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Review: The Actuality by Paul Braddon

Review: The Actuality by Paul Braddon

‘Evie is a near-perfect bioengineered human. In a broken-down future England where her kind has been outlawed, her ‘husband’ Matthew keeps her safe but hidden. When her existence is revealed, she must take her chances on the dark and hostile streets where more than one predator is on the hunt.’

The Actuality follows Evie, who is a technological creation who has been created in the image of her owner’s (‘husband’s’) wife, and, not being of biological matter, is eternally in her early twenties, while those around her continue to age. For the duration of her life, she has been kept in her husband’s home and not permitted to experience the outside world, primarily because, as it turns out, her existence is no longer legal. The creation of beings with artificial intelligence has been outlawed, following violent uprisings, and Evie is one of the few remaining that haven’t been destroyed or kept in captivity as a supposed ‘warning’ about the past. Evie herself is oblivious to much beyond the fact that she is fully aware she is not human in the biological sense, and initially seems content and determined to fulfil her role as a wife, until the outside world enters their home and leaves her no with no choice but to flee to survive.

Throughout the novel, there is a lot of debate over whether Evie can be considered human or not, with there being no real middle ground as regards the opinions of biological human beings, most of whom insist that Evie and her kind cannot possibly be human insofar as having rights, thoughts and feelings of their own. Even Evie’s husband is heard to justify his having purchased Evie and kept her essentially as a prisoner for decades by claiming that she’s only a machine. That his interaction with Evie includes having sex with her only makes the situation she is in all the more uncomfortable, and is one among many things that Daniels, one of the few in the narrative who seems to believe Evie should be treated as any other human, objects to. In her home life, she is treated like an object and a servant, while being expected to be so flawlessly human as to perfectly imitate the person whose image she was created in. That her husband is so willing to use something he believes is his possession and without feeling says far too much about the manner in which he would have treated his wife and how women are all too often viewed in today’s society. Is Evie a replacement for another woman he would have commanded and possessed and used? In this, would his ‘real’ wife have been considered any more human than Evie?

On more than one occasion, Evie is forced to defend herself if she is to survive, these incidents often brushed over in a clinical manner, or painted in so vague a way as to only make it apparent that she has behaved as she has because she must. The narrative itself is written from her point of view, and, initially, any violence on her part is not accompanied by any real sense of anger or rage, creating a distance between Evie and the act, and subsequently Evie and the reader, allowing us to believe that she has acted as she should. Without going into too much specific detail and sharing spoilers, it is this that makes it easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. Being inside Evie’s head and hearing all of the arguments against her kind means that siding with her and wanting to believe that she is  ‘different’ and as human as it feels she ‘deserves’ to be is a natural reaction. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes far less simple than a matter of Evie’s humanity, especially when her actions cannot be attributed entirely to her being at risk. Is it wrong to expect anything that we create in our own image, yet expect to be controlled and subservient, to not display the darker features of human nature? Why should we be surprised that anything or anyone we treat poorly would want to fight back over the injustice of it all? Does her understanding that who she is is under threat not prove that she is human?

There’s a lot I’d like to talk about from the last third of the novel, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone! The Actuality is brilliantly written and well-paced read that quickly grabs hold of you and won’t let go. Not only is it a fantastic look at what makes us human, but it’s a dark glimpse at what we stand to become and the dangers that exist in our society, particularly if you are a woman. It’s out in February, 2021! Thank you, Sandstone Press, for sending me an ARC!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix. E. Harrow

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix. E. Harrow

‘In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artefacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.’

This book was amazing. I had heard so many good things about it, so my expectations were high going in, and I’m pleased to say that I was in no way disappointed. I admit that I found the beginning a little bit slow, but as the clues as various pieces of the narrative that become much more significant later on begin to filter in, the pace soon picks up. This said, I was pretty much hooked from the start, as I’m a huge fan of anything that involves ancient artefacts, and had an awful feeling about why January was the lone child – and treated as she is – in such a place. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is such a magical and immersive book that it’s one you won’t want to end and will quite happily live in for the duration of your reading.

