Tag Archives: Fantasy

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars book cover appearing to be a crest carved from golden stone, the Ravkan double headed eagle is rampant behind a shield with three large tears as if from claw marks along it

The Darkling has been defeated, Alina and Mal are running their orphanage in Keramzin, and Ravka is experiencing a brief period of peace as King Nikolai Lantsov’s farming reforms bring improvements to the lives of the common man… but this is Ravka. Of course, things are never that simple. Nikolai is still possessed by a demon, a legacy of the Darkling’s merzost that lives on after it’s creator’s demise, its power seeming to grow stronger day by day. As enemies threaten at the borders and challengers of the Lantsov bloodline stake their claims for the Ravkan throne, a plague of miracles is breaking out across Ravka, pointing towards the fold where a cult of worshippers demanding churches and recognition for The Starless Saint agitate at home…

I regretted how long Six of Crows sat in my e-reader before I got around to reading it, and having gone on quite the Bardugo binge in the last few months I do have to wonder why I didn’t hop on the Grishaverse books faster. I think it might have been because I read that the Crows didn’t really figure in the books outside of the Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom Duology, but I think that the two clever fox backed into a corner can match Kaz Brekker for readability on his day.

And in King of Scars, backed into a corner he is. But it’s nice to see Zoya come to the fore- I love, love, love her for not being a people person but actually having a heart and the weight of all the people she’s responsible for and her formative experiences making her who she is in this. With a nice Nina Zenik side plot and various old friends and foes popping up in these books there’s a lot here for established Grisha fans before we get on to the newer characters (like Isaak and Yuri offering us lessons in being true to ourselves and the perils of letting a man live rent free in your head, not to mention Juris, aaaaaah Juris!), though it would make a lot of sense to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom duology before branching out into The King of Scars/Rule of Wolves duology for context and to avoid spoiling all the other books.

I love how this book takes the whole a legend is a story based in fact idea and plays with it, twisting it out to the point where the characters stories are legends being written and colliding with actual legends within the context of the Grishaverse, there’s something very meta about it but at the same time in a way that doesn’t seek to intellectualise, it’s clever but so part of the action you don’t really notice it happening.

Masterful as always from Bardugo, and I’ve now bought Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo for my e-reader because I have almost no impulse control and couldn’t wait long enough to get to the bookshop and pick up the next in the series. Now I’m just really intrigued to see how Netflix will cast Nikolai or Sturmhond for the Shadow and Bone series, I think it’s only Nikolai and Wylan who have yet to be announced of the more major novel characters from the Grishaverse.

Witchshadow by Susan Dennard a review

I’ve been pre-ordering a few new releases recently, and have been so excited to have them turn up in the post a week or two ahead of the advertised publication date. The most recent of these has been Witchshadow the fourth book in the Witchlands series by Susan Dennard, which I’ve been itching to get my fingers on for ages.

The novel focuses on Iseult det Midenzi, on the run from the Hell-Bards with Owl and a weasel who isn’t a weasel, following a foiled scheme to save Safi’s uncle Eron by marrying her to Emperor Henrick. In theory it picks up where Bloodwitch left off, with the major characters scattered across the Witchlands as they mobilise for war.

I say in theory, because it took me a little while to gather the threads of where things had left off… what happened to Aedun? Becoming possessed by an ancient being feels like something the reader needed to be shown but I missed that. I’ve loved the Witchlands books so far, but for me this was a little chaotic. I was struggling to keep up with who and what was a Paladin and the Witchlands lore at time, and I think that may be because I have yet to read Sightwitch which was billed as being a separate non-essential novel in the series but I suspect might actually be key to some of the passages in this book making instant sense as supposed to sense that you have to work for. The novel was still enjoyable without the context, but I suspect that it would have helped contextualise the sections with Stix and Ryber in Baile’s Slaughter Ring.

Having said that, despite the chaos and the occasional moment of feeling like I was struggling to grab at the threads that flew everywhere, I really enjoyed getting back into the Witchlands novels. I think Susan Dennard writes action scenes really well, so while the mythology could have been clearer, when the time came to initiate and complete, the writing was on point.

