Category Archives: Fantasy

Children of Blood and Bone

West African-inspired young adult fantasy

Our feminist fantasy book club has been cranking through the books this year. We picked our list by nominating two books each and drawing them from a hat, and this was my first book of the year. I’m always on the lookout for diverse books to read, and fantasy is a notoriously homogeneous genre. I had come across this book in a list, and it has since caused a bit of a stir winning a Hugo and being turned into a film, so I decided to nominate it.

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“Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi is a young adult fantasy novel about a land called Orïsha where people are either born as maji or kosidán. Once, all maji wielded magic, but since the kosidán king Saran took the magic away and killed all the maji, the powerless maji children, distinguishable by their white hair and known as diviners, have been subjugated by the kosidán. Zélie, a diviner who lost her mother in the raids, tries to keep her head down and help her father and brother eke out a living. However, when her path crosses with kosidán princess Amari on the run, Zélie’s humble life is lost forever.

My attempt at some West African inspired cooking for our book club

This is a spirited novel that takes the hallmarks of the young adult fantasy genre and recasts them against a backdrop of West African culture. This is a very readable book, and Adeyemi writes from the heart and her strength (and focus) is emotions and relationships. There are three point of view characters, but by far the most compelling are Zélie and Inan, Amari’s older brother and the crown prince. Without giving too much away, there was an element of magic that I really enjoyed – the ability to conjure a dreamscape and people you know inside (although there were some elements of magic that I found really disturbing). I was also really on board with everyone riding giant lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs everywhere.

As readable as this book is, it definitely had plenty of fantasy and young adult tropes. Lost parents, hidden powers, runaways, royalty. These themes are common throughout lots of fantasy novels, and aren’t fatal to a good story. I absolutely believe that fantasy and science fiction needs more authors of colour, and I understand the statement the author was making about the subjugation of a class of people (with darker skin colour) by another. However, I think that for a novel to use tropes and still be good, it needs to have something extra and I’m just not quite sure this book has that extra factor. I’m also not quite sure that there was the correct number of point of view characters. I think that maybe it should have been two or four, because three just seems a little off-kilter.

An easy read with some ambitious world-building and some interesting magic, I’ll be curious to see how it is adapted on screen.

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Beautiful

Audiobook retelling of Nordic fairy tale 

I am a Juliet Marillier tragic, and I was so excited to hear that she had a new audiobook coming out, and was even more thrilled when I won a copy on Audible in a contest! To win, I had to share which fairy tale I would most like to see retold from a unique perspective, and I said Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” because (like many of his fairy tales) I always felt the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Anyway, I had recently joined the gym and I decided to waste no time and start listening during my next workout. I had listened for about 5 minutes while I was on the stair-climber (or something equally painful), when I laughed aloud because I realised that I had just read this story very, very recently.

Image result for alien iii william gibson audible

“Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier and narrated by Gemma Dawson is a retelling of the Nordic fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” about Hulde, a princess who lives in a palace at the top of a glass mountain. Her mother, the queen, rules over Hulde and the palace servants with an iron fist. Hulde is told from a young age that her destiny is to marry the most beautiful man in the world. The only friend Hulde has is a white bear called Rune who comes to visit, and who shows her kindness and takes the time to teach her about the world. However, when he leaves, Hulde is left with more questions than answers about her future. When her wedding day arrives, her life is turned upside down and she finally has the opportunity to make her own destiny.

This book was an absolute delight. I have never been so motivated to go to the gym as I was to hear the next part of this story. There are so many wonderful parts to this book that I kind of don’t want to tell you about for fear of spoiling the joy of discovering them for yourself. Hulde is a brilliant, complex protagonist whose physical, emotional and perhaps even magical strength helps her to overcome the many challenges she is faced with. Marillier does a wonderful job showing Hulde’s journey from naive, innocent girl to fully-realised woman. In this story, problems aren’t solved by violence or trickery, but rather with patience, kindness and courage. I’m still smiling about the companions Hulde meets along the way, and the thrill of finding out the romantic direction the book took. I would also like to mention that I quite enjoyed Dawson’s narration, and felt that she captured Hulde’s innocence and strength really well while also creating distinct voices for the different characters.

I think the only thing that people may find frustrating about this story is that quite a lot of the book is about her learning things that the reader likely takes for granted and making mistakes that the reader likely feels are easily avoidable. Hulde is very young in spirit, and while this means that she has a lot of character development, there is a fair amount of time taken up by people explaining things to her. However, I do think that this is a necessary part of the story as Hulde navigates issues like power, independence, kindness and love.

I simply adored this story and if anything was going to get me to the gym, it was the prospect of listening to this.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy

Echo North

Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale

Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.

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“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.

This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.

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Winter solstice feast

Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.

An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.

