Tag Archives: fantasy

Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

The Lacewing King Page 1
Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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Welcome to Night Vale

Novel set in fictional podcast’s paranormal town

A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.

Image is of “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. The purple book is on a table in front of baskets of fake fruit and a plastic flamingo. It appears to be nighttime in the background.

“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.

This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.

While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.

Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.

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Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Empire of Gold

Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Betrayal in Winter

Fantasy novel about a deadly tradition for the crown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anansi Boys

Urban fantasy about the son of a god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”

Content warning: pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everworld: Search for Senna

Young adult fantasy series about another world of gods and Vikings

Content warning: racism, homophobia, child sexual abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orfeia

Novella inspired by British folklore

Content warning: suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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