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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!

Review: Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Review: Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

‘Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung has a secret–she’s a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour the energy of men in order to survive. Because so few believe in the old tales anymore, and with so many evil men no one will miss, the modern city of Seoul is the perfect place to hide and hunt.

But after feeding one full moon, Miyoung crosses paths with Jihoon, a human boy, being attacked by a goblin deep in the forest. Against her better judgment, she violates the rules of survival to rescue the boy, losing her fox bead–her gumiho soul–in the process.

Jihoon knows Miyoung is more than just a beautiful girl–he saw her nine tails the night she saved his life. His grandmother used to tell him stories of the gumiho, of their power and the danger they pose to men. He’s drawn to her anyway. When he finds her fox bead, he does not realize he holds her life in his hands.

With murderous forces lurking in the background, Miyoung and Jihoon develop a tenuous friendship that blossoms into something more. But when a young shaman tries to reunite Miyoung with her bead, the consequences are disastrous and reignite a generations-old feud… forcing Miyoung to choose between her immortal life and Jihoon’s.’

Wicked Fox is a hugely enjoyable read and one of my favourites of the year so far. I used to watch a lot of K Dramas and probably will return to watching them soon, as there are many elements of Wicked Fox that mirror elements found in them (Miyoung herself actually watches K Dramas as a method of coping with a lack of affectionate human interaction). It’s a well-paced read that allows for both development of the supernatural and mythological elements within the story while spending quality time with the characters during ‘downtime’ in a manner that forms a well-rounded cast that the reader quickly and easily begins to care for and becoming invested in the futures of.

Miyoung is a girl trapped between worlds, unable to exist fully in the human world as a ‘normal’ girl and unwilling to fully embrace her gumiho side and live as others of the same nature do. Her mother offers her very little guidance in how she might navigate either world, determined to protect her at the cost of all else, including showing her the affection that Miyoung quietly craves, leading her to believe that she will never be good enough for her mother to love and be proud of. In many ways, Miyoung tries to emulate her mother, creating distance between herself and others so as to better survive and ultimately protect them, leaving her ill-equipped to respond to more friendly interaction that falls outside of the norm that she has lived with her entire life. She has a keen sense of what she believes is right and wrong, which leads her to reject some of the needs of her gumiho side, and also means she is more than willing to stand up for those she believes are being treated unjustly (I loved a particular interaction with Changwan in this vein), except, in most instances, herself, for fear of what she might do. It’s primarily through her interaction with Jihoon and his halmeoni (grandmother) that she begins to experience and understand all that she’s missed from her human half, to the extent that it both highlights to her all that she lacks to a distressing extent and makes her fearful of it going away. Miyoung has many of the necessary aspects to become the typical ‘all powerful’ YA heroine, and that she doesn’t is a refreshing change, the focus more on her learning to embrace her human side than a story of her developing her powers. To my mind, Miyoung certainly is a heroine and I adore her story arc, and I was pleased to discover that it was not one of her eventually exploiting her more magical gifts.

I have a particular love for stories that include legends and mythology, and one of the structural features of the narrative that I enjoyed is the flashbacks to the origins of the gumiho (and one gumiho in particular) that gradually become more and more clearly relevant to the main narrative. The magic and mythological elements of the story don’t seem out of step with the contemporary setting, perhaps mostly because they serve as an addition to the story while also being at its heart, and the narrative’s focus seems firstly to be on character interaction and not the magical world. The contemporary and magical elements fit neatly into the same world, each enhancing the other and lending aspects that might not be seen if the novel were to be purely of the fantasy genre.

Wicked Fox is out on June 25th from Penguin Teen!

Blog Tour: The Switch Up by Katy Cannon

Blog Tour: The Switch Up by Katy Cannon

Today is the final stop on the blog tour for the brilliant summer read The Switch Up by Katy Cannon! Read on for a synopsis and a fun game to help you see which of the main protagonists you are more like: Alice or Willa!

WILLA

Drama queen

Fashion guru

Spontaneous

Looks like Alice

ALICE

Bookworm

Allergic to fashion

Planner

Looks like Willa

LAX Departure Lounge. Two girls board the same flight to London as complete strangers. When the plane touches down, it’s the beginning of the craziest plan ever. Can Willa and Alice really swap lives for the summer?

