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Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

‘When seventeen-year-old Minnie Sloe’s mother disappears, so does her ability to see color. How can young artist Minnie create when all she sees is black-and-white?

Middle child Minnie and her two sisters have always been able to get through anything together: growing up without fathers, living the eccentric artist lifestyle, and riding out their mother’s mental highs and lows. But when they lose their mother, Minnie wonders if she could lose everything: her family, her future, her first love… and maybe even her mind.’

How to be Luminous is a difficult read, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, for it’s a sensitively and well-written book, and I think if it were an easy read it wouldn’t have the impact that it does. That it is a novel that is not always comfortable reading means it is effective in what it means to convey, the narrative one that primarily deals with mental illness via its main protagonist and those in her life, and that it can hit a little too close on more than one occasion means that there are characters with which readers can identify and who are portrayed in a manner that encourages empathy.

One of three sisters, Minnie finds that her ability to see colour vanishes when her mother disappears, and this is only one of many things that makes her doubt whether she isn’t losing her mind as she tries to work through the grief and uncertainty that losing the only parental figure in her life brings her. Without an explanation and without closure, Minnie is left to wonder whether her mother has simply had enough and left her and her siblings to their own devices, or whether her mental illness has driven her to it – or something worse. With the loss of colour come doubts about her own mental state, and while she very clearly suffers from depression in the face of her loss, she also starts to worry that her mother’s highs and lows of what is described akin to being bi-polar is something necessary to create the works of art that she wishes to, and whether her mother’s mental state inevitably means she will suffer the same. In dealing with her grief, she becomes convinced that she must be losing her mind, for she is convinced that she sees her more than once, while also attempting to bring her back to her and seek guidance by imagining and immersing herself in memories of what they used to do. Anyone who has lost someone they care about will surely recognise and empathise with how Minnie feels, and that the stages she goes through and the coping mechanisms she tries to employ are so identifiable is one of the things that can make How to be Luminous an upsetting read for all the right reasons.

The one feature of the novel that I wasn’t sure was entirely necessary was the love triangle. At its heart, the story is about Minnie dealing with the loss of her mother and struggling to live with the building evidence that she is not going to reappear, whether because she has abandoned her or because her bi-polar has led to her taking her own life, and I found the romantic elements more of a distraction than anything. There are some lovely moments between Minnie and Felix, don’t get me wrong, and giving her someone who has experienced the same loss that she is attempting to cope with is an effective facet of the story – I just don’t feel that it being a romantic connection was entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

One of the pieces of the story’s structure that I enjoyed the most was the naming of colours that have been lost and what Minnie associates them with. These little sections are included between chapters and are beautiful in their insight and effective in bringing home some of the narrative features of the previous chapter(s).

How to be Luminous is out now from Pan Macmillan! I would like to thank the publisher for sending me a copy of this hard-hitting novel for review.

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

‘As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilisation, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archaeologist Kudshayn, she must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.’

There is so much that I enjoyed about Turning Darkness into Light, particularly the format and the use of the translations as part of the story, and, despite having not read any of the previous books set in this world, I felt right at home. This is likely in no small part due to my background in Egyptology and Classical Civilisation and I just loved the time spent considering the different aspects and possible interpretations of the text being translated, along with the footnotes, all the while having some quite haunting flashbacks to studying the third declension while learning Ancient Greek. What I appreciated most about the story were the ethical considerations surrounding the appropriation of antiquities and the implications of removing them from their culture of origin, something that the UK in particular has done to an enormous extent and still, for the most part, refuses to admit fault for damage done and the harming of context through their removal. The world may not have worked in quite the same way when this was done, but this wears thin as an excuse when artefacts are still not returned to their proper homes and to those for which they bear the most significance.

