Tag Archives: fantasy

The Beast’s Heart

Beauty and the Beast Retelling from the Beast’s Perspective

Content warning: suicide attempt

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. The author is a Canberra local, and one of the authors whose books were available at the pre-lockdown VIP fantasy and science fiction event. I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy streak recently, and this book is another one that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I really love the copper foil detail on the cover, and you can see from the photo below how it catches the light.

Image is of “The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross. The paperback book is resting against a wooden fence overgrown with vines and flowering bushes. The cover is navy blue with a black metal gate and vines and the title in copper foil.

“The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross is a fantasy novel that retells the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” from the Beast’s perspective. After years of running wild in the woods, a beast finds his way back home to his overgrown chateau. Over time he begins to regain some clarity of thought, and the chateau in turn awakens to do his bidding. When a man arrives at the chateau in need of help, Beast shows him hospitality. However, using his magic, Beast contrives to trap the man into an unthinkable bargain: his life for a year with his youngest daughter. When the beautiful Isabeau arrives at the chateau, she has everything she could ever want and more: a beautiful garden, entertainment, delicious food and friendship. However, when Beast asks her to marry him, she cannot possibly say yes. Unbeknownst to Isabeau, Beast is under a curse and if he cannot find true love, he is doomed.

This is a gentle, lyrical reimagining of one of the world’s most well-known fairy tales. Shallcross depicts the Beast as someone who is rigidly principled, in an unwinnable war between his passions and his morals. Shallcross contrasts the idyll of Beast and Isabeau’s days with the much simpler, busier lives of Isabeau’s sisters who are left behind to learn how to work in their much reduced station. Telling the story from the Beast’s point of view is a unique take on a classic story. A slow-burn romance, Shallcross spends a lot of time exploring friendship as the foundation for a relationship. Shallcross’ backstory for the Beast, especially in relation to his beloved grandmother, was probably my favourite part of the book and showcased her creativity. I also did enjoy the scenes with Isabeau’s sisters, and I felt that out of all the characters they underwent the most character development, learning to live within their means and open their hearts.

Although Shallcross has stayed close to the original version of the fairy tale, in which Beauty is too obtuse to work out that the Beast and the man she dreams about are one and the same, I found it really frustrating that the otherwise bright and insightful Isabeau wasn’t able to put two and two together. I also found it frustrating that she seemed to lack curiosity, and although Beast asks her again and again to marry him, she doesn’t every consider why on earth he would put himself through the emotional torture. Without much productive conversation, the many chapters of Beast and Isabeau sitting in parlours felt a bit slow and while the scenes of Isabeau’s family broke things up a bit, I think there was room for a bit more fire and chemistry between the two. Perhaps Isabeau’s agreement to stay for a year was too long.

An original take on a classic story that perhaps needed fewer magical fireworks and more metaphorical fireworks.

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Betrothed

Urban fantasy young adult romance novel

I am currently on a bit of a fantasy bender in an attempt to get through my to-read shelves, including some which are taken up by fantasy series. In a previous post, I talked about how my book club and I won a fantastic trivia event: well, this was my prize! A series of four books including one signed by the author. I hadn’t read them before, but the covers are all quite beautiful with a reflective, pearlescent effect. They have waiting on my shelf for three years collecting dust and now was the time to read them.

Image is of “Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire. The paperback book is resting on top of some shiny purple wings. The cover has a silhouette of a young man and a young woman holding his hand in hers. They are standing on a rock with ocean and mountains behind them. The cover has a pearlescent effect and behind the man is the faintest outline of wings.

“Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire is the first book in the urban fantasy young adult romance series of the same name. The story is about a 17 year old girl called Amy who has had a challenging upbringing. Living in Sydney, her delicate health and countless allergies have drastically impacted her life, not to mention the fact that she is adopted. While she has some close friends, school is difficult and she is frequently picked on because of her skin reactions to just about everything. When she starts having incredibly realistic dreams with a voice calling out for someone called Marla, Amy initially doubts that they could be true. However, when the mysterious Leif arrives in person, Amy begins to question exactly who she is.

This is a light-hearted that is about love and identity. Wiltshire doesn’t take herself too seriously, and Amy leaves upbeat Sydney for even more upbeat Faera, and we gradually learn the truth about her heritage. Wiltshire gently explores some of the real difficulties of living with severe allergies, and Amy’s struggles with her health are counterbalanced by the enjoyment she is able to derive from the simplest things like scented baths and lavish food in Faera. Wiltshire introduces some tension with a loose love triangle and intergenerational grudges, and a countdown to Amy’s 18th birthday upon which her future hangs.

