Tag Archives: fantasy

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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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

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

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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Piranesi

Surreal novel about a world of halls and statues

Content warning: trauma, disability

I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.

Image of “Piransi” by Susanna Clarke placed on a black and gold promotional tote bag with a similar design

In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.

Image of “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke with art from the XU ZHEN┬«: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia in the background. I would really recommend visiting this exhibition if you want to get a sense of what Piranesi’s world is like.

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.

This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.

Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.

An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.

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The Bone Ships

Swashbuckling adventure fantasy novel

Content warning: disability, facial difference, child sacrifice

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club, and was another one that I hadn’t heard of before. I was a bit slack again and only managed to get through about a fifth before the meeting, but I quickly finished it shortly afterwards.

The Bone Ships (The Tide Child, #1) by R.J. Barker

“The Bone Ships” by RJ Barker is a seafaring fantasy adventure novel and the first in a series called “The Tide Child Trilogy”. In an archipelago called the Hundred Isles, battles are fought, won and lost at sea aboard ships made of the bones of long extinct leviathans. When Joron Twiner finds himself banished to a black ship called the Tide Child and ironically elected as shipmother, he sinks into despair and leaves the ship and crew to rot while he drinks himself into a stupor. However, when the famous Lucky Meas Gilbryn finds herself in the same plight, she quickly usurps him and appoints him her second in command. Despite her reduced political situation, she quickly restores order and confides in him her true mission: to stop the wars once and for all.

This is an interesting and creative novel that draws on the canon of seafaring fiction. The Hundred Isles is a brutal place, and Barker invites the reader to consider a world where power is vested in women who have survived childbirth and produced unblemished children and where people born with disabilities, facial differences or mothers who die in childbirth are all but shunned. The fantasy elements supplement rather than dominate the story, and I really enjoyed the character of the Gullaime whose extraordinary power to harness the wind and difficult temperament must be navigated by Joron through kindness. I was also very interested in the concept of the corpselights; lights made of the souls of firstborn children sacrificed to the Hag goddess that indicate a ship’s health. Barker was a little circumspect about this idea and I wonder if it will be explained further in later books.

Although I enjoyed the book, I think my enjoyment really kicked in after the Gullaime was introduced. Lucky Meas spends a lot of time training her crew and teaching them to operate different parts of the ship which was not of particular interest to me. Some of the political aspects of the book felt a little murky with a lot of things seeming to happen offstage without much rationale. While overall Barker is a clear and compelling author, I did feel that for a fantasy novel set in a completely different world, he drew quite a lot on words from other languages set in this world such as Italian which was a bit of a missed worldbuilding opportunity. It is quite a grim book with lots of people dying in gruesome ways in a world that appears to place little value on individual life.

A very readable and engaging book for lovers of ships, adventure and fantasy alike. If you are like me and enjoy stories about animals and magical creatures, then the Gullaime might win you over as well.

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A Dance with Fate

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence, disability

This is the second novel in this series, so if you haven’t read the first novel yet I’d recommend checking out my review here first. I was so excited to see the second book come out so soon after the first and rushed to buy it.

“A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier is the second book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards” that picks up shortly after the events of the first book. Former rivals Liobhan and Dau have become comrades after their challenging undercover mission, but are still eager to compete for recognition as warriors on Swan Island. However, when the evenly matched pair spar together in a display bout, an accident and a head injury causes Dau to lose his vision. Word is sent to his estranged family who demand payment, and Liobhan accompanies Dau to his home at a grim place called Oakhill. Despite his disability, Dau is no longer the frightened boy his brothers tormented and he must face his old demons if he and Liobhan are to uncover the truth of what has been happening at Oakhill. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s brother Brocc struggles to adjust to his new life in the Otherworld. The Crow Folk who so threatened the Fair Folk have begun turning up horrifically maimed and his wife and queen Eirne has grown distant. A journey to save a friend’s life brings him more than he bargained for.

