Book review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Title: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Publisher: Ace

Publication date: 21 July 2020

Genre: Adult | Horror | Witches

Page extent: 368 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Content warnings: blood, animal death, ritualistic animal sacrifice, self-harm, rape, paedophilia, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, death, gore, dead bodies, misogyny, racism

Welcome to spooksville, population one coven of terrifying witches threatening to destroy a community of sexist menfolk! The Year of the Witching was one of my most anticipated books of the year, promising all of the dark, spooky, filled with blood and gore magic that I desired, and it definitely lived up to my expectations! Combining the kind of puritan society seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the dark blood magic seen in horror brings a wonderful (and very dark) witchy book to our shelves. Like seriously. It’s so fucking witchy.

The Year of the Witching is set in Bethel, a small community barred to outsiders. There, they are led by the church of The Father, with a Prophet and his apostles who look after their Bethelen flock. But all is not well: in this society, women are treated as cattle, carved with a symbol of marriage on their foreheads, Outsiders who skirt the borders of Bethel are treated with disgust and disdain, and Immanuelle, who’s mother attempted to kill the Prophet himself, is desperately trying to live a life without sin to avoid others claiming she’s a witch thanks to her mother’s blood. But then Immanuelle ends up in the dangerous woods by accident, where she sees some strange witches cavorting together and now four plagues have come upon the town and Immanuelle will do everything in her power to stop it.

The list of things I loved about this book is huge so let’s just dive straight in because this review is likely going to be biiiiiiig.

The witches

Oh my god the witches!! They were just amazing. I loved everything to do with them, from Lilith with her stag head, to the sigils used to carve curses, to the extracts from Immanuelle’s mother’s diary. The four witches are just thrillingy creepy. Can you actually imagine how terrifying a female body with the skull of a stag would be?! The way the other witches are described is just as terrifying: each of them are quite clearly dead, bodies brokenly moving and twitching, eyes dead and staring, I thought they were expertly detailed to be as scary as possible.

And the four plagues these witches brought were so much fucking fun!! (Yes I realise I’m saying four world destroying plagues were FUN but that is why we read HORROR). These plagues were just so dark and creepy, water turning to blood, the blight making people smash their own heads against walls?! But it was so interesting to explore how these plagues actually impacted the day to day lives of people. Usually we see the world sort of stop and everyone panics (which, to be fair, does seem to be the way humans would react given *gestures to coronavirus*) But I liked that this book took a different approach, here we saw everyone needing to get on with life and do their best – it explored what actually would happen if all the water turned to blood. From the crops failing, to animals dying of thirst, to stored reservoirs of water, to using the rain, I just found it really interesting to explore how people were getting on with life in a plague as opposed to seeing the usual sense of despair and panic.

Worldbuilding

The history and worldbuilding is so detailed and in-depth and just absolutely fascinating. I really love books about puritanical societies that actually delve into how the society got there and why they act the way they do. I find it fascinating to explore how humans can come to do such terrible things, what actually takes a society from what we know to something so much worse, it’s why I love books that explore villainy. And The Year of the Witching gave us so much backstory to Bethel, how it came to be, the religion that started the war between the witches and Bethel. I adore SFF books with religion, and I loved it even more than usual in The Year of the Witching. Like all books about puritanical societies, plagues, end of the world dystopias, they feel particularly scary in the current world climate. The essence of misogyny that runs deep through Bethel’s community, the way the community targets women and girls and uses them to give themselves power is just terrifyingly good. That sliver of pure evil throughout just fills me with so much rage and anger, and I love books that just overtake my emotions like that.

The unexpected romance

Ezra and Immanuelle?! I didn’t expect there to be a hint of romance in the book but it was so lovely and unexpected. I loved that they were both such loyal friends first and foremost, before romance. Their loyalty and strength is really magical to read about. Every time they’re on page together there is such a beautiful sense of friendship before anything. It’s like these two teens are faced with such evil and horrors in the rest of their lives but then with each other they just have this sweetness and innocence which I loved.

Family

I really liked Immanuelle’s close relationship to her family, particularly the love she and her grandfather have. He doesn’t spend much time on page, but I really felt every moment he was because there is so much emotion in his pages. I very much appreciated the importance put on familial love in this book. Despite the flaws of Immanuelle’s family (hi Martha and your punishment), they still have so much love and support for each other? Martha and Anna and Abram clearly have so much love for their children. It would have been so easy to turn Immanuelle’s family against her, for them to be as evil at heart at The Prophet and his apostles, but they had such strength and love for each other that was really nice to see in this very dark book. Even when looking at the other families, there is such a strong connection beween Ezra and his mother Esther, between Leah and her unborn child, between Vera and Sage. It brought a lightness and comfort to a very dark book.

The ending

Please note, the following paragraph has some spoilers for the ending so skip ahead to past the nachos if you don’t want to know about it! I wanted to talk about the ending because it’s the reason I didn’t give this a full five stars.

