Category Archives: Fantasy

The Blood Within The Stone

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

“The Blood Within The Stone” by T. R. Thompson is a fantasy young adult novel, the first in the “Wraith Cycle” series. The story is about two young boys, Wilt and Higgs, who live on the streets of a grim town called Greystone. Will’s ability to seemingly guess what people will do next gets him and Higgs an invitation into the Grey Guild, the prestigious guild of thieves. However, Wilt’s plans to eke a living that way are thrown by the wayside when he and Higgs are taken against their will by a Prefect from a Redmonis, a revered institute of education. When they arrive, the situation is even more grim than the town they left behind. All the students appear to be under some kind of spell and the mysterious Nine Sisters of Redmonis seem to be behind it.

Thompson conjures a bleak world, where the only way to survive is at the expense of someone else. He keeps that tone consistently throughout the book and it definitely felt much darker than most YA I read. I think there were two particular highlights for me in this book: the magic and Higgs. Thompson’s magic system is very sophisticated and throughout the book Wilt discovers and learns to control his affinity with welds: the connections that are formed between all living beings and which allow him to perform an increasing number of extraordinary feats. Magic is a difficult thing to get right in fantasy, and Thompson has clearly put in a lot of thought into his system, the things it can be used for and the dangers it poses to those who can wield its power.

I also absolutely adored the character of Higgs. Higgs is an excellent character and I found myself actually rushing through the parts about Wilt so that I could find out more about Higgs and what he was doing. Higgs’ enthusiasm and expertise was a breath of fresh air in a book that is otherwise very serious.

I guess that’s probably also a downside about this book: I liked a lot of the other characters more than I liked Wilt. Despite his incredible power, Wilt didn’t really seem to have much in the way of either personality or agency. Higgs is in the background, doing all the heavy lifting, while Wilt just seems to be along for the ride. Given the ending (which I won’t spoil) I imagine that future books will be a bit different but for this book, Wilt wasn’t as interesting as I would have liked him to be. I would read a thousand books about Higgs’ crackling personality and sharp wits, but Wilt was kind of more brawn than brains and just wasn’t as engaging.

Another issue I had with this book was a bit less about character and plot, and a bit more to do with an overall approach to conflict resolution. As I said earlier, this is a dark book and it is quite violent with characters frequently asserting their dominance through physical assaults. My problem wasn’t with this per se, but more with Wilt as his character develops over time. Quite a few people underestimate Wilt at the beginning, but as his control over his powers develops, he uses those powers to force people into respecting him. I think this was particularly apparent when he meets soldier Daemi, and learns to use his power to make her respect him. I think it is around Daemi that we really see an uglier side to Will and again, I wonder what the author will do with his character development in later books. On balance though, I would have liked to have seen more problems solved with communication, kindness and intelligence rather than with brute strength – magical or otherwise.

This was nevertheless a compelling story with a unique approach to the genre that hints at a much more epic story to be told in future books. If we get to see more of Higgs, I will definitely be there.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

Cassandra

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

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“Cassandra” by Kathryn Gossow is a young adult fantasy novel about a teenager called Cassie who lives on a rural property in Queensland in the 1980s. She often has visions of the future, but they are so fragmented and unpredictable that nobody believes her. Nobody, until she makes friends with her new neighbour Athena. Isolated at school and frustrated with her family, especially her younger brother Alex whose weather predictions have led their family to prosperity, Cassie is thrilled to have a friend like Athena. Even if Athena asks her to keep their friendship a secret. However, Cassie’s visions keep telling her that things are going to go wrong and as she grows more and more disturbed by them, everything eventually does.

This is a compelling story that fuses the familiar story of an outcast teenager with the story of Cassandra, a figure in Greek mythology. While they might seem an unlikely mix, the issues that Cassie deals with like fickle friendships, first crushes, experimentation, mental illness, aging family members and tense relationships with her parents and brother are cast in relief by her inability to properly control her visions of the future. I really liked the way that Cassie’s visions are so neatly woven into the remainder of the story. I also really liked how the book darkened into a real Australian gothic story. I don’t usually like books that are quite so bleak, but I appreciated Gossow’s sense of realism, especially in the scenes where Cassie attends a party with other teenagers.

I think the part of this book that I had the most trouble with was the character of Athena. Without giving away too much of the story, I felt like I would have liked Athena to either be a little more true to her namesake when it came to her friendship with Cassie or to have simply not been named Athena at all. I felt like out of all the hardships and heartbreak that Cassie went through in this story, Athena’s gradual then ultimate betrayal was the only one I couldn’t connect with. Athena was a bit of an enigma. Highly intellectual, Cassie feels a blend of admiration and envy for her, and she is presented for the most part as being perfect. However, I couldn’t quite understand how dispassionately she treats Cassie both as a friend and as an experiment.

This is a very thought-provoking book that explores a range of issues including adolescence, agrarianism and even immigration. After I finished it, I felt almost as haunted as Cassie.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

The Stone Sky

This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet, you might want to go back to book one or book two.

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“The Stone Sky” by N. K. Jemisin is the third book in the “Broken Earth” series, a science fantasy series about a woman called Essun whose world is crumbling around her, literally. Her mentor Alabaster is gone. Her daughter Nassun is lost. The comm Castrima is in tatters, with nothing left but desperate people. The season is upon her and while the angry earth rages around her, she is no longer able to draw on her power as an orogene to still it without risking losing herself completely.   However, Essun can’t help thinking she has never been able to save anyone. She has been tasked with the impossible: to try to save this broken Earth.

This is a series of truly epic proportions. While the second book maybe felt like it suffered a little from sequelitis, spending a lot of time setting the scene, this finale was definitely much more high octane. Jemisin’s imagination seems to have no limits, and she uses the whole planet to tell her story – a story that has been told over and over throughout humanity’s history, and is told again in a new yet familiar way.

