Book review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu

Title: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication date: 4 February 2021

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Rep: Scottish Zimbabwean mc/side characters, Scottish Indian main side character, wheelchair user

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.

When a child goes missing in Edinburgh’s darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She’ll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?

When ghosts talk, she will listen…

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children–leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.

She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan…), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She’ll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa’s gonna hunt them all down.

The Library of the Dead is the start of a fascinating new fantasy series set in a dystopian Edinburgh (my home city, kind of…) and inspired by Zimbabwean magic. It has a really interesting world, but there just wasn’t enough time spent with the most interesting parts for me to love this one.

The Library of the Dead follows Ropa, a teen living in a caravan village with her grandmother and sister. Ropa earns money for rent by ghosttalking: she delivers messages from ghosts to living people. But when one ghost asks her to find her missing son, Ropa is drawn into a huge conspiracy that is kidnapping children and milking them for youth.

The book is definitely on the stranger side. It’s written in a very young (young as in teen/hip/cool) style, and is absolutely full of Scottish slang, Scottish idioms, Scottish ways of saying things. It is set in Edinburgh which is the closest city to where I grew up (I lived in the middle of nowhere) so I loved getting to see all this Scottish history, speech and places. Huchu has done an absolutely brilliant job of writing from the POV of a young Scottish teen: it was hugely reminiscent of my childhood, and of pretty much every single conversation I have with everyone back home whenever I talk to them. Unfortunately, I have come to the realisation that the way we Scottish people talk is INFURIATING. How do people put up with us using the word like every two sentences?! Look, Huchu did such a great job getting it sound so realistic, but I just didn’t really get on board with it because it kept annoying me. I think a lot of the annoyance possibly came from the stream of consciousness style first person POV. This is obviously just not a style I jig with, it felt like so much unecessary and random commentary on events. But whether it was the Scottish style of talk or the stream of consciousness that annoyed me most, I now plan to change literally everything about the way I talk because I don’t know how people put up with me if this is what I talk like (and it definitely is, I recognised so many things I say!!)

In saying this, I think this POV/style really helps you discover more about Ropa, who is one of the best things about this book. She is such a brilliant person: so full of spunk and quirkiness and fierceness and anger at the injustice in the world. She’s so full of energy that she really burns off the page and eclipses what’s actually happening. You kind of just want to keep reading just to know what ridiculous thing she’s going to think next – I was snorting with laughter the whole way through. But this did also have the downside of really taking you out of what should be a horrific, gruesome, dark world. Nothing ever felt really serious because of how Ropa reacted to situations. I do also think Priya was written very well (and I love seeing a disabled character in a wheelchair in such an action packed fantasy!!) She was so much fun (hello green hair?! She is definitely my people) and I loved her energy for life and danger.

What I also loved was this world. There are so many fantastic elements. For starters, the magic! Ropa’s ghosttalking uses a mbira (a Zimbabwean musical instrument used for communing with the dead) to help tether ghosts to the human world where she can talk with them. Some of the passages describing the music/mbira as Ropa used it were absolutely beautiful and were some of my favourite passages in the book. I also really liked the magic that requires training aspect: it’s involved lots of science and philosophy as Ropa tried to learn magic, that put a different spin on magic than a lot of other fantasy novels do. But there just wasn’t enough of this! The mbira disappears after the first 20% of the book and I just longed for it to return because that magic was so cool. Some of my favourite scenes are Ropa’s ghosttalking deliveries (particularly the gay baking scene!!) But they also just disappesred fairly early because of the main quest of finding the missing children.

I also loved the very interesting The Library of the Dead, the book’s namesake, a library for Scottish magic built in a tomb! The worlds of the ghosts, such as the EveryThere, were also really fascinating, with the terrifying creatures stalking anyone alive who reaches the place. But as with above, these excellent worldbuilding details barely featured. I would have thought The Library of the Dead especially would have had a more important role in the story, given it’s what the book is named after.

The later half of the book kind of goes back and forth between some really interesting, almost-creepy moments that are weird and darker and you don’t really know what the fuck is going on which is great (like the house with the Brounie!) Or they go slightly too far and verge more into this-doesn’t-make-huge-amounts-of-sense and has come out of nowhere (e.g. Who the actual villain is. A person named only once is the villain? What?!)

So all in all this book was a very conflicting read for me! There are things I absolutely loved and things I really didn’t. But I definitely encourage you to read this one, particularly if you enjoy the stream of consciousness style of writing/first person POV, as I think that was the main thing I struggled with. The world is fascinating and Ropa is such a fierce and gutsy character, so full of life she leaps of the pages.