If you haven’t read any of the Witchlands series, I’d strongly recommend them, especially if you’re a Leigh Bardugo fan looking for somewhere to bide your time for the next Grishaverse novel, the Witchlands series is a little less dark, in my opinion, and probably well suited to readers who are maybe a little young for the Grishaverse novels, but at the same time, there’s nothing light about them and the characters have a slipperiness and moral greyness in many cases that leaves you wondering where the series will take you. Just read them in order and probably don’t skip Sightwitch!

I’m just wondering when I’ll be able to pre-order the next book now, I understand it’s the last in the series and there’s a lot to bring together. Eeeeek.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, a review

“Rhen,” she calls after me.
I pause in the doorway and face her.
“I’m not going to fall in love with you,” she says.
Her words are not a surprise. I sigh.
“You won’t be the first.”


A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Prince Rhen of Emberfall has been eighteen for over three hundred seasons. Cursed by a sorceress to repeat the Autumn of his eighteenth year until he manages to convince a woman to fall in love with him, Rhen sees the curse as a game at first. But at the end of the first season Rhen begins to turn into a monster, and as he does, he forgets who he is. As a beast, he has no control, and murders his entire family, before coming back to himself for the final hour of the season to see the havoc he has wreaked. For three hundred seasons he has turned into a beast, his murderous rampages decimating his kingdom leaving his guard Grey as his only company. And his memory of each season never fades. In his final season, Rhen is ready to accept that he will turn into a monster forever, until Grey is attacked by a young woman who witnesses his attempt to kidnap Rhen’s latest conquest, and he accidentally brings her to Emberfall instead…

On the surface, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer is hugely problematic. How could it not be when the obvious slap slap kiss love story at the heart of it centres on a handsome prince who with the assistance of his trusty guard kidnaps hundreds of women to use in an attempt to break a curse each season. Details are hazy on what happens to the women (selected for being what the agents of Criminal Minds would call high risk, no family, no support network, no one to miss them when they’ve gone…) when the season is over. Rhen says they return to their world, but it also sounds like he ate a few of them in monster form, so it looks like a few of them at least are now forever Emberfall as it were.

So yes, a romantic fantasy which starts with two men kidnapping a young woman and keeping her locked up in a castle should set alarm bells ringing, and neon signs flashing problematic, but I actually really enjoyed reading Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely.

By bringing the reader in towards the very end of the curse skips over the worst excesses of Rhen’s former character that the novel hints at and lets us see him at his most vulnerable. He’s lost everything, and despite his own morbid curiosity about the limits of his curse (he’s tried to end his own life several times, and tried to persuade his Guardsman, Grey to behead him) he’s resigned to his fate, a broken man who is now only concerned about his citizens and owning his failure… And then there’s Harper.

Harper is to A Curse So Dark and Lonely as Clare Randall/Fraser is to the Outlander novels. An intelligent, loyal and empathetic heroine who acts rashly but always with the best intentions. A teenaged girl living in poverty in Washington D.C., she accidentally makes the trip to Emberfall when she sees Grey attempting to kidnap a young woman outside a nightclub, and barely hesitates to rush in and attack him with a tyre iron despite that being even more challenging for Harper than the average woman, because Harper has mild cerebral palsy that affects her balance and movement in one leg.

I haven’t lived with cerebral palsy personally, but I have taught students with mild CP, and I found the portrayal of Harper really refreshing. Finally, a heroine in a YA novel with a named disability that places realistic boundaries on her physical capabilities who isn’t portrayed as a burden, a damsel in distress or in need of fixing. She might take the role of the warrior woman, learning to throw knives and shoot a bow, but what sets her apart is her empathy and fierce intelligence. She’s easily the equal of her kidnappers, and while she doubts she will ever fall in love with Rhen and break the curse, her strong sense of social justice allows her to see that there are plenty of ways he can still help the Kingdom of Emberfall in the meantime.