The story is of January Scaller, the ward of Mr Locke, who she knows to be involved in some variety of artefact procurement, for the father she rarely sees is an employee of his and often on trips to secure one object or another to be added to the already vast collection. January finds herself discontent with a life of loneliness and an odd brand of ‘parental’ affection from Mr Locke, who grows more dissatisfied with her as she ages and learns more and more to ask questions and speak out in ways society doesn’t appreciate from a girl – and especially not a girl quite so different as she is. She first discovers a Door (an opening between one world and another) in her early years, only for it to be deliberately destroyed and what she’s experienced dismissed as something fanciful that she must leave behind, the threat of what will happen to her made plain enough that she outwardly gives up on the idea of Doors, yet maintains her belief in and need for them until she is almost grown.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is written as a story within a story (within a story?), and shifts between January’s threads of the narrative to a book that she has been gifted: the most important book that she will ever read. I don’t want to spoil it, as what’s discovered in and with the book is some of the most beautiful content. I love books that experiment with narrative structure and how to reveal significant information in not necessary a linear fashion, and this is exploited particularly well in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. There are other moments where direct address to the reader is used, particularly to ruminate on the nature of letters and words, and academic footnotes are added to book within a book in a charming manner, and it’s all these little features that work together to remind you that, yes, you are reading a book, but the book itself is another world that contains other worlds… The whole thing is essentially a love letter to words and language and the power they have. It’s just a stunning read, and though there’s so much I want to talk about, I’m trying really hard to avoid specific spoilers, as I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience of the book!

The paperback was released in the middle of May and also contains an interview with the author, Alix. E. Harrow, and ten questions for discussions at a reading group (if you have a group and you’re looking for a read with a vast wealth of features to discuss, this is certainly your book). I don’t often buy into the general experience of book ‘hangovers’, but it’s been days since I finished this and I still have lines from it running through my head. This is a text that I simultaneously wish were an option to study with students at A-Level and would never want to subject to such a variety of cold scrutiny; I both want to share The Ten Thousand Doors of January with as many as possible and to keep it to myself.

Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Switch Up: LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

Review: The Switch Up: LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

‘WILLA

Film director

LA insider

Impulsive

Looks like Alice

ALICE

Eco warrior

LA tourist

Cautious

Looks like Willa

Alice can’t wait to visit Willa in LA – home of Hollywood, where dreams come true. Their plan is to explore the city and see the sights, but then Willa gets the opportunity to work on the film project of her dreams and she can’t say no! The only problem is she is absolutely 100% supposed to be taking part in a beach clean-up. Which, now she thinks of it, sounds pretty perfect for Alice… Can the girls really swap lives again? Cue plotting, outfit swapping and award-winning performances. But everyone knows that real life is nothing like the movies…’

Following on from the summer that had them switching lives, Alice and Willa have remained friends, as promised, and now Alice is headed to visit Willa. However, just before Alice arrives, Willa gets caught-up in her director dreams and inadvertently disrupts some exams at her new school with a flash mob, leading her to be assigned to work four hours a day at a beach clean-up so that she can learn to think about others. This in itself might have been okay, what with working at the Shore Thing seeming to be just what Alice would enjoy, but Willa has also managed to get herself a place working on a student film project that could finally get her noticed more than her fledgling Youtube channel is managing to achieve. Alice’s journey to LA has found her wishing she could be the person she feels she became when she was pretending to be Willa last summer, especially now that she is struggling to fit in at a new school and is growing increasingly lonely, and so it only takes a little bit of suggestion from Willa for her to suggest that they should switch places again: Alice will work at the beach, while Willa works on the film.

I felt quite conflicted about Willa for a lot of this book, I kept reminding myself that she is young and still very much at the age where the slightest of things not going your way can feel like a disaster and that everyone and the whole world is against you. There is an awful lot of pressure on young people to achieve while they are young, with the media in particular suggesting that success only happens in youth, and it being this field that Willa wants to work in – and having seen how it treats her parents – it is not surprising that she is so desperately focused on what she wants to achieve in film, often to the detriment of other things. Her treatment of Alice is what bothered me the most, as she is very, very late to realise that she is essentially using her and hasn’t demonstrated that she cares for her in the best way that she could. Yes, Alice is having fun and gets to have an adventure of her own, but Willa really does push her luck this time, and I was glad to see that Alice speaks up when she decides enough is enough.

Both the girls learn a lot about themselves in this instalment, though it seems that what Alice learns about what she wants from her life and what she needs to do is more consciously done (being that she already knows what she feels she wants to change), whereas Willa is more blinkered and needs others to point out how her behaviour is being perceived for her to fully realise how she has been treating people and why she isn’t immediately adored, appreciated and making the progress she wants. Alice’s experience almost feels more deserved, as she is the one pushing herself outside of her usual comfort zone and isn’t exactly having the holiday that she believed she would (though the beach clean-up is pretty perfect for her). The girls’ journeys are opposites in many respects: Alice’s to push herself beyond her worries, and Willa’s to stop taking that leap and think about those around her before she forges ahead.

