Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

ninth house cover

“By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.”

Alex Stern has a secret. It’s driven her to dark places in her life, but now she has the chance at a new life, a fresh start. Her special skills have caught the eye of the Lethe society, a secret group in Yale University, tasked with watching the other secret societies. Each of these not only spawns rich and powerful alumni, in fields from Wall Street to Hollywood to Washington, but uses occult arts to get there. Reading entrails to predict the stockmarket, glamours and potions – how far can things go before backfiring?

I’ve adored Leigh Bardugo’s work since stumbling across Six of Crows, and with this she makes her first foray into adult fiction. And it is most definitely not YA: it’s dark and gritty, and a few scenes bear possible ‘trigger warnings’ – the attempted rape of a pre-teen had me put the book down for a little bit, not least because the trauma comes across strongly in the writing.

It’s still very worth it, however. Bardugo is herself a Yale alumni, and the sense of cliques within cliques, of a whole town thrown that bit out of whack, really adds to the story of Alex’s attempts to learn about the occult, train to be the watcher, as well as keeping up with her studies. As for a social life – well, she’d settle for just not alienating her roomates completely!

The story is told in flashbacks, building a huge sense of mystery. What dark things happened to Alex before we meet her? And the other major players? Layers of mystery kept me absolutely gripped, and that’s even before we get to the murder…!

Very recommended, with that once warning: it gets dark. But I am delighted that this is the first in a new series – I want more!!

Hardback: 450 pages / 32 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Alex Stern book 1 (woo! More to come!! 🙂 )
Read from 19th October – 9th November 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E Harrow

ten thousand doors of january cover

“When I was seven, I found a door.”

January Scaller lives as the ward of Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of fantastic items from other cultures, while her father roams the world in search of these objects. She’s not unhappy, exactly, but on the other hand her life is as restricted as one of the items in Locke’s collection: she is a singular oddity, reddish skinned, out of place wherever she goes.

One day, January finds a book entitled The Ten Thousand Doors. Instantly appealing to her huge imagination, it’s not long before she starts to wonder… what if this isn’t fiction?

Usually when a book comes with as much hype as this, I’d tend to shy away thinking it could only disappoint. But, the lure of the portal fantasy is strong, and I am so glad I went for this!

First, the few things I didn’t like: given the period setting (turn of the previous century), the treatment of women and those of colour is not good. I know it’s a big part of the plot, but I was actually tempted to abandon everything at the point where January’s autonomy is so utterly removed from her – apparently a bit of a trigger for me. But, stick with it.

And now the good: absolutely everything else! First the language: it’s got a poetry, but without being flowerly. I wanted to capture so many little quotes, just perfect turns of phrases and lovely descriptions. The period is captured very well, alongside all the more fantastical elements. The world building is excellent – who wouldn’t want to live in a world with Doors, all those possibilities and wonders and magic? And the story itself is enthralling: believably nasty baddies, a fierce heroine, strong supporting characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a rare beast: a book for adults that’s full of the wonder usually reserved for children, which catches you up in a whirl of story and possibility. All in all, a sheer joy to read – and very recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 7th-26th September 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Lure of the Ring – Alan James Strachan

lure of the ring cover

“Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien’s work.”

This is an odd little book. It’s basically a treatise on spirituality, using The Lord of the Rings as an example. Not entirely what I thought I was getting, and probably not going to find a wide audience – Tolkien fans will be disappointed that it’s not really about LotR, and if you’re looking for the spiritual stuff the fantasy-source might seem flippant.

Still, I started off rather enjoying it – someone talking about LotR can’t be all bad, after all! But, after a while, the tone really started to grate on me. I would have preferred an approach of “I think”, “my translation is”, “to me, this suggests…” rather than the quasi-academic sense of certainty. Writers rarely ‘mean’ what future studies try to pin on their stories; indeed, at the end of this the author even admits that Tolkien’s letters reveal the multi-layers of allegory and meaning didn’t appear until years later.

The lecturing tone can be a little patronising, I found – or, perhaps that’s the increasing density of the subject. From easy-to-grasp concepts – what Galadriel’s refusal of the Ring says about her character, for example – by the end he’s quoting quasi-religious texts, talking about the Self that is no-Self, and at times my head was just spinning!

If this is your cup of tea, by all means give it a go. Personally, I don’t think I was fully expecting the build up to full-on ‘nondual spirituality’ and self-actualisation, and while it might have been interesting getting there I didn’t wholly appreciate the feeling of being preached at, even if the author does back away from that by the end again.

The message, though, is nice enough, and it is interesting seeing ‘just a fantasy story for kids’ (hah!) providing such rich source material.

NetGalley eARC: 87 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 23rd-28th September 2019

My rating: 5/10

The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend

Trials of Morrigan Crow cover

“The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”

Morrigan Crow has a miserable childhood. She’s a ‘cursed child’, doomed to die on her eleventh birthday and bringing dreadful luck to those around her until that day. Her family keep their distance, leaving her feeling more than a little unloved.

Events transpire, however, to save her – hardly a spoiler, that the main character doesn’t die at the start, even if we do begin with a funeral! – and she finds herself in the strange land of Nevermoor. She’s entered into the annual competition to join the Wundrous Society – except, the lucky few must pass four trials, the last of which is to display a ‘knack’, a gift better than anyone else’s. And Morrigan does not have a knack…

I know I’m older than the target audience for this book, and yet it perfectly hits the sweet spot of whimsical but not talking down to the audience, making it perfect for grown ups, too. In fact, I loved it. There are nods to all sorts of possible inspirations – from Narnia to Doctor Who – but it’s brought together very nicely. Nevermoor is somewhere I’d like to visit, and sign me up for a room that alters itself to match moods.