Part of the reason that the highly problematic kidnapper/captive love story doesn’t become as problematic as it could is the dynamic between Rhen, Grey and Harper. Rhen is an overthinker, always calculating with the need to feel twenty steps ahead of any scenario, Harper is rash and impulsive, Grey acts as the balance between them, and in a move that has shades of Outlander again, teaches Harper to defend herself with a dagger when she tries to attack him. Both young men treat Harper with the utmost respect at all times, almost to the point of deference, and this leads Rhen to quickly drop any pretence of seduction and be honest about his plight.

It was good to see a YA novel where a relationship grows out of total honesty, though despite Kemmerer’s best efforts, I have to admit I struggled to feel much empathy for the Rhen, I found his character fairly brittle even when the ultimate Big Bad, sorceress and magesmith Lilith was brought out to torment him (in fairness it’s hard to blame someone for wanting revenge on a man whose family were responsible for the genocide of her people). In comparison to Rhen, Harper and Grey were far more interesting characters to read about, even though the novel is narrated from Harper and Rhen’s points of view, and I suspect that Kemmerer may have enjoyed writing them more too.

There’s a lot going on in A Curse So Dark and Lonely – deeply troubled families, dying parents, broken kingdoms, debt, bad choices, the weight of the crown and the responsibility that comes with it, but Brigid Kemmerer has woven it all together beautifully in a fantasy novel that does the hard work for you and doesn’t shy away from embracing its characters vulnerabilities.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

“A dreamer,” scorns her mother.

“A dreamer,” mourns her father.

“A dreamer,” warns Estele.

Still, it does not seem such a bad word.”

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

I’m enjoying books that takes the thought experiments that you turn around in your head when you can’t sleep and renders them magnificent at the moment. Like Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library exploring a world in which you could erase past regrets, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab explores some of those most human of what ifs, what if you could live a life without responsibility? What if you could life as long as you wanted? What if you could be truly loved? What would you give to make these dreams come true? And what else would you be giving without realising?

In 1700s France, Addie LaRue is about to be forced into a life she doesn’t want, pushed into marriage with a widower to become a replacement mother to his three young children, she runs from the church and makes a Faustian pact with a man who might be the darkness, might be the devil, but agrees to give her an unlimited amount of time in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.

But pacts with old god, devils and the darkness are rarely as straightforward as the human making the deal might hope, and Addie soon realises that she’s traded her soul for a curse. She has unlimited time, but no one remembers her, and no one can remember her. She’s forced to walk the world alone, never able to settle or find security, with the darkness stalking at her heels waiting for her to yield. For nearly three hundred years she’s totally almost totally alone, lovers forgetting who she is when they wake in the morning, or a door closes between them until one day, a man in a book shop, with a secret of his own, remembers her.

I’m going to put it out there now that I wish that Addie LaRue was as forgettable as in the book – because then I could read it again for the first time. I don’t often re-read books but with this one I’m tempted. I love the concept, the characters, the writing, the dialogue… I haven’t read any of V.E. Schwab’s other books but after reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, I’m tempted. It will be my go to birthday present for so many people this year who I think would love it to.

I’m going to add some more specific thoughts and spoilers about the content below….

Ah sympathy for the devil. I know, I know, Luc is a complete bastard in many ways but I do feel sorry for him gradually falling for Addie, trying to hold back on the tormenting her, telling her he loves her only to have it thrown back in his face. Given that he’s the devil, the darkness, one of the malevolent old gods, it can’t come as a surprise that he’d want to twist the knife with a Henry shaped trap.

I’ve seen reviews which didn’t buy the Henry/Addie love story but I completely did. Because there are so many different types of love and I think that Addie’s love for Henry is much more about herself than him. It’s less a selfless love, than a need he fulfils. There’s obviously the physical attraction – at first she thinks he’s Luc who has based his own appearance on Addie’s ideal man, and joked about how many of her lovers look like him, she has a type, but also there’s the other needs that he fulfils. He’s the first person who can remember her in three hundred years, he can say her name, he can write her story and she goes for men and women who can leave a mark for her, and this one isn’t allusions in a song, freckles in a painting but her story explicitly spelled out on paper. He also reminds her so much of herself before she was cursed, the fear of time running out, of never being able to do enough, that speaks to her. She relishes his company, the experienced of being remembered, of building a story together…. But I would argue that in the story V.E. Schwab has written, it doesn’t really matter if Addie LaRue loves Henry Strauss, she certainly isn’t sure, even before she realises the full nature of his curse, whether she loves him. She wants to, but she doesn’t wholly believe that she does.

