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Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

‘A princess with two futures. A destiny all her own

Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.

When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl.

But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever.

With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.’

Thorn is a loose retelling of the Goose Girl Fairytale and one that I enjoyed immensely. The story introduces the reader to Alyrra, who finds herself at the mercy of her cruel brother’s physical and verbal attacks, while her mother scorns her and quite contentedly ignores any harm that comes to her. To her mother, Alyrra’s only use is as a political pawn, and even then she cannot understand that anyone would truly want her, and between the mental games of her sibling and parent, she may be somewhat glad to be free of them, but has no expectation of finding anything more promising in being married off to a prince who hasn’t even visited to set eyes on her. On the journey to this new land, she is accompanied by a girl she has previously called out for theft, with instructions that she is to find her a husband. However, the girl, Valka, is not content with this, and has made a deal with a powerful sorceress to take Alyrra’s place, quite literally transforming herself into the princess and Alyrra into her.

Valka further conspires to have Alyrra fall further from grace and encourages the prince’s father to find her some work away from her, leaving her with the job of tending for the geese and cleaning out their lodgings. It’s a job that Alyrra doesn’t outright object to and slowly grows accustomed to, finding a sense of achievement in her daily life and finally making real connections with the people around her. Of this particular stretch of the narrative, I especially liked that it’s acknowledged that there’s a language barrier and that not everyone in the world speaks the same language. Alyrra has to make efforts to learn enough to communicate, and it’s through some miscommunications that she ends up being renamed Thorn. I love it when novels feature found family, and was pleased to read that this an experience that Alyrra/Thorn (Thorn from now on!) has, considering her horrific experiences with her own blood. She finds herself with people (with a couple of notable exceptions) who care for each other and do what they can to be supportive and ensure that everyone has what they need, which is everything that she’s been missing from her previous home life. She has to work much harder, but she appears to find satisfaction in it, and in finally getting to experience a world outside of life as royalty, she finally gets to see the disparity between the lives of the poor and that of the higher classes. Her suffering may have been of a different sort to theirs, yet this is one of the things that helps her to empathise with the plight of the poor and leads her to try and see to it that the children she meets get to have better lives and opportunities, which bodes well for what she would do if she truly had the power to change things.

I don’t want to discuss the more magical elements of the plot in too much detail, as they’re key to a lot of the reveals and I don’t want to spoil the story! What I will stick with saying is that I really loved how the different features of the Goose Girl story were woven into this retelling (and I adore a good, convincing retelling that still manages to be all its own tale). What I’ll say a little bit about instead is Thorn’s character development over the course of the novel because, in my opinion, this was one of the standout features of the book. At the opening of the story, it’s as if she’s crammed everything that she has the potential to be into a small corner of herself where it won’t be noticed and she can’t give anyone more reason to look her way and inflict harm. Taken away from those who would hurt her and introduced to the real world – and one where she doesn’t know the language or customs – she gradually gains the courage to stand up for what she believes in and become not who she could have been, but who she wants to be. In Thorn’s case, I think the unfamiliarity of the world around her and the language barrier work in her favour, for they force her to adapt and stop her from potentially falling back on old habits. I would very happily read more tales about Thorn and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.

Thorn is out 24th March! Thank you to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy for review!

Blog Tour: Sofa Surfer by Malcolm Duffy

Blog Tour: Sofa Surfer by Malcolm Duffy

‘15-year-old Tyler’s teenage angst turns to outright rebellion when his family leave London for a new life in Yorkshire. He’s angry with his parents about the upheaval and furious at losing his home. With only the dog to confide in, Tyler has no idea that a chance meeting with a skinny girl called Spider will lead him into a world he never even knew existed. Spider is sofa surfing and Tyler finds himself spinning a tangled web of lies in his efforts to help her escape her world of fear and insecurity.

Sofa Surfer shows how empathy and action can help those without a home to go to. As with his widely praised debut Me Mam. Me Dad. Me., Malcolm Duffy finds humour and heart even in dire situations. Relevant, warm and rewarding Sofa Surfer is about what happens when going home isn’t an option.’