Through text messages, we also get to hear from some of the characters from the first book, Hal and Luca, who are still chatting to who they met (as the other) previously. I loved these little insights and I hope that we get to see more of them in a future book (I assume the next will focus on the wedding of Alice’s dad and Mabel?) somehow. I really enjoyed Alice’s interaction with Luca and co and hope they get to see each other in person again. It would be nice to see how Alice settles into school and the new house.

The Switch Up: LA Exchange is the perfect summer read, full of fun schemes and adventures, while not abandoning deeper messages about friendship, family and dreams. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series for far and look forward to more! Thank you, Little Tiger/Stripes Books for sending me a copy!

Review: The Devil’s Own by Liana LeFey

Review: The Devil’s Own by Liana LeFey

‘Lord Devlin Wayward, gambler and dedicated rake, returns home for the first time in years, and lands himself and his identical twin, Daniel, the good reverend, in deep trouble. Devlin ends up with a broken leg and unable to travel to London, yet he must return. He’s got an important deal that will make or break his fortune. He persuades the reluctant reverend to take his place in London while he temporarily minds his brother’s flock.

Miss Mary Tomblin is taken with the devastatingly handsome reverend. He represents everything she desires in a husband, after narrowly evading a ruthless rake last Season. Mary knows she’ll make him an excellent wife, but the vicar rebuffs every advance – until he suddenly accepts her help with pastoral duties while his broken leg heals. Mary seizes the chance to show the good reverend what an excellent helpmeet she will be.

The devil takes on the role of village vicar and discovers it’s nowhere near as easy as he imagined—especially when he falls in love with an angel who mistakes him for a saint.’

This is only the second romance novel I’ve read, and I was intrigued by how exactly Devlin and Daniel were going to take over each other’s lives, and with what degree of success they might achieve this. The reader only sees Devlin’s side of the matter, as suggested by the blurb, though I was pleased to see it suggested that there is/is going to be a novel that looks at what happened to Daniel while in London. I think there are some perhaps some edits to be completed, as there are some odd jumps/things out of sequence in the early stages of the story.

What I enjoyed most in the book was the time that Devlin and Mary spent together visiting the parishioners, learning more about the community, each other and challenging each other’s views – though some of this is done in a manner designed deliberately to provoke and is not a genuine effort to learn more about the other, which Devlin inevitably regrets each time. Though it seems that it is ultimately Devlin’s nature that is changed by what he experiences, to my mind it is Mary who undergoes the more drastic alteration and gets to exercise and embrace her intelligence and compassion when not having previously been given much opportunity to do so. Her actions, much like Devlin’s, begin with the intent to benefit herself, but she goes on to take a genuine interest in people beyond her usual social sphere and seems to genuinely want to assist and befriend them for more than her desire to become the vicar’s wife. Her scenes with the people they visit are among the most heart-warming and I would have happily read more of them. It’s predominantly after these scenes that Devlin and Mary demonstrate that they are actually a good match for each other outside their deceptions, and I would have liked to read more of this too.

As I mentioned previously, this is only the second romance novel I’ve read, and perhaps my assumptions about them have largely been wrong, but I think I was expecting more actual romance in the plot? Devlin is certainly attracted to Mary and he seems to form a genuine attachment to her, though I was never quite sure if what Mary feels for him is love. I did like her character development, though there are moments when she appears unable to see consequences to her actions (having previously had a bad experience last season, which doesn’t quite make her behaviour towards Devlin make complete sense). They don’t get to spend very much time together in different environments, though this would be expected of the time period, and though there is one scene of physical intimacy, it is rather late in the story and it feels as if this is where the romance starts and essentially ends. As I’m not too familiar with the genre, I’m not completely sure what the particular hallmarks of it are, but I’m sure that there needs to be a measure of suspending disbelief, which I was happy to for the duration of the story. It is a good, escapist, tale, and the characters are easy to want positive things for.

To my mind, the lead up to the ending takes away from the enjoyment of the rest of the novel. There is an awful lot of – justified – ill-feeling in the last quarter of its pages and while I didn’t want everything sorted out nice and neatly, with no acknowledgement of what had happened before, the story concludes in a rather abrupt way, with the epilogue only making the briefest of suggestions as to how things might have unfolded since. I’m hoping that we might see more of these story threads in the aforementioned future instalment. This said, I did like the book (I read it cover to cover without putting it down) and would love to see more of these characters!