“And then he whispers three words into her hair. “I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing. If it is meant to be this soft, this kind. The difference between heat, and warmth. Passion, and contentment. “I love you too,” she says. She wants it to be true.”

To some extent, Addie realises that her love for Henry is like Luc’s love for Addie – they are in love with the only person who knows them. She as much as acknowledges this to herself as she and Henry drive away for the time away by themselves as he runs out of time and Henry asks her if she would have made the same deal again, when she weights up what she’s gained and what she’s lost “She fell in love with the darkness many times, fell in love with a human once.”

So for me, how sincerely we believe in Addie and Henry’s love, the type of love, the depth of it is irrelevant, because to all intents and purposes, the whole relationship is another part of the twisted game that Addie and Luc are playing with each other, with shades of Cathy and Heathcliff, how much can you hurt the person you know you really love? Luc has deliberately set Henry’s curse in motion for him to stumble into the path of Addie, remember her, and for their relationship to grow with the full intention of his big reveal to Addie that surprise, I was always behind it in the dark, twisting the knife, looking for a new way to break you. But for centuries, Addie has revelled in the game of finding the cracks in the curse, of beating Luc at his own game, leaving her mark despite him, to spite him. Henry’s just another extension of this and becomes her trump card in the game she’s been playing against Luc. By apparently submitting to Luc, to free Henry from his curse, she’s setting an example of how she wants Luc to love her by taking her soul out of the deal, and because he believes that she’s chosen him and he’s won he agrees. But by doing this, this allows Henry to survive long enough to publish her story, her name everywhere. A strike against Luc that he doesn’t seem to even be angry about. But then we realise that all of this served a bigger purpose, not only is Addie’s soul now off the table, but the revised deal has provided her with the prospect of the freedom that she’s always truly craved – the terms are now that she will stay by his side as long as he wants her there, and she’s willing to play the twisted love game long term, because never underestimate the hold of a toxic relationship when both parties are determined to win.

“Perhaps it will take twenty years. Perhaps it will take a hundred. But he is not capable of love, and she will prove it. She will ruin him. Ruin his idea of them. She will break his heart, and he will come to hate her once again. She will drive him mad, drive him away. And then, he will cast her off. And she will finally be free.”

So yes, sympathy for the devil, poor Luc has no idea of the hell Addie has in store for him.

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon – a review with some theories

“It is a beautiful mask, but all masks fall. In the end.”

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

Such were the joys of home schooling and working around the children that I didn’t realise that the fourth book in Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season series The Mask Falling  had published until two months after the release date even though I had been counting down to the release date.

It felt as though I had been waiting for the fourth book forever though it’s all relative, cough cough, Patrick Rothfuss . I’d managed to feed my series addiction with forays into Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season spin off novellas The Pale Dreamer (really good, a pacey and exciting prequel to the series) and The Dawn Chorus (which bridges the events of novels three and four) in the summer but I was looking forward to getting my teeth into what happened to Paige Mahoney after she’d escaped the clutches of Scion in London and headed off to Scion Paris with the enigmatic Arcturus Mesarthim.

I found The Mask Falling quite different to the others in the series, as the first section had a slower build and concentrated quite closely on the relationship between Paige and Arcturus as she was stripped of her usual affiliations and networks in Scion Paris, which I’m sure will be welcome to many but at the same time, albeit necessarily, retrod some ground covered in The Dawn Chorus. The pace builds though, and it isn’t long before Paige is running around Scion Paris, exploring catacombs and subterranean cities, not to mention infiltrating the heart of Scion Paris and running into old friends and acquaintances along the way.

I felt at times as though The Mask Falling lacked the full punch of other books in the series – it had the slightly stretched feel of the classic middle novel in a series that has to fit just so much in that the final books will depend on – but for all that it was a really enjoyable read and I’m now frustratedly wondering when the fifth book will be released because what the hell sort of a cliffhanger was that to end on?! I suspect that the follow up novels will reveal the importance of lots of tiny details from this book.