Today is my stop on the Sofa Surfer blog tour and I have a review of this brilliant new release that looks at what it means to be young and homeless in today’s world and challenges dangerous assumptions of blame and the perception that to be homeless is to have done something wrong – or, worse, to deserve it. It’s recommended for children aged 12+ and, in my opinion, would make an excellent class reader for Year 8 and/or 9, and could be tied into wider PSHE studies and any work that schools do with homeless charities in terms of raising awareness and fundraising.

Sofa Surfer is written from the point of fifteen year old Tyler, who finds himself uprooted from London and unwillingly made to start over in Yorkshire, where he grows increasingly despondent and reliant on his memories of London to comfort him in his changed world. For Tyler, the move is the worst possible thing that could have happened to him, as it has removed him from his friends and all that he finds familiar, and at the beginning of the novel he is almost entirely fixated on how bad a place the world is for him, his behaviour towards Spider and his lack of understanding of why she cannot pay him the full amount for her swimming lessons (he does not think to enquire as to what her life is like, only loses his temper on one particular occasion) something that makes him appear selfish and preoccupied with his own comfort and needs, which is something that I think we can all find ourselves guilty of when it comes to not always getting what we want. However, Tyler is young and has had very little reason to consider much beyond his own bubble, belonging to a family of decent means, with an income that ensures he has never gone hungry or truly lacked for anything he needs. He might be short on things he wants, but his relationship with Spider soon begins to educate him as to the difference between necessity and that which he would like to have, and while has limited options with which to help her, his efforts seem far more mature than those of any of the adults in the story.

For me, one of the key features of the narrative is the perception of homelessness that is all too often bandied about. In this case, Tyler’s parents are initially unwilling to understand Spider’s situation, and upon learning that their son has seen someone who is homeless, his father declares it to be ‘self-inflicted’. Their attitudes do change over the course of the narrative, and his mum makes some attempts to be helpful in a way that makes her feel that she has tried, but their reaction when they discover that Spider has been in their house is as if there’s been an infestation that needs cleaning out. Both of them fail to see Spider as human and, ultimately, as a child who needs help. They are very protective of their own son, yet they cannot see that Spider is a young person – someone else’s daughter – who needs help and support, which is unfortunately the case with many instances of homelessness. In a similar vein, the girl who targets Tyler to be her new boyfriend, Michele, immediately decides that Spider is only seeking attention when evidence of her mental health issues surfaces, dismissive and judgemental in her efforts to keep him to herself and focused on her. The relationship between Tyler and Michele also serves to highlight other issues, such as manipulation in relationships, pressure to engage in sexual activity, and minors posting and sharing unsuitable material online.

When he leans the extent of the problems that have led to Spider becoming homeless (I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the story!), Tyler’s immediate response is empathy and a desire to help her in what ways he can. In this, he learns that his own ‘suffering’ is not truly something that is the end of the world for him: it’s upsetting, yes, but he still has everything that he needs to lead what is, for him, a ‘normal’ life. His understanding of her situation is furthered by a firsthand experience of it, in which he learns that to live on the streets is, amongst other awful things, to fear for your life. At this stage, he is already completely committed to supporting Spider, but I feel that the moral for the reader is that it shouldn’t take an experience of life on the streets for anyone to empathise with another human being. Tyler’s experience is used to highlight the realities of homelessness to young readers and is a very effective feature of the story that will hopefully open the eyes of those who are unfamiliar with the struggles of young and old alike on the streets. One of the most positive things about the story is that Tyler’s parents do learn that their attitudes are not as they should be; that their perception of their being ‘understanding’ is more limited than they would like to think, and that sometimes what we see as helping is not all that we could truly do.

I highly recommend Sofa Surfer as an engaging read for teens and one that teachers should look to for potential to include in their English curriculum as a unit for KS3. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for the copy of Sofa Surfer and the chance to take part in the blog tour!