Audrey’s efforts and intentions are admirable, yet, as she gradually comes to realise, she doesn’t always do what she does with a clear understanding of exactly why. She feels the pressure of having a scholarly heritage to live up to in a time when it’s particularly difficult for women to be accepted as true scholars, and, while a gifted and hardworking woman, she is sometimes a little blind beyond a desperate need to make an impact in the circles in which her grandmother is famous and respected. This is not to say that she doesn’t have good intentions, nor does she come across as selfish, but that she is struggling to find herself and her own will within what she genuinely cares about, all too often wondering what her grandmother would do (or, rather, her impression of her grandmother would do) before considering her own course of action – something that sometimes leads her astray. I truly liked Audrey and wanted her to be successful, for though she is often a little quick to make judgements, she cares both about her work and the people around her (provided that they have shown that they too care for others).

Kudshayn is adorable and his determination to do well for his people and his family (both blood relations and those he considers to be his family) is one of the most heartfelt things in the novel. He faces discrimination from Audrey’s people, who are determined to paint him and his ancestors in a negative light and find ways of making themselves feel superior, treating him and the idea of his civilisation poorly while passing around precious artefacts from their ancient history as trophies and symbols of status. I would love to be able to say that this isn’t happening in reality, but unfortunately this kind of behaviour has yet to be extinguished from our own society. His worry for what the translation might reveal about the past and what it means to be one of his kind – let alone what the humans could use it as an excuse to do – hurts him deeply, yet he refuses to take the easier path and deny that which is unfolding before him, determined to see it through to find the truth and the value in what can be learned. He endures some utterly despicable behaviour from more than one character and still he continues on the journey he has begun, determined to do the best he can.

There’s a lot I’d like to say about the details of the work on the translation itself, but I don’t want to spoil the book and so will settle for saying that I very much enjoyed the politics and the unravelling of it. Turning Darkness into Light is out on August 20th! Thank you Titan Books for sending me a copy!

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

‘True to its name, the sleepy town of Shy in Avon-upon-Kynt is a place where nothing much happens. And for eighteen years, Emmaline Watkins has feared that her future held just that: nothing.

But when the head of the most admired fashion house in the country opens her prestigious design competition to girls from outside the stylish capital city, Emmy’s dreams seem closer than they ever have before.

As the first “country girl” to compete, Emmy knows she’ll encounter extra hurdles on her way to the top. But as she navigates the twisted world of high fashion, she starts to wonder: Will she be able to tailor herself to fit into this dark, corrupted race? And at what cost?’

A Dress for the Wicked is out this month and I absolutely loved the world in which it’s set and the characters that the reader meets along the way. It’s never made entirely clear exactly what level of technology Brittania Secunda has, only that the country in which Emmy lives is very similar to a Britain of the Victorian era, and I was glad to find that there are no vast passages of exposition to try and explain absolutely every feature of what living there is like, for it allows for a greater focus on the narrative itself, its characters, and the fashion and politics at its core. It’s an atmospheric novel in that the Fashion House and the beauty of the fabrics and clothes that are designed are beautifully described and almost tangible, keeping the concept of fashion, design and what they mean to the central characters and those who inhabit Brittania Secunda at its heart. I really enjoyed reading the designs for the different dresses created by the cast over the course of the narrative, particularly because it feels as if there is nothing in said designs that does not have a deeper meaning, either to the character designing it, the intentions of the brief given, or the character for which the outfit is being designed. The colours and fabric are described in vivid detail that makes it wonderfully easy to picture the gowns and feel the love the characters – and, by extension, the author – have for their work. The dedication to this detail is one of the things that makes A Dress for the Wicked a beautiful read and the real world rather dull by comparison!

The young women who have been entered for the Fashion House Interview are encouraged to see each other and almost everyone around them as competition, and what I found interesting about them is that yes, sometimes this is precisely what they do, but, more often, those who are presented from the outset as supposed threats are actually some of the more understanding and frustrated by their situation and circumstances. Many of them are fully aware of what the Fashion House and society expects from them, and this limits their creativity and what they truly wish to do, leaving them annoyed with how the world wants them to be portrayed and behave. Their frustration is just as evident as Emmy’s irritation with the prospect of their having an advantage and being set apart from them as a contestant to appease politics.