Thank you, Entangled Publishing, for the digital ARC!

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

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

‘Keen to see some of Europe, queer couple Lilith and Abigail get on their old bikes and start pedalling. Along flat fens and up Swiss Alps, they will meet new friends and exorcise old demons as they push their bodies – and their relationship – to the limit.’

Gears for Queers follows Lili and Abi as they travel across Europe on their bikes and charts the challenges that they encounter and overcome on their journey, whether they be mental health, differences of opinion, illness, the various language barriers, or the physical side of attempting to travel so far while carrying everything essential for day to day survival with them. They largely rely on campsites as places to stay, which don’t always turn out to places that seem as safe or comfortable as one might hope, and brave staying with strangers where necessary, which often opens up the question of how much of themselves and their relationship it is safe to be open about, knowing that there are those who may choose to judge them.

I read much of the book in one go, as I was enjoying following their journey through different countries, and particularly liked their travels through Germany, as I’m admittedly much more familiar with it than I am with the UK! At this time in particular, knowing that it is highly unlikely I will be returning to Germany in the near future, it was nice to read about someone else’s experiences with the country and culture. The incident with the fizzy water, which is most often the default, was one I could sympathise with, if not for quite as serious reasons as it impacts Abi. I’ve never been a fan of anything fizzy and detested fizzy water and drinks as a child (I’ve grown to tolerate them), and used to spend summers in Germany drinking apple juice as it was one of the only things available that wasn’t usually carbonated as standard.

What I found most refreshing about Gears for Queers is that it doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situations that Lili and Abi find themselves in. A good deal of books and the media like to suggest that to be in a relationship is to never disagree, argue or become frustrated with your partner, and while we get these insights into their relationship, we also get to see them move past disagreements and look after each other, even when they are struggling to look after themselves. Yes, they do snap and shout at each other when pushed to their limits, but they also understand themselves enough to show they care through gestures and other things when words are difficult, and, ultimately, they don’t give up on each other even they feel that they can’t go on. They find ways through and work out how to make adjustments to make things manageable, even when the urge may be just to keep going until the point of destruction. Their journey is presented in a manner true to their feelings as they experienced it, right down to their worries about being inferior travellers and cyclists compared to those who are sharing their own journeys on Instagram (which I think we all know we need to understand is a heavily edited environment). Their experience isn’t perfect, but it is real, and the reader gets a brutally honest look at mental health and the impact of the physical challenge of cycling so far, for so long, in an environment that isn’t home and very rarely feels ‘safe’. The issues that they face are not presented in a manner that focuses solely on the achievement of having met and overcome them, but in a way that does not sugar coat and focus on success: it is as much about what they endure and learn as anything else.

Gears for Queers is out on June 4th from Sandstone Press! If you’re looking for a read to take you on a journey during this time of lockdown, I really do recommend picking up a copy, primarily for its honest look at travel, identity, and mental and physical health. The book also includes some vegan recipes you could try out! Thank you, Sandstone Press, for sending me an ARC!

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

‘Mia’s best friend Holly died when they were thirteen. But years later, Holly still hasn’t left her.

Spending the summer in New York, Mia is hoping to escape the visions of Holly that haunt her life at home. There she meets Rav, a parapsychology student, who convinces her to take part in a study into why some people see ghosts. Soon she is caught up in the investigation of Halcyon House, which is reputed to be haunted by a poltergeist. As Mia confronts her fears, what she learns about the house and herself will change her life forever.’

Here Lie the Secrets opens with Mia, still trying to heal following the death of her best friend, Holly, experiencing what she believes to be a haunting by her, something that she has endured before, with ever more increasing emphasis on Holly’s disapproval and disappointment in her, to the extent that what she thinks Holly would believe and want has gained no small measure of control over her every day life. When she has the opportunity to spend the summer in New York, she takes it as her chance to escape familiar surroundings, and, hopefully, Holly’s presence and judgement of her.

