Category Archives: Fantasy

Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

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

Image result for knee deep karol ann hoeffner
Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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The Empire of Gold

Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy novel

Even though I have absolutely adored this series so far, I have put off reading this book since it came out mid-year last year. This wasn’t because of a reluctance to read the book: I couldn’t wait! However, I had found out too late about this magnificent special hardcover edition of the series. Knowing that without paying $500+ for the rare set that comes up on eBay the beautiful editions wouldn’t be mine (unless you, dear reader, would like to surprise me!), I became paralysed with indecision about what to settle for instead. Unable to buy a copy that I wouldn’t be happy with, I finally decided to just by the eBook and hope that I can find a great set to buy later. If you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you start with my review of the first book to avoid spoilers.

Image result for empire of gold
Image is of a doorway with a silhouette of a city of minarets on a red sky background

“The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty is the third and final book in the fantasy series “The Daevabad Trilogy”. The book picks up immediately after the previous book ended with the death of the king and Nahri’s mother taking over the city. After throwing themselves into Daevabad’s lake, Nahri and Ali suddenly find themselves safe in Nahri’s old home Cairo, far away from the violence they left behind in the djinn city. Unsure who has survived the sacking of the city, Nahri and Ali find a brief reprieve in the rhythms and bustle of the human world. However, as Ali’s peculiar marid powers grow, and Nahri’s powers disappear, they must decide what to do about Suleiman’s Seal. Meanwhile, Dara serves Nahri’s mother Manizheh as she seeks to restore order in a Daevabad without magic. As Manizheh’s methods of control grow more and more extreme, Dara must consider how much of his reputation as the Scourge is him, and how much it is the will of others.

This was a fantastic finale to a fantastic series. Chakraborty excels at tension and I was hooked on every single page. I really enjoyed that the story visited familiar places as well as new places, and I felt that the scenes in Cairo were a great counterbalance for the destruction in Daevabad and the novelty of Ta Ntry. Chakraborty uses this book to explore the mysterious marid and I really enjoyed how she played with the idea of becoming both more and less god-like. The timing of this book was also exquisite. Many of the questions left unanswered by the previous books are answered, and there was one very small but very powerful moment in the book where Nahri’s realisation had me in tears. However, Chakraborty leaves plenty to the imagination and elements of the book are left tantalisingly open-ended.

This book was so enjoyable, I barely have a criticism to make. I think the only thing that snagged at me was that the dialogue occasionally felt a little too modern and casual for the setting which meant that while it was often very fun and funny, the illusion was sometimes broken.

Overall a brilliant ending to a series that I cannot recommend enough.

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The Sleeper and the Spindle

Fairytale retelling of Sleeping Beauty

I don’t usually read books by the same author so close together, but after I listened to “Anansi Boys” recently, I saw that this book had been adapted into a radio play as well. I just really enjoy radio plays and it was only available for a short time, so I thought: you know what, I’m just going to listen to it.

Promotional image from BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of “The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman. The image is a monochrome photograph of a white woman with pinned up blonde hair wearing a loose sparkly top.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman is a retelling of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty“. Gaiman’s twist is that the main character in his retelling is not a prince but rather a young queen (voiced by Gwendoline Christie) who, upon hearing of a dark enchantment, postpones her wedding and accompanies the band of dwarves who brought the message on a quest to break the curse.

This is a very quick production that was easy to listen to. I thought that there were some clever elements to this story that subtly wove together another well-known fairy tale and turned some gender stereotypes on their heads. There was a particularly amusing scene with the queen’s husband-to-be who is extremely disappointed that the wedding will have to be postponed (something I can relate to!). I also really enjoyed the narration from Ralph Ineson who voiced the First Dwarf. Ineson has a particularly iconic voice, and he really shone through in this role.

While there were a lot of fun elements to this book, there was a prolonged zombie-style scene that irked me a bit (zombies in general annoy me). I also felt that after the climax, the ending itself fell a bit flat and could have been punchier, twistier or more subversive.

An enjoyable retelling and adaptation that Gaiman could have leaned into a bit more.

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A Betrayal in Winter

Fantasy novel about a deadly tradition for the crown

This is the sequel to “A Shadow in Summer“, so if you haven’t started the series yet, I recommend you start there. I actually had a really difficult time finding a copy of the sequel because the original paperbacks were out of print, and all that was available was these editions combining two books in one. It has been sitting on my shelf for several years now, and I decided in an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf, I would tackle it.