I would say that the only thing that I wasn’t too keen on was the romance between Emmy and Tristan. This isn’t to say that I was outright opposed to it, but given how Emmy so often thinks and feels and takes note of about Sophie, I was actually expecting the two of them to become a couple and was quite disappointed when this turned out not to be the case. However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story, especially as it was lovely to see Emmy and Sophie working together and supporting each other in a world that is set to encourage them not to – and after each of them giving in to that ingrained urge to consider each other threats and rivals. I really liked Sophie from the outset of the novel and spent quite a bit of the narrative worrying about what was happening – or going to happen – to her and was pleased to see that the choices she made were, ultimately, positive ones, when her circumstances mean that she was so full of potential to do quite the opposite.

Thank you to Harper 360 YA for sending me a copy of A Dress for the Wicked for review! I sincerely hope that we see more of this world, as it’s one that I was very reluctant to leave behind!

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

‘People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. 

Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.’

There’s a lot about We Hunt the Flame that I enjoyed, primarily in the last third of the novel, but I feel that that in itself is the main issue that I found with it: the narrative takes an awfully long time to get going anywhere. In-fact, the characters that the reader knows are going to have to meet don’t actually meet until nearly two hundred pages (out of almost five hundred) into the story. For me, this seemed far too long to wait, and while I was enjoying elements of Zafira and Nasir’s stories, that what felt as if it should be the core of the narrative didn’t take off for so long almost had me putting the book down several times. While this may have been done to ensure that the reader is equally invested in the stories of the characters while they are apart and to prevent the idea of defining who they are only as a pair (which is something I would not have liked, even if their path is a little obvious from the outset), I nevertheless found it rather frustrating and I wish I hadn’t, as it tainted my reading of the novel.

It isn’t often that I say this, but I think in this instance it was the male characters that I grew to feel for more than the women. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Zafira, but there is something about her portrayal that I couldn’t quite get comfortable with. There’s a moment when she’s said to be afraid of being a woman, and despite knowing that, contextually, her fear of being discovered to be female is perfectly valid, the phrasing of that particular line made me flinch and I’m afraid it coloured my view of the character. I know that there are numerous ways in which the line could be interpreted, but I wish it did not also imply that she’s ashamed of her gender. She has taken on a more male role, as we often see girls doing in YA fiction at the moment, and, in the circumstances, it makes perfect sense, but I was hoping for more validation of her strength as a woman and not as a woman pretending to be a man.

That I found Nasir and Altair’s roles slightly more interesting is probably to do with their stronger ties to the magical elements of the story, which I won’t go into detail about, as I don’t wish to reveal a lot of spoilers for those who won’t have read the book since its release in the US. Nasir’s behaviour has much to do with what he has become, at once unashamed and intent on his goal, while guilt-ridden and dark with regret for what he has allowed himself to do (not that he is presented with any choice). Altair is a good foil for him, his irreverent humour sometimes charming and at others completely ridiculous, and I enjoyed some of their exchanges the most (and a moment when Zafira inadvertently takes on his tones). The cast as a whole seem at their best when they are together, while Zafira and Nasir are often at their most compelling during their quieter exchanges.

We Hunt the Flame is an immersive read and one for which I particularly loved the mythology and magic’s place in the story, but the pacing is something that I feel needs stressing as something to persevere with, as a lot of its most engaging story is in the second half of the novel. In the UK, We Hunt the Flame will be on Shelves from August 8th! Thank you to My Kinda Book and Pan Macmillan for the review copy!

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

‘After a devastating scandal breaks in her elite New York City private school, Magdalena is shipped off to her family home to spend a summer recovering under the radar. Over-medicated and under-confident, she spends her days in a fog, hiking in the woods behind her grandparents’ cottage.

But then a gorgeous boy called Bo stumbles across her picnic blanket and Magdalena starts believing she might be able to move on from her past. Bo is wild and free and he gets her – it’s like he can see into her soul. Finally she’s starting to feel… something.

But there’s something dark going on in this sleepy town, and when a mutilated body is found in the woods near Bo’s forest home, it’s clear that Magdalena’s nightmare is just beginning. She’s no longer sure if she can trust anyone – even herself…’

What She Found in the Woods is a well-paced and cleverly structured read that explores a number of issues within its overarching narrative, including mental health, family ties and unhealthy friendships and relationships. It is, admittedly, not my usual kind of read, which is why I think I have a few issues with its content – particularly a lack of consequences for a broad range of actions – but the story itself is entertaining and engaging, with suspense and tension particularly well executed and exploited in the last third of the book.