Find me on Twinkl’s Library Lover’s Campaign, to take part, visit their Library Lover’s Day 2021 blog!

Book review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Title: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Publisher: Usbourne Publishing

Publication date: 4 February 2021

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Rep: Black/African characters

Page extent: 432 pages

Rating:

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

Content warnings: torture, murder, blood/gore, rape (mention)

The Gilded Ones has one of the most stunning covers of the year, and after reading it, I think it’s going to be one of the biggest YA fantasy books of the year! It’s a very fast paced, action heavy fantasy with some really excellent worldbuilding and a fascinating patriarchal society built on a religion. I do think the pace was at times detrimental, but this was still a very fun read and it was great to see some grimdark fantasy make the move to YA!

The Gilded Ones opens brutally: Deka is going through a rite of passage that will prove whether she is a pure woman, or if she is a demon. When her blood runs gold, she is proven to be demon and tortured by those she once called friends. Until, rescue comes from the most unlikely of places: the emperor, who wishes her to fight for his army. What follows is a bloody and brutal journey as Deka is trained to fight deathshrieks, unnatural creatures who are viciously murdering hoards of people across the empire. But not everything is quite as it seems, and the more Deka trains and her demon powers grow, the less convinced she is that she’s even a demon.

The worldbuilding is one of the best things about this book. Forna has built this West African inspired society, a place where religion has built a society based on the suffering of women for the will of men. The religion and history of the nation, the history of The Gilded Ones, demons who terrorised the nation before they were imprisoned, and the whole process of women forced to go through the violent rite of passage to prove they are not demon, are all detailed excellently. There is such a sense of history that really put fear behind the power of men. The way Forna writes about the way women have been trained to fear themselves, to fear their power, and to make themselves small for the sake of men, was absolutely brilliant and the parallels to our world were so clearly rendered.

I also thought the plot was absolutely fantastic. The way the mystery of the deathshrieks, the alaki and the Gilded Ones play out was so interesting. I absolutely sped through the book whenever I picked it up because the mystery really drives you forward, it’s so fast paced. There are lots of unexpected twists to the story that I really enjoyed because I was always kept on my toes!

In saying that, the speed of the book is also often it’s downfall. There are so many times, particularly the more emotional behaviours, decisions, feelings etc, that just happen far too fast and it really dragged me out of the story. From how quickly Deka seemed to get over the horrific torture she goes through, to the romance that kinda hits you out of nowhere with almost no time on page with the two characters together, it’s just very jarring in what is an otherwise pretty excellent YA. There’s also a couple of rather annoying plotholes that I couldn’t stop thinking about – where did the awful sense of fear and control at the barracks disappear to after the first scene? I mean, for example, Deka is even allowed to keep a pet?! In the place where they flay you if you don’t kill enough deathshrieks?! It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

(Please note the next para has minor spoilers.)

The plot between White Hands and the emperor also really annoyed me. How the fuck does White Hands have so much power if the emperor knows exactly who she is? Why would he trust her? It makes absolutely no sense.

(Spoilers over!)

But despite these issues, I think teens are going to absolutely love this book. It has such an impactful and interesting plot that you can get over the few issues with it. It was a very enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel when released!

Book review: A Dowry of Blood by S.T Gibson

Title: A Dowry of Blood by S.T Gibson

Publisher: Nyx Publishing

Publication date: 31 January 2021

Genre: Adult | Horror | Fantasy

Rep: All bi cast, polyamorous (m/f/f/m)

Page extent: 248 pages

Rating:

A lyrical and dreamy reimagining of Dracula’s brides, A DOWRY OF BLOOD is a story of desire, obsession, and emancipation.

Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.

With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death.

Content warnings from the author: emotional, verbal, and physical intimate partner abuse, gaslighting, war, famine, and plague, blood and gore, consensual sexual content, sadomasochism, self harm, body horror, violence and murder, alcohol use, depression and mania, sexual assault (not directed at any named character), drug use, drowning

Some books just leave you a shuddering, incomplete creature, unsure of how to go on in the world after you read them. This is A Dowry of Blood. There is such beauty and reverence in this prose that, sitting here after immediately finishing and trying to write this review, I find myself unsure of how the world works anymore, unsure of what to do next, longing to just sit and contemplate the words I just read.

A Dowry of Blood is a reimagining of Dracula’s brides, written from the point of view of Constanta, one of his brides, through the form of letters written to Dracula. She tells of their life together, how they came to be joined with his other brides, Magdalena and Alexi, and how they began to discover his dark secrets.

