A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education is the first part of The Scholomance trilogy which follows Galadriel “El” Higgins a student at a boarding school for witches and wizards that is a bit like Hogwarts except that there are no teachers, no holidays and the school itself and about half the other students are trying to kill you before graduation. El has an affinity for spells of mass destruction but is trying her hardest not to become the evil sorceress fate seems to have cast her as. Rude, sarcastic and terminally unpopular, she finds an unlikely ally in her ridiculously and infuriatingly heroic classmate, Orion Lake.

I adored El with her extensive range of creative insults (“you tragic blob of unsteamed pudding” is a personal favourite), she’s such an outsider and outcast who is just trying to survive high school in the most literal sense, and I was rooting for her the whole way as she finds her own little circle of friends and a slow-burn romance, and starts questioning the wizarding enclaves that hoard power and resources leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

There’s quite a lot of exposition throughout the story explaining the rules of magic, generating mana for spells, the maleficaria (wizard-eating monsters) and maleficers (wizards that kill others for mana), but it didn’t really slow the story down and the plot – covering just a couple of weeks in the school year – trots along at a brisk pace.

The narrative cleverly combines the painful and awkward adolescent experience of trying to fit it and social rejection with the high stakes of constantly scheming students and monster attacks, as well as the rather more mundane stress of trying to pass exams and coursework. The Scholomance seems like the antithesis of Hogwarts, and really captures the loneliness and homesickness of boarding school life.

A Deadly Education is a really refreshing twist on superpowered teenagers and boarding school stories, I was hooked from start to finish and this is easily one of my favourite books this year. Have a lovely week. X

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Sharing a review of the young adult fantasy novel Raybearer today to refresh my memory of events before starting the concluding part, Redemptor, which came out this week. Raybearer follows Tarisai, the daughter of the mysterious Lady who has been training her daughter since birth to infiltrate the Council of Eleven and murder the Crown Prince, but joining the Council means being connected to the Prince and his Council by his telepathic Ray.

I really loved Tarisai as she was raised in relative comfort and wealth yet lacked family, warmth or affection, which she craves deeply, and she’s torn between seeking her mother’s love and approval, and the family she could have as part of the Raybearer’s Council. Tarisai also struggles with her devotion and loyalty to the well-meaning but often naive Crown Prince, and the injustices she sees across the Arit Empire, which is steeped in tradition, such as the Treaty of the Underworld that demands the sacrifice of 300 children every year to prevent the spirits of the underworld from cursing the Empire with plagues, famine and war.

I found the West-African inspired Arit Empire really refreshing, the world was vivid and vibrant full of culture, history, mythology and folklore.

Raybearer is a captivating and enchanting story about family, friendship, love and courage, full of twists, suspense and moral dilemmas, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next in the sequel. Have a lovely week. X

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The weather has turned in our part of the country, and I’ve spent the last few evenings curled up on the couch reading while raindrops drummed against the windows and thunder rumbled. I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy this year, and have found some really original and captivating stories, one of my favourites so far is Legendborn.

The story follows 16-year-old Briana ‘Bree’ Matthews as she atempts to infilitrate a secret society at university that she suspects may have had something to do with her mother’s death. I did struggle to suspend my disbelief a little bit that the direct descendents of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (the Legendborn) are fighting demons (shadowborn) in North Carolina but this turned out to be a really refreshing and modern retelling of Arthurian folklore.

I adored the protagonist, Bree, and really appreciated her observations about race, privilege and grief. Legendborn does feature a love triangle between Bree and two rival members of the secret society, Selwyn and Nick, which is one of my least favourite YA tropes as there’s always a risk that readers will be disappointed if their preferred pairing don’t end up together but it does fit with Arthurian legend, the love interests are very different from one another and it’s not at all obvious who Bree will end up with. There are a lot of supporting characters some of which I found quite unremarkable but others I’m really looking forward to seeing more of such as Bree’s gay Taiwainese-American bestfriend, a non-binary member of the secret society, the secret society’s healer and Bree’s dad.

I found the first half of the story a bit too heavy on exposition explaining the history and hierarchy of the scions, squires, pages, vassals and regents that make up the Order of the Legendborn which did slow down the plot. I also found the mastermind manipulating the order towards war with the shadowborn fairly obvious, but this story still packed a few clever twists and I raced through the second half, and the sequel (hopefully due out in 2022) is one of my most eagerly anticipated books. Legendborn is an orignal twist on Arthurian lore with a great cast of characters, plenty of humour, romance, mystery, magic and action. Have a lovely week. X

Mid Year Reading Roundup

Halfway through 2021 and I’ve read more books in the first half of this year than I managed to read in the whole of 2020. Sharing a little roundup of shorter reviews for the books I’ve read during the second quarter of the year.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The story follows Princess Karina, last surviving member of the Royal Family, who wishes to resurrect her recently murdered mother, and Malik, a refugee whose sister is captured by a vengeful spirit, who agrees to kill the princess in order to free his sister. I didn’t particularly like either of the protagonists at first, though I was more invested in Malik’s dilemma about whether he could kill the woman he’s fallen in love with in order to free his sister than Karina’s, but both characters go through some significant development and a few clever twists kept me interested until the end.

