Category Archives: eBooks

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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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 Hand of the Sun King

Fantasy novel about straddling cultures and collecting powers

This was the next set book for my fantasy book club, which I had to dial into because I caught COVID-19 at the end of June, and then almost as soon as I recovered, I caught a cold.

Image is of “The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse. The eBook cover is of a hand covered in intricate designs. In the background is a mountain, river and bamboo leaves in blue and a partially obscured yellow sun.

“The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse is the first novel in the fantasy series “Pact and Pattern” about a young man who grows up in two cultures. In his father’s household, he is Wen Alder, studying for the Imperial Examinations to obtain a prestigious position serving the Emperor. However, in the dead of night, under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother, he is Foolish Cur studying the old ways. Trying to balance both identities, and unable to keep his own ambition in check, he finds himself propelled into a life of politics and intrigue, of rebellion and conflicted loyalties.

This was a really interesting novel with a complex and well thought out magic system. Greathouse is consistent and detailed with the use of magic and fans of epic fantasy will not be disappointed reading about Foolish Cur’s efforts to master various powers. The novel is paced in a way that the reader gradually learns more about reaches of the Sienese Empire and the effects of colonialism at the same rate that Foolish Cur does, creating a sense of connection with him and an investment in his story. I have mentioned a couple of times on here that I have been enjoying books where the primary motivation is ambition, and this was no exception.

However, I did find the book takes a while to get started. While I appreciate the earlier chapters lay a lot of essential groundwork for the overall premise of the book, it was initially slow to gain momentum.

An enjoyable book (once it got going) with unique and well-considered magic, few boring fantasy tropes and plenty of complexity.

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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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The Binding

Fantasy novel about trapping memories in books

Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault

After a bit of a slow start, with members moving away and people going overseas and this never-ending pandemic, we did manage to have another meeting of our fantasy book club this year.

Image is of “The Binding” by Bridget Collins. The eBook cover is an intricately painted floral design in indigo, bronze and beige with a key in the middle.

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins is a fantasy novel about a young man called Emmett Farmer who is summoned by a Bookbinder to work as an apprentice. Although he has been too unwell to work on the farm recently, Emmett initially resists, insisting he will be able to resume his duties very soon. However, with his family strangely eager to see him go, he reluctantly agrees and travels to the isolated cottage to start his new trade. His master is an elderly, taciturn woman called Seredith who refuses to answer any of his questions about the magical art of binding: taking a person’s traumatic memories and encapsulating them safely in a book. Instead, he is set to work learning the practical skills of bookbinding. However, when Seredith falls ill, Emmett’s future suddenly becomes very unclear and he realises that even less clear is his own past, and the location of his own book.

There were some very strong elements to this book. Collins has a knack for capturing mood, and I admittedly found the first part of this book extremely bleak, though this was balanced out with the beautiful summer scenes in the middle of the book. I liked the idea of bookbinding as an arcane art, and that there was a whole economy and apprenticeship system built around it. The highlight of the book was the interplay between Emmett and Lucian, and the various circumstances in which they meet.

However, I did find the use of seasons to delineate mood a little heavy-handed at times. I also found the magic and society felt a little unfinished. If books are only ever the bound memories of people, how were they invented? Why can’t you bind a memory into a letter? Why, in a fantasy society without a clear religion such as Christianity, is homophobia so rampant? While there were a lot of beautiful scenes and pieces of writing, I wasn’t sure the plot and setting held up very well under close scrutiny.

An interesting concept with some lovely prose but at times a bit grim and unfinished.

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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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To the Sea

New Zealand crime thriller about family secrets

Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma

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

Image is of “To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley. The eBook cover is of a woman in a long black dress standing on grassy sand dunes before a sea and stormy sky.

“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.

This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.

Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).

A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.

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Flyaway

Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia

It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.

Image is of “Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings. The eBook cover is a black heart against a cream background with a tangle of vines growing out of the arteries. There are red fruits and black crows.

“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.

For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.

However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.

A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.

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