While not overtly religious, there are certainly some very traditional ideas about male and female roles including the idea that female faeries are created from a piece of a male faery’s soul which is all very Eve made from Adam’s rib. A lot of the book is spent examining Amy’s feelings and disbelief in relation to her newly discovered identity, and everyone in the human world seems happy to exist as a supporting cast for her. I found the Faera world a bit disconcerting. Wiltshire describes a utopia with no money, nothing wanting and no aging, and I found it hard to wrap my head around a society where everything appears to be predetermined. I felt that although a lot of information and conflict had been introduced early on in the book, the plot plateaued and it didn’t feel like much was happening for the second half. Amy didn’t really undergo much character development, and I would have liked to have seen more depth to her than romantic interest.

Readable enough but not particularly ground-breaking in terms of concept or themes.

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Darkskull Hall

Fantasy novel about a noble born girl sent to learn magic

Lockdown in Canberra continues, and I am still making an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf by whatever means necessary. One thing I realised is that I have a lot of fantasy books that, for some reason or another, I just have never gotten around to reading. I picked up this book when the author held a fantastic fantasy trivia night about 3 years ago that my fantasy book club went along to and absolutely dominated. In addition to winning a prize, I bought a copy of the first book in the author’s series and had it signed.

Image is of “Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy. The paperback book is in shadows and has a “staff” to the right illuminated with blue/green light at the top and warm “fire” light coming from the left. The cover is black with a picture of a young white woman with long brown hair who is holding green light in her hand with flames to the left.

“Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy is the first novel in the fantasy series “The Mage Chronicles”. The story is about a 16 year old called Alyx who is of noble blood and who lives a privileged, carefree life. All she thinks about is riding her pony and the budding romance with her oldest friend. However, her idyllic life comes to a grinding halt when she is told that she is the daughter of a mage and must go study across her nation’s border at a place called Darkskull Hall. The journey through contested territory is perilous, and some at Darkskull Hall even more so. Without any clear magic ability, knowledge of her true history or the protection of her family, Alyx must forge new friendships and find the courage to survive.

This is a readable book and Cassidy captures the voice of a teenage girl struggling with the abrupt transition from her previously pampered life. I enjoyed the gradual character development and while it is incremental, Cassidy does a good job of showing how the experience of Darkskull Hall, and loss of trust as a result, irreparably changes who Alyx is as a person. One thing that was incredibly refreshing was that Cassidy actually clearly knows a thing or two about horses, unlike some other fantasy novels I’ve read recently.

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking example of the genre, and plenty of the hallmarks of a typical fantasy novel were there: magic school, yet-to-be-discovered magical talent, war with neighbouring country, irritatingly and unnecessarily vague teacher. Reading this, I had the sense that despite the diversity of the characters, the world is quite small and we don’t get much sense of different languages, cultures and geographies. I am sure the world gets explored more in later books.

I wasn’t sure after reading this book whether I would read the next in the series, but I was pleasantly surprised that it really got under my skin. This is, at heart, a character-driven book and I kept finding myself thinking about them after the book was finished.

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Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

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

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.

One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.

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Nevernight

Italian-inspired fantasy about a school of assassins

Content warning: sex, very mild spoiler about one character

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club and, given lockdown, likely to be the last one for a while. I have seen these books for sale with that typical white cover, black silhouette with a splash of colour that is pretty standard across the epic fantasy genre.

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, Book 1) | Rakuten Kobo Australia
Image is of a digital book cover of “Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff. The cover is of a black crow overlaid with other images such as a cat, a barrel, a sword, hands, stars, a cross, a vial and a mask.

“Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff, the first book in “The Nevernight Chronicle”, is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Mia who is gearing herself up for an assassination. In a world with three suns, it is very rarely dark yet shadows creep through the city she calls home and Mia has been in hiding since she was a child. Once she collects her tithe she, and the mysterious catlike shadow she calls Mr Kindly, flee the city to try to find the Red Church: a school of assassins full of students driven by revenge. However, the Red Church may be even more deadly than the city of bones she left behind.

Once this book got going, it was an engrossing read. Kristoff’s Italian-inspired Senate and city of Godsgrave was a unique setting, where geography meets anatomy under an almost never-ending daylight. I liked the magic in this book, and Kristoff manages to strike a good balance between maintaining the mystery of Mia’s abilities yet keeping the reader satisfied by exploring them in a variety of situations. He also is ruthless about who lives and who dies, and particularly in the later parts of the book, keeps you on your toes. I really liked the politics between the students and it was in these scenes that Kristoff’s writing really shone.