I think the only thing about this book that is a bit hard to deal with is that everything is just so important and monumental all. the. time. I appreciate the scale of this story, but sometimes the dialogue felt like everything was dripping with such significance and so oversaturated with italics that it sometimes was a bit hard to tell what was really significant, and what was only kind of significant.

Anyway, this truly is an incredibly original series and I’m glad I spaced it out and savoured it over a longer period of time. When fantasy is so full of the same old elves and dwarves and orphan boys with incredible secret ancestry, this series was such a breath of fresh air. Even though it’s set in a world so different from our own, it resonates, and what else can you ask from a book?

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Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, interactive fiction, Signed Books

Saga Volume 8

I’ve been reading the “Saga” series for some time now, and have been reviewing them as they come out on this blog. If you’re not up to date, you might want to go back a step or two so you aren’t dealing with spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 8” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples picks up where the previous volume of the graphic novel series left off. Hazel’s mother Alana, who is pregnant with a second forbidden mixed-race baby that has died in utero, visits a town on a remote planet called Abortion Town with Prince Robot IV pretending that the child is theirs. When they are refused entry, Alana and Marko have to put their faith in the “doctor” in the Badlands who may be able to help.

I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been enjoying these comics a bit less, and I think part of the problem is that each one has a lot of hard-hitting social issues that are tackled but there isn’t a lot of overarching narrative. I felt like this one tackled the tricky issues of abortion and transgender identity in an interesting way. As always, the animal side-kicks are on point. However, it’s really hard to see where this is going. Are we just going to be following Hazel’s entire childhood, or are we going to actually get to Hazel as an adult? Is this a comment on the broader socio-political issues of Alana and Marko’s respective planets?

Am I enjoying this as much as I did at the beginning? No, honestly, I’m not. Will I keep reading them? Definitely yes.

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A Pocketful of Crows

I have been a fan of Joanne Harris‘ work for a very long time, so I was very surprised when I first found out about this book by seeing its gorgeous cover in a bookshop. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition with a black dust jacket and gold detail. This was my first read of 2018 and because I have already lent it out, today’s photograph is a guest photo by my friend Annie.

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“A Pocketful of Crows” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novella about a wild girl with nut brown skin, crow wing hair and no name who runs with the deer and flies with the hawk and hunts with the vixen. However, when she meets a young human man and falls desperately in love with him, she allows herself to be tamed and named. Turning her back on her people, the Travelling Folk, she despairs when nature begins to turns its back on her and the man she sacrificed everything for is not as true as he promised.

This is truly an exquisite book. Drawing heavily on English and Scottish folklore, this book is dark and light in all the right places. The wild girl is an incredible character and although her ways are both enchanting and feral to the human reader, Harris forces us to empathise with her the entire way. I was absolutely captivated with this book and raced through the vivid prose and illustrations in a day.

Another thing I really liked was the signature complex way in which Harris depicts women. The wild girl defies the social conventions of the humans and the Travelling Folk, but is nevertheless bound by the consequences of her actions. I also enjoyed the way Harris explored the tension between fetishisation of the “exotic” and white beauty ideals.

There really isn’t much more to say about this book – it really does speak for itself. My only regret is that I didn’t realise it was coming out sooner.

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La Belle Sauvage

I’ve been anticipating reading this book ever since I heard that Philip Pullman was going to write a second series of books set in the same world as the “His Dark Materials” series. It’s a large book with a beautiful cover with bronze foil lettering and stylised artwork and the hint of daemons, and I was very keen to make a start on it.

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“La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman is the first book in the “Book of Dust” trilogy which is set alongside the events of “His Dark Materials”. The story is about Malcolm, a bright young boy whose parents own an inn. In addition to school and working for his family’s business, Malcolm helps the nuns at the priory nearby and takes great interest when a baby called Lyra arrives into their care. However, Malcolm isn’t the only one taking an interest and as the unrelenting winter rains continue, Malcolm finds himself drawn further and further into intrigue that is both political and religious.

First and foremost, I enjoyed this book. Malcolm was a great protagonist and I felt like Pullman achieved the perfect balance between depicting his resourcefulness and relative maturity yet paying homage to the fact that he is nevertheless a child in over his head. I actually think I liked Malcolm better than I liked Lyra in some ways. Malcolm and his daemon Asta seemed to be more united and more of a team than Lyra and Pantalaimon who were often at odds with one another. Pullman really invested a lot of time into Malcolm’s character and the things like his migraines, his boat and his family all rounded him out. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Malcolm and the sullen Alice, and I felt like the development of their friendship was a highlight of the book. Since we have returned to Lyra’s world, it was really interesting to see some of the new things that Pullman drew out about the concept of daemons, especially Alice’s daemon Ben and a certain hyena daemon, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more about that (which of course is more about his views on the soul).

This book felt much darker and more adult that the “His Dark Materials” series, with sex and sexuality as more prominent themes. I think if I had children, I’d be concerned about them reading this book too young – even though Malcolm himself is a young character. I enjoyed the tension, intrigue and buildup early in the story, but then the more the book progressed, the less sense it started to make. I felt like where “His Dark Materials” was fantasy with a sort of scientific twist, which helped suspend disbelief, this book seemed to move much further into typical fantasy and I’m not sure it was in keeping with our understanding of Lyra’s world. The second half of the series certainly had more than a touch of “The Odyssey” about it, and I’m wondering whether Pullman might flesh out these other elements later on in the series.

I think if you were a fan of “His Dark Materials”, you won’t be left disappointed reading this book but you almost certainly will be left confused. It sounds like the second book is already in the works, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we can dip our toes back in the world of daemons.

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