Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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The Bird King

Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada

This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.

“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.

This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.

I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.

However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.

A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.

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Bells of Prosper Station

Canadian time travel fantasy 

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

Bells of Prosper Station by Gloria Pearson-Vasey

“Bells of Prosper Station” by Gloria Pearson-Vasey is a the first novel in the “Curios Tales from Creekside” series about a nurse practitioner student called Azur who is a Senso: a person with a genetic mutation which makes her sensointuitive. Growing up in a Canadian town called Creekside, every year leading up to Hallowmas, Azur and her sister Hilma would hear the mysterious whistle of a train. However, one year Hilma decided to ride the train back in time and did not return before All Souls’ Day, the last day the train runs until the next Hallowmas. Determined to rescue her sister, Azur decides to ride the train. However, when she arrives in the 19th century town alone, invisible to most and vulnerable to mystical creatures, she must quickly develop her own abilities before it is too late to return.

This is a quick, easy read with a fresh take on the fantasy genre. Pearson-Vasey is a clear, crisp writer who whisks the reader through a well-paced story with plenty of tension. Some of the scenes in the book are simply lovely, and I particularly liked the part where a group meet together at night to draw energy from the moon. The characters were all quite likeable, and Pearson-Valley thought clearly thought very carefully about how to put them to the test in the strange situation they find themselves in.

While I liked the unique premise of the oil industry resulting in some unexpected mutations and abilities, I wasn’t quite sure how that connected to the magic of the train, the time travel and the realm of Vapourlea. As someone very personally connected to the backstory of growing up in Indonesia until the age of 7 with a geophysicist father, I really wanted to know much more about Azur and Hilma’s parents than was hinted at in the book.

An original and engaging story that left me wanting more.

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Girl, Woman, Other

Contemporary novel about the diversity of black experiences in the UK

I heard about this book because it was somewhat controversially the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, together with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments“. I read Atwood’s book first because (pre-COVID) she was touring Australia and I very luckily got some tickets to see her speak, so I wanted to make sure I read the book first. However, I have been really looking forward to reading this one and after buying it, it has been very high on my priority list.

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“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo is a novel about 12 different people who live in the UK and whose lives are interconnected, including in some ways more subtle than others. At the heart of the story is Amma, a playwright whose radical black sapphic production is opening at the Royal National Theatre in London. With The Last Amazon of Dahomey as the backdrop, we meet each of the 12 characters one by one and learn about their lives and their unique experience of being part of the African diaspora in Britain.

This is an exceptional book and I am going to go right ahead and say that it is a crime that it wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize outright. Evaristo is a phenomenal writer and this book was simply superb. The novel has a unique, flowing style reminiscent of free-verse poetry with no full stops, rigid sentences or capitalised first letters. Although Evaristo keeps up this style throughout the book, each character has a clearly distinct voice. I particularly enjoyed how well Evaristo is able to write the same events but through the vastly different lenses of her characters. All the stories were compelling, but it was Grace’s story in particular that had me in tears. I also really loved that Evaristo explores different types of black experience in earlier eras, including Britain’s role in and profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were some parts of the more contemporary stories, especially Carole’s, that reminded me quite a lot of “Swing Time” in theme, particularly in terms of place and issues of class and racism. However, this book achieves what I felt “Swing Time” did not: a sense of cohesiveness.

I don’t really have any criticism of this book at all except to note that it is fairly long, about 450 pages, and it is not the kind of book that you want to whip through. I actually recommend tackling each character’s story in a single session then putting the book down to digest before beginning the next.

An excellent book that thoroughly deserved to win the Booker Prize alone.

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Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Miss Austen

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s sister

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

Miss Austen

“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby is a historical fiction novel about Cassandra Austen, writer Jane Austen’s older sister. In her 60s, Cassandra drops in all but unannounced to the vicarage in Kintbury to visit Miss Isabella, also a spinster, following the death of her father Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle. Close family friends, Cassandra was once engaged to Fulwar’s brother Tom and her sister Jane was a keen correspondent with Fulwar’s wife Eliza. After Jane’s death and continuing success as a novelist, Cassandra appoints herself the keeper of Jane’s reputation and is determined to make sure that nothing compromising remains.