However, I actually think it could’ve been a touch more dark. I KNOW, I’m the worst. It just felt a little incomplete, like we were just waiting for Immanuelle to say fuck this shit and blast everyone. And I think it would have been really interesting to see her descent into darkness. It’s a book about overthrowing a society and building from the ground up. Except for a person who spends the whole book wanting to change things, when she gets the chance, she says nah actually I’ll let the Prophet remain in charge and keep carving girls thanks? The ending (the epilogue in particular where it talks about what has actually happened since the events of the book), just felt a bit like a different story. I wanted dark Immanuelle. And if she wasn’t willing to be dark, I at least wanted her to overthrow the society and make some change. What was the point of everything then?

Okay spoilers over.

Please don’t take that to mean I don’t love it! Because I really enjoyed this book. I had an absolute ball reading it, it’s by far the most engaged I’ve felt in a book in a little while. The worldbuilding and religion was so interesting and detailed and I loved exploring these four very dead, creepy witches!

Book review: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Title: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Publisher: Razorbill

Publication date: 28 May 2019

Genre: Young adult | Fantasy |Witches

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

This book has been on my TBR for so long, and I don’t know why I hadn’t picked it up yet but just add that to the list of reasons why I hate myself because this so good?! It’s so cute and funny, full of very fun (and very queer) relationships, all mixed up in a delicious barrel of blood magic and elemental magic which are the TWO BEST KINDS OF MAGIC. Anyway I’m mad at myself for not reading this sooner because I enjoyed this so much!

These Witches Don’t Burn follows elemental witch Hannah in the aftermath of a very bad breakup. But when Hannah starts seeing signs that a blood witch has come to town, she must team up with her ex to hunt them down because no one else believes her. Enter new hot cutie Morgan, just who Hannah needs to complicate her life more!

I’m going to start by getting my one major peeve about this book out of the way quickly: why oh why oh why oh why do so many YA books insist on plot that hinges off parents and other responsible adults making an environment so toxic and terrifying for a child that they would rather BE KILLED BY A BLOOD WITCH than talk to you about the situation?

Okay short mini rant over, onto the good stuff! I didn’t expect this to be as funny as it was (I have no idea why, maybe because I don’t really associate fantasy with humour?) But Hannah has such a great voice, she’s funny and sarcastic (my favourite form of humour) and thus I loved her. She gets so angry at her ex, I thought their relationship was perfect, it really exemplified the kind of messy awkward breakups that happen in high school. Victoria, as set up as the brooding evil ex, is obviously therefore my favourite. I mean Morgan is fine, she was a nice enough character if a little bland and lacking something defining I could talk about right now. But Victoria was just so fucking confident and powerful and kind of a little mean, but also very obviously still had feelings for Hannah which makes her vulnerable (and thus more dangerous). Which just made her such a perfect character for me!

The whole environment of this book was just very cute and very fun. The pacing was excellent, there’s lots of action, there’s lots of fires and magic and witchy coven meetings. I particularly liked the odd little bits of magic we got to see that really helped build this world up: for example, the binding rings or tattoos used to keep children from accidentally revealing their magic, to the very cool air bubble things that can be used to send messages, to more traditional witchy things like pentagrams and blood magic animal sacrifices. (Gotta love that blood magic).

This was such a fun read, I had such a great time reading it. Whilst I’m still mad that I didn’t read this earlier, it does mean I don’t have to wait for the sequel because it’s already out!

Book review: The First Sister by Linden A Lewis

Title: The First Sister by Linden A Lewis

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date: 4 August 2020

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | SPACE WARS

Page extent: 352 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

Phheewww I’m on a roll of incredible sci-fi right now, and The First Sister was no exception. This is a dark and epic tale of war across the solar system, following three main protagonists on opposite sides of the war as they try to fight for control over their own bodies.

The First Sister is a story of bodily autonomy, or rather, the story of what happens when bodily autonomy is removed, when people have no control over what happens to them and what happens when they fight back. We follow three individuals on opposite sides of the war:

  • First Sister: a priestess of the Sisterhood serving on the Juno, a warship. As a priestess, she is there to provide distraction to the soldiers, be that hearing their confessions or providing them with sex to prevent distraction whilst they do their duties. Her voice was taken from her as a child, to prevent her ever spilling the secrets of the captain of her ship. When the Juno gets a new Captain, war hero Saito Ren, First Sister is asked to gain her trust and spy on her for the Sisterhood, who thinks she is a traitor.
  • Lito sol Lucius: on the opposite side of the war from First Sister is Lito, a duelist who has recently recovered from wounds gained in the fall of Ceres, and for which he is blamed. He is ordered to return to Ceres, kill the Mother, the head of the Sisterhood, and kill his traitorous ex-partner, Hiro, who assisted in the fall of Ceres.
  • Hiro: for Hiro’s POV, we get short clips from a recorded message they sent to Lito, explaining how they betrayed their Empire. For as they explain at the start of the recording, they are most definitely guilty and they betrayed the Icaari.