However, I found the first half of the book way too overwritten. Kristoff used a particular sentence structure multiple times along the lines of “all [noun]-[adjective] noun, and [noun]-[adjective] noun” which grew a bit tedious:

  • “all open mouths and closed fists”
  • “all milk-white skin and…bow-shaped lips”
  • “all crushed red velvet”
  • “coal-black eyes”
  • “feather-down smile”.

I did feel like Kristoff found his groove as the book progressed, though he did like to write a passage, go back in time to give it context, then write the passage again which felt a bit repetitive. There was a really, really long chase scene through a desert that seemed a bit unnecessary, and it was after that the book started to come into its own. There were a few other things that bugged me. In the opening scenes, Mia loses her virginity to a “sweetboy” (a sexworker) and it is a painful, bloody cliché that is treated like a universal occurrence even though it isn’t. Unbelievably, she paid for the experience even though he was clumsy and she didn’t orgasm. It is not until page 326 that she realises perhaps she paid the sweetboy too much.

At some point Mia acquires a horse she nicknames Bastard, and although he is described as being 20 hands high, she easily is able to jump on him. It always disappoints me a little reading fantasy where the author gives away how little they know about horses, and this was a classic example: 20 hands is the size of the Guinness World Record holder for tallest horse, it is absolutely ludicrous that Mia could mount him without a stepladder. On top of that, Kristoff says that he is a thoroughbred which Wikipedia will quickly inform you ranges from 15.2 to 17 hands high i.e. a foot shorter than Bastard. Slight spoiler: another thing that didn’t make much sense was the character Hush. Although Hush is frequently described as beautiful, it is revealed at one point that he has no teeth. Another quick Wikipedia search indicates that loss of teeth can result in a sunken face and a shrinking jawbone.

A readable book with good worldbuilding and an interesting premise that annoyed me from time to time.

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Sweet Tooth

Graphic novel series about genetic mutation

Content warning: pandemic, gore

Keeping in theme with my recent run of books that have been adapted into TV series or films, I saw recently that this graphic novel series that I had read some (but not all) of had been adapted into a Netflix series and the trailer looked pretty awesome. I checked my shelf and I had 5 of the 6 volumes. I remembered when I had last tried to complete my series the volumes in these editions were out of print, and although I’d managed to find some secondhand, I still had one missing. After it finally arrived from eBay, I was ready to tackle this series from the beginning.

Image is of “Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire. The paperback graphic novel is stacked on top of 5 other books and is resting on a wooden table. Two antlers are emerging from behind the books. The cover is of a stylised boy in a flannelette shirt with the ears and antlers of a deer eating a chocolate bar.

“Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire is a speculative fiction graphic novel series about a young boy called Gus who lives in the woods with his father. Gus learns from an early age that he is different: a deer hybrid. His father teaches him never to leave the woods and to hide away from humans who will do him harm. However, when his father dies of a mysterious illness, Gus is left to fend from himself. When a man called Jeppard saves him from two hunters, Gus agrees to leave the woods with him to make his way to a safe haven known as the Preserve. However, outside turns out to be far, far more dangerous than even Gus’ father could have imagined and Gus must decide who he can trust to survive.

This is an iconic story with a memorable artistic style. I really love stories with biopunk and genetic mutation themes and Lemire’s is a great idea. Although Gus is ostensibly the main character, the story is really about Jeppard, his past and the choices he makes moving forward. Gus spends a large proportion of the story static and in the same place, while we watch Jeppard grapple with his morals and decide whether he has anything left to live for. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was meeting the other hybrids and enjoying the diversity of animals and abilities they represented.

I think a really important thing to note about this book is how violent and gory it is, which at times does make it a bit difficult to read. Lemire doesn’t shy away from depicting physical violence and the effects of illness in acute graphic detail, and you should really bear this in mind prior to reading. The book could have gone one of two ways: science fiction or fantasy, and without giving too much away I was a bit disappointed that it ultimately wasn’t more of a science fiction story. I felt that would have been the stronger path and Lemire drew upon some particular cultures for inspiration, which has drawn some criticism (spoilers).