Image is of the paperback book “Shadow and Betrayal”, which includes both “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham. The book is resting on a pink and white marble chessboard with one white king and one pink king.

“A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham is the second book in the “Long Price Quartet” fantasy series. The story picks up over 12 years after the events of the previous book. Disgraced poet Maati has returned to the village of the Dai-kvo after failing in his mission to bind an andat, an idea made corporeal. When news of his estranged friend Otah’s royal family reaches the Dai-kvo, Maati is called upon to find him and determine whether Otah really was responsible for the murder of his own brother in a bid to take over the Machi throne as per tradition of the Khaiem. However, when Maati arrives in the city of Machi, it appears that there is a much more sinister plot afoot – one that could undermine the security of Machi, and the Cities of the Khaiem.

Abraham is an excellent fantasy writer, and this book is full of just as much intrigue and world-building as the previous on. I really enjoyed reading more about Khaiem culture, such as the use of poses to convey emotion and money being issued in lengths rather than coins. Although a lot of the character are male, Abraham explores the extreme conclusion of what it means for women who have no options in society apart from marriage and motherhood. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition between Maati and the young poet Cehmai who successfully completed a binding with an andat, and seeing the alternative life Maati may have had.

There is quite a lot of politics in this book which slowed things down for me a little, but I think if you really enjoy political books that discuss lines of succession, diplomatic relations and the major influences seemingly minor characters for have, then this book will be very enjoyable. I really liked seeing another andat in play, but I felt like the book could have used a little more magic.

An enjoyable read, and I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.

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Anansi Boys

Urban fantasy about the son of a god

I have actually already read this book, and back before I stopped using the star review mechanism on Goodreads, I gave this a 3 star review. I remember not being as impressed with this book as I was with other works by the author. However, when I saw that there was a BBC radio adaptation available to listen to online, I thought I would give it another try.

Promotional image from BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of “Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman. The image has three black men, one black woman and one white man illuminated by coloured stage lighting.

“Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs and directed and produced by Allegra McIlroy for BBC Radio 4 is a radio play about a young black man called Fat Charlie (voiced by Jacob Anderson) who is living a mediocre life in London when he finds out his charismatic father Mr Nancy (voiced by Lenny Henry) has died in Florida, USA. After just catching the end of the funeral, Charlie finds out that not only was his father was much more than he seemed, but that he has a twin brother. After whispering to a spider that he wouldn’t mind meeting him, his brother Spider (voiced by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) arrives at his London flat and turns his life upside down.

I enjoyed this adaptation far more than I did the original novel. Gaiman likes to write about the theme of seemingly ordinary men who get swept up in extraordinary events, and I remember finding the parts of the book highlighting Charlie’s humdrum existence and reticent personality a bit dull. However, the voice acting in this adaptation is excellent and the actors infuse the characters with depth and subtlety that I felt was missing in the original. Anderson makes Charlie a much more relatable character and lets Charlie’s disappointments and difficulties with self-esteem and assertiveness rise through the dialogue. Stewart-Jarrett was excellent as Spider, and captured the Anansi charm and charisma perfectly.

I think a major question that arises through work like this is about stories and who should be able to tell them. Gaiman is very interested in writing about historical gods in contemporary settings, and this book slots within his “American Gods” universe. However, this book is about Anansi, a god and character from West African, Carribean and African American folklore. Given the #OwnVoices movement, I did a bit more reading about the background of “Anansi Boys”, and Lenny Henry has done some great interviews (written and spoken) about his own involvement in the original creative process behind Gaiman’s story. The advantage of this adaptation is that there are so many black voice actors, and while the writer, adaptor and director are all white, it was really nice to learn about Henry’s significant input into the novel.

A really fantastic production that was even more enjoyable than the original book.

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Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”

Content warning: pandemic

If you haven’t yet read the first two books in this series, I would skip this review and go to the beginning.

Image is of a paperback copy of “Hollowpox: The Hunt of Morrigan Crow” placed next to a black and white Koolie dog with a red and purple face mask and a small bottle of hand sanitiser

“Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is the third book in the children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”. In her second year as a scholar at the exclusive Wundrous Society, Morrigan is finally permitted to study the so-called Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith. She eagerly jumps into her lessons, keen to master her new abilities. However, only able to watch records and without the guidance of a teacher, Morrigan’s progress is frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has struck Nevermoor throwing the city in chaos. Worse, it only seems to affect Wunimals, taking away their ability to reason and leaving only their most basic animal instincts. Morrigan is suddenly under even more pressure to master her abilities to save Nevermoor and her Wunimal friends.

