions. Over the course of sorting out the library, which Vance reluctantly begins to assist with (though far less reluctantly before long), the two begin to consider each other and their own behaviour and decisions in a different light, and begin to bond over the Starfield books that Rosie adores and are part of the universe that Vance is inhabiting in his role as Ambrose Sond.

As seen previously, particularly in The Princess and the Fangirl, the story contains commentary on clichés within literature and media, and the relationship between creators, their works and their fans. Bookish and the Beast looks at redemption arcs in particular, bad and ‘evil’, and how the portrayal of true love and destiny could use some more complexity and the subverting of expectations. It also contains an excellent range of representation, handles dealing with grief in a sensitive manner, and has relationships written with real warmth and an ease of affection that makes the characters a joy to read about. As with the other Once Upon a Con books, this was another that I didn’t want to end, and I hope this isn’t the last we see set in this universe.

Though each of the books in the series follows a different set of characters in the spotlight, what I love about each new instalment is that we get to hear about the characters from previous novels and encounter those the reader has heard about or has had perhaps a more minor role in a different way. For example, in Bookish and the Beast, the reader learns what is happening between Darien and Elle and what is impacting their relationship, and Imogen and others from The Princess and the Fangirl also get some screen time and have a hand in how events play out. Each of the universes (for is the series not a story about a story, about a story?) is connected nicely and there is an excellent sense of continuity, both in the ‘real’ world and the imagined series, the making and the fandom of which brings the characters together.

Bookish and the Beast is out on August 4th and is the perfect variety of warm-hearted escapism that we could all do with right now. I would recommend picking up the whole series, but each book can be read as a standalone story and doesn’t rely heavily on prior knowledge about particular characters. Thank you, Quirk Books, for sending me an ARC!

Review: Glorious Day by Skye Kilaen

Review: Glorious Day by Skye Kilaen

‘The bodyguard is a traitor. The princess is her one true love. And the revolution is almost here.

Elsenna Hazen left spaceport security and ended up a royal bodyguard. She should have known better than to fall in love with a princess.

It’s been two years since one ill-advised kiss in the garden pulled them apart. With uprisings in the streets, the nervous princess transfers Elsenna back into her service. Her Highness has no idea Elsenna is leaking data to the revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the princess’s oppressive father.

Now Elsenna wakes up each day wondering what will happen first: her own execution, or that of the woman she could never stop loving. When rebel attacks escalate and the king plans retaliation, Elsenna discovers that the fights for her love and her life are one and the same.’

I really enjoyed Glorious Day and would happily have read much more about the characters, though the structure and pacing of the novella are good and construct a clear universe, politics and relationships over the course of its pages. One of the things I found most interesting was how the princess has tried to learn how to navigate the politics in a world that only wants her to hear one version of events and to support her father’s regime without question, and while she demonstrates quick understanding of how she needs to respond to what she hears and has a plan of how to proceed, her naivety regarding what might follow after is an effective contrast, demonstrating the extent of what has been kept from her.

Elsenna’s response to what happens to her is portrayed sensitively and realistically, particularly in the sense that it isn’t brushed over on the way to everything simply going back to normal. She struggles with the choices she has made and the impact she has had on people’s lives, and while there are things she wants to survive for, she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging and believing that she doesn’t necessarily deserve it in the eyes of others, and doesn’t look for loopholes so that she might be judged differently. I’ve read many stories with situations of a similar nature, in which someone with a connection to a powerful figure is inevitably pardoned or forgiven (or rewarded), and it was good to see that Glorious Day didn’t follow this trope and instead lets us see Elsenna work through learning to live with her decisions and what her life has become on her own terms, without it being swept out of sight.

I especially loved the commentary about the name of the princess and where the diminutive that the reader eventually learns comes from. All in all, the novella is a beautiful glimpse of another world and an unflinching look at the mental and physical impact of trauma, through not only Elsenna, but the princess and others in the cast of characters. I’ve deliberately avoided using the name(s) of the princess in this review, both because finding out what Elsenna calls her was one of my favourite parts, and an avoidance of using her true name is a feature of the narrative.

Glorious Day is out on August 3rd from NineStar Press!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.