Category Archives: Fantasy

Wildwood Dancing

Historical fantasy retelling of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Content warning: sexual harassment, controlling behaviour

After a very heavy audiobook and a bit of a hard time, I was in the market for a book that I knew would be heartfelt, enjoyable and have a (hopefully) happy ending and Juliet Marillier never disappoints.

Photo is of “Wildwood Dancing” by Juliet Marillier. The paperback book is resting in a bush of purple flowers between two purple and red shoes at night time. The cover is of a young woman in an elaborate satin dress and gloves, in a nightscape of tiny creatures, flowers and woodland.

“Wildwood Dancing” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel and a retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses“. The story is about Jena, the second of five sisters who live an idyllic life in Transylvania and secretly visit another realm every full moon and dance all night with members of the magical court there. When their father goes away to recover from an illness, the older sisters are left in charge of the household and the family business under the supervision of their father’s cousin. Initially, things go well and level-headed Jena has things under control, even if people occasionally look at her a little askance with her pet frog Gogu. However, after tragedy hits, Jena finds that things are not going so well and finds it harder and hard to resist her second cousin Cezar’s attempts to take control of the situation. In her efforts to try to get things back on track, things get even worse and soon her eldest sister, the Other Kingdom and even Gogu are at risk.

This was a sweet, enjoyable book that took the famous setting of “Dracula” and reimagined it as a beautiful, magical forest setting. I really enjoyed the visits to the Other Kingdom and the warmth of the characters the sisters meet there. Jena was a very relatable character, eager to take on adult responsibilities but struggling to let go of the naiveté of her childhood. The onslaught of Cezar’s controlling behaviour was done really well, and Marillier captured the nuance of how small transgressions can soon turn into abusive behaviour. The prejudice expressed against the Night People provided an interesting overlay to the story.

Although this book was very enjoyable and was similar in style to many of Marillier’s other lovely stories, I felt that it was coded slightly younger than some of her other books I have read. There were some reveals that didn’t feel as surprising to me as in previous books, and I wasn’t sure if that was because the audience was intended to be a bit younger or not.

A sweet story full of heart that brought a traditional fairytale to life.

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

The First Binding

South Asian-inspired Epic Fantasy Novel

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

Image is of “The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi. The eBook cover is of a person with dark skin, long hair and a ragged red cloak facing mountains and a city in the distance.

“The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi is an epic fantasy novel about a storyteller called Ari. After arriving at a tavern and providing a memorable performance, Ari meets a mysterious young woman with whom he forms an instant connection. As they navigate politics and danger in a foreign land, Ari shares the most personal story of all: how he overcame adversity to become a legend and The Storyteller.

This story has all the elements required for epic fantasy: orphan child, early mentor, street urchins, selective magic school and a journey to prove oneself. The book is set against a stunning South Asian backdrop and weaving in captivating mythologies and cultural elements to create rich, unique worldbuilding. I think my favourite part of the book was actually the interlude chapters set in the nation of Etaynia where Ari must navigate dangerous political games, though I did enjoy the competitive kite flying chapters as well.

However, this was not an easy book to read. It is over 800 pages long and it had a very slow start. Virdi has an overly descriptive style and I wish I was exaggerating but the book spent 30 pages describing a bench in a tavern. There were pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of banal items: candles, cutlery and benchtops. The story really only felt like it began to get moving at page 375, well over a third of the way through. I actually feel like the editors did this book a bit of a disservice by not paring it back much, much more.

Ari is supposed to be an expert storyteller but I didn’t feel like the excellence of his storytelling was self-evident. Instead, there was a lot of reliance on audience reaction rather than having the stories shine in their own right. I also found the magic quite laborious. I understand that mastering the idea of folds took years and was very difficult, but the magic system took a long time to explain for something that did not inherently appear to be particularly complex. I also understand that Ari had gone through some things that perhaps made the magic much more difficult to execute in the earlier chapters however again, it seemed like there was a lot of time spent describing and not really that much magic to show for it which, as a reader, I found very frustrating. I also found the love interest quite cliched with a lot of batting eyelashes and a lot of male gaze. I think I could have forgiven quite a lot of these issues had the premise (rather than the setting) been more original.

There was some lovely worldbuilding in this book but you could have cut it in half without sacrificing the key parts of the story.

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The Night Circus

Historical fantasy novel about a magical circus

It is starting to get rather late in the year, and it occurred to me that I really haven’t been making much of a dent in any of the reading challenges I started at the beginning of the year. So I’m trying to at least tackle the StoryGraph‘s onboarding reading challenge. This book was from the “Popular this Week” when I was adding my books from the challenge, and happily I already had a copy that I had picked up from the Lifeline Bookfair some time ago. The cover is very eye catching, with embossed text, black and white silhouettes and a dash of colour with a red scarf.

Photo is of “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. The paperback book is standing on black, brown and silver striped fabric next to a book with pages of light, a roughly folded origami tiger and a ticket that says wonderland on it. The cover is black and white with silhouettes of a man, a woman and a circus tent in Victorian clothing. The woman is wearing a floating red scarf.

“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian England. The book is about a travelling circus known as Le Cirque des Rêves that arrives in towns around the world with no warning. It opens at nightfall, it closes at dawn, and the tents inside contain wonders that its visitors have never seen the like before. However, there is much more to the circus than meets the eye. At its heart is a contest, and the players nominated are Celia, the daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, chosen by a mysterious sorcerer as an apprentice. However, the masters did not reckon on the desires of their players, and the players did not reckon on the community that would grow around the circus.

This is a sweet, intricate novel that leans into the romance, whimsy and transience of circuses. Morgenstern creates layers and layers of magical spaces, exploring the limits of magic and imagination. As the circus grows more and more intricate, we begin to see the toll on Celia and Marco, and those around them. I think my favourite part of the book was Bailey’s story, a young boy who falls in love with the circus, and I felt that Morgenstern handled his arc so delicately and so satisfyingly.

While I liked the writing and I enjoyed the premise, I think I found the overarching plot less compelling. The romance seemed to rely on predestination rather than real chemistry. There were things that I wanted to know more about, like the nature of the man in the grey suit, and there were things that I probably could have taken less of, like the listing of the various experiences in the circus which, while creative and beautifully described, did not necessarily contribute much to the plot.

A captivating book with an appealing premise that was a little light on with story.

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The Hand of the Sun King

Fantasy novel about straddling cultures and collecting powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Runemarks

Fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology

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.

Image is of “Runemarks” by Joanne Harris. The paperback book is placed next to a hessian drawstring bag with runestones spilling out; each a smooth grey pebble with a white symbol painted on.

“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.

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The Orchard

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.

Image is of the “The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap. The audiobook cover has the text ‘Starring Eric Bana’ with a photograph of Eric Bana in a collared shirt with silhouetted images of girls running behind trees in blue light in the background.

“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.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Mystery/Thriller

The Binding

Fantasy novel about trapping memories in books

Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nettle & Bone

Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest

Content warning: family violence

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.

Image is of “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher. The eBook cover is of a woman’s back wearing a green cloak made out of nettle and bones.

“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.

True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.

I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.

A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.

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The Bone Orchard

Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder

Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide

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

Image is of “The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller. The eBook cover is of a skeleton’s hand with its fingers crossed, rising up from fresh pink flowers. There is fungi growing from some of the joints and a greenish smoke between the fingers.

“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.

This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.

While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.

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Flyaway

Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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