If you haven’t read the first novel in the series but are interested, you can read my review here.

Spoiler section below for anyone else who has read it and wants to know what I was left wondering about….

Spoilers, Theories and Questions about The Mask Falling

Okay, so we’re into bears now. Paige Mahoney, Cade Fitzours and Emma Orson… the dreamwalkers all have Bear names, and Arcturus apparently means guardian of the bear. Fitz means son, and there’s also the suggestion that Orson is son of the bear…. so are they all descended from a common relative? Is that why the Poltergeist in Senshield (presumably also a dreamwalker since Nashira needs Paige to make Senshield work) marks Paige as kin? And if it’s not too much of a leap, is Arcturus the guardian of the bears because he fought in support of the Mothallath and has never had an issue with the concept of “flesh treachery” guarding the ancestors of a Reph/Human hybrid that has resulted as the result of the previous contact between humans and rephs that caused the waning of the veils? Is that otherness part of what makes Paige’s father call her a changling under torture?

Speaking of her father, what had he left her in his will? Sounds like a possible future plot point.

Paige gets to meet one of Arcturus’ exes when she meets the chained Kornephoros in the basement, and it’s surprising that he lets her go and doesn’t harm her, after she failed to keep her promise and free him. Which makes me wonder which oath is more pressing to him than getting his revenge on Paige? And who let him go? Cade would be the most obvious, but why wouldn’t he have had his head ripped off as promised? Though Cade has presumably been in Arcturus’ head at this point… what happened when he was in his Dreamscape?

Cade/David’s allegiances are still unclear. Why does he attack Paige? Because she’s realised he’s a dreamwalker? If he wanted her gone it would have been easier to get rid of her by in other ways surely, and then why chain her up. He seems to be working with Nashira but didn’t sell Paige out in the first novel, or deliver her to Nashira in this one. And when Paige attacks the Rephs while Arcturus is possessed, she says something along the lines of she called to the aether and something answered. At the same time, she seems Arcturus return to his eyes – did Cade leave Arcturus to help fight off the Rephs? All kinds of confusion around his true intentions.

And speaking about confusing people. Dearie Lord, Jaxon, what to make of you…. An interesting twist in their relationship as it seems that Jaxon is now trying to impress Paige in the ways she used to try and impress him.

And who is Cordier working for? She’s basically saved Paige’s life, but is painted as likely the person who sold out Paige and Arcturus…. And now she’s rocking up in a war zone to chloroform Paige when she was nearby and vulnerable to the Rephs if any had survived the bomb falling.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Arcturus is still alive. Provided the Rephs can take aura and aren’t touched by the red poppies when injured, they seem to recover pretty well from most things…. And was it just me or did he seem to know that the bomb was going to be dropped?

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

“Science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.”

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

In 1883, civil servant Thaniel Steepleton returns to his depressing flat in a grey boarding house to find that it has been broken into. Nothing has been taken but his dishes have been washed and put away, and a beautiful but apparently broken gold pocket watch has been left on his bed. A short while later, that same pocket watch saves Thaniel’s life during a Clan na Gael terrorist bombing, but makes him a suspect for the policeman who sees how it forewarns him of the blast. Desperate to prove his innocence, he goes in search of the maker, and soon finds himself drawn into an adventure he could never have imagined.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is the first novel of Natasha Pulley, though I actually came to it having read her second novel, The Bedlam Stacks which isn’t a sequel as such to the series though it does operate within the same universe and features the character Keita Mori at an early stage of his life. The books can be read out of sequence, and the second was enough to bump the first right to the top of my to read list.

I find Natasha Pulley’s writing to be a bit like stepping into a warm bath. It engulfs you and is instantly comforting, her style is so fluid and natural, there’s no hesitance in suspending belief. As soon as you begin reading you are in the old broom cupboard at the home office, with the smell of tea and cleaning salts. The whole novel has vast sensory appeal, drawing you in even further to the world of Lipton tea, cream cakes, lemon soap and whirring machinery.