This is an interesting novel that tackles a great mystery in the history of Jane Austen: why did Cassandra burn so many of her letters after her death? Hornby has chosen a good subject for her novel, and has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen family and the places they visited and lived. I felt that Hornby captured the linguistic style of the time well, particularly in the letters, and the idyll of coastal towns and country villages. I actually visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton last year, and it was a lovely experience visiting some of the other haunts of the Austen family including the range of wealth among the siblings. I think Dinah the maid was one of my favourite characters and her sneakiness and loyalty to Miss Isabella were very enjoyable to read.

Jane Austen’s writing desk at Chawton

I think there were two things that I wasn’t fully on board with. One was the reason why Cassandra seeks out Jane’s letters to scrub them from the official record. Hornby wrote the letters really beautifully, but I think I would have liked a little more artistic license. The contents of the letters is the one unknowable thing, and I felt Hornby could have added a bit more spice, intrigue and controversy and drawn some modern themes into a classic period. The other thing was the rationale behind Cassandra’s spinsterhood, and I would have liked a bit more commitment either to her one true love or her chosen path as dutiful sister.

A relaxing and easy read that tells a little-known story, but that could have used a touch more drama.

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The Brave

Family drama about love, loss and courage

Content warning: domestic violence, bullying, war, mental health 

“The Horse Whisperer” was, I think, the first book I read as a kid that was specifically geared for adults. I quite innocently read it because I was extremely into horses and thought it had something to do with this guy Monty Roberts, an actual horse whisperer, who I had read about. Although the book starts out with a girl not too much older than I was and her problems following a horse-riding accident, it quickly turned into another kind of story. While it hadn’t been the kind of book I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot and even went to go see the Robert Redford and young Scarlet Johansson film adaptation with my best friend (also horse-mad). His debut novel, the author wrote two more that I really enjoyed and then a fourth that I wasn’t so crash hot on. I actually hadn’t even realised he had written a fifth until I came across it at the Lifeline Book Fair. This is another book that has gathered dust on my shelf for a long time, and during these times of isolation, I’m trying to do something about my ridiculous to-read piles. Yes, that plural is correct.

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“The Brave” by Nicholas Evans is a novel about an eight year old boy called Tommy whose parents send him to boarding school. A sensitive kid who still struggles with wetting the bed, Tommy is passionate about playing cowboys and Indians and watching his heroes in Westerns on TV. However, at the boarding school, he soon finds himself the target of merciless bullying and the few allies he makes are tenuous at best. After writing to his sister Diane about the horrible experience, the truth is revealed to Tommy about his identity, and soon he finds himself moving to Hollywood and meeting the actors who are his idols. Nearly fifty years later, Tom is a writer living in the USA struggling not to compare himself to his more successful peers. When his son, estranged after deciding to enlist in the armed forces, is charged with murder during an overseas deployment, Tom must try to repair their broken relationship by facing what happened in Hollywood.

Evans is an incredibly readable writer and with smooth prose that is engaging without being too challenging. He tackles a lot of different issues in this book including bullying, domestic violence, identity, war, state-sanctioned violence, mental health and family. I thought that the scenes early in the book where young Tommy is experiencing the brutality of British boarding school were particularly effective and reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book “Boy“. Although Evans is an English writer, the way he writes about America is always very compelling. This is true of this book especially, which at heart is about a man who comes to the USA as a young boy and makes it his home.

Although a relatively easy read, this isn’t my favourite of Evans’ books. Evans usually constructs his novels around an interesting job: horse whisperer, firefighter, even wolf biologist. He also has a keen interest in the physical environment and natural beauty of the USA. While I get that this book is comparing the fantasy of Western film and TV with the reality of Hollywood, particularly the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, I just didn’t find the book as effective as his previous efforts. The twists I felt you could sense a mile away. The parallels between Tom’s experiences and his son’s experiences didn’t feel as strong as they could have been. Finally, the ending felt just a little too tidy.