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Kingdom Cold

Multicultural fantasy reinterpretation of King Arthur mythology

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

Image result for kingdom cold brittni chenelle

“Kingdom Cold” by Brittni Chenelle is a medieval fantasy novel about Charlotte, a princess, who at 16 years old is betrothed to a prince from a far away kingdom called Vires. When she first meets Prince Young, Charlotte will do anything within her power to sabotage the engagement. However, when her kingdom is invaded and she must flee for her life, Charlotte’s life changes forever.

This is a diverse reimagination of a classic mythology that. Chenelle explores gender roles, love, differences in culture and differences in faith against the backdrop of war and violence. Charlotte is a spirited princess who starts out prissy and dependent and who, by the end of the book, develops into someone much more strong. I quite enjoyed the character of Young and felt that he was a good counterweight to the story.

I think one thing that I struggled a little with this book is the sense of place. Charlotte’s kingdom feels very small geographically, and the invasion itself small in scale. I understand that Chenelle is writing in American English, but given that the characters are broadly European, African and Asian in ethnicity, I think I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in language as well as a better sense of distance and geography. I also struggled with the character Milly, Charlotte’s handmaid, and felt that she didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick in this story.

A story that explores themes of romance between cultures and courage in the moment, fans of Arthurian legend may find an intriguing retelling.

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The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

Image result for the rook daniel o'malley

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller

The Poppy War

East-Asian-inspired epic military fantasy

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club and one that I was looking forward to. One of my annual reading goals is to read more diversely, and if ever there was a genre in dire need of more diversity, it is fantasy. I bought a copy for my Kobo and managed to read most of it before the book club.

The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1)

“The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang is a story about a young girl called Rin who lives with her rather unsavoury foster parents. When the Fangs try to marry her off to an old, rich merchant Rin manages to negotiate being permitted to study for the prestigious and extremely difficult exams known as the Keju. With her sights set on admission to the military academy called Sinegard, Rin’s class and gender look set to be almost insurmountable obstacles. However, when Rin achieves the impossible, she finds herself on a mad path to studying a mad art with an even madder teacher. When war breaks out, Rin finds herself faced with even more difficult choices – choices that may not work and may cost her everything.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but if there is anything I have learned about myself it is that military fiction is not my cup of tea. Kuang is a spirited writer who imbues Rin with an enormous amount of vitality, courage and determination. The writing is good and the setting is fascinating, and some of my favourite scenes in the book is when Rin first finds herself in the city of Nikan and later when she joins her friend at his luxurious home.

It was the story, however, that I struggled with. It is your classic fantasy bildungsroman where an orphan child discovers talent, joins a school and learns arcane skills to defeat the dark…whatever. As admirable as Rin is, I actually found the peripheral characters like her delightful friend Kitay and the compelling Nezha more interesting than her. While the story started out quite strong, I felt that it soon began to lag. With the introduction, exams, school, training, assignment, war, missions and various discoveries along the way, it’s little wonder that this book bloats at over 500 pages. By the time I got to a major battle, I was feeling pretty worn out by the whole thing and there was so, so much more to go after that.

I also felt that Kuang’s great passion is clearly military history, and despite it also being a fantasy book, the focus is much more on the detail of combat, strategy, battles and power than it is about magic. I completely appreciate Kuang’s expertise in the Second Sino-Japanese War (the inspiration for this book), but I struggled to match her enthusiasm. The magic that is used seems to be unclear, inexplicable and highly dependent on the whims of beings from another plane. I think that the book would have benefited from some of the more rigid principles of writing magic to make the magic more accessible to the reader and therefore more meaningful when used.

This is an epic book that spans years of training, conflict and war and while I was probably looking for more fantasy than military and found it a bit of a slog, I’m sure that there would be plenty of people out there who would find this thrilling.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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A Century of Friendship

Children’s book about the ethics and etiquette of friendship

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

A Century of Friendship

“A Century of Friendship” by Littlebeanseeds is a children’s chapter book about Helen and her friends Mark, Shelly and Yasmin who, while exploring on a school camp, discover a secret in a rundown cottage. While the children navigate their own relationships with one-another, they soon discover that the secret has a particular significance for Helen. At the end of each chapter, the author invites the reader to think about notes on friendship, and answer questions for self-reflection about friendship, what makes a good friend, how to be a good friend and how to resolve disputes.

This is a simple yet effective story aimed at pre-teens that explores some of the more subtle issues and nuances around friendship. It is quite a unique book because it balances low fantasy against self-help – two genres that I honestly do not think I have ever seen combined before. I think that inviting children to consciously think about their relationships and what kind of behaviour they expect from themselves and others is a worthwhile thing to do.

I think probably the biggest difficulty for young readers might be the balance between the time spent enjoying the story and the time spent thinking about the questions and having the immersion interrupted. I wonder perhaps if this kind of book might be suited to being read to a class by a teacher, and then inviting the children to participate in a discussion as a group, rather than reading it alone.

Nevertheless, a very original type of book with an overwhelmingly positive message and a cute story as a backdrop.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, eBooks, Fantasy