Magda herself is a difficult character to get to grips with, especially because she is, from the outset and almost by her own admittance, quite an unreliable narrator. I don’t believe that it is necessary for the reader to be able to completely empathise with a character for them to be a good and interesting character, yet there are quite large stretches early on in the story where there is more material stacked against encouraging the reader to become invested in her personally. I believe this is largely by design, because not only has she been abandoned by her parents, but her grandparents only wish to see the surface and not acknowledge anything that might be remotely unpleasant, creating a distance that is echoed in her relationship with the reader, but it does mean that it takes a little longer for her story to become one that you feel involved in.

If I had to pick one feature of the story to applaud, it’s the exploration of mental health issues. Magda’s grandparents don’t want to understand or acknowledge what has happened (and is happening) to her, nor do they want anything to disturb their day to day lives, and so they self-medicate with alcohol and make sure that they take regular doses of their own medication. It’s a relatively small detail, but a recurring element of the narrative, and interesting commentary about how damaging such behaviour can be. Magda herself is initially over-medicated to the point where she cannot feel anything and is afraid to tell people that she’s taking medication because of the social stigma of being seen to need assistance in regulating her mental state. This said, there is a point where she stops taking her pills in a way that is not medically sound and I have to say that I doubt whether this particular facet of the story is one that is particularly helpful in its representation and could actually be dangerous. Solely speaking in terms of the story, it has to happen for it to work, but the way in which it’s done feels a little careless and is something that jolted me out of the book.

On the whole, What She Found in the Woods is a skilfully executed story with a good look at the darker side of human nature and what lurks beneath the surface of what may seem idyllic and perfect. It’s out today from Pan Macmillan! Thank you to My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

‘Eighteen months ago, 17-year-old Rose and 13-year-old Rudder escaped a strict religious sect with their mum. They are still trying to make sense of the world outside – no more rules about clothes and books, films and music, no more technology bans. But also no more friendship with the people they’ve known all their lives, no community and no certainty. It doesn’t help that their mum has to work all hours to pay rent on their cramped, smelly, one-bed flat above a kebab shop in Hackney. 

While Rudder gorges on once-taboo Harry Potters and dances to Simon and Garfunkel and show tunes, Rose swaps the ankle skirts and uncut hair of the Woodford Pilgrims for Japanese-cute fairy dress and her new boyfriend, Kye. Kye, who she wants with all her being. But there’s loads of scary stuff about their new life that Rose and Rudder have no idea how to handle – it’s normal for girls to let their boyfriends take naked pictures of them, right? 

When Rudder accidentally sets a devastating chain of events into action, Rose must decide whether to sacrifice everything and go back to the life she hates, in order to save the people she loves.’

There are many things about Rose, Interrupted that should be praised, and so many elements of the story that I would love to discuss that I’m going to contain myself to only a few, for fear of this review running rather too long! Needless to say, I enjoyed this novel and more than once have considered its use in the classroom. It’s a story about learning who you are and who you want to be, while different worlds try to pull you in different directions and tell you everything, from what you should wear to how you should behave, and trying to cope with all the different messages people and societies endeavour to have you listen to.

Rose has spent her childhood as part of a religious group who call themselves Pilgrims and seek to separate themselves from the rest of society, to the extent that they don’t send their children to state schools, but take control of their curriculum by educating them within the organisation, and treat women as inferior to the men who control everything. She has experienced the outside world here and there, from briefly attending a normal school and playing with toys that her mother has smuggled in, but she finds the outside world a bigger shock than she realises and spends much of the novel looking for someone or somewhere to provide her with the structure she’s lived with and rules that she’s followed, while acknowledging that the Pilgrim life is not an acceptable one and trying to forge her own identity by choosing what to follow now. It seems that Rose is intent on going against everything the Pilgrims believe in, including acquiring a boyfriend and dressing as wildly differently from them as possible by adopting the fairy kei (the wearing of cute pastels and neons) style, yet she doesn’t entirely know why, beyond rebellion, she is doing these things, leading her to eventually submit to her boyfriend’s determined efforts to photograph her while she’s in a state of undress, for fear of losing him.