The novel is an enjoyable one, particularly in how it explores the differing beliefs surrounding ghosts and the afterlife, looking at them from a scientific angle and the matter of the heart and mind – taking into consideration that the mind is a powerful thing, capable of that which we still don’t have extensive scientific answers for. When she arrives in New York, she meets Rav, who focuses on the study of paranormal phenomena, and when she is asked whether she believes in ghosts, she declares a very definite ‘no’ on more than one occasion, determined not to let her visions of Holly become something widely known or claim even more control over her life. However, she is soon brought into the world of Rav’s studies, and though she is an adult, it feels a little as if the group of academics and researchers are taking advantage of her for their own gains in a way that becomes quite unsettling as the narrative unfolds. This may be because we, the reader, know much more about Mia’s history, experiences, and the guilt that is tormenting her than the people who encourage her to take a central role in their exploration of Halcyon House, a property considered to be haunted by spirits responsible for the death of a child.

I particularly like stories that look at features of memory and the mind, which Here Lie the Secrets ties into examination of Mia’s grief and her need to resolve what she has experienced in an effort to move on with her life. She has kept the visions of Holly a secret from nearly everyone, afraid of what seeing a ‘ghost’ means for her and frightened that Holly’s hauntings are all too real and condemnation of what happened before her death. Mia denies that she believes in ghosts partly because facing the idea of Holly’s presence being real is almost as frightening as considering what it means for her mental state. Not only owing to that, but because of her fear of others condemning her for believing in something that many dismiss as impossible. Her work with Rav’s group allows her to examine what she considers to be plausible and not in terms of her own experience and that of others, and in uncovering the truths of what happened at Halcyon House learns more of human nature and the mind’s desire to protect itself from what it cannot face. Though the investigation is ostensibly concerned with whether the house is truly haunted, what happens during the study ultimately reveals more about the darker sides of those fuelled by guilt and ambition, and what they are willing to let others believe to make matters easier for them to bear.

The area of paranormal studies is one that I don’t know too much about, and I enjoyed learning more about the academic side of the subject over the course of the story. Here Lie the Secrets is a well-paced and engaging read that handles its subject material sensitively while providing a suspenseful narrative and a protagonist who is easy to empathise with and want a positive resolution for. Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me an early copy for review! Here Lie the Secrets is out on June 25th!

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

‘Mercy is hard in a place like this…

It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.

In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.’

Valentine opens from the perspective of Gloria Ramírez, in the wake of a brutal attack and rape that she has finally managed to escape from, following a night of torture that has left her severely injured and with both physical and mental scars. She immediately makes the decision to take what control she can back from that which her attacker has stolen from her, deciding to cast off the name he has forever ruined for her and rename herself Glory, trying to distance herself from the experience and reclaim her own power. The first place she sees that could be one of refuge turns out to be the home of Mary Rose, whose actions in the wake of discovering the girl on her doorstep are destined to haunt her.

The novel follows the stories of Glory, Mary Rose, and other women within the Odessa community, and how almost everything about their lives is controlled by their husbands and other men within society, to the extent that they have next to no control over their own bodies, and nor are they ‘allowed’ to support other women in difficult situations or speak out with their own thoughts and ideas. The men consider a woman’s place to be in the home and serving their every need – and one of the worst things (if not the worst) of all of it is their perception that a fourteen year old child can be considered a grown woman, thereby making any crime committed against her perfectly acceptable. Not only this, but Glory’s race is used to further dehumanise her and paint her as responsible for what occurred, no matter the fact that she was so seriously injured as to need extensive surgery. The women of Odessa are desperate to escape the cycle of adolescent pregnancy, marriage and violence, but find that mental, physical and societal manipulation and abuse keeps them from breaking free and speaking out.

In deciding to testify in court against Glory’s rapist, Mary Rose finds herself the target of intimidation and slander from the community. She receives a daily barrage of threatening phone calls, where men state their intent to beat and rape her if she testifies, and her own husband adamantly refuses to support her, claiming that she should never have tried to protect Glory in the first place. Where she might have found support from other women, she largely finds only contempt, despite their shared experiences of being a woman of this era, many too frightened of and indoctrinated into a blame culture by their husbands that they cannot offer Mary Rose anything but derogatory commentary for the sake of their own safety. In Odessa, women are not people. They are wives and objects and property; to be seen and not heard. Corrine, who has perhaps begun to escape that world, being an older woman who is (not all too successfully) navigating the grief of losing her husband, becomes an eventual source of support, both for Mary Rose and for a young Debra Ann, whose mother has left her with a father unable to do much by way of caring for her, and is set on making a new life for herself and retrieving her daughter from Odessa as soon as she can.

