Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest
Content warning: family violence
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.
“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.
True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.
I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.
A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.
Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder
Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.
This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.
While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.
Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
I was thrilled to launch my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December, and it was so successful I actually have quite a backlog of reviews. I was especially looking forward to this book which is a sequel to “Silver in the Wood” which I adored. Publication was a bit delayed because of COVID-19 but I ordered a copy as soon as I could. If you haven’t read the first book yet, please note there will be inadvertent spoilers.
“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh is a sequel to her novella “Silver in the Wood”. Some years have passed since the events of the previous book, and Henry Silver has sunk into a deep, grimy depression. His enthusiasm for an adventurous life as the Wild Man of Greenhollow has waned and he struggles to fill the days with the same careful routine that Tobias Finch did. When his mother calls on him to require his assistance dealing with a dangerous creature, Silver reluctantly agrees. However, when he reaches the coastal town of Rothport, he finds much more than he bargained for.
I was so happy to step back into Tesh’s world with these beloved characters. In this story, we get much more of Silver’s perspective and insight into some of the immaturity and indecision behind his signature charm and wit. There are some very funny moments in the book, and plenty of melodrama. The relationship between Silver and his mother is complicated and amusing. I also enjoyed Tesh’s exploration of relationships and working through guilt, trust and communication. Seeing Finch’s taciturn nature from the outside was frustrating but I finally had a bit more empathy for all the other characters.
I think that while I enjoyed revisiting this setting, the murkiness of the atmosphere spilled over a little into the plot. Tesh plays with parallel worlds and liminal spaces, stepping into another realm that was reminiscent of the dead city of Charn in “The Magician’s Nephew” by C. S. Lewis. However, I didn’t quite feel the same cohesiveness as I did in the first book. Tesh flickers the narrative back and forth in time to unveil what happened between Silver and Finch, but this time around I didn’t feel as invested. I love novellas but it was almost like the book needed a bit more exposition for the reader to understand how everything fit (or didn’t fit) together.
A fun, tangled book that I liked; just not as much as the first one.
Middle grade fantasy book about four gifted children
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I’m currently very deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this looked like a nice quick read.
“The Lost Amulet” by Mary Farrugia is the first bok in the “Stone Bearer Series” and is a middle grade fantasy book about three children called Alexandra, Jake and Kian who are raised together in an orphanage with the ferocious Ms Severington. When Jake and Kian are suddenly adopted, Alexandra is left alone. However, when she is adopted shortly before her 12th birthday by the mysterious John, the truth about her identity is finally revealed and her destiny as a Stone Bearer of the Land of Four Stones begins. When she begins her training and education with John and Gum Gully High, Alexandra is reunited with her friends. However, the race is on to find a lost Amulet before the chaotic figure Colt does, and the key may lie in the secret fourth Stone Bearer.
This is an easy read that follows plenty of the tried and true hallmarks of the children’s fantasy genre from orphans, hidden identities to being sorted into school houses. It is a quick and action-packed read with a strong focus on friendship.
Like many self-published books, this one felt a little heavy on the adverbs and the author did occasionally misuse some words. The story initially felt a little confusing moving from the orphanage to a day school for both magical and non-magical children, but perhaps some of these issues are resolved in later books in the series.
A fast-paced book that could appeal to fans of the middle grade fantasy genre.
Young adult novel about a young boy’s affinity for foxes
I am currently doing my Short Stack Reading Challenge, and I raided all my shelves for some very short books to see out the end of the year. I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. I can’t remember if I chose it because someone recommended it to me, or because this author was one I read as a kid because my (admittedly very annoying) year 5 teacher was obsessed with her. Either way, this was the next book in my short stack. It is actually a signed copy, addressed to someone called Katie in the year of publication – 1994. Edit: I was just reminded that I have read this author more recently, I had just forgotten her pseudonym.
“Foxspell” by Gillian Rubinstein is about a young boy called Tod who, after his father returns overseas, has moved with his mother and two sisters to live with his grandmother on a property in South Australia. Despite being a talented artist, Tod struggles with school and feels the strain of the arguments at home. When he comes across a dead fox and is moved to bury it, he unknowingly creates a connection between himself and a fox spirit. Spending more and more time in the area nearby called the quarries, Tod attracts the attention of Shaun, an older teenager whose gang vandalise property and who is interested in Tod’s sister Charm. As things at home become more and more difficult, and Tod falls further behind in school, the temptation to run with a fox and run with a gang becomes greater and greater.
This was quite a surprising book. Even though it was written nearly 30 years ago, it still felt fresh and relevant. Although not ever said explicitly, it is suggested that Tod has a learning disability like dyslexia and instead of blaming him for his difficulties, the book explores how the people around him are failing him. I also thought that Rubinstein did a good job of weaving earthy magic into the story while acknowledging that white people, like foxes, invaded this country and that Traditional Owners’ beliefs and connection to country persists. There were also lots of other interesting parts to this story. Tod’s mother is an aspiring comedian and uses anecdotes about her family in her sets, and I thought that the dichotomy between her lack of involvement in her kids’ day to day lives, and her disrespect for their boundaries by using their lives as material for her shows was a fascinating subplot. I also really liked the character of Tod’s sister Charm, and the complicated relationship between her, Shaun, Tod and Shaun’s younger brother.
An unexpectedly complex story that I liked a lot more than I remember liking Rubinstein’s other books.
In my quest to read books before I watch adaptations, I picked up a copy of this book when I heard it was being turned into a TV series. Unusually, this book is written by two authors and despite some of the scathing commentary inside about whether a book that has sold millions of copies can accurately be described as a cult classic, this book certainly has a dedicated following.