These three each follow very different, exciting plots that all combine in one last final showdown on Ceres. Whilst each of these POVs were interesting on their own, I was particularly in love with that of First Sister. There is something so incredibly powerful about this POV from a person who cannot speak, so dialogue instantly becomes not a tool that the author can use. And I just loved the more introspective nature of First Sisters POV that therefore happened. Forced into the Sisterhood, her POV provides lots of insight into this religious powerhouse and the dark insides of the religion. So seeing her grow to become a person who gains control over her body after all these years in service to the awful Sisterhood was so powerful.

I did love her POV a lot more than Lito’s. I thought his a little detached and I found it more difficult to get attached to him as a character, which is why this book didn’t get a full 5 stars. But then comparing that to Hiro, who despite having the smallest part, just small extracts from their recordings, got so much personality through. I loved them. The way the Icaari have destroyed Hiro’s bodily autonomy is truly horrific, it’s so shocking and so disgusting and I was blown away when we first read what has happened to them. This is a world with such horrors in it, where a few powerful individuals hold the power and control over millions, where the lives of the many are used and discarded as a tool for the few powerful people. But it’s also a story about those who refuse to be used, who refuse to let the powerful discard them like nothing, and what happens when those few individuals decide to fight back. And it’s spectacular.

As a short side note, Lewis is another author going onto my list of authors who write epic battle scenes. This is something I struggle with as a writer so I’m always hugely impressed when authors can do it so well. These battles were so fun and filled with really badass technology, and this lightened the load of a book discussing some really dark issues surrounding bodily autonomy.

The world was just as diverse as I’d hoped, pretty much everyone is queer. Between nonbinary Hiro, Saito Ren and First Sister’s relationship, we’re full of diverse queer characters. I really loved the soft slow development of the relationship between Ren and First Sister. I just love SFF books that also have brilliantly queer romances that impact the story, so this was just perfect.

Also kudos to Lewis because there were so many twists at the end and I guessed NONE OF THEM. It was such a moment of shock and disbelief and omg OF COURSE this all makes sense I love it?!?

It’s hard to talk too much about this book without giving spoilers, so all I’ll say is I really liked this one. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of difficult issues being discussed, but this is paired with lots of epic battles and some very cool tech, so it pretty much combines the best two things about SciFi!

Book review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Title: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date: 4 August 2020

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | Multiverse

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A multiverse-hopping outsider discovers a secret that threatens her home world and her fragile place in it–a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

CARA IS DEAD ON THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FOUR WORLDS.

The multiverse business is booming, but there’s just one catch: no one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive.

Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying–from diseases, from turf wars, from vendettas they couldn’t outrun.

But on this earth, Cara’s survived. And she’s reaping the benefits, thanks to the well-heeled Wiley City scientists who ID’d her as an outlier and plucked her from the dirt. Now she’s got a new job collecting offworld data, a path to citizenship, and a near-perfect Wiley City accent. Now she can pretend she’s always lived in the city she grew up staring at from the outside, even if she feels like a fraud on either side of its walls.

But when one of her eight remaining doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined–and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

Well this book was fucking excellent. Like, really fucking excellent. I think it might be my favourite sci fi. Ever. God, it was so good. From the plot twists 9% in that continued all the way through, to the deep social commentary on issues from gun violence to class to climate change, the exploration of trauma and survival, The Space Between Worlds managed to bring together so many different issues into one perfect sapphic scifi that’ll I’ll be thinking about for pretty much the next five years.

The Space Between Worlds is set on an Earth which has discovered multiverse travel. But there’s a catch: you can only visit a parallel universe if the parallel you is already dead. Traversers, those who have died on other worlds, are hired to travel across the multiverse to get information. Cara is one of these traversers. But when one of the parallel Cara’s is killed in mysterious circumstances, Cara is drawn into a plot that endangers the entire multiverse.

It’s difficult to put into words how much I loved this book. I was hooked completely from the very first page. We’re drawn into this incredibly detailed world, and Johnson has done such an epic job of the worldbuilding. There’s an enclosed, rich city, protected from the harsh weather outside and a Mad Max style desert, where the poorer individuals live overruled by a self-styled emperor. We’re thrust into this world that has been ravaged by climate change, and it felt like a bleak look into our future, so realistic and well detailed was this world. The Space Between Worlds subtly explores issues like climate change in a way that isn’t in your face or preachy – it’s anything but that. In fact, on the surface, there is no blatant discussion of issues like climate change or gun violence. But Johnson has woven these concepts throughout in subtle descriptions of the world: from the way people get around with tarps to protect from the sun, to the stark absence of guns at all, to the descriptions of acid in the air, Johnson weaves social commentary into the story with such a powerful impact.

