Thursday, 9 May 2019

Everless by Sara Holland

Most people find the forest frightening, believing the old tales of fairies who will freeze the time in your blood, or witches who can spill your years out over the snow with only a whisper.

Jules and her father are behind on rent, and low on time. To stop her father bleeding himself dry to clear their debts, Jules takes a job at Everless, the grand estate of the wealthy Gerling family. But Everless is a dangerous place, especially with the marriage of the Gerling heir to the Queen's daughter, and Jules soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrets and temptation.

Everless is a YA fantasy with a great premise. Time is literally money in the world of Sempra. The poor bleed themselves of hours and even years to make iron coins to pay their debts while the rich can live for centuries. It's an awesome and thought-provoking premise that I've not come across before... but the rest of the book was disappointing. The plot was paper thin and relied too heavily on inexplicably terrible decisions and secrets that were kept secret for no reason other than to advance the story. The characters were dull and uninteresting, and don't even get me started on whatever weird non-romance was happening.

All in all, Everless is a great idea let down by insipid characters and a flimsy plot struggling under its own weight. It wasn't terrible by a long way, but there are far better books out there.

Recommended For: Younger readers might enjoy this a lot more than I did

Read On: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and Red Rising by Pierce Brown are a similar tales of unfair societies, rebellions, and commoners with special abilities.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold, but its god is dead and the once grand city is crumbling to pieces around the few survivors. Tormalin the Oathless has no desire to sit around and wait to die so he abandons Ebora to be among the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine. When eccentric scholar, Lady Vincenza de Grazon, takes him on as a hired sword, he eagerly agrees even when the job involves facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artefacts. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, Tormalin has no intention of ever returning home.  But not everyone is as willing to let Ebora fade away, and Tormalin is slowly drawn into a tangled mystery centuries in the making.

The Ninth Rain is a hefty classical-style high fantasy, and the first book of the Winnowing Flame trilogy. If I'm being honest, I found it quite hard to get into at the beginning and wasn't entirely convinced about the whole concept of alien invasions in a fantasy world. Also, there was a LOT crammed into a few short chapters with witches, vampires, monster plants, and aliens. And yet, once the story really got going, it all kind of works. The world-building is rich and detailed and so cleverly done so that it fades into the background - you always know what you need to know, but the story never gets bogged down by exposition. 

Also, I really liked the diverse and lovable characters, particularly the three protagonists who are the heart of the story, and their experiences give The Ninth Rain its depth and complexity. I rooted for all of them, and the banter between them made me giggle. Plot-wise, like I said, The Ninth Rain started slow and the 'OMG, I have to know what happens next!' page-turning feeling didn't hit me until about a quarter into the book. However, once that happened, I flew through the chapters as the characters became more and more entangled in a web of magic, prophecy, and ancient mysteries.

Original, fun to read and full of diverse and likeable characters, The Ninth Rain is a great start to an exciting fantasy series. Get through the first few chapters, and you'll be rewarded with a story full of heart, humour, and heroics.

Recommended For: Fans of classical fantasy full of quests, magical creatures, ancient enemies, and heroes you can root for.

Read On: The next book in the trilogy is The Bitter Twins. If you love epic fantasy with a lot of heart, you'll like the Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung - the first book is The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests, and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its evil at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years. Agnieszka is terrified when she is chosen, but she finds that the Dragon, the Wood, and magic itself are far more complicated than she ever thought...

I loved this gorgeous young adult fantasy steeped in the rich traditions of Eastern European folklore. The story quickly swept me up and I found myself absorbed in the tale of Agnieszka and the Dragon as they battled to keep the Wood at bay. I also really liked the quiet humour which underlaid the first person narrative. My only niggle was that there was so much crammed into the plot, especially in the last half of the book, that it felt a bit rushed. I wanted to both devour Uprooted in one sitting because I was desperate to know what happened next and also wanted to slow down and savour the story properly... definitely one for a future re-read!