“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is an urban fantasy comedy novel about an angel called Aziraphale and a demon called Crowley who each live on Earth trying to influence humanity towards good and evil respectively. However, they both really enjoy Earth and have struck up a friendship over the centuries since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. So when Crowley receives news that the Antichrist is coming to Earth to herald the end of days and the annihilation of the world and everyone in it, he and Aziraphale agree to try to prevent the child from reaching his full potential. However, a case of mistaken identity means that Heaven and Hell’s plans have gone awry and between prophecies, witch-hunters, motorcyclists of the apocalypse and four kids, the race is on to stop the end of the world.
I have read plenty of Neil Gaiman and a little of Terry Pratchett, and I think that there is no question that their work is well-known and well-loved around the world. Both authors are known for their reinterpretation of fantasy and mythological tropes, and certainly Christian-inspired fantasy with angels and demons is a popular concept in urban fantasy. I haven’t read too many books that are written by two authors, and one notable example was “Wicked!” by renowned Australian children’s authors Paul Jennings and Morris Gleitzman. Unlike Jennings and Gleitzman, instead of alternating chapters, Gaiman and Pratchett wrote much more collaboratively. While there are certain jokes and passages that are more reminiscent of one author’s style or another, overall their writing blended very well. This book is very much a product of its time, and I found it enjoyable and nostalgic reading about technology and cultural references in the early 1990s. I think my favourite character in the entire book was the hellhound who becomes known as Dog and whose diabolical nature is tamped down until he becomes a beloved childhood companion. Dog’s internal struggle with his own nature was probably the best and funniest piece of tension in the book.
However, at the risk of bringing the Pratchett-Gaiman fandom raining fire and brimstone down on me, I didn’t love this book. It wasn’t the uproariously funny book I was expecting, and that was not because I’m unfamiliar with quirky British humour. In fact, I thought perhaps watching the TV series would help bring the humour to life a bit but even the show, which is very true to the book, felt a bit flat. I could see what the authors were doing with young Adam and his crew of pre-teen friends, but I found their dialogue really unrealistic and, unlike Paul Jennings, neither particularly funny or compelling. While I often read books that were published some time ago and try to have a bit of patience for changing social standards, I do want to mention that there are quite a few racial stereotypes and slurs against particular races and the queer community peppered throughout this book that are very jarring. I am certain that Gaiman would not use this language today, but, for example, the scene where Aziraphale temporarily possesses an Aboriginal man was pretty cringe by today’s standards.
A bit of a let down after all the hype, so if you’re looking to read either author, this probably wouldn’t be the book I’d recommend you start with.
Epic fantasy about an orphan girl and a forgotten city
I am still chipping away at my to-read shelf, and in my efforts to tackle some of the fantasy books I have had lying around for some time, I remembered I had this one. I actually won 6 books in this series in the annual Worldbuilders fundraiser. Money donated goes to Heifer International, and each US$10 you donate secures you an entry in their lottery. I’ve donated over a few years, and one year was lucky enough to win a prize! I talk about it in much more depth in a podcast episode. Anyway, these books have been collecting dust for way too long so it was time to at least read the first one.
“The Hidden City” by Michelle West is an epic fantasy novel and the first in the series called “The House War”. The book is about a young homeless girl named Jewel, who insists on being called Jay. When she tries to rob the mysterious and reclusive Rath, his attempts to reclaim his goods end up with him reluctantly taking a very sick Jay in. As the unlikely pair form a mentor-mentee bond, Jay begins to share her newfound fortune with other street children. However, Rath’s clandestine activities retrieving treasures from a forgotten city, Jay’s untested powers and an unspeakable crime ring reveal many more children in need of help and a growing danger that could threaten the entire world as they know it.
This is a deliberate, thoughtful novel with a strong focus on character development and morality. Despite Rath’s initial denial, the bond between him and Jay steadily strengthens and they each begin to have a profound effect on one another. I really enjoyed the other children who steadily trickled into Jay’s life, and how she slowly coaxes them out of their shells and unites them. I particularly liked Carver, and how West wove a bit of mystery around his background and why he was there at the right time. It is a high stakes novel, and West is not afraid of pushing her characters and their loyalties to their limits.
However, it is a slow-paced novel, and at times West’s painstaking review of the intricacies of each relationship feels like it stalls the story. While quirky at the beginning, Rath’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the extent to which he has welcomed Jay into his life begins to lose its impact. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that I felt could have been stronger. Although a street urchin, Jay’s abilities mean that she could potentially have secured a home studying to strengthen her powers, everyone dismisses that as an option for her without any adequate explanation. Many of the conversations are indirect and full of politicking, but West never really makes it clear whether all this dancing around is a cultural feature of this world or simply an attempt to build suspense.
I do also want to mention the book cover. As I said in the photo caption above, the cover has an image of a girl holding a blade. The girl has fair skin, curly light brown hair and light eyes that could be hazel in colour. In the book, Jay is described as having “[b]rown eyes, dark skin, unruly hair” and is later described as being biracial. This book was originally published in 2007, and there has been a lot of discourse about whitewashing book covers since then. I completely appreciate that authors often have very little say in these decisions, and that publishing houses like DAW have come a long way when it comes to representation, however I think it’s still important to acknowledge that this is something that happens – even to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin!
I could see a lot of potential in this book for an epic fantasy series, and those who like to get absorbed in for hours and hours in another world may very well get a lot out of it, but I don’t think I’m quite hooked enough to read the other 5 books I won (let alone the rest of the series).
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.
“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.
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.