But what’s most powerful is the depiction of trauma, domestic abuse, and an individual who has survived but is still deeply affected and damaged by what she’s been through. The way Cara is written is just phenomenal. She is such a brilliant, morally grey character. I longed for her to find her safety as much as I longed for her to get her revenge. I won’t say too much about her (spoilers…) but it breaks my heart to see how wrecked and lonely she is and then to see her grow and survive what she’s been through and learn how to use what she’s been through against her enemies, it’s so fucking perfect. Also she’s bi/pan and my heart is just singing to see a bi/pan character get a story this epic.

The romance made my heart hurt (ofc). To see Dell and Cara constantly come close and drift apart, to see how their misunderstandings tear them apart when all I wanted to scream was PLEASE BE HAPPY TOGETHER was just 😭😭😭😭

To conclude: I have so many thoughts about this book. It left me with that feeling that really good books often do, the feeling like I got run over by a car, or that a hole was punched through my chest, that emotional ‘god I can’t quite believe I read this’ level of awe. I can’t wait to see what Johnson does next.

Book review: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Title: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia

Publication date: 2 June 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy | Witches

Page extent: 304 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Every year on St. Walpurga’s Eve, Caldella’s Witch Queen lures a boy back to her palace. An innocent life to be sacrificed on the full moon to keep the island city from sinking.

Convinced her handsome brother is going to be taken this year, Lina Kirk enlists the help of the mysterious Thomas Lin, her secret crush, and the only boy to ever escape from the palace after winning the love of a queen. Working together they protect her brother but draw the queen’s attention.

Queen Eva cast away her heart when her sister died to save the boy she loved. Now as queen, she won’t make the same mistake. With the tide rising higher than ever before and the islander’s whispering that Eva’s magic is failing, she’s willing to sacrifice anyone if it means saving herself and her city.

When Thomas is chosen as sacrifice, Lina takes his place and the two girls are forced to spend time together as they wait for the full moon. But Lina is not at all what Eva expected, and the queen is nothing like Lina envisioned. Against their will, the two girls find themselves falling for each other. As water floods Caldella’s streets and the dark tide demands its sacrifice, they must choose who to save: themselves, each other, or the island city relying on them both.

The Dark Tide was a fun, sapphic, enemies to lovers romp of a book. I absolutely flew through it, and whilst I think every single man in this book was complete trash, the two main women were so great and their romance was lovely.

The Dark Tide is set on a small island town, Caldella, ruled by witches. Each year, the Witch Queen must sacrifice a man she loves to the Dark Tide, in order to prevent the ocean from flooding the entire island. This year, Lina thinks her brother, Finlay, will be chosen and she will do anything to stop that. She enlists the help of Thomas, the only person who has ever survived the Dark Tide, because he made the previous queen fall in love with him and she sacrificed herself instead. But when Lina and Thomas attempt to save Finlay, Thomas is chosen instead. Filled with quilt and the naivety of first love, Lina bargains herself to save Thomas and she becomes this year’s sacrifice.

The Dark Tide was such a fun read. The pacing was great and I really flew through the book because I couldn’t stop reading. There’s lots of fast paced action which really keeps the plot moving quickly. I thought the exploration of sacrifice, and the darkness brought to the story from the emphasis on love (because a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice unless a person is losing something – or in this case, someone) was terrific. It was exactly the kind of dark fantasy I love to read, there’s a constant pull between Eva’s feelings for Lina and her duty to drown Lina to save all her family and the citizens of the island under her protection. Sheer perfection thank you very much.

One of the best things about The Dark Tide were the two main characters: Lina, this year’s sacrifice and Eva, the Witch Queen. We get POV sections from both of them and whilst I loved Eva the most (hello fellow introvert who gets exhausted around people), Lina’s POV is just as good. Lina does feel very naive at times and very young, she is so obsessed with being a hero and having an epic love story that could rival the ones told in books and tales and she lives in this completely fairytale world. I really loved that slice of desire and danger she had, it took what could have been a fairly standard, bland, naive girl into someone who was much more interesting. The way she was almost happy and gleeful at times was so great and gave a touch of darkness to her POV, as she almost seemed to enjoy throwing her life away as a sacrifice because it meant she was living in one of her fairytales.

But Eva, our Witch Queen who detests people, how I love you. I love how cold and distant she is (she cut out her heart!). This contrasted with the way she is slowly fascinated and irritated by Lina in turn, it’s so fun to watch Lina get a rise out of this seemingly heartless witch. And their romance! Wow. It was so fierce and I can’t even really put into words how much I loved their relationship. The only downside was that because it is a little more of a slowburn, I didn’t get enough of the two of them together!