My girl Pepper also wanted to get involved in being a book model

While I often find myself struggling with sequels in fantasy series, Marillier has the singular skill of making her sequels even better than the first book and this is no exception. This is a captivating and challenging tale about power and justice. Despite all his character growth in the previous book, and adjusting to his newfound confidence, Dau finds himself in a position of extreme vulnerability back in his family home where he was subjected to extreme and repeated abuse by his brothers. Marillier often writes about disability, and in this case again writes sensitively and compellingly about Dau’s grief at losing his vision, the adjustments the characters make to assist him and his gradual acceptance of his new circumstances. I also love the way that Marillier writes romance and how gentle and full of equal parts trust and passion relationships emerge.

But Tabasco is the one who matches Liobhan’s hair the best

One theme that shone through this book was the healing power of dogs. One of Dau’s childhood traumas involves his dog Snow, and the lies his brothers told about what really happened weigh heavily on Dau. However, through the dogs we meet in this book, we learn how deeply Dau cares for animals and how much they bring joy and meaning to his life, even when he is at his darkest. My own dog Pepper has been attacked several times by dogs, something that I know Juliet Marillier has also experienced, yet the generosity with which she writes about dogs in this book – especially dogs with poor training and unkind treatment – is honestly heartwarming. Where we were struck by the tragedy of what happened to Snow in the previous book, this book feels like a reconciliation for both Dau and reader.

In the previous book, I did find Brocc’s story a little less engaging, but in this book I was absolutely hooked. Marillier fleshes out the Otherworld and Brocc’s relationship with Eirne. I felt that Brocc underwent a lot of character development in this book, coming to terms with his own mixed ancestry, navigating honesty and expectations with his new wife, and trying to decide his own morals in relation to the Crow Folk. The Otherworld characters, old and new, were very interesting and I simply adored True.

This book had me in tears more than once and I cannot wait for the next installment.

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Over the Woodward Wall

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I think it is worth noting that this book is a companion novel to Seanan McGuire’s book “Middlegame” and (though I have not read it) this book is in fact a fictional book mentioned in the original novel, now brought to life by the author under a pseudonym. While it is a standalone, there may be things that readers of McGuire’s book may have picked up on that went over my head.

“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Parker is a fantasy novel about two children, Avery and Zib, who despite living on the same street have never met one another. One day on their way to different schools, Avery and Zib each must take a detour which finds them standing side by side before a wall blocking the street. Without even noticing each other, they both climb the wall and find themselves in a peculiar world called the Up and Under with no clear way to return home.

This is an unsettling book that draws upon fantasy and science fiction canon to produce something quite different. Parker is a clever yet oblique writer and the books is narrated in the third person with the omniscient narrator switching between describing the events and feelings experienced by the characters and providing broader commentary about their lives. Despite being a book about children, I don’t think that this is a book for children. Parker spends a lot of time considering the impacts of different parenting styles on the straight-laced Avery and the carefree Zib, and how that affects their ability to make their way through not only the Up and Under, but life generally. Zib and Avery meet several unusual characters along the way and struggle not only to assess who is friend and who is foe, but to manage a blossoming friendship between two such different perspectives.

I have heard a few people compare this book to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz“, presumably because of the superficial resemblance between the books because each has a road to be followed. However, I found the premise more similar to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with the well-known playing card royalty replaced by queens and kings affiliated with more mysterious and sinister Tarot suits. The improbable road reminded me a lot of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the infinite improbability drive. However, while there are glimpses of wonder, this book has a much darker tone than these predecessors and while it is certainly surreal and quirky, it doesn’t have the same amount of humour.

This is a compelling and cryptic book that ends on a grim note which makes me feel that Parker is probably not done yet with this story, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

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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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Dreams of Fire

Queer urban fantasy about friendship and revenge

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

Dreams of Fire by Christian Cura

“Dreams of Fire” by Christian Cura is an urban fantasy novel about a woman called Kara who works as an artist in Washington DC, USA. Kara is enjoying a lot of success with a great new apartment, an assistant at work and even the possibility of an upcoming exhibition. However, Kara has a secret: she is able to use magic. When she fights alongside an intriguing woman called Selene hired as security at a party, Kara forms a connection and soon begins to share some of her difficult past on their dates. However, a plot underway at a magical prison in Canada means that Kara’s past might be catching up with her sooner than she thinks.