The eventual court scene is one that I found made me so angry that I had to put the book down and come back to it, because how Mary Rose is treated by the judge and those in the courtroom is so infuriating and so unflinchingly true to the female experience when it’s a woman’s word against a man’s that it was awful to look at where we are today and see that this still goes on; that we like to think we have made progress, but women are still belittled and taunted and not believed in cases such as this. Mary Rose is repeatedly told, in a mocking manner played for laughs by the judge, to moderate her behaviour, to not use ‘bad’ language or that which bluntly addresses what has happened, and to ultimately behave in a way that is less outspoken, more demure and more acceptable by men. He does not want to hear her tell the truth simply because she is speaking out against a man – a man that he has decided has done nothing wrong just by dint of his being male. The whole scene brilliantly conveys Mary Rose’s frustration and highlights the foul nature of the men’s belief in a woman’s place, role, and lack of rights of speech, the judge perfectly content to turn events into a story that fit his narrative.

Valentine is a raw and powerful book, out on June 11th in hardback in the UK. It is an absolutely brilliant and haunting novel, and though it is not always an easy read, I believe it is one that should be read for the issues it highlights and the narrative it explores. Highly recommended. Thank you, 4th Estate Books, for sending me a proof copy!

Bookstagram Tour: Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova

Bookstagram Tour: Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova

‘An epic tale of love and revenge set in a world inspired by Inquisition-era Spain pits the magical Moria against a terrifying royal authority bent on their destruction.

When the royal family of Selvina sets out to destroy magic through a grand and terrible inquisition, magic warrior-thief Renata – trained in the art of stealing memories-seeks to kill the prince, leader of the King’s Justice, only to learn through powerful memories that he may be the greatest illusion of them all … and that the fate of all magic now lies in her hands.’

Today is day three of the Bookstagram Tour for the brilliant new YA book, Incendiary, by Zoraida Córdova, and I have a review to share that focuses on my favourite features of the novel: memory, manipulation and the mind.

Incendiary follows Renata, who works as a rebel spy against the crown that used to use her for its own means, and has the ability to steal memories from others, both in a way that can be used to aide those suffering from painful recollections, and in a manner that can be absolutely devastating to the person whose mind she touches. Her people, the Moria, have been all but wiped out, something that she has had a hand in and means that many in the rebel network are unwilling to trust or forgive her, but Renata is determined to prove herself as a member of the Whispers, to protect those she has grown to care for and to whom she believes she owes a debt. Unfortunately for her, this leads her on a path back to the life she thought she had been freed from, and a need to play a game that, in her youth, she was unaware she was a part of.

What I found most interesting about Incendiary was the way in which it deals with the concepts of conditioning and guilt. Mendez plays at being a father to Renata when she is young, attempting to ease his own hurts by treating her in a way that he sees as kind and carries the additional merit of conditioning her to trust him and believe that what she is doing serves a good and true purpose. He uses the innocence of her youth against her own people, claiming that the use of her powers for his own intent is only ‘lessons’ and giving her rewards when she is unwittingly successful in finding new information and eliminating threats to the crown, making her believe that she is being good and useful by way of bribes of sweets and affection. Renata has locked much of the worst of this, and her own childhood, away, and of all that she has ever done is something that she cannot make peace with, even knowing how she was manipulated and that a child in her situation could not possibly hope to understand the broader picture of what was happening or resist as she wishes she had done. Mendez’s treatment and exploitation of the child she was is disturbing, only his own potential gains considered and not Renata as an actual human being. He may supposedly treat her ‘kindly’, praise her and make sure that she has a comfortable life, but he is ultimately using her as a weapon – an object – without any consideration of how she may grow to feel about what she is doing. Had he managed to keep her, I imagine his intention would have been to keep her in a state of perpetual ignorance by ensuring she has nothing to concern her or anything to want for.

Renata’s issues with her own memories and those of her dealing with the recollections of others may be rooted in the fantasy elements of the story and in the use of her powers, but I enjoyed the broader look at the concept of memory itself and what it means to us. It was when studying Classical literature and philosophies that I remember first being asked to consider memory in a less trustworthy way than I had before, in that it cannot be denied that what we think we remember is ultimately not, in-fact, exactly what happened, for what we recall is coloured by the experiences we have had since that moment. Not only that, but what we believe to have happened or think we know is influenced by the world around us and what we are encouraged to think. I liked that there is something of this in Renata’s struggles, her understanding of what she sees never quite trustworthy because of a more magical manipulation, but also because she has been treated a particular way and told certain things. Not only this, but there is the all too human element of inadvertently trying to shield herself from her own painful memories.