This is a series that is getting better and better as it progresses. Townsend explores a plethora of social issues in this book from stigma and discrimination to diplomatic relations. Where I found the magic a bit chaotic and confusing in the first book, Townsend has settled into the story and created a great structure for Morrigan to progress through her education mastering different skills. I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her friends in Unit 919, and some of the personalities are really starting to develop in interesting and amusing ways. There were also some really lovely new characters like Sofia. However, the highlight of this book was without a doubt the visit to the Gobleian Library. Without spoiling anything about it, it was a wild couple of chapters that really captured the spirit of Nevermoor. Unlike some authors, Townsend has also introduced with little fanfare a same-sex relationship which was a nice addition.

I think my only warning is that if you’re a bit exhausted hearing about public health issues, then a book about a disease that races through a city sending society into panic might not be the book for you right now. I think from a kid’s perspective, this would be a good lens to consider some of the human rights issues that arise as a result of trying to protect individuals from the unknown, but in that respect it may be a bit heavy and too close to home for some.

A cracking read that has really hit its stride, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Everworld: Search for Senna

Young adult fantasy series about another world of gods and Vikings

Content warning: racism, homophobia, child sexual abuse

When I was a kid, I was a massiveAnimorphs” fan. I spent all my pocket money on a Scholastic subscription which, every month, delivered two books, a newsletter and a poster. I faithfully waited each month for the next delivery and collected nearly 30 books in the series. Although I was hooked on the books, I noticed the quality of the subscription had dropped over time and I had started receiving photocopies of newsletters I had received in earlier parcels and some arrived with no poster at all. Disappointed, I asked my mum to cancel the subscription. However, I was still desperate to read the books. In my home town, my primary school was right next to the town library and my siblings and I would often wait there for a short while after school while for one of our parents to collect us. We were all pretty quiet kids, and the librarian Yvonne was more than happy for us to browse and borrow books. She and I struck up a pretty good rapport, and she was soon ordering in each new “Animorphs” book in specially for me as soon as they were published. Many years later, I am still tying to finish my own collection though I have since found out that a large proportion of the books were ghostwritten. I knew that around the same time, the author had published another series but for some reason or another I never read it. When I came across a copy at the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would give it a try. It’s taken me a while to muster up enthusiasm though because this is honestly one of the ugliest cover designs I have ever seen. Not even the gold foil can redeem it.

Image is of “Everworld: Search of Senna” by K. A. Applegate, a hideous book with a digitised green wolf with amber eyes over an inexplicable purple whirlpool, overlaid with gold foil including a gold symbol like a mask over the wolf’s eyes. I’ve set it at an angle next to a silver goblet and a bronze bowl, and honestly it was the best I could do.

“Search for Senna” by K. A. Applegate is the first book in the “Everworld” series, a young adult speculative fiction series. The story is narrated by David, a pretty typical American teenager with a kind of unusual girlfriend called Senna. One evening he humours her and promises that when the time comes, he would save her. However when he and some classmates find themselves drawn to the lake, something terrible happens and the world turns inside out. He and the three others find themselves in a terrible place with no sign of Senna and no way to get home.

This is a much more mature book than the “Animorphs” series and I was really surprised at how progressive it was considering it was published over 20 years ago. Early in the book, African-American character Jalil talks about police bias against black men. Applegate also touches on homophobia and alludes to the abuse of a boy at a summer camp. I understand that she uses a similar style to her previous series: an ensemble cast with each book told from a different character’s perspective. This story focuses mostly on David’s experiences and emotional struggles, particularly in the wake of his parents’ divorce. Despite having fantasy elements, the book also blends science fiction themes and reminds me quite a lot of “Stargate” with its alternative explanation for ancient gods and the people who worshipped them.

Although I liked the characterisation, I did find the premise and plot a little uninspiring. Norse mythology is and continues to be a very popular theme in fantasy and I have been finding it a bit hard to muster up enthusiasm for Loki et al. While David felt quite fleshed out as the point of view character, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of the other characters which wasn’t helped by David being the new kid and not knowing them well himself. Although Christopher and April had clear connections to Senna, it wasn’t really explained what Jalil had to do with anything. Despite some of his astute if caustic observations about inequality and the general situation, he in particular did not feel very well-rounded.