Blood has never been sexier. From the very first pages, this book just oozes with lust and desire, the prose so sumptuous and rich and decadent. It is like drowning in chocolate or wine, pleasure mixing with pain so intimately that you can’t separate one from the other. The fire with which desire floods this book is uncontrollable and obsessive: the way Gibson has written desire as something so deeply embedded in religious worship is so stunning that nothing I can say in this review will ever do it justice. Reading it feels like an awakening: you are as enraptured in the desire as Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi are. This book is a work of art, one that could not more perfectly explore the darkness and danger in desire. The way desire is represented through this sense of worship and faith is unlike anything I’ve read before, and yet so powerful and so beautiful that it feels like nothing will compare to it ever again.

These characters were just as perfectly rendered as the prose. The constant sense of foreboding, that sharp inhale of breath you and his brides take whenever Dracula, unnamed throughout the book but so breathlessly there in every sentence, walks into a room. The power he breathes into this book to have such presence in a world where he is not even named, where Constanta purposefully leaves him nameless to remove his power from her story. Constanta herself, the first of his brides, begins her story in these letters with her guilt and fear of him, but she gathers such strength as she writes her story. She gathers the love he brought into their lives in the form of Magdalena and Alexi and uses them against him. It is her love and pure, protective ferocity that brings about his downfall, that reveals his dark secrets, her fear of seeing them hurt anymore that seals his fate.

Then there’s Magdalena, a glowing, shining light of energy and passion and cleverness, subtly manipulating the room from her very first pages. Her change across the book feels most noticeable, as it leaves the most vivid hole in its wake, as her shining desire for life and freedom is brutally torn apart. And finally, the last of the brides, Alexi. He is the fire and brimstone, the terror who won’t go down without fighting, who will tear away from Dracula’s grasp even as he is strangled by it. These characters are so intricately woven together, their horrors shared together in Dracula’s control as he exerts his manipulation over them, elaborately ensuring they see that no matter what he does, they will shatter into even more pieces without him there. It digs so deeply and hauntingly into that slow journey from love to brutality in abusive relationships that the book feels as raw and bruised as anything I’ve ever read.

A Dowry of Blood is a book full of worship, telling a story about the way pain and pleasure, abuse and desire, can be so intricately wrapped that the unravelling can take centuries and break you in the process. It is a work of art, a book that has prose so beautiful that you come out of the book in a haze, wondering how you can return to the beauty beholden in its pages.

Book review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Title: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Publisher: Tor

Publication date: 2 February 2021

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | Romance

Rep: bisexual mc and gay mc, lots of queer side characters

Page extent: 432 pages

Rating:

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

Content warnings: domestic abuse (inc on page verbal, physical, emotional and sexual abuse), torture

There are times when you know a book sounds like everything you’ve dreamed of and you worry it might never live up to your expections. That is definitely not the case with Winter’s Orbit: this book lived up to the hype in my brain so much. It was an absolute joy to behold and read, it is the direction I have been longing for this genre to go – light scifi with romance, familiar, favourite tropes and brilliant character development and queer relationships. I would die for Kiem and Jainan and I long for more stories in their world.

Winter’s Orbit is described as Red, White and Royal Blue in space and I can definitely see that comparison. It follows Kiem and Jainan after they are rushed into an arranged marriage just a month after Jainan’s previous husband, Taam, died, in order to sign a treaty keeping the Iskat Empire from war with the rest of the galaxy. But as it is revealed Taam was murdered, the treaty is at risk and Kiem and Jainan begin investigating.

I can completely see the RW&RB reference. Winter’s Orbit has that same comforting joy about reading it, the sense of feeling completely at home and in love with the book and its characters. Kiem and Jainan were just so perfectly written and I loved the way their relationship developed from the uncommunicative first few days after they’re forcibly married, to the way they risk their lives for the other. Miscommunication is so often a trope in romance, but in this book, it actually makes sense – Jainan with his dark history of the marriage with Taam is so terrified of opening up and sure Kiem wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile Kiem is distraught that Jainan has been forced to marry him whilst grieving, and does everything he can to give Jainan as much space as possible. It takes time for Jainan to recover from Taam’s actions, and slowly begin to see Kiem as the genuine, lovable, won’t-ever-stop-talking husband that he is. The two of them together brought so much joy to me, they were just perfectly wonderful. I want the world for them.

The murder mystery was also very well done, particularly in the second half. I was absolutely racing to get through the book and find out what was going on and find out what was happening to a particular character that I couldn’t bear to see hurt.