Things are going to get complicated…

Alice and Willa may look very similar, but they are completely different in their attitudes to life and what they enjoy most. You can use the flowchart below to plan your dream holiday and follow a path to see which of them you are more like! Though they may be not so similar in many respects, they share the same good heart!

The Switch Up is a delightful read full of characters that are easy to love and journeys to found family and self-realisations. Alice and Willa’s paths may take them to very different locations, but each of their stories is just as significant as the other, as the two endeavour to make new discoveries about themselves through inhabiting each other’s lives, take steps towards dreams and the future, and expand their worlds. Family is what remains at the story’s core, and not only for Alice and Willa, but for others, such as Luca, one of the friends Alice makes during her stay in Italy. The impact of his fractured family life upon his attitude towards attachment to others is something that has stayed with me long after finishing the novel. The Switch Up is a fun and incredibly enjoyable read, seemingly lighthearted, yet it doesn’t shy away from addressing the important subjects, such as loss and separation. I loved it from start to finish and highly recommend picking up a copy!

Thank you to Stripes Books and Katy Cannon for inviting me to be part of the blog tour and for gifting me a copy of The Switch Up! If you’d like to let me know whether you’re more like Alice or Willa, you can tweet me or leave a comment on my Instagram, both @pythiareads!

Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

‘It’s the perfect idea for a romantic week together: travelling across America by train.

But then Hugo’s girlfriend dumps him. Her parting gift: the tickets for their long-planned last-hurrah-before-uni trip. Only, it’s been booked under her name. Non-transferable, no exceptions.

Mae is still reeling from being rejected from USC’s film school. When she stumbles across Hugo’s ad for a replacement Margaret Campbell (her full name!), she’s certain it’s exactly the adventure she needs to shake off her disappointment and jump-start her next film.

A cross-country train trip with a complete stranger might not seem like the best idea. But to Mae and Hugo, both eager to escape their regular lives, it makes perfect sense. What starts as a convenient arrangement soon turns into something more. But when life outside the train catches up with them, can they find a way to keep their feelings for each other from getting derailed?’

One of the things that I love most about Field Notes on Love is that it isn’t so much a ‘will they? won’t they?’ romance that is extended and exploited throughout the narrative, but a story that is about what it means to love, and not solely in the romantic sense. The relationship that grows between Mae and Hugo is not just based on attraction or desire and it isn’t manipulated to create tension in a more predictable fashion, particularly as the question of whether they have any feelings for each other is addressed quite early on in the story. This in particular is something that isn’t seen very often in novels or television anymore and is what I think we need more of, ultimately allowing for characters’ feelings to be explored over the course of a story, rather than having them get together at the end and leave no room for seeing how they truly interact as a pair.

Field Notes on Love is as much about discovering and learning about what you love and why as anything else. Mae in particular believes that she has found her path in life and has devoted herself to following it, focusing primarily on developing her skills and viewing much of it from an analytical point of view. This has left her with a somewhat clinical approach that Hugo promptly and inadvertently disrupts with his interest in her process and the choices that she makes in putting her films together. He interacts with her interviewees in a way takes her outside of her usual manner of doing things and begins to draw her interest more towards the people in her movies than the ideas and messages she wishes to convey, her need for control over every element giving way to a willingness to examine her own feelings and what she wants from the world.

In a similar vein, Hugo is forced to re-examine what he really wants out of life and how much he is willing to sacrifice in his efforts to avoid hurting the people he loves most in the world. In taking the train journey with Mae, he perhaps does one of the first things that he has ever done solely for himself, and he spends much of the journey worrying about how what he wishes could hurt his five siblings and his parents, seeing their needs as outweighing his own. Hugo is a genuinely lovely character and his views in this respect are admirable, but, as Mae begins to help him understand – her direction and focus on her own goals helping to inject some into his – trapping himself in a life he doesn’t truly want is no way to live. Admittedly, it takes a lot for me to actually like a male character in a lot of YA literature, mostly because they are so often destined to unnecessarily ‘rescue’ or take away the agency of female characters, but Hugo is a sweetheart and a character I would happily read further stories about.

I love both Mae and Hugo’s families, from the interaction of Hugo’s siblings, to Mae’s adorable dads. It’s lovely to see parent and child interactions that are healthy and involve obvious affection and an interest in the well-being of each other, and it’s the familial relationships in the story that are perhaps the thing that I would praise above all. Field Notes on Love leaves the reader with a real sense that they know both families, even though much of the interaction is via Mae and Hugo with their families off-screen, and I would honestly love to see more of them.