Rose is a highly sympathetic character, her loyalties pulled in a lot of different directions, and one of the things I loved most about her was her devotion to her little brother, Rudder. While she often finds his behaviour frustrating (particularly because he wants to go back to the Pilgrims), she spends much of the novel protecting him and trying to do what she believes is best for him. When she makes mistakes, she tries to put them right while still learning how the world around her works, with very little to guide her and suggest what the best course of action will be. She is as lost as he is, if in different worlds, Rose focused on the newness of the world while Rudder seeks refuge in the world of Harry Potter.

One of the things I appreciated most about the novel is how it handles safeguarding and the laws surrounding the sharing of sensitive (inappropriate) material such as that which Rudder receives, in that it isn’t only a matter of legality if the material is shared, but in receiving in and storing it. Rudder shares the material he does because he is desperate for help and needs support, and despite there being obvious sympathy for his unenviable situation, the consequences of his inadvertent actions are not shied away from. It is my hope that young people who read Rose, Interrupted and who may not be fully aware of the specifics of the legal system’s required response to such material will become better informed about it. This said, I’m not sure that the teaching staff’s reaction in attempting to ensure that Rudder has a parent/guardian informed and a safe place to go is carried out in as in-depth and conscientious a manner as it should be, given what they know of his family history, but this is an element that has to fail to a certain degree for the story to work, and so not a comment about the narrative, but what being in the profession had me feeling.

Rose, Interrupted is an excellent read full of sympathetic characters (not always the ones expected) and a story that addresses a wide range of issues sensitively and with elegant writing. You can find it on shelves on July 25th! Thank you to Team BKMRK for the proof copy!

Blog Tour: The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

Blog Tour: The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

‘Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species–formerly extinct–roam free.

Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.

But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty–and what it truly means to be human.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for the newly-released YA sci-fi/thriller The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg! Read on for an extract from the book and a review of what is one of my favourite reads of the year!

1

THE DECEMBER OF THE LESSER CHAMELEON
ONE HOUR AFTER THE MURDER

The room where they at last found him was so cold they wondered at first if he had frozen to death. Face as white as snow, skin as cold as frost, lips as blue as ice. His expression seemed, to the police, perfectly peaceful. As if he had passed away in the middle of a very lovely dream.
Except for the blood.
Blood always tells its own story.

2

POST-TRIAL INTERVIEW
[00:01:03–00:02:54]

DR. FOSTER: Are you comfortable?
ANA: My wrist hurts.
DR. FOSTER: Security felt the cuff was necessary. I hope you can understand.
ANA: [Silence.]
DR. FOSTER: Do you need anything before we begin?
ANA: Can I have some water?
DR. FOSTER: Certainly. [Into microphone.] Can I get a glass of H2O in here, please? Six ounces, no more. Thank you. [To Ana.] That’ll just be a minute.
ANA: Thank you.
DR. FOSTER: Of course. It’s the least we can do.
ANA: That’s true.
DR. FOSTER: It’s been a long time since our last interview.
ANA: Four hundred and eighty-one days.
DR. FOSTER: How are you feeling?
ANA: Like this interview should be over.
DR. FOSTER: One last time, Ana. Then I promise, we’ll let you rest.
ANA: I thought I was done answering questions.
DR. FOSTER: We still need your help.
ANA: Why should I help you? After everything you’ve done?
DR. FOSTER: Because it’s the right thing to do.
ANA: Don’t you mean, because I don’t have a choice?
DR. FOSTER: How would you like to see your sisters? They’ve missed you. Maybe after we finish here I could arrange a visit. Kaia. Zara. Or maybe Zel? Would you like that?
ANA: [Quietly.] What if I want to see Nia? What about Eve?
DR. FOSTER: [Silence.] Ana, you know that’s not possible.
ANA: Why don’t you just ask me whatever it is you want to ask me? I’m not in the mood for your games.
DR. FOSTER: My games?
ANA: You’re smirking. What’s so funny?
DR. FOSTER: I’ll tell you in a minute. But first, there’s one thing I still haven’t figured out.
ANA: I’m listening.
DR. FOSTER: What did you do with the body, Ana?