I also loved all the worldbuilding details. It’s definitely not your usual heavy science fiction with so much complicated terminology and world building. Instead, it was expertly woven into the story in a way that kept it light. I was particularly fond of the way gender presentation was included in this world, through use of accessories to know how an individual identified. I love that including things like this is becoming more common in scifi and I really wish we could just see it adapted in the real world! The world is also so expansive, we get little glimpses into other societies across the galaxy and I really hope we get to explore more of the world in Maxwell’s future novels. I’m particularly interested in exploring Thea, Jainan’s home planet with its different clan style system, or the Resolution, the sort of controlling force of the galaxy with some very interesting technology who kind of protect the smaller empires like Iskat from war.

I find it so difficult to write reviews for books I absolutely loved. All I can say about Winter’s Orbit is just that it filled me with so much joy, I am in love with this world and these characters and this is going to be a comfort read for so many years to come!

Book review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 19 January 2021

Genre: Young Adult | Historical fiction

Rep: Chinese American mc, lesbian mc + li

Page extent: 416 pages

Rating:

Acclaimed author of Ash Malinda Lo returns with her most personal and ambitious novel yet, a gripping story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

What a really lovely first read of 2021! I’ve never read any Malindo Lo before, but I was very interested in this historical YA exploring the intersection of lesbian culture and Chinese American culture. And I’m so impressed! I thought this was a really excellent book, Lo really captures such a clear picture of life in the 50s. The book is absolutely dripping in lesbian culture, and I think the historic details and setting were written exceedingly well.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows Chinese American Lily, a baby gay who is just beginning to realise there is something different about her. She becomes friends with the only other girl in her advanced math class who introduces her to a lesbian club, the Telegraph Club, where she begins to explore her identity and tries to figure out how she can be both Chinese American and lesbian.

I thought Lo did an absolutely brilliant job of writing in this time period. You can really tell everything has been so excellently researched. It’s quite a slow book because a lot of time is spent on lots of small details and worldbuilding around the 50s time period, from larger details like the Red Scare/communism, down to the small things to do with clothes or food. I can definitely see that some people might not like this style. But I love books like this, ones that really give you such a perfectly clear vision of the world and setting. I loved the exploration of queer identity during this time period in particular, Lo drops subtle details that really help show what life was like for queer people in this era – my absolute favourite moment of this was Lily being fascinated by the lesbian pulp novels she found at the back of a drug store, and these being what led her to first start thinking she might be lesbian. It’s so funny to me that in the 50s queer people were discovering their identities in the same way I did 70 years later: just through a slightly different medium of literature (pulp novel in a drug store, vs fanfic online!)

The relationship between Kath and Lily was also expertly written. I think it might be one of my favourite relationships in YA. There was such a sense of magic and beauty that is so inherent in your first teenage relationship. It really captured that sense of first love, but in a very queer way – that sense of happiness when you first figure out what your feelings mean, that pure joy when you touch someone, but also that sense of shame and guilt that sometimes follows. The juxtaposition of the shame and happiness was written particularly well, and Lily’s journey to fit her lesbian culture into her Chinese American family was really exceptionally written and very honest.

There were some small issues I had. My main complaint is the small sections interspaced throughout Lily’s story where we got a POV from Lily’s parents or aunts from several years previously. I know these probably were included to give a better understanding of the time period and more history for the communism plot line but they felt very out of place to me. I didn’t really care about them at all, they just kept taking me out of Lily’s story – sometimes even at big cliffhanger moments!! Tell me what’s happening to Lily and Kath please and not her parents 20 years ago! It did also end quite abruptly. After quite a slow, tender and gentle story, the ending felt very rushed in comparison.

But overall, I thought this was a really excellent historical fiction YA. This book just exudes lesbian culture and it was fascinating to read about this time period and explore how queer culture developed during a time where it was illegal. I also thought Lo expertly explores the intersection of Lily’s lesbian and Chinese American culture, it felt like a very honest and very personal story and was beautifully written.

Book review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publisher: Del Rey

Publication date: 23 July 2019

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Rep: All Mexican cast

Page extent: 338 pages

Rating:

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

It’s my first review of 2021, and it’s for a really spectacular book! It is no surprise I went into Gods of Jade and Shadow with extremely high expectations. Mexican Gothic was my favourite book of 2020 and I wanted to fall in love this as much as I did with Mexican Gothic. Suffice to say: I definitely did. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the most exciting authors writing today. Her ability to write across so many different genres is outstanding, and with another THREE book releases coming in 2021, I can’t wait to explore more of her work.