Check out the banner below for the previous and next stops on the tour!

Review: Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

Review: Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

‘When twelve-year-old Alex receives an old tin robot in the post, the note from his grandfather simply reads: ‘This one is special’. But as strange events start occurring around him, it doesn’t take Alex long to suspect that the small toy is more than special; it might also be deadly.

Just as things are getting out of hand, Alex’s grandfather arrives, whisking him away from his otherwise humdrum life and into a world of strange, macabre magic. From Paris to Prague, they flee across snowy Europe in a quest to unravel the riddle of the little robot, and outwit relentless assassins of the human and mechanical kind. How does Alex’s grandfather know them? And can Alex safely harness the robot’s power, or will it fall into the wrong, wicked hands?’

Monstrous Devices is a fast-paced and unique invention from Damien Love, the novel one that’s recommended for ages 9+ and one I was interested in reading with a class reader for Year 7 in mind. Some of said Year 7 have seen me reading the book around school and have asked what it’s about and if they can read it, so I’ve promised them I’ll look into getting some for the school library. Rock the Boat very kindly sent me a finished copy, which I’ll be giving to our library once the release date has passed!

Monstrous Devices follows the journey of Alex, a twelve year old boy whose grandfather posts him a tin robot with a cryptic message that could just as well be commentary as it could be a warning. It’s not long after the robot has arrived that things begin to change around Alex, and all of what he experiences is nothing that he can explain without them thinking he’s utterly mad. Lucky for him, his grandfather is not exactly an individual with his feet on the ground or one likely to dismiss anything out of hand, and Alex is soon drawn into an adventure that perhaps leaves him with more questions than answers he receives for his trouble.

What I enjoyed most about Monstrous Devices was the dialogue. There’s something strangely charming about the manner in which Alex’s grandfather speaks, his diversions from the topics at hand quietly humorous and written in a natural fashion that makes the character seem animated and alive and easy to envisage. Of course, these diversions are ones that Alex finds frustrating, but I felt that it was a little like watching a children’s film at times, where the material is for the target audience, but occasionally there’s something aimed at the grown-ups for them to chuckle over. The dialogue in the novel in general has an easy and believable rhythm to it, none of it seeming forced or particularly ‘fictional’ in nature, which is something that sometimes strikes when tackling writing children.

The story is one that doesn’t leave the reader with all of the answers to the questions that they must have by the novel’s conclusion, much like Alex does not receive all of the information that he seeks (some of which is by dint of deciding not to ask). What I hope is that this leaves room for more books set in this universe! However, should Monstrous Devices be a standalone, what it encourages the reader to do is to engage in theory crafting and decide what they believe the answers are, or what happened when the full details aren’t provided, which I think are important for younger readers in particular. There is very little exposition in Monstrous Devices, and what there is of it is often through dialogue and reported information, which keeps the plot from ever getting too bogged down in every possible answer and detail.

I would recommend Monstrous Devices to younger readers who are looking to step a little outside of their comfort zone and start reading books with more challenging subject matter and plotting. The story is just eerie enough to be creepy without stretching to horror or outright gore: frightening enough for young readers who like to be scared without being unsettled. I loved this book and I hope my students do too!

Monstrous Devices is out on March 5th! Thank you to Rock the Boat and One World Publications for sending me a proof and finished copy!

Review: Havenfall by Sara Holland

Review: Havenfall by Sara Holland

‘Maddie loves spending summers at her uncle’s Inn at Havenfall. But the Inn is much more than a Maddie’s safe haven, and life in Havenfall isn’t without its secrets. Beneath the beautiful, sprawling manor in Colorado lie hidden gateways to other worlds, some long-sealed by ancient magic.

When a body is found on the grounds, the volatile peace brokered between these worlds is irrevocably compromised. What’s worse is that Maddie’s friend Brekken stands accused of the murder. With everything she loves at stake, Maddie must confront shocking truths about the dangers lurking beneath Havenfall – and discover who she really is.’