Even though this is ultimately a book review blog, I did want to note that since watching the Netflix adaptation, I think it is better than the graphic novels. Lemire has very few women in his story, the majority of whom are exploited sex workers or die from illness or childbirth, and there is not a lot of backstory for some of the characters such as the hybrid pig girl Wendy and the conflicted Dr Singh. I also felt that Gus himself received a lot more airtime and elements to his character hinted at in the story were really fleshed out in the show. By introducing some new characters and providing additional backstory, I felt that the TV series was a much more well-rounded story that showed more than one facet to life following a pandemic and, slightly disturbingly, incorporated elements of masks, isolation and santising that have become so commonplace for us now.

A thought-provoking series that, in my opinion, has been improved by the TV adaptation.

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A Song of Flight

Historic Celtic fantasy novel

Content warning: spoilers for the first two books

This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet check out my reviews of the first and second books. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I have been a bit distracted from reviewing what with lockdowns etc, but I was so excited for this book pre-ordered this book when it came out at the beginning of August and harangued the poor staff at Dymocks Canberra on release day and they had to open the box for me! I definitely needed a little winter pick-me-up.

Image is of “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier. The paperback book is resting on a timber table next to grey and black feathers and a silver belt buckle. The cover is of a woman in profile in the foreground holding a large knife, gazing across water at a stone tower in the background.

“A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier is the third book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards”. The book begins a short while after the events of the second book, back on Swan Island. Experienced after several successful if challenging missions, Liobhan has been given the new responsibility of helping to train new recruits. Her comrade and lover Dau spends most of his time training recruits on the mainland, and they take what few moments together they can. However, when news arrives that a prince is missing and his bodyguard Galen, Liobhan’s brother, is seriously injured, Liobhan and Dau are dispatched on separate but complementary missions to discover what happened. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s adopted brother Brocc, who is now a father, is having serious difficulties with his wife and queen Eirne in the Otherworld about the increasing presence of the mysterious and dangerous Crow Folk. When he is exiled with a precious burden, Brocc must use all his training and powers to ensure the Crow Folk are not used for evil.

This book had a different tempo than the other two books, and one of the overarching themes in this book is overcoming adversity without violence. Introduced in the earlier books, the Crow Folk make a much bigger appearance in this story and the main characters must untangle myth and culture to get to the heart of why the Crow Folk have come to their land. Whereas the previous book was Liobhan and Dau’s, this time I felt that Brocc’s story really became centre-stage. As I have often said, Marillier is a master of romance so it was really interesting to read her take on a relationship breakdown. Although Brocc has always been accepted completely by his adopted family, Marillier hints tantalisingly at who his biological family may be and what the implications of that may be. Brocc is pushed to his limits in this book and asked how far he would go for the ones he loves.

I enjoyed finally getting to meet the third child of Blackthorn and Grim, Galen, and seeing another side of their family. Blackthorn and Grim make an extended cameo in this book and it was nice to see them in a happy home, regardless of the circumstances. Although not as prominent as the previous book, Liobhan and Dau’s relationship (limited as it is by time, distance and their commitment to Swan Island) is tested in this book. Will they be able to put Swan Island missions before all else, including their love? Although many threads of this story were tied up very tidily, Marillier left enough questions unanswered and doors unclosed to make me wonder whether this truly is the last book, or whether we shall be seeing more of Brocc, Liobhan and Dau in future.

An excellent example of Marillier’s work and a satisfying ending to the trilogy without completely extinguishing the hope that perhaps there may be more to come.

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She Who Became the Sun

Queer Imperial Chinese fantasy about ambition and power

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. I also received a paperback copy of this book from Paperchain Bookstore‘s recent VIP science fiction and fantasy After Dark event which came with a signed bookplate. It was a really fun event with some local fantasy authors, however I have to say it is dangerous having a bookshop open with wines on offer because it turns out a little loss of inhibition means buying a lot more books!

Image is of “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan. The paperback book is resting on a black tangzhuang-style men’s jacket with white lining. The cover is ombre yellow and orange with a dark orange Chinese dragon and black text.

“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a fantasy novel set in Imperial China. The story is told from two perspectives: an orphaned girl who appropriates her brother Zhu Chongba’s identity in pursuit of the great destiny he was promised and a eunuch called Ouyang whose loyalty to the Mongols who adopted him is undermined by his vow to avenge his family.

