Category Archives: Fantasy

Uprooted

Polish folklore retelling with a feminist spin

I’ve spoken before about the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, and this was our most recent set book. We’ve been trying to read more diverse types of stories than your everyday medieval fantasy, and recently we’ve all taken turns to nominate a book to read.

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“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik is a fantasy novel about a young woman called Agnieszka who was born in a tribute year. Every ten years, the wizard known as the Dragon selects a teenage girl to serve him in the tower that overshadows their village. Known for being clumsy and grubby, Agnieszka fully expects her beautiful and graceful best friend Kasia to be selected. As no girl ever returns to the valley, the pair prepare to say their farewells to one another. However, when things don’t turn out as expected, Agnieszka’s fate is changed forever. Not one for following the rules, when the eerie forest begins encroaching on her village, Agnieszka takes it upon herself to challenge the ancient power that threatens the kingdom.

This is an enjoyable and well-written story that brings to life a folklore tradition that I was not familiar with. Agnieszka is a fun, earthy character who stubbornly does things her own way to the extreme exasperation of the Dragon. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two characters as Agnieszka learns about her abilities and her own method of self-expression. Even though she wasn’t the main character, I really liked Kasia who brought a surprising depth to the story and helped bridge Agnieszka’s understanding of two worlds.

There were probably two main things that frustrated me about the story. The first was that towards the end there was a lot of action, and it did feel a bit like the book was going from scene to scene of action without a lot of character development. The second was the romance. Agnieszka and her romantic interest are separated for a large proportion of the book, and I did feel like that made the development of that relationship feel a little rushed.

Anyway, this was a lovely retelling of region’s folklore that doesn’t often get much airtime, and a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by dwarves and elves, vampires and werewolves. I think this would make a great holiday read.

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Uprooted

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The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

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I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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The Black Tides of Heaven (Kindle)

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The City of Brass

Middle Eastern fantasy that I can’t stop thinking about

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after dipping our toes into making themed food for our previous book, my friend went all out and made an absolute extravaganza.

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I was a bit slow getting started on this book because my last one took so long, so when it came to buy a copy I couldn’t find one locally at short notice. Instead, I bought a copy for my Kobo.

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“The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty is a fantasy novel and the first in “The Daevabad Trilogy”. Nahri is a young woman who lives on the streets of the sprawling city of 18th century Cairo with nothing but her smarts. Surviving on a number of hustles, Nahri has a real aptitude for languages and, to a lesser extent, healing. However, when an improvised healing ritual for cash goes awry, Nahri finds herself beset by monsters and whisked away by a mysterious djinn.

I can’t stop thinking about this book. I keep getting random flashes back to different scenes weeks after I’ve read it. Often a really good book is really good in a particular way: the writing is beautiful, the characters are compelling, the plot is surprising, or the ideas are unique. However this book is good in a different way. The thing that makes this book excellent is its balance. Like a line of dominoes, as soon as you start reading they all start toppling and click, click, click – everything falls into place in the most satisfying way. Chakraborty keeps a perfect amount of tension throughout the book, and the story never grows stale. One criticism I often have of modern fantasy is that it’s often not very imaginative and draws on well-trodden tropes like elves and orcs and angels and demons. This book instead draws on Middle Eastern and African mythology and Chakraborty’s own experiences studying in Egypt and the history and culture of the region seep into the story and make it rich and convincing.

I’ve been trying to think about what I didn’t like about this book, and I’m really struggling to come up with anything at all to be honest. Probably the only thing that I found a bit hard was the complex politics of the city of Daevabad and keeping track of the different districts, factions, djinn and shafit – part human, part djinn. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Daeva, one race of djinn, claim the name of djinn for themselves, further confusing things for the reader.

Nevertheless, this story was a great read and ended up being one of those book club books where everyone agrees it’s great and runs out of things to talk about. Luckily we were kept busy with some incredible food. If you’re looking for some very engrossing fantasy that is definitely not run-of-the-mill, look no further.

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The City of Brass

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Oathbringer

Before I even write anything, there are three important things you should know about this book.