The Kingdom is a particularly clever novel not just in its structure and exploitation of different formats, but in its use of language and the connotations and foreshadowing that it sets up. Ana is a Fantasist, a half-human, half-android princess figure whose job it is to enhance the experience of visitors to The Kingdom, the theme park that she and her Fantasist ‘sisters’ have been created for. For Ana and her sisters, The Kingdom is their entire world and they know next to nothing about the world beyond the ‘gate’ – only that it is a terrible place and they must be grateful that their creators love them and keep them safe by regulating almost every moment of their existence. For the reader, there are early warning signs that Ana’s life and The Kingdom are not what they seem, from the Fantasists being restrained at night, to their sharing of knowledge of spots where their network signals drop and they can spend moments un-monitored, and while Ana seems particularly quick to understand the depth of some pieces of her life, there are a great many that it takes her time to comprehend the full meaning of.

As well as the Fantasists, The Kingdom is also home to other half-biological, half-technological creations that are, by turn, considered to be real, living creatures when it comes to entertainment, yet not so when it comes to efficiency or any failures. It is claimed that they cannot feel pain, but they exhibit the ability to both feel physical and emotional hurts among other ‘malfunctions’ that begin to make Ana wonder about the parallels between her existence and theirs, especially in seeing that her empathy towards them is not matched by others. The treatment of the Fantasists and The Kingdom’s other creations is an often uncomfortable look at what we consider to be fully ‘alive’ or human and the excuses that society often offers up as a reason to behave in ways that in no way demonstrate the better side of humanity. That we are more and more becoming used to having what we wish available as we want it, when we want it – something the true cost of which is something we seem to rarely like to consider – is another aspect of our lives highlighted by the behaviour of the visitors and creators of The Kingdom.

One of the most haunting elements of the narrative that has stuck with me is the behaviour of Kaia, one of Anna’s sisters and said to be one of the older Fantasist models, which invites others to suggest that her “hardware is defective” and that she is inferior to the rest of them, for she primarily relies upon the Kingdom script and often speaks in platitudes and pretty clichés. However, there are many moments when Kaia demonstrates more awareness of the reality of her surroundings that the rest of the Fantasists, particularly early in the novel during an incident in which she steps in to protect Ana and reveals a much darker side to what she and some of the other Fantasists may be having to endure. That Kaia speaks in pretty sayings becomes more disturbing as the story progresses, her reliance on them seeming to be more and more a defence mechanism against what she has endured and cannot protest or fight against. Kaia is by no means the only one of the Fantasists who suffers through the darker underworld of their existence, as each of them seem to hold fragments of understanding – and, in Nia’s case, much more than that – but it takes their learning to ask questions of and actually trust each other beyond what they are told they must feel for their sisters to begin to identify the awful reality of it.

The Kingdom is a very well-paced and both thrilling and immersive read, and there is so much more I would like to talk about, particularly of its feminist elements and Nia and Eve’s stories, but having enjoyed the book so much myself, I don’t want to spoil these threads of the story for anyone! The Kingdom was released in the UK on July 11th from Pan Macmillan! I’d like to thank the publisher for inviting me to be part of this blog tour and for sending me an ARC of the novel for review.

Review: Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

Review: Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

‘Brody Fair has had enough of real life. Enough of the bullies on his block, of being second best to his genius brother, and of not fitting in at school or at home. Then one day he meets Nico. Colourful, confident and flamboyant, he promises to take Brody to Everland, a diverse magical place. A place where he can be himself, where there are no rules, time doesn’t pass, and the party never ends. The only catch? It’s a place so good, you could lose yourself and forget what’s real.’

