Category Archives: Advanced Reading Copies

The First Binding

South Asian-inspired Epic Fantasy Novel

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi. The eBook cover is of a person with dark skin, long hair and a ragged red cloak facing mountains and a city in the distance.

“The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi is an epic fantasy novel about a storyteller called Ari. After arriving at a tavern and providing a memorable performance, Ari meets a mysterious young woman with whom he forms an instant connection. As they navigate politics and danger in a foreign land, Ari shares the most personal story of all: how he overcame adversity to become a legend and The Storyteller.

This story has all the elements required for epic fantasy: orphan child, early mentor, street urchins, selective magic school and a journey to prove oneself. The book is set against a stunning South Asian backdrop and weaving in captivating mythologies and cultural elements to create rich, unique worldbuilding. I think my favourite part of the book was actually the interlude chapters set in the nation of Etaynia where Ari must navigate dangerous political games, though I did enjoy the competitive kite flying chapters as well.

However, this was not an easy book to read. It is over 800 pages long and it had a very slow start. Virdi has an overly descriptive style and I wish I was exaggerating but the book spent 30 pages describing a bench in a tavern. There were pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of banal items: candles, cutlery and benchtops. The story really only felt like it began to get moving at page 375, well over a third of the way through. I actually feel like the editors did this book a bit of a disservice by not paring it back much, much more.

Ari is supposed to be an expert storyteller but I didn’t feel like the excellence of his storytelling was self-evident. Instead, there was a lot of reliance on audience reaction rather than having the stories shine in their own right. I also found the magic quite laborious. I understand that mastering the idea of folds took years and was very difficult, but the magic system took a long time to explain for something that did not inherently appear to be particularly complex. I also understand that Ari had gone through some things that perhaps made the magic much more difficult to execute in the earlier chapters however again, it seemed like there was a lot of time spent describing and not really that much magic to show for it which, as a reader, I found very frustrating. I also found the love interest quite cliched with a lot of batting eyelashes and a lot of male gaze. I think I could have forgiven quite a lot of these issues had the premise (rather than the setting) been more original.

There was some lovely worldbuilding in this book but you could have cut it in half without sacrificing the key parts of the story.

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Embassytown

Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication

Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness

I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.

Image is of “Embassytown” by China Mieville. The paperback book is upright against a glowing white background. Beside it is a small replica of the Rosetta Stone.

“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.

This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.

I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.

An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.

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The Last White Man

Speculative fiction novel about humanity’s skin changing colour

Content warning: racial violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid. The eBook cover is dark navy blue with stylised block text in pink and orange, and pale yellow and orange.

“The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid is a speculative fiction novel about a young white man called Anders. One morning, Anders wakes to find that his appearance is changed. He is no longer white. Confused and unsure what to do, he reaches out to his friend and lover Oona. As they slowly renegotiate their relationship, other people in society start experiencing changes in their appearance and skin colour until it becomes clear that society will never be the same again.

This was a deceptively simple book that explored race and racism in a novel way: what would happen if people who had lived their lives as white suddenly had to live their lives with a different racial appearance? Hamid uses a small but effective cast of characters to explore some of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist views that people harbour, and how those views must be grappled with in the new society he has created. Some of these issues play out in public displays of violence and conflict, while others play out in the privacy of family homes. Particularly effective were the interactions between Oona and her mother, whose refusal to accept the situation becomes untenable, and Anders and his father, who find a new understanding through this experience. However, I also thought that the otherwise banal setting of the gym where Anders works was where issues of discrimination, exploitation and tolerance were truly borne out.

I think the only thing that I found myself wanting was a bit more of an explanation of why this had happened. With a confidence that I can only admire, Hamid just sets the scene without any attempt to justify – scientifically or otherwise – what is causing people to change. I think I would have liked just the merest whiff of a theory to cling to.

A thought-provoking and original story that encourages the reader to really think about the social impacts of racism.

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The Crimson Thread

Historical fiction retelling of the Labyrinth set in Crete in World War II

Content warning: war, sexual assault, family violence, torture, sexual harassment, disability discrimination

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth. The eBook cover is a photograph of a young woman with fair skin, dark hair and red lipstick wearing a brown hat and navy jacket. There are figures fighting in the background and a floral design in the foreground.

“The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel and retelling of the story of the Labyrinth from Greek mythology. The book is about a young woman called Alenka who lives in Crete with her mother and younger brother. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, she is part of the local resistance. When German paratroopers land on the island in 1941, Alenka saves the lives of two young Australian men: childhood friends Jack and Teddy. However, the war is far from over and as the fighting intensifies on land and off, it becomes harder and harder to know who to trust.

This was an excellently researched book that seamlessly wove together two Cretes: the one of classic mythology and the modern one of the mid-20th century. The pacing in this book was superb. There was a lot of really challenging themes, and Forsyth knew exactly when to allow moments of tension and moments of tenderness. Some of the scenes were so poignant or full of perfect timing that they brought me to tears. The parts of the book that are hardest to read are those that are true either to the Nazi occupation of Crete or the events following Ariadne helping Theseus to navigate the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur in Greek mythology. Forsyth’s writing is so vivid in these moments, using motifs and metaphors that span millennia, and appealing to the universal human experience.

Alenka was such a relatable character, trying to do her best in extremely dangerous and ever-changing circumstances, including in her own home. My heart broke for her over and over. Conversely, the friendship and rivalry between Jack and Teddy was a fascinating exploration of class, disability and entitlement in Australian culture. All of the characters felt incredibly well-rounded with histories, motivations and unique personalities propelling them towards the final conflict. Forsyth has written about her experiences growing up with a stutter and writes with power, authenticity and flexibility about Jack’s stutter and how it waxes and wanes depending on the situation and his state of mind. This topic also has a particular significance to my family. During World War II, my grandfather’s twin brother’s aeroplane was shot down over Crete and never recovered. I understand the inspiration for Forsyth’s book came from her own family connection to Crete.

I have reviewed quite a few books by Forsyth on this blog, and I think this is her best yet.

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The City Inside

Science fiction novel set in futuristic India

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is the of “The City Inside” by Samit Basu. The eBook is a stylised, futuristic version of a city with colourful rooftops, digital icons of people and a temple in the far background against a night sky.

“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.

This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.

Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.

While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.

An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.

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Nettle & Bone

Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest

Content warning: family violence

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.

Image is of “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher. The eBook cover is of a woman’s back wearing a green cloak made out of nettle and bones.

“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.

True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.

I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.

A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.

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The Bone Orchard

Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder

Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller. The eBook cover is of a skeleton’s hand with its fingers crossed, rising up from fresh pink flowers. There is fungi growing from some of the joints and a greenish smoke between the fingers.

“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.

This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.

While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.

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Siracusa

Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday

Content warning: child grooming

After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.

Image is of “Siracusa” by Delia Ephron. The paperback book is resting on a wooden board next to a selection of antipasti including olives, mushrooms, artichokes, bocconcini and stuffed capsicum. Behind the board a wine glass rests on its side with the dregs of red wine still inside.

“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.

This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.

However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.

A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.

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Burnt Out

Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman. The eBook cover is sky blue with a hand holding a match that has a woman’s face wearing sunglasses in the flame.

“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.

I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.

Image is of a burnt gumtree stump that has new growth with trees in the background furred with leaves all over their branches.

However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.

An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.

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Devotion

Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent. The eBook cover is light grey with a dark grey, banksia-shaped shadow and white, long-stemmed plant.

“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.

Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.

It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.

A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.

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