Thank you to My Kinda Book & Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of Field Notes on Love!

Review: The Queen of Rhodia by Effie Calvin

Review: The Queen of Rhodia by Effie Calvin

‘It has been sixteen months since Princess Esofi arrived in Ieflaria, and eight since her marriage to Crown Princess Adale. The princesses have a peaceful life together, preparing to become co-regents and raising their baby dragon, Carinth.

Their peace is shattered when Esofi’s mother, Queen Gaelle of Rhodia, arrives in Birsgen. She has heard about Carinth and believes that she deserves custody of him due to her greater devotion to Talcia, Goddess of Magic.

Adale and Esofi have no intention of giving up their son, but Gaelle is impossible to reason with—and there’s no telling what lengths she’ll go to in order to get what she wants.’

I read the first in this series after seeing a post about it on Instagram and I’d been hoping that there would be more in this universe about Esofi and Adale. I haven’t read the second book, as I wasn’t aware of it until seeing this one, but I will be going back to read it! Esofi and Adale have become some of the characters that I’m most fond of and it was lovely to catch up with them and see what had happened since their engagement.

There is a good range of important issues, such as those of gender and sexuality, and the impact of bullying by trusted, familial figures, addressed in this book, but the one that really struck me was how it handled the expectation that women should have children and embrace motherhood on society’s timetable. Esofi and Adale are young in their marriage and already nearly everyone around them expects them to produce an heir, whereas they are content to focus on raising Carinth and are equally apprehensive about motherhood, if sometimes for different reasons. That they did not bow to this pressure and instead continued to decide for themselves what defines a family, while actively talking about their concerns, was wonderful to see. It’s also great to see a world in which everyone’s sexuality and choice of gender is just accepted and that not even the antagonists ever use anything of this nature against other characters or comment negatively on anyone’s choices.

I adore Esofi and found her mother to be a truly hateful character in her treatment of her. How Gaelle has emotionally manipulated her – and her other children – over the years becomes more evident and revolting as the novel progresses, explaining a good deal of Esofi’s behaviour and her worries that Adale might not actually want her, but is only doing her duty. Esofi is not weak, and it is not a case of Adale taking charge and her decisions away from her, though she does take action to protect her from Gaelle and herself when she deems it necessary. It’s more that their strengths complement each other and they step in when they see that the other might need support. I loved that Adale frequently reminds Esofi how much she loves her, especially because it is not done in a fawning manner, but simply to remind her that she is loved and wanted and she sees her strength, when Esofi has spent her life being torn down to conform to precise expectations.

In short: this series is one of my favourites and I really hope that there are more books to follow! The Queen of Rhodia will be published on 27th May! Thank you, NineStar Press for gifting me a copy!

I received an e-ARC of The Queen of Rhodia from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

‘Sixteen-year-old twins Madeline and Catlin move to a new life in Ballyfrann, a strange isolated Irish town, a place where the earth is littered with small corpses and unspoken truths. A place where, for generations, teenage girls have gone missing in the surrounding mountains. As distance grows between the twins – as Catlin falls in love, and Madeline begins to understand her own nascent witchcraft – Madeline discovers that Ballyfrann is a place full of predators. And when Catlin falls into the gravest danger of all, Madeline must ask herself who she really is, and who she wants to be – or rather, who she might have to become to save her sister.’

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a hauntingly lyrical novel full of dark, visceral magic and the pains of growing up. On the surface, it has many elements of a contemporary novel, yet the threads of the narrative bring this together with otherworldly features and powers of a fantasy world without ever entirely leaving ‘our’ world behind, bringing what feels like an ancient and mythological history into the present day. When Madeline and Caitlin arrive in Ballyfrann, they are, at first, removed from the area’s history and its people, yet both are soon drawn into events and associations that they cannot resist, each under the thrall of their own particular magic.

One of the things I found most interesting about Madeline and Catlin is their own, separate, dedications to their individual choice of religion. Catlin is said to have an altar full of statues of the Virgin Mary, which is deemed acceptable by their mother and stepfather, whereas Madeline’s instinctive and anxious ‘habit’ of carrying salt and other, often natural, bits and pieces with her for protection is frowned upon to the extent that their mother takes deliberate steps to stop her and goes around removing salt from where Madeline has placed it, such as under her sister’s bed. Is it because Catlin’s choice of religion is more familiar, particularly for the location, that she is allowed her collection of votives and icons that ostensibly serve the same purpose as Madeline’s salt? I think that this particular element of the narrative raises a lot of good questions about what religion is and what it means to each person, and why people, often driven by fear, feel the need to object to what they don’t immediately understand.