This is an epic novel that explores the idea of fate, and how much our lives are predetermined and how much our determination can shape our lives. Zhu was a fascinating character who refreshingly pursues ambition using wits, willpower and an impeccable sense of timing. Parker-Chan challenges the reader to consider gender identity from very unique perspectives: being forced to assume a gender to survive, and having your sex stolen from you without your consent. I really liked that in this book, ambition trumps everything and I felt that this made the character’s motivations really refreshing. Parker-Chan’s characters are surprising in their ruthlessness and I enjoyed how they used hardship as a springboard to greatness, no matter the moral implications. The magic in this book is really understated and Parker-Chan did an excellent job maintaining ambiguity about who is responsible for fate and who grants the power to conjure light.

I am actually a bit reluctant to write much more about this book because it is such a journey. A ground-breaking addition to the fantasy genre, and I cannot way for part 2 of this duology.

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A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.

This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.

I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.

A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.

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Duncton Wood

Animal fantasy about power, religion and moles

Content warning: sexual assault, religious themes, rape apologism, violence

When I was growing up, animal fantasy was one of my favourite book genres. Some of my absolute favourites included “Watership Down” and “Black Beauty“. It is a broad genre, with plenty of books out there, but one that I have not explored very much as an adult. I picked this book up at a Lifeline Book Fair quite some time ago and it has been sitting on my shelf with a small collection of other animal fantasy novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The cover is extremely autumnal and very in season, and I thought it was high time I gave this genre another go.

Image is of “Duncton Wood” by William Horwood. The paperback book is sitting on a bed of autumn leaves in reds, yellows and browns. The cover has two moles sitting on autumn leaves themselves with trees and a standing stone in the distance.

“Duncton Wood” by William Horwood is an animal fantasy novel about two moles: Rebecca and Bracken. Born at a similar time in the declining system of burrows called Duncton Wood, Bracken and Rebecca’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. Bullied by his siblings but with a flair for exploration, Bracken leaves his unhappy burrow early and forges his own path. Rebecca on the other hand is the cherished daughter of Mandrake, an enormous mole from a far away system who has taken control of the Duncton moles. Mandrake suppresses the moles’ spiritual beliefs and encourages violence, and outright bans the ritual of visiting the revered Stone in midsummer. Between them, Rebecca and Bracken must rebel against Mandrake and help the Duncton Moles regain their faith.

This is an epic and sprawling story that follows the lives of Rebecca and Bracken as they mature and overcome physical and spiritual adversity. From the outset, Rebecca and Bracken are identified as star-crossed lovers, and Horwood spends a significant amount of the book navigating their complex yet inevitable relationship. I think Horwood’s real strength is nature writing, and his descriptions of the English countryside and changes of the seasons are very beautiful.

However, there were so very many problems with this book. While there is nothing wrong with this, a cursory glance at the cover would not indicate to a reader just how strong the religious overtones of this book are. An enormous proportion of this book is about moles finding and maintaining their faith in the Stone, and meeting other moles from other systems to talk about their own Stones. The overwhelming message in this book is that discarding spiritual traditions is bad, however it was never really made clear in the book what the social decline in Duncton was caused by. For example, the traditions were not replaced by technology, and Mandrake didn’t exactly fill the moral void.

Speaking of moral voids, I cannot in good conscience write about this book without mentioning the sexual assault. Essentially one mole rapes another mole in a horrific breach of trust and an enormous proportion of the book is spent trying to understand the perpetrator mole’s background and circumstances that lead to his violent and controlling behaviour. The perpetrator then commits unthinkable violence against children. However, despite this, the survivor spends a large amount of time empathising with the perpetrator and even later coming to think of the rape almost fondly. Reading these parts of the book honestly felt pretty gross and overshadowed the better elements.

Although I was really interested in reading about Horwood’s mole culture, ultimately it felt underdeveloped and contradictory. For example, some mole systems have books, but Horwood fails to explain how the books are made and how their language was written. This was such a missed opportunity in worldbuilding, and also raised questions of why there were no other technological developments. The emotional development of the characters was also quite superficial. Moles love and show reverence for each other almost immediately without any real reason. Horwood could have leaned into a more realistic explanation (moles like the smell or body language of other moles) or a more character-driven explanation, but mostly moles just made snap judgements about one another for no apparent reason.

I also thought it was a bit anglocentric that the Siabod (Welsh) moles had to speak English, but the English moles didn’t know or bother to learn Welsh and regularly described the language as harsh. The older moles constantly lamented that they did not have the words to explain what they meant, and the dialogue between the moles frequently didn’t say much at all. Harwood’s own language felt quite repetitive, and he mentioned the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ over and over and over.

A slow burn with strong religious themes and some very questionable narrative decisions, I would think twice before reading this.

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