I loved the idea of the Moria and their gifts, and that we get to see how they use the different powers of their minds to protect each other and to go on the offensive when necessary, including how they might work together and complement each other to achieve a goal. For me, this feature of the story was particularly interesting because it is imperative that the Whispers work together, yet the gifts that they have open up a whole realm of potential for mistrust, as when you have people who can steal your memories, fool your eyes and manipulate your feelings among you, how can you ever trust that what you’re experiencing is real? Each of their gifts has the potential to be used for healing and for hindering, and it’s entirely down to the whims of the gifted person as to what it becomes. Having magical powers of some variety is not uncommon in YA literature, but I felt that how they should or should not be used was particularly well explored in Incendiary, perhaps because our minds are something that we most fear someone manipulating.

Incendiary was released yesterday! Thank you, Hodderscape, for the ARC, finished copy, and the opportunity to be part of today’s event!

Review: Sword in the Stars by Cori McCarthy & Amy Rose Capetta

Review: Sword in the Stars by Cori McCarthy & Amy Rose Capetta

Ari Helix may have won her battle against the tyrannical Mercer corporation, but the larger war has just begun. Ari and her cursed wizard Merlin must travel back in time to the unenlightened Middle Ages and steal the King Arthur’s Grail — the very definition of impossible. It’s imperative that the time travellers not skew the timeline and alter the course of history. Coming face to face with the original Arthurian legend could produce a ripple effect that changes everything. Somehow Merlin forgot that the past can be even more dangerous than the future.’

I adored Once & Future and have been looking forward to Sword in the Stars for a good many months, so I was very grateful to be given an E-ARC by the publisher. I’m glad to say that Sword in the Stars does not disappoint and, in my opinion, doesn’t suffer from the lack of momentum that second books in duologies and trilogies tend to. One of the things that saves it from doing so is that it picks up almost immediately after the events of the first book and doesn’t spend the first few chapters recapping what happened in Once & Future, instead dedicating this time to moving the story forward. The pacing is good, balancing enough time with the characters in ways that develop them and their motives with action and learning about the outside influences that are affecting them. There is very little time when there is nothing significant happening, which prevents the narrative from stagnating.

Gwen and Ari remain one of my favourite couples and I love that there are so many plot pieces in Sword in the Stars that are often used in fiction as reasons for couples for have misunderstandings and for relationships to break down that are actually used as things that bring them closer together and keep them together. Both of them are unpredictable and delightfully headstrong, and while this sometimes leads them being surprised by each other and not anticipating exactly what they’re going to do, they don’t chastise each other for it or seek to have the other change to make things any easier on them. They see and applaud each other’s strengths, and while Ari’s role is that of the ‘hero’, Gwen is by no means any less significant, clever or strong, and it’s fantastic to see a couple who are unapologetically themselves and not expected to be ‘less’ for the convenience of their partner or the story. I would love to write a lot more about the both of them, but I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone!

Another of the things that I liked about the narrative is what the characters discover about themselves and their roles in history by trying to adhere to the narrative they know, while trying to figure out how to manipulate it just enough that what they do remains what everyone knows of the tale – if there was ever even any other chain of events. I love stories that play with time travel and time loops (and what if/cause and effect, etc), and I got a huge kick out of all the contemplation of paradoxes and the looks at how myths (and history) are manipulated as they’re transformed through literature and the social consciousness of different eras.

Sword in the Stars is a brilliant blend of fairytale retelling, science fiction and social commentary and I enjoyed every minute of it (I would be very, very happy to read more about Ari and co at some point in the future!). The cast as whole is hugely likeable, though characters are not without their flaws, and it’s very easy to want good things for all of them and hope that they will succeed both in their relationships and in what the overarching narrative needs them to accomplish to protect the wider universe from the corrupt Mercer. Highly recommended!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Review: Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

‘When Lia, an idealistic queen, falls for Xania, her new spymaster–who took the job to avenge her murdered father–they realise all isn’t fair in love and treason.

Lia won’t mourn her uncle: he’s left her a bankrupt kingdom considered easy pickings by its neighbours. She’s sworn to be a better ruler, but if she wants to push through her reforms, she needs to beat the Court at its own games. For years, Xania’s been determined to uncover her father’s murderer. She finally gets a chance when Lia gives her a choice: become her new spymaster, or take a one way trip to the executioner’s axe. It’s an easy decision.

When they fall for each other, their love complicates Lia’s responsibilities and Xania’s plans for vengeance. As they’re drawn together amid royal suitors and new diplomats, they uncover treason that could not only end Lia’s reign, but ruin their weakened country. They must decide not only what to sacrifice for duty, but also for each other.’