From my favourite characters to my least favourites: litrally every single man. God they were all complete trash and unfortunately, I did think this hindered the success of this book. For so much of this book, Lina is head over heels for Thomas….but there’s literally not a single reason why?! He’s so so bland and his only trait is he’s willing to give up women so he can live. Seems like a catch, right?

Finlay, Lina’s brother, is unfortunately just as one note. But even worse in my mind, his one note is aggression: he’s an aggressive angry person who Lina is actually scared of because he rages at the slightest thing and actually seriously injured her once in his rage….and yet Lina’s family is trying to force her to forgive him? Sorry but you do not have to forgive and love folks just because they’re family. If they’re abusive, gtfo. I detested Finlay the whole way through. But somehow Lina is willing to do everything for this person she’s scared of?

Lina’s feelings towards these two main male characters just didn’t make sense and I think the book would have been strengthened if more work had gone these two so they weren’t so one note. I think this bothered me more with Finlay than Thomas. With Thomas, I get that Lina is portrayed as this young and naive girl who wants a fairytale romance, so it makes sense that she’s drawn to the quiet, brooding boy with so much history and story behind him. I could forgive that. But I really needed to see more of her brother, see why on earth he was worth saving? He needed to be more than this awful, angry person. The way his actions were always framed as trying to make it up to Lina for breaking her ankle, when he continued to lose his temper and scare her, felt very manipulative and reminiscent of domestic abuse relationships and it’s not ever really addressed.

All in all I really enjoyed this dark YA fantasy! The sapphic romance is wonderful, I adored Eva, and found the book very easy and fun to read. Whilst the boys are very one note and I struggled with understanding why Lina was willing to give up everything for them, it just made me appreciate Eva and Lina’s relationship more because it really highlighted how full of emotion and fierce they were together.

Book review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Publication date: 8 October 2019

Genre: Adult | Fantasy | Dark academia

Page extent: 459 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Content warnings for gore, murder, self-harm, blood, child rape, sexual assault, suicide, drugs and drug use.

Let me preface this review by saying this was my very first Leigh Bardugo book and I cannot believe how long it has taken me to read one of her books? I’ve heard so much about this author and so I went in expecting something outstanding. I enjoyed Ninth House. It’s full of the delicious vibe associated with dark academia, has an edge of horror but also the cosiness of a murder mystery at times. However, I do think this book suffered due to the fact I read it immediately after finishing The Space Between Worlds.

Although a sci-fi, The Space Between Worlds also uses speculative fiction as a device to explore trauma, survival and privilege. And The Space Between Worlds does it so fucking well. Expertly so. And so whilst I see Bardugo’s attempts to tackle issues of class and privilege, I don’t think she managed quite as well as Johnson. I think on any other day, I probably wouldn’t have noticed quite as large a disparity, but purely due to the fact I had literally just read a book that did this particular thing so particularly well, Ninth House suffered in comparison to it.

Ninth House follows Alex Stern, a young woman who can see Grays (ghosts). After she awakens in hospital after a horrific crime, she is offered a position at Yale University, to join Lethe, one of Nine magical secret societies. Lethe are the shepherds, the guardians of magic who prevent the other societies from doing harm. It’s told in two POVs, Alex in the present, investigating a murder on campus, and Darlington, Alex’s tutor from Lethe, whose POV is in the past following Alex when she first joined Yale.

Ninth House is many things: dark academia, murder mystery, horror. I think Bardugo does a great job of combining these elements to make a transfixing atmosphere. I found the history of the secret societies absolutely fascinating, and some of the best parts of this novel fell in these more magical scenes, where Alex and Darlington were interacting with the secret societies in their rituals. From the blood magic to the prognostication, as gorey as they were at times, I was so enthralled by them. During some of the more mundane sections of the plot outside of the secret societies, and particularly nearer the end of the novel, I did feel it began to drag a little. Nearer the end it also felt a little repetitive in the constant cycle of: Alex almost dies, but she doesn’t. Then she almost dies again, but she doesn’t. How many times can someone crack their skull and still not die?!

I did love Alex as a character. I’m on a roll of books with impressively written, exceedingly morally grey, complex female characters, from Priory to The Space Between Worlds to this! I need more characters like this in my life. I loved Alex’s progression from the start of the novel where she’s hiding who she really is as she tries to fit into Yale, but over the course of the book the darkness and violence and anger in her is slowly revealed, please give me more of this vibe in SFF!!! Darlington was also an absolute gem and as I’m sure many others also feel, I wish we’d seen more of him! He felt like such a kind character, full of naive dreams about goodness and being a knight to protect others. I can’t wait for the second novel in this series to get more of him and more of his lightness playing off of Alex’s dark badassness.