An easy read that addresses some important social issues, but ultimately not as hard-hitting as some of his other novels.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Life After Life

Historical fiction novel about the chance to relive a life

Content warning: stillbirth

This is one of those books that you buy because based on the little you’ve heard about it and the pretty cover, you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes books like this are cursed with waiting on the bookshelf for a long time because you’re never quite sure when the right time to read it is going to be. I guess I was in need of a good book, because I finally picked this one up. I read it a little earlier in the year, and there are quite a number of chapters that deal with the Spanish Flu, which, given circumstances at the moment, seemed like quite the coincidence.

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“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a historical fiction novel about Ursula, born into a well-to-do English family during a blizzard on 11 February 1910. Despite her family’s relative privilege, Ursula does not survive the birth. However, Ursula is reborn again during a blizzard on 11 February 1910 and this time she does survive. However, surviving life is no easy feat. Gradually, Ursula begins to vaguely remember things from her past lives and atrocities to come, and starts to wonder if she could prevent them altogether.

This is a beautifully written book that gently explores the impact that small decisions made in the moment can have on the rest of our lives. Atkinson also closely examines identity, family and what it means to be British. There is so much in this book, and it extremely well-executed. I adored the scenes with Ursula’s family, particularly her brothers Teddy and to a lesser extent Jimmy. I also loved how the family collectively disliked her older brother Maurice but included him in everything anyway. Her parents are fascinating characters, and at the end of the book, you find yourself wondering if perhaps there was even more to them than met the eye.

Fox Corner is a beautifully idyllic home that is a respite from the atrocities later experienced in the UK during the first half of the century. However, I also enjoyed how Atkinson shows that Ursula, in many of her lives, outgrows Fox Corner and her mother’s values that, while once progressive, are now conservative.

However, there were definitely parts of this book that I enjoyed more than others. While I certainly felt that each chapter had something to say, there were some chapters that were a little more slow and abstract than others without Atkinson’s knack for interpersonal relationships to drive them as they had the others.

Nevertheless, I was not disappointed at all in this book and I am very tempted to go and buy the second.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Bring Up the Bodies

Historical fiction about the Tudors

Some time back I read “Wolf Hall“. If you haven’t yet read that book, you might want to skip this review and go to the beginning. Anyway, I found out that there is quite an excellent miniseries adaptation of the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell series done by BBC. I didn’t want to watch it before I finished the second book, and with the recent release of the third book in the series, I very was motivated to read it. I borrowed this lovely copy from my friend, and the gold cover is really spectacular.

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“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her historical fiction series about the court of King Henry VIII of England, but in particular about Thomas Cromwell. The book picks up almost immediately after the first left off. Cromwell has been promoted to the position of Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council after securing the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. However, the marriage is not going well and while he and the King are guests at the Seymour family’s estate Wolf Hall, the King begins to develop an interest in young Jane Seymour. However, despite setting a precedent with his former wife Catherine, Anne will not go quietly and Cromwell is tasked with finding the solution.

It’s hard to follow any novel with a sequel, and Mantel had the additional pressure of following up a Booker Prize winning novel with a sequel. However, after reading this book, it is hardly a surprise that Mantel won the Booker Prize again becoming the first woman in history to win twice. She doesn’t break her stride at all, and Cromwell is as complex and compelling as he was in the first novel. The writing is just as exquisite and the motivations she finds for such a singular person as Cromwell and his actions speak universally.

Something that this book made me realise was how critical to the nation’s security it was at the time for Henry to have a male heir. There is an incredible scene not too far in the book where all the characters realise that if Henry were to die, there is no backup plan. Without Henry and without a prince, the country would be thrown into chaos. I also really enjoyed how Mantel unpacks Cromwell’s efforts at eroding the power of the Church. With the Catholic Church under considerable scrutiny these days, it is fascinating to read about how the state took on the church nearly 500 years ago.

The only difficulty I had with the first book really was that it was very dense politically. This book is political, certainly, but the politics now are far more personal. Cromwell assumes the role of an investigator, and necessarily must interview peoples and revisit events and rumours multiple times before he can confidently present the evidence that will remove Anne. This means there are parts of the book that feel a little repetitive, though Mantel does a stellar job of bringing new perspectives to previously understood information.

An excellent piece of historical fiction which has made me very much look forward to the final book in the trilogy.

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The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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