Havenfall starts with the protagonist, Maddie, telling a few half-truths to ensure that she gets to spend the summer with her uncle at the Inn at Havenfall, which is where she’s spent many summers before, becoming acquainted with how the Inn runs and its importance to Haven (our world) and those worlds that stand beyond the gates. The Inn serves as neutral ground and as the place where people of Fiordenkill, Byrn and Haven hold the annual peace summit on the longest day of the year. The gateway to Solaria has been sealed, its land one of volatile magic and its people said to be violent and dangerous. The other realms view Solarians as a threat and have signed a treaty that forbids any contact or trade with Solaria, branding any communication with it as treasonous. It is Maddie’s dearest wish to be named as her uncle’s heir and one day become the Innkeeper, something that has become all the more important to her as the reality of her mother’s situation has become almost unbearable.

Life at the Inn introduces us to the denizens of Byrn and Fiordenkill, the latter of which is where Brekken, the boy Maddie believes herself in love with, hails from. I’d be lying if the description of the jewels the Fiordens wear in their ears didn’t make me want to get a couple more piercings and have gems running along the edge of my own (but I think five piercings per ear is quite enough for now). Brekken’s actions over the course of the novel have Maddie doubting everything she has ever known about him, which particularly stings after their having grown up together during what time they’ve spent at the Inn, and the whole thing also has her doubting her judgements and ability to make good decisions, both of which she needs to be secure in if she’s to inherit the position of Innkeeper. Though Maddie does her best, her decisions aren’t always made with consideration of all the evidence available or the more calculating natures of those around her, which demonstrates that she still has a lot to learn if she truly wants to maintain Havenfall’s status as neutral and manage to navigate the different political situations likely to unfold and need diplomatic handling.

Havenfall contains some good representation, and while it’s primarily set in our world, people’s preferences aren’t commented on in a judgemental way and it would seem that the same goes for Fiordenkill and Byrn. It’s nice to see more and more YA books where people’s sexuality is simply accepted and prejudice isn’t something that creeps into the narrative. From my reading, I believe it’s implied that Maddie is bisexual, though whether this is something that she’s acknowledged isn’t entirely clear and I’m curious to see whether what could be inferred as a romantic connection actually is one. A moment that made me smile was when the matter of Marcus’ husband is brought up, yet it’s not to comment on their marriage, but on the fact that his being Fiorden could imply he’s not politically neutral.

For me, the book’s pacing wasn’t quite right. I felt that it kept building towards something, but whatever that something was, it didn’t happen in this instalment. I’m assuming that there is the intention to move beyond the human world and Havenfall in future books, as this appears to be what the story is setting up, and while I can’t say that I was disappointed that we didn’t see much, if anything, of the other worlds, keeping it so fixed to the one location felt a little limiting. However, the novel’s title is Havenfall, and if we had spent too long in one world or another and not at the Inn itself, I feel it would have not been as effective in setting up the importance of its traditions and its history, nor in establishing who Maddie is and how she ticks. I’m the kind of reader who loves going over cultural and political details and I genuinely did enjoy every minute of the story, but it was a little too easy to put down, which is not what I found with Holland’s previous novels. This said, I’m really looking forward to seeing whether we go beyond any of the gates in the books to come, though would be just as happy if it’s reported information. As you can tell, I’m quite conflicted about the whole thing!

Havenfall is out on March 3rd! Thank you, Bloomsbury, for sending me a copy to review! I look forward to seeing where Maddie’s story leads and what further truths come to light!

Review: The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

Review: The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

Engagement season is in the air. Eighteen-year-old Princess Leonie “Leo” Kolburg, heir to a faded European spaceship, has only one thing on her mind: which lucky bachelor can save her family from financial ruin?

But when Leo’s childhood friend and first love, Elliot, returns as the captain of a successful whiskey ship, everything changes. Elliot was the one who got away, the boy Leo’s family deemed to be unsuitable for marriage. Now he’s the biggest catch of the season and he seems determined to make Leo’s life miserable. But old habits die hard, and as Leo navigates the glittering balls of the Valg Season, she finds herself falling for her first love in a game of love, lies and past regrets.’