Gods of Jade and Shadow follows Cassiopeia, a young, rural woman in 1920s Mexico who lives with her grandfather and is pretty much treated as the household servant, bullied by her cousin and aunts. But then she accidentally awakens the Mayan God of Death, Hun-Kamè, and she finds herself caught up in an adventure. She and Hun-Kamè must race against time to collect the pieces of himself lost across Mexico before he sucks dry her energy, killing her and turning himself mortal in the process.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has some of the best worldbuilding in fantasy. She has such a fantastic ability to perfectly describe a scene so that you can almost hear, smell and see the scenes yourself. From the bustle of Mexico City, to the desert city of El Paso, each place Cassiopeia and Hun-Kamè visit is so perfectly rendered in my mind thanks to her beautiful writing. It was such a wonderful world to be caught up in, full of pieces of Mayan history and lore. The creatures, demons, witches, gods, that Cassiopeia and Hun-Kamè meet on their journey are also pulled from Mayan culture. It was just so fun to learn about all these creatures, to hear about the mythology behind Xibala, the land of the dead and which Hun-Kamè is trying to win back from the brother who betrayed him.

Cassiopeia is such a brilliantly written character. She is so clear and certain as to who she is: at times she is a little naive and young, as you would expect given her upbringing. But she’s also so full of curiosity, has such a strong sense of adventure and desire for more, and she has such a lovely heart. I do love a villain, I love a good morally grey character, but I found Cassiopeia such a breath of fresh air. She has such a sense of goodness about her that I really loved, she is so kind – she does, after all, fight for Hun-Kamè the entire novel, and even though she is dying the longer she stays bonded with him, her death is not the reason why she is fighting for him.

I also was a huge fan of their slow burn romance. I mean, come on, falling for the god of death is exactly the kind of fantasy romance I love! I really appreciated the way we saw Hun-Kamè’s descent to humanity through his interactions with Cassiopeia. The longer they stay bonded, the closer Cassiopeia comes to death, but the closer Hun-Kamè comes to being mortal. And his journey to mortality is clearest when we see him with Cassiopeia. We see him turn from this distant, grateful but stilted newly awoken God, to someone who is as overwhelmed by Cassiopeia’s kindness as I am. The two fall beautifully for each other, and as a reader who NEVER CRIES AT BOOKS, I was close to tears at several moments near the end of this book when the two of them have some really beautiful, touching moments together. And speaking of endings, THAT ENDING!! Oh my god, I loved it. It was so perfect for this book, bittersweet but hopeful.

Also, I have a completely personal pet peeve about fantasy novels. Some authors spend too much time focussing on showing basic necessities being met during a journey (food, bathroom, sleep etc) in order to make it feel realistic, but of course, that is often very boring. But then others do it too little and it just feels rushed and unrealistic because like…when do people eat on this adventure?! But Silvia Moreno-Garcia struck the absolute perfect balance between showing realistic necessities of a journey (they even carry suitcases with clothes!) but without dwelling on it too much to make the book boring. So that just added to my love for this book. I know it’s such a weird pet peeve but it makes me so happy when I see authors do it well!

So basically this book is brilliant. It is dark at times, exploring love and sacrifice and gods hellbent on destroying Cassiopeia and Hun-Kamè. But it is also really hopeful, led by this kind and beautiful person in Cassiopeia and I think Silvia Moreno-Garcia really wrote such a brilliant relationship between her and Hun-Kamè. I’m going to be reading absolutely everything Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes forevermore.

Book review: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

Title: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

Publisher: Tin House Books

Publication date: 4 June 2020

Genre: Adult | Contemporary

Rep: Lesbian, sapphic

Page extent: 354 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.

Content warnings: suicide (graphic description in prologue, mentioned throughout), animal death, graphic description of dead animals, killing animals (on page and mentioned), blood and gore (related to taxidermy work), cheating, brief scene of underage sexual assault between Bryce’s mother and Jessa, teen pregnancy

Do you ever read a book that you just look at the Goodreads rating and go ‘what the actual fuck were all these other people reading?’ The award for the Everyone Else on Goodreads is Wrong award this year goes to Mostly Dead Things! Oh my god, I loved it so much?! Why does it have such a low rating?!

Mostly Dead Things is a very strange book, about a taxidermist whose father commits suicide, and mother starts making erotic art out of her taxidermy animals in response. It follows a family in the wake of this tragedy, but a family which is also still reeling from a tragedy years earlier: Bryce, wife to a brother and sleeping with his sister, who left the family and her children and never returned.