Bardugo uses Yale and the secret societies as a way to comment on power and privilege and the way men have used these both to enforce their will on others, as well as to tackle the very current topic of university rape culture. I don’t think Bardugo does this badly, not at all. But I was missing that little extra spark of magic that The Space Between Worlds had. Ninth House tries to explore trauma, some of which is did well: I thought the way it explored how victims are often not believed through the use of perpetrators that no one can see was well done. This was explored both in flashbacks and in the present, when a police officer threatens to expose a video that shows Alex being attacked (by a ghost that no one can see) to discredit her. But I think outside of this example, Ninth House could have gone much further than just a few flashbacks exploring Alex’s past life. And as I said above, I think Ninth House did suffer a bit purely because I read these two books directly after each other and thus could really clearly see the differences in the handling of social commentary and trauma.

All in all, I’m glad I finally read my first Bardugo! Although I had a few issues, I did enjoy this book, the vibe was everything I love about dark academia and the secret societies and the ritualistic magic system were fascinating! I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

Book review: The Extraordinaries by T.J Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries by T.J Klune

Publisher: Tor Teen

Publication date: 14 July 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 405 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Well I’m extraordinarily in love with this book. It was everything I wanted it to be and more, which, of course it was because T.J Klune is an absolute genius and I will read everything he writes from now till ever. This had me laughing out loud on one page and sobbing the next. It is a brilliantly fun take on the superhero genre, has wonderfully open and honest portrayals of grief, discusses ADHD so personally it reverberates on every page, has an absolutelyfuckingadorable romance, a killer friendship group, lots of funny fandom anecdotes that brought back so much nostalgia, and a tender and warm message about being extraordinary when you’re ordinary.

The Extraordinaries is set in a world where superheros exist (though here they’re called Extraordinaries). In Nova City, Shadow Star protects the city from the evil villain PyroStorm. In this city is Nick, Shadow Star’s greatest fan and fanfic author of the most popular fanfic about the Extraordinaries. When he runs into Shadow Star in an alley, Nick decides he wants to become an Extraordinary himself and so begins his plan to turn himself into a superhero, much to the consternation of his friends.

I don’t quite know where to start with reviewing this book because I loved everything so much. It was warm and cosy and so funny, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this much at a book. Nick is just a brilliant and adorable character. He’s open and honest about his ADHD in such a relatable and funny way (and I just want to shout out that this is own voices ADHD rep too!) Nick is just an absolute precious gem, his complete blindness when it comes to his feelings for Seth is adorable, his realisation journey is so cute. Seth is quite possibly even more adorable than Nick, with his bowties (bowties are cool), cravats and a big secret he can’t possibly tell Nick. Alongside Gibby, Jazz and Owen, this is a friendship group that sounds like it must be some of the most fun. They’re all so hilarious in their own ways, so brilliantly, openly queer and pretty much everything I want in a rag tag team of misfits. Gibby is a butch lesbian who won’t take shit from anyone and has the most deadpan ringers; Jazz is sweet and kind and then she turns around and knocks you out of the park with a revelation; Owen is flirty and arrogant and popular (and his dad is the richest man in the city), but he can be so vulnerable at times when Nick gets through his walls.

Alongside the hilarity of these characters, there are several moments that had me almost sobbing. The book deals openly with grief, Nick having lost his mum fairly recently and Seth having lost both his parents when young. With his Dad’s job as a policeman, Nick is filled with anxiety about losing his Dad as well, and there are scenes so raw and gutrenching I thought it would tear me apart. I’m very glad I was in a different room from my partner when reading this because he always thinks it’s funny how emotionally invested I get in books!

I loved the sass towards the superhero genre as well. It flowed throughout the book, from the ridiculous villain speeches, to the need for capes. I also very much appreciated the fandom and fanfic references and excerpts throughout, this felt so nostalgic. I was completely brought back to my teenage days sneaking around writing fanfic, right down to the tags they used on Nick’s fanfic excerpts, it was all so reminiscent.

Everything about this book was just brilliant. T.J Klune astounds me with every book I read, I don’t think there’s another author out there who can quite make me laugh and cry as much as he does. It’s a fun, fresh, fandom enthusiastic take on the superhero genre with the most adorable romance. I read the majority of this book (the last 70%) in one sitting because I just couldn’t put it down. I sincerely hope we get more books in this series as soon as possible because I will follow these characters for years!

Book review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Title: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Publisher: Flatiron books

Publication date: 7 July 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A captivating and utterly original fairy tale about a girl cursed to be poisonous to the touch, and who discovers what power might lie in such a curse…

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Fairytale retelling? Check. Descent to villainy? Check. Sapphic slowburn romance? Check. Monster girlfriend? Double check. Girl, Serpent, Thorn was every bit as magical as I wanted it to be. It has such a wonderful fairytale vibe to it, with picturesque forests and carved out mountains, and I want nothing more than to read f/f villain monster romances forever.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is inspired by Persian mythology and tells the story of Soruya, a girl poisonous to the touch. To protect her family’s reputation, she has been hidden away, alone and untouched, for all her life. When a young man begins to see who she is beyond her poisonous skin, she vows to rid herself of her curse, no matter the cost.