At its heart, Uprooted is about the power of love; love may make you vulnerable and desperate at times, but the ties it creates are powerful.

Recommended For: Anyone who likes their YA fantasy full of folklore and magic

Read On: Spinning Silver is another retelling by Naomi Novik, as is To Kill a A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo. Another tale of a malevolent and ancient forest aimed at adults is In The Night Wood by Dale Bailey.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

As Sancia Grado lay facedown in the mud, stuffed underneath the wooden deck next to the old stone wall, she reflected that this evening was not going at all as she had wanted.

There's not much in the way of work for an escaped slave like Sancia Grado, but she has an unnatural talent that makes her one of the best thieves in the city of Tevanne. When she's offered a lucrative job to steal an ancient artefact from a heavily guarded warehouse, Sancia agrees, dreaming of leaving the city behind - but instead, she finds herself the target of a murderous conspiracy. Someone powerful in Tevanne wants the artefact, and intends to kill Sancia to get it.

Foundryside is a action-packed epic fantasy full of heists, innovative magic, and ancient mysteries. It's exactly the kind of fantasy I love with immersive world-building, a magic system with rules, tangled politics, a clever protagonist, and a dangerous conspiracy right at the centre of it all. I really liked the characters, especially Sancia, and the banter between them adds a sly humour to a dark tale. Honestly, just a fab book, and I can't wait for the sequel to come out!

Recommended For: Fans of slightly darker fantasy with imaginative magic systems.

Read On: Other fantasy stories involving the problems of stealing something that you probably shouldn't have are The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. And if you like Robert Jackson Bennett, try his Divine Cities trilogy, beginning with City of Stairs.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

On the run and haunted by the lives she took in the Fold, Alina realises that she can't outrun her past or her destiny as the Sun Summoner. With the help of a notorious privateer, she returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces of the Darkling. But as her power grows, Alina becomes torn between the man she loves, her desire for greater power, and her duty to her country. 

Siege and Storm is a Russian-inspired fantasy, and the second book in the Grisha trilogy. I always enjoy Leigh Bardugo's writing, but I felt that this book didn't quite live up to the first. The writing was just as good, and she has a real talent for creating characters who are both flawed and complicated. Her characters also have real emotional depth, and there were times when my heart broke as Alina had to choose between her duty to her country and her heart.

However, not even beautiful writing and complex characters could save Siege and Storm from a long period in the middle of the book where nothing really happened. The beginning and ending of the book had me hooked, but I felt that the middle just... drifted until something exciting happened.

Recommended For: Anyone who loves complicated characters that will break your heart.

Read On: The next book in the Grisha trilogy is Ruin and Rising. Other Russian-inspired fantasies include The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, and The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Witchmark by C.L. Polk

Doctor Miles Singer went to war to escape his destiny, and came home a changed man. With a fake name and a gift for healing, Miles is working in a cash-strapped veterans hospital when a fatally poisoned man asks him to catch his killer. With the help of the mysterious Mr Hunter and a sister he cannot trust, Miles must risk his hard-won anonymity and freedom to unravel a conspiracy that could topple nations.

Witchmark is a cute historical fantasy that was perfect for a lazy morning in bed. While the story hasdits flaws, I did like Witchmark even though I was never hooked by it. For me, the world-building was very skinny indeed, and I felt like too much information was revealed far too late in the story. Also, the mystery at the centre of the book was very shaky at times, relied a lot on coincidental meetings, and took ages to get anywhere interesting which made Witchmark very easy to put down between chapters. 

That being said, I still enjoyed it. Set in a world reminiscent of Edwardian England, Witchmark just about managed to stay on the right side of twee, and the romance between Miles and Tristan was endearing, if a little instalovey. What I really liked - and kept me reading - was Miles' very complicated relationship with his sister and his constant fight to be his own person.