A hard-hitting, action-packed series for a slightly older audience, I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to read the second and I’m not sure my bookshelf aesthetics would cope.

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Orfeia

Novella inspired by British folklore

Content warning: suicide

Gosh I had a hard time finding this book. I was eagerly awaiting its release after reading the two other books (here and here) in this series of fairytale retellings, and I must have gone to five or six different bookshops before a staffmember managed to dig out their single copy from the back. As baffling as this is, I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Like the other books in the series, the cover design is a stunning cream with copper detail.

Image is of “Orfeia” by “Joanne M. Harris”, a hardcover book in cream and copper resting on a blue backpack with a notebook and pencil beside it and a concrete path and grass beneath it.

“Orfeia” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella inspired by British folklore. Unlike the other books in this collection, this story is set in modern-day London. The story follows Fay Orr who has recently lost her adult daughter to suicide. Struggling to find meaning in her otherwise empty life, Fay takes up running through the city at night to escape her despair. One night, she comes across a crack in a paving stone and somehow slips through it into another world. What she finds there is an opportunity to retrieve her daughter and bring her back to life. However, Fay must ask herself is she willing to risk what little she has left to lose to complete a seemingly impossible quest.

This is a chill-inducing story that draws on the way folklore evolves and changes through generations for its structure. Harris puts an initial story to the reader, and the book goes on to explore what is gained and lost by changing the story to achieve an alternative ending. A correct ending. Harris also flips elements of traditional folktales to create a fresh story where nothing is quite what it seems. Fay is a determined and desperate protagonist who leaps at the chance to rewrite her story. However, the impact of erasing history and therefore memory challenges the reader to consider whether, without our memories, we truly remain the same person. Like the previous books, like all fairy tales, this story has a dark, unsettling undercurrent. Harris leaves enough to the imagination for us as readers to fill in the cracks with an even darker colour.

An uneasy tale about love and loss, I cannot wait for Harris’ next book in this collection.

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The Constant Rabbit

Speculative fiction about an England where rabbits are anthropomorphic

Content warning: discrimination, disability

I’ve mentioned this author a couple of times on here previously: once when I saw him speak at an event and got my book signed, and when I reviewed one of his books. I really enjoyed hearing him speak about writing funny books, and he is one of the few authors who makes me laugh aloud. While we are all waiting eagerly for a sequel to his novel “Shades of Grey”, I was thrilled to see that he had a new release this year and even more thrilled that it appeared to be about rabbits. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that I love rabbits and without even reading the blurb this book had considerable appeal to me.

Image is of the cover of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde pictured with my brown and white rabbit Ori. Her ears are in a similar position to the ears on the book’s cover.

“The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde is a speculative fiction novel about an alternative England with anthropomorphic rabbits. For over 50 years, rabbits have been able to walk upright, speak, have jobs, start families and have become the target of considerable discrimination. Public servant Peter Knox works in a seemingly innocuous job and lives an unassuming life with his daughter in a small village. However, when two rabbits and their children move in next door, Peter must confront his past and his own role in the anti-rabbit policy to force England’s rabbits to move to a MegaWarren in Wales.

Image is of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde standing upright next to my brown and white rabbit Ori who is losing patients with being photographed

I was absolutely the perfect audience for this book and I enjoyed it from start to finish. This was a really amusing book that had me laughing aloud at multiple points. However, it is also a really clever book and the rabbits are a fantastic allegory for racial politics in the UK today. Fforde presses the reader to consider the whole spectrum of bigotry from failing to speak out against discriminatory jokes all the way to outright violence and vilification. It was also really interesting to see how Fforde interwove typical British politeness with conservative, exclusionary views. Peter was an excellent, complex character who struggles to reconcile his own progressive views with the system he implicitly supports through his work. The interactions between himself, Constance Rabbit and her husband were among the funniest parts of the book. I also really liked the way Fforde wrote about disability focusing on individuals and accessibility rather than the particulars of the disability itself. Fforde also leaves plenty to the imagination when it came to how rabbits became anthropomorphic, though I loved the interlude of an alternative history for the Big Merino in Goulburn.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely relevant book and I cannot wait to see what Fforde comes up with next.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

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

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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