The magic that Madeline slowly begins to embrace and further understand is both beautiful and horrifying on an instinctive level, particularly because it is so grounded in the physical and natural world and not formed of fantastical and intangible power. The power that she is encouraged to embrace is not a simple and malleable ‘gift’, but a responsibility and understanding that comes with a price that must be paid. All too often in YA literature, magical powers come with no cost and are at such a level that they turn the character who wields them into an unstoppable force. This is not the case with Madeline, whose entering into a world that she must risk sacrificing her dreams (or the dreams she believes she has) for is understood to be one that will grant her strength and the ability to assist others, but will not turn her into a being of unrivalled power. Her power lies more in knowledge and an understanding of that which others might not see or comprehend, a subtlety there that doesn’t completely remove her from the realm of what it is to be human.

I loved the idea of the families in Ballyfrann having their own ties to different forms of magic and affinities going back generations, with none of them so obvious on the surface as to indentify them as anything other than human to outsiders who aren’t familiar to the population. I particularly loved Oona and her affinity for water (to be honest, I just loved Oona in general and could probably write a whole separate review just about her) and the rumours that hinted at what powers and abilities other characters might have.

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a stunning read and one that I just couldn’t put down. Thank you, Hot Key Books, for gifting me a copy! Perfectly Preventable Deaths is out on May 30th!

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

‘Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths weave their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen djinn slaughtered its entire population — except for Fatima and two other humans. Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.’

The Candle and the Flame gave me the worst book hangover I’ve had in ages! I really didn’t want the book to end and I desperately hope that there are going to be more books set in this world. The description of the city and the lives of those who live in it are painted so vividly that it’s impossible not to envision the setting and surroundings in rich colour, textures, sights and sounds simply leaping from the page. It makes it all the more difficult to leave the world behind and I was reluctant to read the last few pages, knowing that the story was at an end and I would have to leave Noor.

In the world of The Candle and the Flame, humans live alongside different species of djinn, some of which have positive intentions and others that are set to creating chaos. The majority of these need to be Named to cross into the human world from their plane of existence, a process that gives them a physical, human, form. To take away their Name is to unbind them and send them back – or worse. The concept of Naming and how it’s done is one of the things that I loved most about the story. The drawing together of the different things that have come to define the person being Named, seeing their memories and what has led them to become what the pieces of their Name brand them as, is described as a beautifully tangible process, from the heat of the fire to the fitting together of the fragments and settling of the Name. I read a lot of fantasy novels that involve magical processes, and this one is up there with my all-time favourites.

Fatima is an intelligent and compassionate lead, unafraid to exert her independence and correct those who attempt to order her around or make unfounded assumptions about her. Her devotion to those around her and her selflessness both give her a strength that guides her, even though they sometimes lead to her making decisions that put her at risk. She seems slightly out of phase with the world, particularly as she is drawn into that of the Ifrit, and at certain points in the narrative it’s characters such as the Alif sisters who help to keep her grounded and human. I loved the family interactions in this novel, particularly because they are often between found family and demonstrate some of the best of human nature’s capacity to care for others. Fatima’s interaction with Zulfikar is another aspect that draws out more of her than she may be willing to share with others, and it is often in these scenes that she seems the most animated and most herself, rather than what she may believe she has to be.

Ultimately, it’s the women in the novel who drive the story, from Ghazala’s initial choice in its opening pages, to the ladies of the palace who are not quite what the men of the city believe them to be. Many of them are consistently undervalued by the men in their lives, who may love and respect them, yet tend not to actually see the full extent of who these women are, refusing to believe that they are as intelligent and independent as they genuinely are. I absolutely adore Bhavya and Aruna, both of whom are severely underestimated by their immediate family, and, in a some respects, by themselves and the reader in the opening stages of the story. Bhavya’s journey is perhaps one of the most significant in the story, not being directly involved with the more magical elements, but with her own inner struggle to identify who she is, what she is capable of, and what she truly wants for her life.

The Candle and the Flame is out from Scholastic Press on May 14th! It’s one of my favourite reads this year and I hope you love it as much as I did!