Incendiary by Zoraida Cordova

Renata is one of the Moria, a race of people with magical abilities – though her ability to steal memories makes her an outcast among her own – and she joins the resistance who are fighting against the humans who persecute them. When her unit’s commander is captured, she agrees to become a spy in the heart of the enemy’s stronghold in order to rescue him. This had a slow start, but it really picks up in the second half, which is full of angst, twists and betrayals, and had me eager to get my hands on the concluding part of the duology.

The Memory of Babel by Christelle Dabos

This was one of my most eagerly anticipated books of the year, but I’m not sure it lived up to my expectations. Set a couple of years after the events of the previous book (reviewed here), following Thorn’s mysterious disappearance, Ophelia remains determined to find him and unravel the mysteries of the creator and their shattered world. None of these books are action-packed but this one was particularly slow-paced, and there are a lot of disparate threads that I’m hoping the fourth and final part of the series will tie together. Ophelia and Thorn remain an odd couple, but their stop-start romance was the highlight of this book for me.

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

A huntress and an assassin are sent on a quest to return magic to their dying land. This was probably one of my biggest disappointments and at times I wondered if I was reading a first draft because it’s full of interesting ideas but there’s little suspense, action or mystery, and it’s full of cliches, tropes and deus ex machina. As I don’t like writing wholly negative reviews, I’ll say that one of the supporting characters, Altair, turned out to be far more interesting and nuanced than I expected, and it was engaging and readable enough that I didn’t DNF.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nora Seed is living her most mediocre life in Bedford, riddled with regrets about the opportunities she’s squandered through her life, but when she decides to end her life, she finds herself in the Midnight Library where she has the chance to explore all the other possible lives she could’ve lived. This is a story about regrets, philosophy, quantum physics, family dynamics, swimming, music and polar bears. The Midnight Library is an easy, life-affirming story, full of wisdom and humour.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

I was apprehensive about reading this as it has pretty much every trigger warning from self-harm (in the first chapter) to genocide, but it was incredibly absorbing. The Poppy War is the first book in a fantasy trilogy inspired by the Sino-Japanese War that took place between 1937 and 1945. The story follows Rin, an orphan from a previous war, raised by her opium dealing aunt and uncle who plan to marry her off to a man three times her age for their own profit. In desperation, she studies for the national exams and secures a place at the elite military academy. It’s a fascinating character study as Rin makes friends and enemies, finds mentors, and starts to consider what and who she’s willing to sacrifice for power. I tend to prefer adventures and heists to grimdark fantasy but even as harrowing and disturbing as this is (and Chapter 21 detailing the atrocities and massacre of a city deserves a trigger warning all to itself), the characterisation and world building are brilliant.

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

This is an original and quirky young adult fantasy about Sierra who discovers that her family have the ability to animate art and murals with the spirits of the dead when an evil anthropologist steals their knowledge and starts picking off the other artists one by one. I really liked the sassy, streetwise characters, and enjoyed the social commentary about race, ethnicity, immigration and the gentrification of Latinx and Black neighbourhoods in New York.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

The sequel to An Ember in the Ashes (reviewed here) had a bit of a slow start and took me a while to get into. The narrative switches between Laia, Elias and his best friend, Helene, who has become the new Emperor’s Blood Shrike. Elias and Laia attempt to break into prison where Laia’s brother is being held, while Helene has been tasked with tracking Elias down and executing him as a traitor. Despite a slow start, there were enough twists, turns and betrayals to keep me interested and eager to find out what happens next in this thrilling Young Adult Fantasy series.

Have a lovely week. X

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is the first part in the young adult, fantasy ‘The Ember Quartet’, and although it’s been all over bookstagram and blogs for the last few years, it was my husband’s recommendation that prompted me to finally read it. The story switches between two protagonists, Elias, a Martial soldier competing in trials to become the new Emperor, and Laia, a girl from the oppressed Scholars whose family were murdered by Martials. In desperation Laia agrees to spy on the ruthless Martial Commandant for the Scholar resistance in exchange for their help in rescuing her brother who has been captured and imprisoned by Martials.

While I found Laia the more sympathetic of the two protagonists, Elias faces the more interesting moral dilemmas as a soldier in training. The Martial Empire is one so brutal and bloody that the lives of their own student soldiers are worth little more than those of the slaves they keep. There are Martials who revel in their power and superiority over others, while some may not agree with everything the Empire does but accept life as it is, and Elias recognises the injustices and brutality but feels trapped and powerless to change anything.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about underdogs standing up to oppression and tyranny, but I really liked that Laia isn’t a daring, devoted resistance fighter, she’s a frightened young woman desperately trying to survive long enough in a brutal environment to save her brother.