Recommended For: Anyone in need of a light and undemanding read on a lazy day

Read On: The second book in the Kingston Cycle is Stormsong. Another enjoyable historical fantasy romance is Soulless by Gail Carriger. 

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, the magical protector of the Old Kingdom who makes sure that the Dead stay Dead. But having spent her childhood at boarding school in the neighbouring country of Ancelstierre, Sabriel knows little about her homeland and the dangerous creatures that roam there. When her father becomes trapped in Death, however, Sabriel must return to the Old Kingdom. Armed with her father's sword and binding-bells, and accompanied by an ancient spirit in the form of a white cat and a secretive young mage, Sabriel must discover and defeat whoever or whatever is behind this uprising of the Dead.

I really enjoyed this gem of a historical fantasy. It's aimed at younger readers so the plot is fairly straightforward, and there's no swearing, sex, or bad language, but Sabriel is one of those books which never reads like its written for children. It's fun, scary, action-packed from start to finish, and deals with issues of responsibility, duty, and the death of a parent. Sabriel herself is a necromancer with dark and deadly abilities, but she's also very likeable. She's tough, sensible, very relatable, and does whatever needs to be done with the minimum of fuss or angst. She also stumbles, and doubts herself, and realises that learning how to do something and actually doing it are two very different things. 

Recommended For: Anyone looking for fantasy stories that don't patronise younger readers

Read On: The next book in the Old Kingdom series is Lireal by Garth Nix. Another children's fantasy with a practically minded heroine is Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan

Born in the slums of Imardin and struggling to make an honest living, Sonea hates the magicians. She hates their arrogance, she hates their power, and, most of all, she hates the way they use their magic to oppress the poor. So no one is more surprised than she is when she throws a stone through a magician's protective shield and knocks him out... 

The Magician's Guild is a high fantasy and the first book in the Black Magician trilogy. It was ok, but not amazing or even particularly memorable. It's a generic and inoffensive fantasy story with a largely predictable plot, a stock-and-trade medieval European setting, and flat characters. Mostly what it lacked was depth and complexity. I did like the premise though, and there were hints of a darker and much more interesting story to come.

Recommended for: I think this might appeal more to younger readers, or anyone looking for a quick and unchallenging fantasy story.

Read On: The next book in the Black Magician Trilogy is The Novice.  A similar fantasy about a slum girl finding her magical powers is The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away - home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan. While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs' greatest hidden treasure. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and the chance to escape the darkness for ever...

I liked A Wizard of Earthsea, but I loved The Tombs of Atuan even more. The writing is just as beautiful, the story is just as simple and absorbing, and the world-building is as compelling. What makes the difference for me, however, is that The Tombs of Atuan is a story framed by women. A Wizard of Earthsea was good, but there is barely a female character in sight. The Tombs of Atuan, however, is dominated by female characters, whether they are protagonists, antagonists, friends, or mentors  -  a rare bird indeed in fantasy. 

Recommended For: Anyone looking for a short and beautifully written children's fantasy

Read On: The next book in the Earthsea Quartet is The Furthest Shore

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Domingo, a lonely street kid, is scraping out a living collecting rubbish when a jaded vampire swoops into his life. The aristocratic descendent of Aztec blood-drinkers, Atl has suddenly found herself alone and vulnerable and on the run in the dark streets of Mexico City. All she wants is to get out of Mexico but that's easier said than done when you are being hunted by the cops, human gangsters, and a psychotic vampire from a rival cartel.

I really liked this tale of vampire narcos set in modern-day Mexico. It's gritty and bloody and violent with characters who are both complicated and morally grey. I loved the vivid world-building which draws on vampire folklore from around the world, and I also like the way Certain Dark Things subverts a lot of the tropes of vampire novels. Definitely a breath of fresh air into a very tired genre. Great stuff!

Recommended For: Fans of gritty and diverse urban fantasy

Read On: Another fantasy inspired by Mexican mythology is Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard.