The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

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“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the village burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year after TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve read The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

The Near Witch – VE Schwab

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“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”

Lexi lives in the village of Near, on the edge of the wild moors. She’s grown up on tales of the Near Witch, and also with a great deal of freedom not usually allowed to girls. However, following the death of her beloved father, it seems that her uncle Otto is determined to force her into the mould of a respectable young woman, however much it chafes. Then there’s Tyler, a nice enough boy, but he’s assuming too much about Lexi’s future.

And then one night Lexi spies a stranger outside, a form that seems to blow away with the wind. The next morning the village discovers one of their children is missing…

I’m a huge fan of VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, but this is an earlier effort and it rather shows. It’s not bad, by any means, but there’s a little too much cliche, some repetitive language, and a pacing that just seems off – every time our main character heads home for bed the tension is wrecked.

Then there’s the main character herself. One of the things I loved about ADSoM was the strong female character, and Lexi just isn’t. I mean, she thinks she is, she has moments, but she’s rather buffeted about by events and I lost a great deal of respect when the whole ‘instalove’ obsession with a boy she’s literally just met kicks in. It really doesn’t help that she’s fighting against horrible sexism, and some male behaviour that had me wanting to throw the book across the room.

Still, it’s interesting to see how a person’s writing can grow so much. The story has some interesting elements, although it’s hard not to wonder how much more ‘oomph’ V could have injected into it if writing now.

Kindle: 320 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: none
Read from 4th-10th May 2020

My rating: 5.5/10

Deeplight – Frances Hardinge

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“They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south.”

Frances Hardinge has a wonderful skill with words, and an amazing ability to create strange new worlds. The Myriad is amazing: islands recovering from the pre-Cataclysm event, the war of the gods. And what gods! Behemoth sea creatures, capricious and cruel, living in a fearful ‘undersea’. Exposure to this strange not-water leaves people ‘marked’ with strange mutations, but people risk it to recover god remains, sold for huge sums for their amazing properties.

Orphans Hark and Jelt make their way in the world scavenging, and swindling traders come to the islands. The pair are like brothers; Hark owes his life to Jelt’s care when he might have starved as a young child. Now, however, Jelt’s recklessness is in danger of causing a rift between the two – not least when his latest scheme lands Hark in deep trouble. So when Jelt ends up in even straits, Hark’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test…

As we find out about the old gods and the islands of Myriad, the story revolves around the relationship between Hark and Jelt. It questions how much we owe our friends and family. I was screaming at how badly Hark is used and made to feel at points! A subplot mirrors the theme, between a fearsome gang leader and her deaf daughter. I was impressed with the way the disability was handled in the book, too.

Absolutely recommend this. It’s full of secrets and darkness. It’s hugely inventive. And it hits all the emotions along the way.

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 21st April – 3rd May 2020

My rating: 9/10

Ash Princess – Laura Sebastian

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“The last person who called me by my true name was my mother, with her dying breath.”

Theodosia watches her as her mother’s throat is cut, then her kingdom occupied by the invading Kalovaxians. Their leader, the Kaiser, is particularly cruel, delighting in keeping Theo – renamed Thora via repeated torture – as a trophy of his conquest and whipping girl for any rebellious acts by the enslaved local population.

Meek and dutiful Thora, however, is pushed too far when the Kaiser forces her to execute the leader of the rebels and her last best hope for rescue. Soon, she’s neck-deep in plotting to free her people and become the queen she was born to be. But it’s not so simple to pretend to seduce a ‘prinz’ – that is, the pretense bit. Oy.

If you can think of a trope in a YA fantasy, chances are you’ll find it here. Young woman, possibly with untapped magical potential, going from rags to rising up to claim her true destiny? Check check check. Love triangle? Of course. Cruel pantomime villains starting to leer at the burgeoning womanhood? Oh yes. And a large shout out to the ridiculous fantasy names: Theodosia, Crescentia, and changing ‘prince’ to ‘prinz’, among other painful tongue twisters.

I’m a little amazed that I got past the opening chapters with all of that ringing large alarm bells, and I have mixed feelings that I bothered. On the one hand, this is a decent enough book – well enough written, good pace and holding of attention. On the other, it is so very very familiar. I hated the first-person narrative at the beginning, and only grew to be so-so about it. And I cannot, cannot stand the love ‘triangle’.

Oh – and then there’s the violence. Teenage girl gets regularly whipped, for a *decade*, with quite frankly too much detail at certain points – YA should not stray into torture porn, even briefly o.O

Urgh. It wasn’t awful. You might enjoy it a lot more. But I didn’t need another rehash of this kind of story, I’m afraid.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages
First published: 2018
Series: Ash Princess trilogy book 1
Read from 3rd-10th January 2019

My rating: 5/10

Spellslinger – Sebastien de Castell

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“The old spellmasters like to say that magic has a taste.”