Last Bus to Everland is a beautiful book that I read in a matter of hours because I just didn’t want to put it down. The story follows Brody, who is feeling increasingly out of place and overlooked, suffering from bullying at the hands of his schoolmates, who mock him primarily because of his perceived sexual orientation, while he believes his parents are much more invested in the life and future of his Oxbridge-material older brother. When he meets Nico, who appears to be everything that he wants to be, he learns of a magical place called Everland, which he can visit and be free of the constraints of the world for supposedly as long as he wishes, for time doesn’t pass in Everland in the same manner as in the real world.

Each of the characters in the story is struggling with the perception of others and the views of society, from Brody himself and those who visit Everland as an escape from the world they know, to his father, who suffers from agoraphobia and finds himself at the mercy of a system that all too frequently brands ‘invisible’ illnesses as not illnesses at all. Brody seeks somewhere that he can belong and be free of the expectations and pressures of the world around him; a world that is intent on making him feel that his particular differences are not ones that will be accepted, and Everland offers him the opportunity to belong and be who he wishes to be with what are, initially, few consequences – until Everland becomes so much more appealing than reality that it begins to take over his life. And the thing is, it isn’t as if the reader can entirely blame Brody for being so enthralled by Everland, for wouldn’t we all love a place where we can unashamedly be ourselves and do as we please without the judgement of others?

One of the core components of the narrative is our perception of those around us and what we might miss or simply don’t know about those we spend our day to day lives with. I don’t want to get into specific spoilers, but there are several instances in the story where characters are so wrapped up in their own hurts that they don’t notice those of the people around them – and this is not to make their hurting any less significant, but a reminder that we should take the time to support each other and take into account what we may never see of the lives of the people we spend time with every day. Ultimately, what one person might believe to be a small and insignificant matter may be unbearable for the person it impacts. Words that seem harmless or ‘banter’ (I have grown to hate that word, for it should never be used to explain away hurtful jokes at someone’s expense) may be far more hurtful than ever thought.

Last Bus to Everland is a thought-provoking and wonderfully diverse read with a fantastic range of representation. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and would like to thank My Kinda Book and Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Review: Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

The Kaiser murdered Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen, when Theo was only six. He took Theo’s country and kept her prisoner, crowning her Ash Princess–a pet to toy with and humiliate for ten long years. That era has ended. The Kaiser thought his prisoner weak and defenseless. He didn’t realize that a sharp mind is the deadliest weapon.

Theo no longer wears a crown of ashes. She has taken back her rightful title, and a hostage–Prinz Soren. But her people remain enslaved under the Kaiser’s rule, and now she is thousands of miles away from them and her throne.

To get them back, she will need an army. Only, securing an army means she must trust her aunt, the dreaded pirate Dragonsbane. And according to Dragonsbane, an army can only be produced if Theo takes a husband. Something an Astrean Queen has never done.

Theo knows that freedom comes at a price, but she is determined to find a way to save her country without losing herself.’

Theodosia is my favourite protagonist in a long time, and it isn’t solely because she breaks the mould for what a YA female lead is all too often presented as, but because she is wonderfully human. She is a girl who tries to do the best she can with very few options available to her, while all the while she has ‘advice’ being offered to her from multiple sources, none of which she can absolutely trust – and I include her own counsel in those that she is fully aware she cannot rely upon completely to be objective. She is not perfect and all-powerful; she is intelligent and scarred and brave enough to do what she perceives must be done, even if it means further weight on her conscience and more reasons for her to doubt whether she is a good person. Theodosia does not wield swords and endless magic without consequence – in-fact, no-one in Lady Smoke does. And that’s something that makes the book so readable. The characters are human and hurting and they make mistakes because they are not above giving in to the darker spectrum of emotion, and I feel it must be remembered that the vast majority, if not all, of the characters the readers spends the most time with in Lady Smoke, have led lives that have not given them the opportunity to be happy or innocent or unguarded in their interactions with others. Theodosia has grown up in a world that wanted to demean and destroy her in any way it could, and the events of Lady Smoke do not forget that, the impact of abuse at the hands of her oppressors handled sensitively and not cast aside for the sake of the bigger picture.