One of my favourite parts of this story was discovering all the mythology. Bashardoust goes into a detailed authors note at the end of the book to speak about her inspiration, but throughout the book, I just loved getting to see more of the mythology of Persia. From the creation stories, inspired by Zoroastrian beliefs, to the divs, demons who want to destroy the world, the world is magical. I would’ve loved to hear even more about the creation story and the origins of the divs, but that’s probably because I came to this book after The Unspoken Name, a large fantasy book that has intricately detailed religion and hence am dying to read some more books like that.

I found Soruya’s character particularly well written. There’s something so familiar about her. I think we have all felt that edge of resentment, have felt the awful emotions and thoughts it evokes in you, and so I found her incredibly relatable and understandable. Her actions made so much sense. And that made it very easy to root for her (whether you want her to be good or evil!) My favourite character however was Parvaneh. I have a thing for wings okay. I just loved her energy! She seems at times so mischievious (trying to work up Soruya’s anger), but also so full of regrets for her past. Her relationship development with Soruya is brilliant – I loved how both are so hesitant and yet so passionate at the same time. Both have been trapped by their circumstances, but together they’re able to explore freedom and just, this is the f/f content we need and we deserve!!! Bear in mind this is VERY slowburn. For the first 50% of the novel I was literally that John Travolta gif going WHERE IS THE F/F I WAS PROMISED.

The only real issue I had with this book was the enemy. I found their reveal abundantly obvious from literally their first moment on page and so I spent half of the novel going are we seriously meant to belief this?! I wish it had been so much less obvious because if it had been a shock, that would have been one of the most epic plot twists off all time. Sadly, because of this, I did feel a bit meh about the first half of the novel because I was dying to just get the reveal over with already. But after it happens, everything picks up and the story starts speeding forward with lots of drama and action and plenty of naive, foolish plans from Soruya.

Most of all, I loved the change in Soruya and her growth from a girl terrified of hurting someone with her poison, to someone who embraces her differences and learns to see their power. Sapphic goddess win. Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a wonderful YA fantasy, and seriously, I hope Bashardoust writes more monster girlfriends in future, cause this shit is good.

Book review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia

Publisher: Del Rey

Publication date: 30 June 2020

Genre: Adult | Horror | Gothic

Page extent: 352 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind. 

Mexican Gothic is the kind of book that will haunt you for years to come. It’s the kind of book that will make you yearn for a feeling like that again. It is dark, it is twisted and it is so entralling and bewitching that it is hard to put into words. It’s the book I will spend all year thrusting desperately into people’s hands while screaming READ IT. It’s a book I wish I could read for the first time again, because the horror and shock and awe was captivating.

So what’s it all about? Noemí receives a frantic and odd letter from her cousin, Catalina, full of frantic pleas to help her as she thinks her husband is trying to poison her. In a bid to find out exactly what the fuck is going on Noemí travels to High Place, the mysterious mansion where Catalina now lives with her husband and his odd, dysfunctional family. In this damp and mould covered house, Noemí is met with fierce disapproval and downright hatred from all except one, Francis, who she enlists in her attempts to work out what’s going on.

And boy, it’s a fucking ride. This book is so delightfully twisted and creepy. At first glance, this evokes the feelings of classic gothic novels: the fog, the house, the wilderness encroaching on the humanity and living. But Moreno-Garcia has brought an entirely modern twist to the genre, blending elements of the supernatural with science and academia, creating a book that is both a love story to classic gothic and embraces modern dark academia. In daylight, it is a gothic mystery, but at night, through Noemí’s disturbing and dark dreams, we see the other side of this novel. Moreno-Garcia’s language is stunningly horrific and distburbing – at many points it makes you sick to the stomach, and you dare not turn your eyes away from the page so desperate to see what the everloving fuck is happening.

And let’s talk about Noemí herself! Some books you read just the first few pages and know it’s going to be bloody excellent. Mexican Gothic was one of those for me. And it’s usually down to the ease and strength of the character voice. Noemí really shone in this novel. Her voice was so clear and immediately engrossing: she is both capable and independent, flirty and kind. And we see this strong, capable woman descend into horrors across the book and it is the strength of Noemí’s voice at the start which makes me care so much for her and be so passionate and mad as this house destroys such a wonderful character.

The other characters we meet are:

  • Virgil: the new husband to Noemí’s cousin, cold and calculating and cruel, with a vicious grasp on Noemí, able to spark deep rage and passion in her
  • Florence: an Aunt who runs the household, even more unfeeling than Virgil, strict beyond measure and deeply unkind
  • Howard: the patriarch of the family, slowly dying and around whom all revolve in this household
  • Catalina: Noemí’s cousin who frantically wrote a letter to save herself, and seems constantly seesawing between peaceful and well, and utterly mad
  • Francis: the one individual in the house who dares to be kind to Noemí, sweet and unsure but ruled with an iron fist by Howard, Florence, and Virgil.