The Jan’Tep live by fixed laws, all centred around magic and the oasis that boosts their abilities. By their 16th birthday, they must pass four trials to become a member of the clan, or else they are forced into a life of servitude. To avoid such a fate, Kellan is about to face his first mage’s duel. There’s only one small problem: he has no magic. He’s determined, however, not to let that stop him.

Throw into the mix political jostling for power, family secrets, a bunch of less than pleasant teenagers with power, and a mysterious stranger with a deck of cards…

My only complaint about this book would be that it’s possibly a little too on the YA side, but not by much. Otherwise, however, it’s an intriguing first glimpse into a fantasy world that I’m glad we’re getting to see more of. Kell is okay as a main character (I like that he has smarts rather than skills), although the whole squirrel cat thing is perhaps not quite as ‘fun’ as thinks it is, but I really want to find out more about Ferius and her cards, and the magic, and the history of the Jan’Tep. Luckily, there are five more books – all published!

A quick and fun read, hopefully the start of something great.

Kindle: 416 pages / 46 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Spellslinger book 1 (of 6)
Read from 24th November – 5th December 2019

My rating: 8/10

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – Tamora Pierce

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“Alanna of Trebond, the sole woman knight in the realm of Tortall, splashed happily in the waters of an oasis, enjoying her first bath in three days.”

Back in my childhood, I read and loved Alanna, never realising/getting my hands on any sequels. Aiming to rectify that recently, I found book 2 was a bit too much of a change of tone for me to wholly appreciate. Thankfully, book 3 doesn’t stray any further, and was easier to enjoy as a light-ish, easy read.

Following the events of In the Hand of the Goddess, Alanna is hoping to finally live up to her dream of being knight and having adventures. However, she’s soon caught up in the lives of a desert tribe. First accused of witchcraft and unnatural behaviour (for a woman), can she win them over? And what of her romance with a certain ‘friend’ – where might that be heading? Back in the city, there are plots of magic and thieves, which to be honest maybe should have made up more of the story, rather than leading into another volume.

I’m so-so on this book. On the one hand I enjoyed reading it well enough, but something about the tone still doesn’t sit quite right. In style it feels still quite ‘younger reader’, but the amount of sex would suggest otherwise. The message of having to fight for any shred of ‘girl power’ is still very sadly relevant, but I’m not sure the use of existing cultures as a basis for this fantasy is altogether as ok as I’d like. Mostly it’s not too bad, and let’s face it: the entire world of Tortall seems against equality, so meh.

I’ll press on with the final book, and I have other work by the author on my TBR. But certainly nothing so far has impressed me or rekindled the joy I had from the first book.

Kindle: 151 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1986
Series: Song of the Lioness quartet book 3
Read from 9th-13th November 2019

My rating: 6/10

Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

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“‘Tell me what you think you saw.'”

Following on immediately from the events in Revenger, usual warning that even mentioning characters that made it to the sequel can be a kind of spoiler. And my opening lines are definitely book 1 spoilers…!

Okay with that? Then read on!

Having won and renamed The Revenger, the Ness sisters are free of Bosa Sennen – or, are they? Did Adrana’s time being groomed as her successor leave its mark or did Arafura’s rescue come in time? And what of Fura – she had to change to beat the galaxy’s biggest evil, does that leave an even bigger mark? The two have clearly grown up – it’s tough to remember they’re supposed to be 18-ish, even more to remember Adrana is the elder – and their objectives have changed. Not wholly through choice, though, as escaping the shadow of Bosa is harder than they thought…

I’d reread Revenger in preparation for this, and as such it came as a bit of a surprise to find the first person narrative switching from Fura to Adrana. In fact, I found it so hard to switch mental gears, that I put the book down and read something else first!

It is clear from the story why the viewpoint had to change, but it takes a while to feel not-weird. Whether that was my brain adjusting, or the writing developing a more distinctive tone – not sure.

It also helps immensely when the action gets going, and by the time the crew land on-world the descriptions of the decaying, corrupt place were spot on.

Overall, there are enough mysteries to keep you guessing – with a few more explanations for some of the world-building, like the genesis of the Congregation (they did *what* to Earth, Mars, et al?!) – but none more so than wondering about the motivations of the characters.

Still, as enjoyable as this was, for me it doesn’t live up to Alastair Reynolds’ other work. The difference is writing for (I believe) more a YA audience, and something in the tone just didn’t work as well for me. I will look out for the third volume of the trilogy, though, as I’m intrigued enough to see where the Ness sisters end their story…!

Hardback: 488 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Revenger book 2
Read from 1st September – 10th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri

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“Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name.”

Mehr is a pampered if illegitimate governor’s daughter, a virtual prisoner by dint of her gender in the culture she lives in, and a hated reminder of father’s first love and thus enemy of her stepmother. She is also a half-caste, and the half that comes from her mother is not blood that is seen favourably in the Empire. The stories say that the Amrithi are descended from the desert spirits, the Daiva, and hold power in their blood. And it seems as if the immortal head of the Empire’s religion might be taking notice of those like Mehr…

Much as I enjoyed this book, I think perhaps the desert setting and South Asian-inspired fantasy has been a bit too prevalent in my reading of late (although still not as cliched as the Tolkien-esque fantasy of the past half-century, natch!), as I did spend part of this book feeling like I’d read it before. Which is a shame, because otherwise it’s pretty good.

I was a little put off by the themes of women as second class, ‘delicate’ flowers, and even more so by the forced marriage to a complete stranger – however obviously that all turns out. As ever, the teen romance-y type stuff left me pretty cold.

The Daiva also reminded me of too many other things, but in fairness they were well handled. The magic of dance was at least a bit of a different approach, and I genuinely liked the concept of an Empire built on subverting the dreams of gods.

Overall, though, this was an engrossing enough read, just didn’t quite hit the spot with me for reasons not entirely its own fault. Possibly had been over-hyped, too, when in reality I found it a decent, slightly above-average YA offering.

Paperback: 432 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Books of Ambha book 1
Read from 30th December 2018 – 6th January 2019

My rating: 7/10

Dreams of Gods and Monsters – Laini Taylor

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“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse.”

(As always, this is a review of the last in a series, so anything I mention might in some ways be a spoiler for the first two books. Read on at your own peril!)

The stories of Karou and Akiva, chimera and seraphim, Earth and Eratz, have spun through two novels already – Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. In this final part of the trilogy, we get our answers, as well as some further players: what are Akiva’s long-lost relatives, the Stelians, capable of? And who is the mysterious Eliza, plagued by nightmares and terrified of being found?

I had an odd time reading this book. With other things on the go, I wondered more than a few times if I’d lost interest, but every time I picked it up I was sucked back into the story. As soon as I put it down, though, I wasn’t quite so fussed. Not sure what I make of this! I am, however, very glad to have finished this – any! – series, given my awful habit of ‘having a little break’ and forgetting what previously happened!

As in the previous books, I have to say that the teen-ish romance bits didn’t do a great deal for me, although somehow things felt better handled here. To begin with I was a little irritated by the addition of new elements this far into events – things like Eliza, whoever she might be – but they are worked into the story very well and everything pulls together excellently by the end.

Likewise, I also felt – although it worked out very well by the end! – that we had an ending to the bulk of the main plot two thirds of the way through this. The remaining threads, however, had been woven lightly through the rest, so it wasn’t entirely disjointed. Still, it was a little… something?

Regardless, I’d certainly recommend the series if it sounds at all like your cup of tea, as I enjoyed reading it a great deal. Some of the ideas are very cool, and I hope will stick with me; the writing is strong; I perhaps just wasn’t a fan of the romance angle (which was rather half the point!).

Hardback: 613 pages / 86 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone book 3 (of 3)
Read from 31st July – 9th September 2018

My rating: 7.5/10

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

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“Arram Draper hung on the rail of the great arena, hoisting himself until his belly was bent over the polished stone.”

Showing a flair for magic, Arram is sent to the university where his skills put him on a fast-track programme. Younger than the other students, he bonds with two other advanced-course students, one of whom happens to be a prince of the realm.

As the book progresses, so do Arram’s studies. Friendships deepen, and different types of magic are explored. Meanwhile, the politics surrounding Prince Ozorne grow ever murkier…

Many, many years ago, I absolutely loved a book called Alanna. It ends on something of a cliff-hanger, but pre-internet (yes, I’m old! ;)) I never found out about any sequels. Well, turns out that Ms Pierce is quite prolific, and that many of her books share a universe. So, there are at least 20 books between Alanna and Tempests and Slaughter, which is a lovely thing to go back to!

If, like me, you’re not really up on any of the other books, that works just fine – this can be read as a standalone. If you’re already familiar with the series, then this is a bit of a back story to the ‘Numair’ mentioned in the series name.

The style of the book is quite light – as in, skips over long periods of time, gives you small events not just catastrophe – but there are still some rotting corpses and brutal gladiators. The whole thing has a sort-of resolution, but there’s clearly more to come in the series – and I’m very glad for it!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: The Numair Chronicles book 1
Read from 21st August – 4th September 2018

My rating: 8/10