One of the things I loved about this book was the acknowledgement that there are a good many different cultures and peoples involved and working together (or not) and it means that not every character is going to understand another’s point of view, even if they’re on the same side. They don’t always speak the same language – literally – and that is something that seems sidestepped an awful lot in fantasy/YA books in general. It was refreshing to see communication difficulties and characters struggling and wanting to learn about other cultures, from language to beliefs, and there being moments of disconnect where they simply cannot understand what is going on around them. All too often, characters in fantasy novels meet and immediately understand everything and anything about each other and can communicate flawlessly, despite being from backgrounds and kingdoms that are presently as vastly different. That it’s said more than once that a variety of characters don’t want to speak Kalovaxian because it’s the language that has been used to help strip them of their identity and humanity is something that just got me every time. There is so much more than the main narrative to unpack in Lady Smoke and I really do feel that it should be applauded for its presentation of the impact of war and conflict and oppression. Exploration of morals, ethics, politics and cultures are some of my favourite things to read in YA fiction and something that Lady Smoke does well, leaving action sequences for when they are necessary and not gratuitously inserted for the purpose of blood spilling.

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed Lady Smoke (I finished it within 24 hours of picking it up) and look forward to reading the last instalment of the trilogy.

I received an e-ARC of Lady Smoke from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

Review: The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

‘No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.

Girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.

Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for their chance to grab one of the girls in order to make their fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.’

I really enjoyed The Grace Year and applaud the many connotations of its narrative and the metaphors contained within. In a world of male oppression, young women are believed to grow into a magic that grants them the ability to bewitch men and endanger society, and so they are sent away into the wild, supposedly to rid themselves of this magic so that they can become proper, obedient wives. However, the reality of what the girls are led to believe about themselves and the ‘necessity’ of the male enforced grace year is far from the truth – at least to the women who have endured and survived it, the men of the village conditioned by other men to maintain its tradition and their hold over the women in their lives.

One of the things that struck me most about The Grace Year is how it handles the matter of how society pits women against women from an early age. Ours is not a world in which women are encouraged to support each other, particularly with the media portraying women as enemies, rivals and threats to each other instead of exploring the friendships and sisterhood that it should be taking the time to present as a healthier message for young women. The girls of The Grace Year are brought up to believe other women are rivals for their role as the perfect wife and mother of many sons, a role only a few of them will be claimed to fulfil, the rest sent to work if they survive the grace year. They have no control over their futures, for the men arrange the marriages among themselves as if the girls are no more than animals, and have final say on who is to become a wife, leading this uncertainty to only heighten the competitive nature that takes hold of many. An element that I found particularly heartbreaking is the threat held over the girls leaving for the grace year, in that, if they do not return or their bodies are not retrieved (and worse) and identified, their little sister(s) are banished from the village, one of the only secure female bonds many might have exploited to force them into participation. There are hints, here and there, of an understanding and a bond between those who have survived, and I don’t want to reveal any specific spoilers, so I’ll settle for saying that these are some of the moments that I loved the most.

I’m more than a little dubious about the need for a lead female character to find a man and fall in love by a novel’s conclusion, yet its significant impact on the narrative in this case is one that meant that, while I wasn’t too sold on the relationship itself, I found I wasn’t entirely opposed to it, despite some concerns about Tierney’s age (something that only makes the lives of all the women in the village more harrowing). The matter of the age of the girls and the events that unfold is a deliberately unsettling construction, in that they are set to be wives before they are truly women, their identities and choices stolen from them before they have a chance to discover who they really are, and in this instance and this dystopian setting it is far from the most disturbing element of society.

I have to say that, despite all the positive messages about the need for feminism and why women should aim not to embrace society’s suggestion that they are each other’s enemies – in-fact the myriad of representations of women and explorations of sisterhood and friendship – I was a little disappointed to discover that the novel closes with lines about a man and not a focus on the more beautiful and haunting elements of the story. However, The Grace Year is a fantastic read and one I highly recommend picking up a copy of when it’s released on September 17th!

I received an e-ARC of The Grace Year from Netgalley and the publisher. Thank you!