Our three main characters are:

  • Bryce: I’m starting with Bryce because although she is by no means the main character (in fact, she does even appear on page in the present time), she is the thread that holds these characters together. She is the girl who loved a sister and a brother, married and had kids with one, and then ran away one day, leaving her children behind. She is the one who still has such a tight grip around each member of this family, who have never healed from when she left them behind.
  • Milo: the brother of the family, the one who turned away from the family taxidermy business because he threw up at the sight of his father working on the animal carcasses. He is the one who, to Jessa, came into her friendship with Bryce and took her away, married her, and loved her in a way that Jessa couldn’t provide.
  • And finally we have Jessa: we follow the book from Jessa’s POV. She is the taxidermist of the family, and the one who has to hold the family together. She must do this, because her father designed his suicide so she would be the one to find him, because he knew she would be able to handle it, and so it is his last request to her, in a way. But Jessa is stuck in the past. In between the present story, we get short extracts from the past, when Jessa was a teen and fell in love with her best friend, Bryce. We see glimpses of this childhood and see the hold that Bryce still has over this family, even after she left years before. Jessa is so deeply scarred and broken from this love affair that she effectively destroys everyone around her, even as she tries to hold them all together. I thought Jessa was just perfectly written: the raw pain she feels on every single page binds this story together expertly and despite her many, many flaws, you can’t help but hope that she is able to heal and move on.

Mostly Dead Things is a book about pain and grief and love. It’s a hard book to feel happy as you read, because there is so much raw pain in this novel. Following a family that has been broken, this book doesn’t shy away from creating powerful, hugely gutrenching moments that felt like someone was clawing me open. It has been so long since I’ve had such an intense reading experience. This book is so sensual and visceral and it creates such an intensity that you feel as cut open as these characters are. It just sucks you into the hot muggy world of Florida and you feel as if you’ve been transplanted there, as if the writing actually transports you to the swamps of Florida.

The fact that these characters are such horrible people and that I loved them all the same is just? Amazing? The fact that I was rooting for the family to find each other again, rooting for them to tear each other open in agony so they could heal in the wake of such a tragedy. The way this family were broken and torn apart juxtaposed with the way the animals were broken and torn apart and then lovingly were healed again was just *chef’s kiss*

GOD THIS WAS JUST SO FUCKING GOOD, Goodreads reviewers whhhyyyyyy?! I loved this one so much. It is intense and visceral and I had one of the best reading experiences of the year. What a fucking fantastic debut novel.

Book review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher: Solaris

Publication date: 20 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy | Steampunk

Page extent: 416 pages

Rating:

Synopsis: Dragons. Art. Revolution.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…

This was my first foray into Yoon Ha Lee’s work and all I can say is I can’t wait to explore more of his work because I really loved this! It is so very different to much of the other fantasy I’ve read, but because of that it felt so refreshing and new. And the nonbinary/female enemies to lovers relationship at the core of this story SPARKED SO MUCH JOY OMG I LOVE TO SEE IT.

Phoenix Extravagant is not your usual fantasy. We don’t follow a hero: instead, we follow an artist, slightly naive, oblivious to the world outside their art, and really just wanting to get on with their life outside of war. This passivity isn’t usually something you see in fantasy, particularly in a fantasy book about colonisation and rebellion. The book follows this artist, Gyen Jebi, as they are hired by the ruling Razanei Ministry of Armour to paint sigils that power their army of automaton. But after they discover how the paint is created, they feel forced to act, by stealing the Ministry of Armour’s automaton dragon of course!

This is a book full of very contrasting elements, and it made for a very unusual read, but one that felt so new and unique, fun and fresh. We see the book from the perspective of someone who doesn’t want to get involved in a rebellion, who doesn’t want to fight or kill and kind of just wants to get on with their life, so they get a job with the enemy to pay their bills. This is contrasted with the exploration of identity, colonisation and war, bringing us the unusual story of someone from the conquered class who doesn’t want to fight back themselves to get their country back. We see in Jebi the way the conquering nation are able to assimilate, manipulating the Hwaguk into giving up their names and their culture. The horrific nature of the magic system really exemplifies this, using cultural erasure to create the very weapon used to enforce the rule over Hwaguk is just horrific on so many different levels. So instead of in the main character, it is in Jebi’s sister, Bongsunga, that we see the rebel fighter who is willing to die to her country back. This makes for a very interesting and complex sibling relationship at the heart of this book, one that involves betrayal on both sides.

Alongside Jebi, we have another pacifist at the centre of this novel, who is of course Arazi the automaton dragon. Arazi, a war machine built by the Razan to destroy their enemies, who wants nothing to do with it. Arazi is such a sweet dragon for a creature created for such monstrosities and I adored the emphasis put on his consent and choice, and Jebi’s efforts to allow the dragon choice and free will as much as possible.