  1. This is not the first book in the series, it is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t read any books in “The Stormlight Archive” abandon this review immediately because everything will be spoilers for the first two books (no spoilers as per usual for the book at hand).
  2. This book is the newest book in a series of 10 books so if you don’t like waiting for books to be released, maybe don’t start the series just yet. Brandon Sanderson is an absolute powerhouse of an author, and churns out books like you wouldn’t believe (I mean, just look at the progress bars on his website), but he hasn’t started book four yet so if you don’t want to find yourself in a George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss situation, consider yourself warned.
  3. This book is absolutely enormous and should be worth at least three if not four books on my Goodreads challenge and should be at least somewhat to blame for how far behind I am.

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“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson is an epic fantasy novel and the third book in “The Stormlight Archive” series. The book is set in a fictional world called Roshar and is inhabited by lots of different races. The book primarily focuses on people called the Alethi who divide their society into two major class groups based on eye colour. People with light coloured eyes are the upper class, and people with dark coloured eyes are lower class with lots of levels in between the two. Another feature of the world is the existence of spren, different coloured and shaped creatures that are drawn to and appear when people experience strong emotions. Finally, are the parshmen – a race of humanoid creatures enslaved by the Alethi and who appear to be related to the Parshendi, a race of humanoid creatures that can take different forms and who are at war with the Alethi.

As in the rest of the series, there are a number of protagonists. First is Dalinar, an Alethi highprince and warrior feared for his brutal battle tactics, whose visions about resurrecting the order of the Knights Radiant, mythical warriors who can bond with spren, have started to come to fruition. However, as Dalinar starts to lead with a new vision for Alethkar, he must come to terms with his own past and face his actions that he can’t even remember. There is Kaladin, the reluctant darkeyed warrior who after taking a legion of condemned prisoners and turning them into fighters, has himself become a Radiant. However, the burden of leading his men into this new prestigious identity, and his struggle to protect people on either side of an unavoidable war, begins to take its toll on him. Then there is Shallan, the lighteyed artist whose skills in creating illusions as a Lightweaver mean that she can create new versions of herself. As she becomes more adept in her skills, she starts to use her alternate forms to cope with anxiety and trauma and begins to lose her grip on who she really is.

Did I mention this book is enormous? Because it. is. enormous. It’s over 1,200 pages and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. This book builds on a lot of the lore and history of the world that is alluded to in the first two books and begins to uncover some of the darker histories of Alethi and the circumstances of the enslavement of the parshmen. There are a lot of spinning plates in this book. The impending war with the parshmen and the Parshendi. The Everstorm. The spren. The Knights Radiant.

It’s a lot to keep on top of, and admittedly, there are definitely some parts of the book that I’m more interested in than others. I think Kaladin and Shallan are my favourite characters and I always look forward to their chapters. I think Kaladin is a great lens through with to experience the politics and conflict of the book, and Shallan really showcases the magic element of the story and what Knights Radiant and their spren can really achieve. Sanderson also fleshes out the story notably compared to other books by focusing much more on the mental health and neurodiversity of his characters. We have a character struggling with addiction, another struggling with depression, another struggling with anxiety, and one who appears to have a form of autism spectrum disorder.

I do think that Sanderson’s characters are definitely starting to feel more filled out however, there is so much going on in this book, it does occasionally feel a bit overwhelming. I know it’s epic fantasy, but it did take me a little while to ease back into the story because there was so much going and so much lore to remember from the last two books. Having so many protagonists gives the reader a 360 degree view of the story, but it also makes it hard to keep on top of who is who and what is going on at points all over the world.

I think I felt a bit like the pacing in this book was a bit off-kilter. There’s a particular part of the book where there is an incredibly long amount of time spent in Shadesmar that doesn’t really seem to further the plot much at all or inform the reader much about additional lore. The latter half of the book focuses a lot on a battle that seems to drag on a lot and get a bit ridiculous in scale. I think that the secret to a book that is 1,200 pages long is to make it feel like it is far, far shorter, but I think at about the three quarter mark of this book I was about ready for it over.

Again, this is a huge novel and there is a lot to say about it, but I think to summarise: it’s a very long book that is mostly very good but the large cast of characters and some of the pacing choices made it get a little confusing and slow at times. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes. Am I relieved it’s over and I have a big break until the next on is out? Definitely yes.

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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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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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