An Ember in the Ashes was full of suspense, kept me hooked and wanting to read just one more page, then another, up to the heart-pounding end, and I’m really looking forward to reading the next part in the quartet. Have a lovely week. X

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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It feels very much like we’re living in a dystopian novel at the moment, like many others I’ve been staying at home, worrying about family and glued to the news over the last week, yet at times it’s been necessary and calming to retreat from our strange, new reality into fiction.

Crooked Kingdom starts just after the events of Six of Crows (reviewed here); betrayed by the merchant Van Eck who hired them for the seemingly impossible prison break in the first book, the Crows are seeking vengeance while Van Eck attempts to eliminate them.

I have such a soft spot for rogues and underdogs who refuse to give up no matter how impossible it seems, and I loved seeing how this band of misfits fought back when Kaz’s carefully laid plans fell apart. What makes this duology so compulsive is that time after time the Crows are outwitted, ambushed and betrayed, yet somehow they always drag themselves out of it and refuse to give up. Although magic exists in the Grishaverse, I also really appreciated that most of the characters rely on a combination of skill and cunning rather than superpowers.

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The romantic subplots are a little bit neat in that all six of the main characters pair off, though not everyone gets their happily ever after. Kaz and Inej in particular have become some of my favourite characters, and I was fascinated watching them circle each other warily, trying to bridge the distance across their personal traumas.

Crooked Kingdom contains the same blend of humour, action, twists and romance as Six of Crows, but I enjoyed the second book even more than the first. When reality seems stranger than fiction, I’m grateful to have stories as absorbing as this to escape into. Hoping everyone is safe and well. X

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows

Although I read a lot of fantasy, I’ve outgrown most of the stories about dragons, dwarves and elves, but one aspect that continues to draw me in is ordinary characters who find themselves caught up in epic events and I have a particular soft-spot for rogues and underdogs. Six of Crows kept getting recommended to me based on other books I’ve enjoyed and I regret waiting so long to read it because it was exactly the type of character driven fantasy adventure that I love.

Six of Crows follows a group of teenage thieves, misfits, orphans and runaways lead by the criminal prodigy, Kaz Brekker. Kaz and his handpicked team are hired by the merchant Jan Van Eck for a high risk, high reward heist: break into an impenetrable military stronghold to rescue a hostage – preventing chaos and war in the process.

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For a young adult novel, this was a little darker than I expected containing descriptions of torture and references to sexual exploitation, but it also ticks all the boxes for diversity with a cast made of different races as well as LGBTQ and disabled characters.

Six of Crows contains plenty of unexpected twists, action and suspense, romantic pining and humour, it’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a story that ends on a cliffhanger, and I can’t wait to find out how the final part of this duology resolves itself. Have a lovely week. X

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis

The Whitby Witches

Jennet and Ben are orphaned siblings who have been shunted from one foster home to another since their parents died because of Ben’s ability to see ghosts, until they’re taken in by an eccentric, old lady, Alice Boston, who lives in the Yorkshire town of Whitby. Not long after the children arrive, the mysterious Rowena Cooper moves into a dilapidated old house nearby and strange, sinister events start to occur.

Whitby is a wonderful setting with descriptions of the ruined abbey overlooking the town and the infamous 199 steps featuring prominently in the story, and I really appreciated how well Robin Jarvis foreshadowed events and cleverly interspersed local history and folklore from the Barguest from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and St Hilda to the collapse of the central tower of the abbey in 1830 into the story.

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The Whitby Witches is full of supernatural elements from witches and ghosts to demonic hounds and other fantastic creatures, and this was a lot more thrilling, atmospheric and scary than I expected a children’s book to be – it managed to give me goosebumps and it’s a perfect tale for a dark and stormy night. My only criticism is that the story never fully explained who Rowena Cooper (or her husband) was or where she came from.

The story works well as a standalone but The Whitby Witches is actually the first in a trilogy following Miss Boston, Jennet and Ben, though only the first book seems to have been re-issued so I’ll have to track down second hand copies of the sequels because I enjoyed this so much. Have a lovely week. X

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the story of Karou, a teenage art student living in Prague who also happens to run “errands” for her adopted father, Brimstone, a Chimaera that grants wishes in exchange for teeth.

This story had such an intriguing premise and I would’ve enjoyed it much more if it had continued to follow Karou as she tries to figure out why Brimstone collects teeth and her own identity along the way, but unfortunately it abruptly turns into a star-crossed lovers romance between Karou and Akiva, a seraphim soldier, caught up in an endless war between angels and chimaera.

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I’m not at all opposed to romances and I don’t even mind an enemies-to-lovers arc, but I prefer love stories where the couple fall in love over the course of the novel rather than just being pushed together by a combination of physical magnetism and the hand of fate. Daughter of Smoke and Bone had such a promising start, but I was disappointed by the way it developed, and I’m unsure about whether or not I want to read the rest of the trilogy.

Have a lovely week! X