I really loved the juxtaposition of the steampunky, scifi nature of this fantasy alongside this more mystical, fairytale sense of freedom in the story. The contrast of this automaton dragon, and the mystical way he can fly; this felt most especially freeing in the way this book ended. I won’t say anything for spoilers, but I loved that we ended on a more fairytale-esque note than other elements of the book would suggest.

I want to end with talking about the relationship between Jebi and the prime duelist, Vei, because I just loved it. I think I must’ve been smiling like a fool the whole way through at seeing such a brilliant nb/f relationship at the heart of a fantasy book, it just made me so full of joy!! These two start with a mainly physical relationship but then grow to trust each other and suddenly the fire with which they fight for the other, the lack of control when the other is in danger, I just love to see it. Lee writes with such a simple style of writing I feel, it’s not full of huge detailed paragraphs about worldbuilding, about magic, about politics, or about the relationship. And this more simple style of writing somehow felt more powerful than if we’d had pages and pages of relationship development. Instead, the simplest sentences held the most power. It makes you pay attention to actions and what’s actually happening to see what is most important, and this felt particularly well done when showing off the relationship between Jebi and Vei.

I really loved this book. It looks at colonisation and war from a very different perspective than you usually see in fantasy. Instead of following a hero, we follow one of the bystanders impacted by war. It felt so fresh and unique and it really emphasised some of the mechanisms colonisers use to control those they conquer.

Book review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 13 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 528 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches was my first foray into Harrow’s lyrical, poetic prose, as I haven’t read her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I don’t always have the best time with this kind of prose, I tend to either love it or hate it. But in The Once and Future Witches, I loved it and I’m very excited to read Harrow’s debut now as well!

The Once and Futute Witches is set during 1893 suffragette America, where three sisters who have been seperated by time and betrayal, meet again when a spell that makes an old tower appear in the middle of New Salem pulls them together. The three sisters end up embroiled in a quest to bring back magic that will allow women to stand up to the world that has pushed them so far down.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this beautiful book. The prose was just wonderful: so haunting and so full of imagery, it just completely envelops you. Despite the heavy detail and poetic prose, which can sometimes really slow down a book, it didn’t feel slow at all. This prose just sucked me in and I wanted to stay reading this book for hours at a time. It’s very reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s work, who has the same ability to create this delicate, beautiful language that makes you never want to leave.

One of my favourite things about this world was the history regarding the magic. In order to stay hidden, magic is passed down through “women’s things”: children’s nursery rhymes, fairytale stories, sewn into fabric. Each chapter starts with a spell, many of which will be familiar, twists on different rhymes we may have heard. Alongside these spells, there are occasional breaks for short fairytales that really help add to the sense of beauty and magic in this book, alongside a sense of darkness that comes with the original fairytales.

Are the three main characters a little one dimensional? Yes. James, the youngest sister, is the wild, uncontrollable one; Beatrice, the old crone obsessed with books and knowledge; and Agnes the beautiful warrior mother. They are a little surface level, I felt like Agnes was the only one that really got to explore her personality a bit more. She has a bit more depth as the sister who isn’t fully on board with bringing back witches, as the one who is deep set in her bitterness at the betrayal years ago, and so I found her journey more interesting than the others.

What I loved most about the characters in this book is not therefore the three sisters. Instead, it’s the small, insightful moments we get with the host of secondary characters in this world. To me, this is where the emotion and heart of this book really sang. There was such a depth of emotion in such small moments that really touched me, and really emphasised this fight to defeat the darkness of men. There’s Jeannie, the trans woman too scared to tell her friends she’s trans until the end of the book when she reveals her shorn head inflicted on her by the prison system, who clenched her fists in meetings as the women talked about the uselessness of men’s magic, when it was the only kind she knew. There’s the moment when Mr Lee, his face radiant and fierce, stands as the only barrier between Agnes and men who seek to burn her. There’s Cleo Quinn, Beatrice’s love interest, a Black journalist who in a moment of absolute power stuns you with her sharp words that the Black people living in New Cairo, her people, are always the ones to suffer most for others’ fights. It is these small moments and glimpses into these other characters lives that felt the most powerful to me.

Incidentally, it is these secondary characters lives that felt the most inclusionary and diverse as well. Without them, this book is token white feminism trying to beat down the man, the three white women tearing down structures of society with no thought to who actually gets hurt most by their actions. Which is why I wish there had been more focus on these other characters. It’s like Harrow tried to make her feminism more open and inclusive but she didn’t quite go far enough: these characters did feel a little like side offerings to the main quest of these three sisters, used to help them reach their full power and take down the villain. I wish we’d seen more importance placed on those putting themselves at risk for the sisters because these characters really were the heart and soul of this book and gave this book its most powerful moments.