Queen of Coin and Whispers is one of my favourite reads of this year and I absolutely loved it. The story alternates (for the most part) between the point of view of Lia, a young queen new to her role and learning to navigate her court while trying to undo the harm her uncle has caused, and Xania, who works for the treasury and is set on avenging the murder of her father by whatever means possible. Xania is appointed as Lia’s new spymater, the Master of Whispers, after her intention to kill the man she suspects is responsible for her father’s death is uncovered and she’s given the chance to uncover enough information to condemn him – though the arrangement is not entirely without the threat of her intentions being revealed in a manner that would cost her her life.

Court politics are one of my favourite things to read about, and Queen of Coin and Whispers is primarily based around Lia’s attempts to introduce reforms to help her people, while attempting to work out who in her court – or, more accurately, her late uncle’s court – can be trusted to support her. Her uncle has left Edar bankrupt and with hardly the funds to support itself, standing her in a political landscape that makes her neighbours both her adversaries and people that she must rely on to try and get Edar back on its feet. One way in which she must do this is by marriage, specifically a marriage that will produce a blood heir, which leaves Lia trapped in a situation that means she knows she must marry and is set on doing so for her kingdom, yet she has no interest in men and the relationship that would produce a child of her bloodline. In the world of Queen of Coin and whispers, same sex marriages and relationships are commonplace, and a number of the main characters are involved with those of their own gender, none of which is commented on in a negative manner or set to be out of the ordinary, which was lovely to see and I wish we had more books that treat same sex marriage in the same way. It’s Lia’s case, with her responsibility to her kingdom and laws that demand she produce an heir that is a son or daughter of her own body, that sets her apart and has led to her concealing her preference for women from almost everyone.

As they begin to work together, Lia and Xania grow closer, but neither of them is secure enough in their affection being returned to make any clear overtures for a good while. Their situation is further impacted by their respective ranks – with Xania’s ‘fifth step by mother’s marriage’ something that impacts her belief that she might ever be suitable for a queen – their working relationship of royal and spymaster, and the looming threat of Lia’s marriage all things that keep them dancing around each other, trying to protect themselves and each other. It’s Lia who eventually manages clearer attempts to make her feelings known, in a move that I loved, and gives Xania her favourite romance novel to read – a novel that turns out to be about a relationship between two women. That their relationship, assumed by most to be a friendship that much of the court cannot understand, with Xania being ‘only’ fifth step, is one that the politicians and key players within the court judge and look down on makes it difficult for Xania in particular to believe that she might be safe in a relationship with Lia and get to keep her, her confidence in her work and ability contrasted with her worries and hesitation about what loving Lia means. Despite their feelings and attraction, Lia still goes through with her formal search for a husband, accepting suitors from neighbouring kingdoms, simultaneously daring her court to notice as she highlights her relationship with Xania, while also trying to work out which of her suitors is less likely to ruin her and her kingdom.

As the story progresses, politics and duty further interfere with Lia and Xania’s relationship, and further highlight all that they risk in their honesty with each other and in opening their hearts. While they very clearly adore each as Lia and Xania, the Queen and the Master of Whispers do not always agree on the same course of action, nor have the ability to put their own wishes and morals first when looking at the bigger picture. Lia is increasingly forced into corners that leave her with few options, the more idealistic facets of her nature stepped on by levels of society that want her kingdom to remain how it is, with them in control and profiting, as Xania uncovers the increasingly ugly goings on at court and beyond, witnessing the impact that her intent on revenge has, along with what transformation she sees in Lia.

One of the things I loved most about this book was Xania’s family. Her sister, Zola, is a strong presence in the story, as is her mother, both of whom support her in her work. Her step-father, a role all too often one that is a negative force in YA fiction, very clearly cares for her and wishes for her to be happy, his treatment of her protective, kind, and respectful of the memory of her late father. Though her family do voice concerns about her relationship with Lia, it isn’t because she’s a woman, but because they are worried about their differences in power and status – their main concern being that Lia could cast her aside and therefore prevent her from making any meaningful connection or marriage. In all other respects, they are supportive of her choice and relationship, and actively encourage her love of Lia, and Lia’s intent to prove her own love.

Queen of Coin and Whispers is an excellent and nuanced read that that I couldn’t put down. It’s out on April 23rd! Thank you The O’Brien Press for sending me an ARC for review!