These characters revolve around each other in an uneasy fashion, lies around every corner and horrors hiding in the dark, mould invested mansion of High Place. Mexican Gothic is a twisted, fucked up book that will surprise you at every turn. It combines all my favourite elements of gothic suspense but brings the genre into the modern age with glimpses of horror and dark academia. It is the book I am going to gift to pretty much everyone I know because I adored this so much. It gave me disturbing dreams, my heart raced as I read, and I never wanted to stop reading it.

30 Days of Pride: The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

Title: The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

Publisher: Bloomsbury YA

Publication date: 4 February 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Contemporary | Romance

Page extent: 314 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: As a successful social media journalist with half a million followers, seventeen-year-old Cal is used to sharing his life online. But when his pilot father is selected for a highly publicized NASA mission to Mars, Cal and his family relocate from Brooklyn to Houston and are thrust into a media circus.

Amidst the chaos, Cal meets sensitive and mysterious Leon, another “Astrokid,” and finds himself falling head over heels—fast. As the frenzy around the mission grows, so does their connection. But when secrets about the program are uncovered, Cal must find a way to reveal the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.

Expertly capturing the thrill of first love and the self-doubt all teens feel, debut author Phil Stamper is a new talent to watch.

The Gravity of Us is YA for space nerds. It was a fun and enjoyable read but lacked substance for me. It felt very familiar to K.Ancrum’s The Weight of the Stars, with just a bit more focus on the space science and a little less focus on the excellent character development. Which is probably why I thought The Weight of the Stars did gay space YA better.

The Gravity of Us follows teen journalist Cal as his family is uprooted from his home in Brooklyn to Texas, after his dad gets a job as the last astronaut on a mission to Mars. But when they get there, Cal’s journalism reveals unhappy truths about the project, and he needs to find a way to tell his family without hurting them.

The Gravity of Us very much hearkened back to the 60s era space race. The energy and passion in the book brought that era into a modern day setting, with new reality TV show ShootingStars following the drama in the astronauts lives. This felt so realistic and I could 100% imagine exactly this book happening if we ever did start a mission to go to Mars. I liked the emphasis on the fakeness of reality shows, it felt like a (lighter) version of Unreal, a show I absolutely adore for the way it utterly takes down reality shows like The Bachelor. It also started a journey to exploring the reasons behind space travel, thanks to the focus on the less central employees (i.e. not the astronauts) at NASA and their reasonings for joining the program. But I wish it had gone deeper. There’s a few vague ‘but what if this could change the future for the better’ lines but nothing that goes beyond surface level arguments for space travel, which I think would have made this more interesting.

There is also both anxiety and depression rep in this book, which is really great to see. However, both of these felt a little surface level 101 representation. Leon was sad. Cal’s mum didn’t like parties because she’s anxious. And….that was about the entirety of their mental health rep. Cal’s anxiety was better handled, it felt more fleshed out and delves deeper into the real impacts of living with anxiety, such as the way Cal always feels the needs to fix things, to want to be seen as a normal family etc. I wanted the secondary characters to be more fleshed out. Which leads to my main issue with the book: everything felt very surface level, except for Cal himself. It felt like the Cal show. I appreciated The Gravity of Us shows Cal fucking up multiple times, and him trying to change and realising his mistakes. But I couldn’t quite forgive the time he spent trying to change Leon. The way Cal handled Leon’s depression just felt….yeah not good. I don’t know how to put it into words. It felt like he didn’t understand (and didn’t really try to understand) how Leon’s depression appears. Cal spent a lot of time thinking about his mum’s anxiety, and about situations that would make her uncomfortable (the aforementioned parties), which is great to see a kid taking that kind of care with their parents! But why didn’t he do that with Leon as well? It made Leon’s depression seem less important, and less life-impacting, than anxiety.

But despite my issues with the book, as this isn’t a particularly deep book, my problems with it are therefore not particularly deep either. It was fun and cute, the romance was sweet, it was cool reading about a modern day space age and I liked the focus on the scientists and their passion in this book. I feel like most of my issues probably stem from the fact I went it knowing this had a very similar pitch to The Weight of the Stars and subconciously thinking I would get something similar. And K.Ancrum is particularly brilliant at writing difficult, sometimes dark, and deep discussions into her work so I think I expected a bit more of that, rather than all cute, sweet romance. But that’s my fault!

If you’re looking for a fun, light gay romance, or looking for a contemporary book with a bit of a space geek edge, then I totally recommend this book to you! If you’re looking for particularly deep discussions about space exploration or detailed mental health representation, this isn’t for you. But it does cute romance well.