The Stars We Steal is an entertaining and easy read based around some of the story threads from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Set in a future where the citizens of Earth have taken up space flight, following implied damage to the planet, the descendants of the royal families across the globe still claim their titles, if, for some, only in name, and live on a series of spaceships, some more grand than others. Leonie is eighteen and princess of a kingdom that no longer really exists, her father doing her no favours in his ineptitude in handling money and relying on the future marriages of his daughters to maintain and improve their lifestyle. For a while now, she and her family have been relying on her aunt to support them, leading Leo to decide that the best thing to do is to rent out their own ship in an effort to make some money. What she isn’t expecting is for the boy she was once engaged to (for all of twelve hours), Elliot, to be one of those renting her – their – former home.

The Valg season involves the children and heirs of the various European families taking part in a series of social events and tests in an attempt to match them with their best potential partner. As they are unwilling to entertain the idea of marrying from any other class, there is a limited range of partners available when looking to avoid intermarrying too closely, and with resources dwindling for some, the season is less about love and more about looking for someone of appropriate rank and means. Despite this, and despite knowing her family urgently needs her to find a wealthy husband, Leo refuses to engage (pardon the pun) with the aims of the season for much of the narrative, going out of her way to avoid spending time with those who could aid her and those who see her as a target for a title, for they know full well that her family needs assistance. It’s clear that Leo, contrary to what she tries to tell herself, has never got over Elliot, and this is just one of the things that keeps her from fully participating in the meaning of the Valg. She is unwilling to see herself as a bargaining chip and plainly finds the behaviour of some characters disquieting, and for more than the fact that their attention is so often fixed on Elliot.

Leo’s father is a somewhat unlikeable man, especially in his attitude towards what his daughters can do for him and how he simultaneously seems unwilling (or unable) to figure out what he may be able to do to save his family from ruin. His incompetence is almost painful, as is his focus on his title and how people perceive him, and it is no wonder that Leo has trouble being willing to do anything that might rescue him in particular, when all he stands to do is waste more money and become dependent on her for the rest of his days. If I’m honest, I wasn’t often too fond of the rest of her family either, though they do have some redeeming moments reasonably late into the story. This is, perhaps, because Leo’s female relatives are seen and written as rivals who cannot be supportive of each other, which, in the context of the novel upon which The Stars We Steal is based, would be very common, given that women were absolutely dependent on marriage to ensure that they had a home and did not become destitute and reliant on others. In contrast, her friendship with Evgenia is much more positive, and Evgenia herself is one of several LGBTQ+ characters in the story, the future in which the narrative unfolds a more comfortable one in many respects, for it does not seem judgemental (though there remains the fixation on furthering bloodlines).

The Stars We Steal may appear to be primarily concerned with romance, yet there is a huge range of social commentary underneath the narrative concerning the Valg and its families, much like the different levels and layers that the ‘average’ people and the servant class that exists inhabit. That, in this imagined future, a class system still exists and the people of the ‘lower orders’ are left to suffer and serve says much about what we like to ignore about the present. We can claim that equality for all exists and that the class system is history, but to do so is to be as Leo’s father is: wilfully ignorant of the truth. This future has many freedoms, but girls of rank are still reliant on men and still seen as a means of producing children and securing money and property; politics is still as murky and corrupt as ever, and the rich few exist to exploit the many. In this, Leo and Elliot stand to better the lives of those less fortunate in their universe, if they can better navigate the strands of society that wish to keep everything as it is.

Out on 4th February in the UK, The Stars We Steal is a unpredictable look to the future with echoes of the past, both entertaining and thought-provoking in its constructs. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy to review!

Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

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

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

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

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

Writing Thrillers for Young Adults

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Charlotte!

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

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

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

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Unforgetting by Rose Black

Review: The Unforgetting by Rose Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi

Review: Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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