But overall, I did find this book very enchanting. There is no question that Alix E. Harrow writes absolutely beautifully, in a way that makes you completely entranced in a world. I appreciate her efforts to attempt a more inclusive fight for feminism but I do feel it could have gone a lot further. The best part of this book were the small moments with the characters around the sisters, the moments where other characters got to show their world and their hopes and their dreams and why they were fighting and I wish we’d had more importance and focus placed on these (at times infinitely more) interesting characters.

Book review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Publisher: Erewhon

Publication date: 13 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 384 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

C.L Polk is the author of one of the books, Witchmark, that got me back into reading and blogging after several years without it. So I was inordinately excited to read her new book, The Midnight Bargain. I was a little wary during the first 20%, but after that, the plot and characters really begin to shine and I couldn’t stop reading!

The Midnight Bargain follows Beatrice, a young ingenue in her first bargaining season, whereby gentlemen try to woo and win over women for marriage. Beatrice needs a good match, as her father’s fortunes were decimated by a bad investment and now the family is close to ruin. But if she marries, Beatrice is forced into a binding collar, which removes all her magic in order to protect any unborn child who might be possessed by a spirit. Beatrice is torn between wanting to help her family and wanting to pursue her dreams of freedom without a binding collar. It becomes an even harder decision when she falls in love with one of the gentlemen, Ianthe. But she has found someone who understands her desires in Ianthe’s sister, Ysbeta, who also does not want to marry. The two plan to help each other bind a greater spirit which will prevent anyone from marrying them.

The first 20% of this book I did struggle. C.L Polk, along with V.E Schwab, is one of those authors that I really struggle to care about their female characters because they are just so annoying. I felt this in Witchmark with Grace, a character we’re supposed to care about when she wants to enslave her brother for her own power? Yeah no thanks (it’s why I haven’t ever read the sequel to Witchmark despite how much I adored that book). And I worried during the first 20% of the book because Beatrice, our main character, starts out a little bratty and whiny. It really isn’t clear why she wants to pursue magic, and thus the initial conflict between magic and marriage that will save her family doesn’t feel particularly strong. It seems like a whiny selfish girl not wanting to help her family. Which is fine if that was who Beatrice was! But she was portrayed as really wanting to save her family and give up her life for them, so it felt very contradictory when you can’t really see any strong reasons for why she wants magic at such great expense to her family. Add that to the insufferable Harriet, Beatrice’s sister who seems to care naught a single bit for her sister, doesn’t care what Beatrice might desire or more importantly, what Beatrice might suffer. So I did spend the first 20% thinking oh god not another book with insufferable female characters.

BUT! PUSH THROUGH! Because after about 20%, everything really changes. As Beatrice meets Ysbeta and Ianthe, we really see her personality blossom, along with her two desires: saving her family and being a mage. I really loved this exploration of individualistic vs collective goals in this society, and to see Beatrice’s struggle to reconcile her wish to save her family with her wish to not be shackled and sold off in a marriage contract, no matter how much she loved Ianthe. I really appreciated the emphasis on Beatrice’s family and the strength of her love for them throughout the book, no matter what happened. A lot of other books exploring this, the struggle never really feels fully real – you always kind of know of course the person is going to pick themselves. And I loved that that feeling wasn’t there. I had no idea what Beatrice would do and I think that’s down to the strength in the second half of portraying this sense of selfish, more individualistic style of living alongside the hopes of her family who have bankrupted themselves for her.

I adored the friendship with Ysbeta. The fire in these two as they try to find a way out of marriage really helps bring Beatrice’s desires into a much stronger and clearer light, and thus my initial problem with her characterisation in the first 20% disappears. They have such a strong friendship and I really appreciated Ysbeta’s character. In a book so focused on marriage and tying yourself away to someone, Ysbeta was a breath of fresh air as someone who knows she doesn’t ever want to get married. I very much read her as somewhere on the ace spectrum, though it isn’t on page rep, as her desires to not get married felt like they went beyond just her wishes to be a mage and travel the world.

I’m also a huge Ianthe fan. In a society such as this, he of course does not start off perfect. I loved that Beatrice was unafraid to stand up to him and the two had so many fierce discussions around the morals and ethics surrounding Chasland society and culture. The way she challenges him made the relationship feel so much more positive and really makes you root for them because Ianthe is so willing to change and grow for Beatrice.

I really enjoyed this book. Despite my intial concerns during the first 20%, they were completely blown away by the rest of the book. I loved the emphasis on friendship, Ysbeta is pretty much one of the best female characters I’ve read all year and the relationship was very sweet.