The story of Morrigan’s trials (not quite Hunger Games level, don’t worry!) is perhaps less original than it could be, but again it’s told well. The mystery of her missing ‘knack’ is maintained throughout, keeping you guessing. The rivalry with the nasty girl is a bit of a cliche, but y’know what? It’s overall sweet and uplifting and entertaining, and well worth the read by kids of any age!

NetGalley eARC: 513 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Nevermoor book 1
Read from 17th-26th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Sword Saint – CF Iggulden

sword saint cover

“The boy crouched on a ledge, resting his chin on his knees, eyes bright as he watched the old priest pass below.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series, Darien and Shiang, although felt that there was so much more to be explained about all the wondrous things: the powerful stones held by the ruling families of Darien, the few individuals with special abilities, and how the geography might or might not fit with our world as their history. Alas, the series closes out with few answers – and yet it’s still one hell of a ride!

The second book threw me a little, switching cities and focus (at least to begin with), so one of the things I loved here was seeing all those threads from the first and second books pulled together. Truly, this trilogy is meant to be read as a whole, not individual chapters.

We’re back in Darien for the finale, and a new neighbouring king looking to make a trade deal – or, is that really what’s going on? As names start to feel familiar from the prologue, we’re left to wonder just what was being guarded by a priest.

There are a few victories and a few heartbreaking defeats as we follow our band of misfits one last time. It might have been nice to learn more about all the ideas, but perhaps it’s all best shrouded in mystery as we enjoy the series’ final battles.

Start with Darien – but do start!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Empire of Salt book 3 (of 3)
Read from 31st July – 8th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

In the Hand of the Goddess – Tamora Pierce

in the hand of the goddess cover

“The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.”

If you read my review of Alanna, the first book in this series, you’ll know that I’ve waited several decades (!) to find out what happened to Alanna after those first adventures. So, was it worth the wait?

Usual warning: just mentioning a character in book 2 might be classed as a spoiler as to who survives book 1. Continue at your own peril 😉

Following on from the first book, Alanna’s secret is now known by a few, but all are sworn to keep quiet while she continues in her quest to become a knight. The final test – the Ordeal – is weighing heavy on her mind. Then there’s their new magic tutor – Jon’s cousin, Roger. He’s handsome and charming – and for some reason Alanna cannot stand him. Even if her suspicions are correct, what if anything can she do about them?

I’m kind of glad I didn’t read this back in the day, at the same time as Alanna. It continues the story, but at the same year-skipping pace, so we find our heroine going from child to pretty much an adult. With that creeps in romance – and although she swears she’s against it, there’s a fair amount of slightly creepy behavior from not one but two potential suitors.

So, not quite so much the kid’s book as the previous instalment, but then the writing style hasn’t updated. Big events are covered with a line or two, the plot drives forward in large chunks of time, and Alanna is still gifted and semi-revered, despite being a child amongst adults. Everything seems to be very easy for her.

I still enjoyed the light, easy read to a certain extent, and yes am glad to have finally moved on in the story. But, ho-hum, it’s not aged all that well and the problematic stuff just seems… off-putting. Still, book 3 purchased and I’ll go on.

Kindle: 233 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1984
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 2 (of 4)
Read from 3rd-6th July 2019

My rating: 6/10

Alanna – Tamora Pierce

alanna cover

“‘That is my decision. We need not discuss it.'”

Back when I was but a tadpole and still book-mad, there was a glorious day at school when a book seller came to call and we all got to buy books. I’m guessing I was about 7 or 8 when I got this, oh, I loved it! The girl taking on the boys and doing what she wanted despite her gender, the magic, the colour-coding of magic and eyes (yup, details like that were a thing for me!). And then it ends, not on a cliffhanger per se, but obviously with so much more story to go.

Whether the second volume just hadn’t been published by then (yes, yes, I’m old 😉 ) or I just didn’t have the resources to track down series (I pre-date the internet), I never got to find out what happened to Alanna. Imagine my surprise – and slight regret – in finding out that there were another three books, and then several more series in the same world!

Even so, I held off any attempt at getting hold of this. How would a book I read and loved in childhood stand up to adult eyes? It was a recent Netgalley of another Tamora Pierce book, Tempests and Slaughter, that allowed me to think maybe I could go back.

Which is a lot of preamble, I apologise, but there are just some books that have more than the story between the covers to them 🙂

Thom and Alanna are twins. She’s about to be sent off to the convent, while he will train to be a squire and then a knight. Problem is, Alanna wants to fight and Thom hates it, preferring to study and learn sorcery. And so a plot is hatched that pretends they are twin boys, and the two swap places.

It’s not a long book, and yes written for a younger audience, but it makes for a lovely read as an adult, too. The writing isn’t dumbed down, just stripped of unnecessary waffle. We skip through several years but it never feels rushed, just that we aren’t being told unimportant details. And so we deal with Alanna learning to fight, covering up her developing womanhood (I think that was an important chapter to a young girl!), and facing her fears over her magical abilities.

I needed something light and positive to read during a trying time, and this fit the bill perfectly. My only real complaint would be how a child – Alanna’s about 11 – gets to be so good at nearly everything she does, and is treated quite as an adult at times. I imagine that went down a little better when I was about the same age 😉

I’m glad I went back to read this again. It didn’t spoil my memories at all, and – huzzah! – after so many decades I get to find out what happens next!

Kindle: 231 pages / 7 chapters
First published: 1983
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 1 (of 4)
Read from 1st-3rd July 2019

My rating: 8/10