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.
“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.
As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.
“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.
This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.
However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.
While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.
Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.
Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school
Content warning: bullying, suicide
The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.
“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.
This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.
As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.
An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
I was thrilled to launch my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December, and it was so successful I actually have quite a backlog of reviews. I was especially looking forward to this book which is a sequel to “Silver in the Wood” which I adored. Publication was a bit delayed because of COVID-19 but I ordered a copy as soon as I could. If you haven’t read the first book yet, please note there will be inadvertent spoilers.
“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh is a sequel to her novella “Silver in the Wood”. Some years have passed since the events of the previous book, and Henry Silver has sunk into a deep, grimy depression. His enthusiasm for an adventurous life as the Wild Man of Greenhollow has waned and he struggles to fill the days with the same careful routine that Tobias Finch did. When his mother calls on him to require his assistance dealing with a dangerous creature, Silver reluctantly agrees. However, when he reaches the coastal town of Rothport, he finds much more than he bargained for.
I was so happy to step back into Tesh’s world with these beloved characters. In this story, we get much more of Silver’s perspective and insight into some of the immaturity and indecision behind his signature charm and wit. There are some very funny moments in the book, and plenty of melodrama. The relationship between Silver and his mother is complicated and amusing. I also enjoyed Tesh’s exploration of relationships and working through guilt, trust and communication. Seeing Finch’s taciturn nature from the outside was frustrating but I finally had a bit more empathy for all the other characters.
I think that while I enjoyed revisiting this setting, the murkiness of the atmosphere spilled over a little into the plot. Tesh plays with parallel worlds and liminal spaces, stepping into another realm that was reminiscent of the dead city of Charn in “The Magician’s Nephew” by C. S. Lewis. However, I didn’t quite feel the same cohesiveness as I did in the first book. Tesh flickers the narrative back and forth in time to unveil what happened between Silver and Finch, but this time around I didn’t feel as invested. I love novellas but it was almost like the book needed a bit more exposition for the reader to understand how everything fit (or didn’t fit) together.
A fun, tangled book that I liked; just not as much as the first one.
Middle grade fantasy book about four gifted children
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I’m currently very deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this looked like a nice quick read.
“The Lost Amulet” by Mary Farrugia is the first bok in the “Stone Bearer Series” and is a middle grade fantasy book about three children called Alexandra, Jake and Kian who are raised together in an orphanage with the ferocious Ms Severington. When Jake and Kian are suddenly adopted, Alexandra is left alone. However, when she is adopted shortly before her 12th birthday by the mysterious John, the truth about her identity is finally revealed and her destiny as a Stone Bearer of the Land of Four Stones begins. When she begins her training and education with John and Gum Gully High, Alexandra is reunited with her friends. However, the race is on to find a lost Amulet before the chaotic figure Colt does, and the key may lie in the secret fourth Stone Bearer.
This is an easy read that follows plenty of the tried and true hallmarks of the children’s fantasy genre from orphans, hidden identities to being sorted into school houses. It is a quick and action-packed read with a strong focus on friendship.
Like many self-published books, this one felt a little heavy on the adverbs and the author did occasionally misuse some words. The story initially felt a little confusing moving from the orphanage to a day school for both magical and non-magical children, but perhaps some of these issues are resolved in later books in the series.
A fast-paced book that could appeal to fans of the middle grade fantasy genre.
Young adult novel about a young boy’s affinity for foxes
I am currently doing my Short Stack Reading Challenge, and I raided all my shelves for some very short books to see out the end of the year. I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. I can’t remember if I chose it because someone recommended it to me, or because this author was one I read as a kid because my (admittedly very annoying) year 5 teacher was obsessed with her. Either way, this was the next book in my short stack. It is actually a signed copy, addressed to someone called Katie in the year of publication – 1994. Edit: I was just reminded that I have read this author more recently, I had just forgotten her pseudonym.
“Foxspell” by Gillian Rubinstein is about a young boy called Tod who, after his father returns overseas, has moved with his mother and two sisters to live with his grandmother on a property in South Australia. Despite being a talented artist, Tod struggles with school and feels the strain of the arguments at home. When he comes across a dead fox and is moved to bury it, he unknowingly creates a connection between himself and a fox spirit. Spending more and more time in the area nearby called the quarries, Tod attracts the attention of Shaun, an older teenager whose gang vandalise property and who is interested in Tod’s sister Charm. As things at home become more and more difficult, and Tod falls further behind in school, the temptation to run with a fox and run with a gang becomes greater and greater.
This was quite a surprising book. Even though it was written nearly 30 years ago, it still felt fresh and relevant. Although not ever said explicitly, it is suggested that Tod has a learning disability like dyslexia and instead of blaming him for his difficulties, the book explores how the people around him are failing him. I also thought that Rubinstein did a good job of weaving earthy magic into the story while acknowledging that white people, like foxes, invaded this country and that Traditional Owners’ beliefs and connection to country persists. There were also lots of other interesting parts to this story. Tod’s mother is an aspiring comedian and uses anecdotes about her family in her sets, and I thought that the dichotomy between her lack of involvement in her kids’ day to day lives, and her disrespect for their boundaries by using their lives as material for her shows was a fascinating subplot. I also really liked the character of Tod’s sister Charm, and the complicated relationship between her, Shaun, Tod and Shaun’s younger brother.
An unexpectedly complex story that I liked a lot more than I remember liking Rubinstein’s other books.