This is an action-packed novel that imagines a world with mystics living alongside people unable to wield magic. Kara and Selene’s romance is very sweet and wholesome, and was a unique and clever way to deal with exposition with Kara revealing more about herself as the couple grow closer. There is a diverse cast of characters, and Cura’s magical world seems very international. I really enjoyed how easily Cura wrote in a same sex relationship into the book. Cura had a very clear vision for the story, and the way magic is wielded was carefully explained and consistent. I enjoyed the discussions several characters had about the morality of magic, and how it is the users of magic rather than the magic itself which determines whether it is good or bad.

Cura has a very descriptive style of writing and there were a lot of details about characters’ appearances, wafting aromas and beers being tilted towards lips that could have been pared back to streamline the story. I also would have liked the system of governance fleshed out a little. Enforcers seemed to be both magical police officers and corrections officers, and it wasn’t clear how the Council existed alongside typical non-magic forms of government. The prison itself seemed to mirror the prison-industrial complex associated with the USA, and despite the huge population of the prison (ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 detainees), it was unclear what kind of court heard and decided all these cases. One of the characters considers that if detainees don’t want to be in prison, they shouldn’t commit crimes, but I would have liked to know more about what the socioeconomic driving factors may have been for mystics to turn to crime.

An intriguing debut novel that would likely make a good comic or film adaptation.

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The Raven Tower

Fantasy novel about power, faith and intrigue inspired by Hamlet

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend due to losing my voice. I’ve been a bit uninspired by fantasy recently so I wasn’t particularly excited by the thought of reading this book, even though I really enjoyed other books by this author. I decided to buy an eBook and see how I went.

“The Raven Tower” by Ann Leckie is a fantasy novel told in the second person about Eolo, a young trans man from a rural area who is aide to Mawat, the heir to a position called The Raven’s Lease, a person sworn to serve a god known as the Raven until their death when the Raven’s bird form dies as well. However, when Mawat returns to the city of Vastai expecting to ascend the throne, he finds his father missing and his uncle sitting on the throne as the new Lease. Mawat, who struggles with his temper, hides in his quarters for days before emerging to publicly accuse his uncle of foul play. Meanwhile, Eolo explores the city and meets many different individuals to try to uncover what really happened, all the while being observed by the book’s mysterious narrator.

This was a fascinating take on the fantasy genre and Leckie’s writing continues to impress. Although I frequently lament the lack of diversity and originality in fantasy, especially Western medieval fantasy, Leckie has taken the hallmarks of fantasy and explored them through several different angles. Eolo is a great main character who, although initially underestimated due to his poor background and trans identity, quickly garners respect as someone who is intelligent, courageous and sensible. The second person narration was an interesting style choice, and although it is one that I have seen before, I think in this case it was done very well and kept Eolo’s true thoughts and feelings ultimately unknowable.

Although this is a fantasy novel, Leckie weaves in elements of science fiction by asking the question what if? and imagining how a world where gods could speak things true would unfurl. To complete the tapestry, Leckie also expertly uses a narrative structure more often seen in genres like mystery and horror. She creates a palpable sense of unease and foreboding, and even until the very end it is impossible to assess whether the narrator is good or evil. I absolutely love that this is a standalone novel, and I think that fantasy writers should take note and write more powerful, punchy novels like this.

I really enjoyed this book, but Leckie introduces incredible complex concepts to her readers that occasionally felt a little muddled. While I totally appreciate the value in not handing everything to the reader on a platter, for me at least it felt like there were quite a few questions left unanswered about e.g. the difference between the Ancient Ones and newer gods, why a particular god decided to go to Vastai and what the whole spinning thing was about.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly engaging novel and Leckie continues to demonstrate how strong and flexible a writer she is. I’m really looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

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