Part of this is Pulley’s clever characterisation as well. Thaniel experiences synaesthesia and sees sound, which not only enhances your experience of his world, but invites you to see the exceptionalism in a character who sees his existence as wholly ordinary and who has, out of a sense of obligation and decency, given up his dream of being a pianist and settled for a life whose pleasures amount to being able to afford ten candles and two baths a week.

There is a deceptive gentleness to the novel, both the watchmaker Keita Mori with his kind eccentricity, tinkering away in his workshop making fascinating steampunk creations; and scientist Grace Carrow, desperately seeking to prove her theory of the luminiferous ether to buy her independence from her overbearing parents seem, on the whole as characters that we can sympathise with. But when Thaniel finds himself caught emotionally between the opposing geniuses, who both wish to be the center of his world, we become shocked at what each might be prepared to do in order to secure the future that they hope for.

I admire any novel which managed to include a clockwork octopus with a penchant for stealing socks and shiny things as a character without wandering into the ridiculous, but The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is such a joyful mixture of steampunk, magic realism, thriller and historic adventure that I’d recommend it to anyone. I’ve already bought two copies to give as Christmas presents and I haven’t ruled out buying more.

And if you do know of a clockwork octopus of that nature, ideally answering to the name Katsu, please send it my way. My sock drawer is warm and welcoming.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street spoilers section

Some of my thoughts on how the ending explains the character of the watchmaker

Pulley successfully raised my hackles against Grace Carrow when she had her declare that women shouldn’t have the vote, considering herself a typical to most women and feeling that her sex generally weren’t capable of thinking rationally, preferring to focus on politician’s sideburns instead… but in some ways, you do have to wonder if she has a point about Keita Mori’s ability to see possible futures and nudge events to ensure a certain outcome. A person who could do that could be incredibly dangerous and would be able to control you without you really realising. And the novel provides numerous examples of Mori doing just that, slightly manipulating events to save his friend Ito, or chillingly failing to act but making sure that he was in position to witness his cousin dying in a wall collapse, an event that we know he could have predicted.

But Grace is controlling herself. We see her lie frequently to ensure that Thaniel does what she wants him to do, or to hide the truth from him when she has deliberately acted in a way that she knows will hurt him. She extends the offer of a marriage of convenience to solve both of their problems, but then changes the terms of this to want a full marriage when she sees that Mori will make it difficult to control Thaniel. She also frequently underestimates Thaniel, which she acknowledges is because she has seen him as being her intellectual inferior. She is ruthless and will go to horrendous lengths to get her own way, which doesn’t make her a reliable judge of character when she gives an opinion intended to sway Thaniel to her way of thinking.

If we are to take Mori at his word, he finds Thaniel hard to anticipate because he is indecisive, which would clearly be a character trait which would appeal to a man who can instantly and clearly see all possible futures the second they become possible. This is why he has chosen to make himself a pet octopus which is robotic and controlled by random gears rather than get the puppy that Ito suggests. He wants something in his life which is beyond the sphere of his control.

I think that Mori flipping the train bolt in the air for Grace Carrow to see after Akira Matsumoto has returned to see Thaniel receive his award for bravery is something of an olive branch, as well as making good on his threat to wreck a train earlier in the novel. By wrecking the train that Akira Matsumoto has caught so that it will break down in time for him to see the newspaper cover about Thaniel, it allows Matsumoto to return to Grace and gives them an opportunity to confess the feelings for one another that they have clearly been unable to admit all through the novel. Yes, his ability to sail the tides of chance is sinister, but he’s used it to effect a happy ending for someone who has been his rival.

 

 

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, a review

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.

I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.

The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.

Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.

In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.

I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.

The Phantom Tree Blog Tour FINAL

 

 

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

“The Bloodwitch named Aeduan was no longer bored. No longer bored at all. And now he had work to do.”
 Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten my teeth into a decent fantasy novel. I’ve mostly been reading other genres, checking Patrick Rothfuss’ blog to see if he has any intention of ever finishing The Kingkiller Chronicles, deciding he hasn’t, then reading other genres. That’s the problem with fantasy series, unless the series has been completed before you begin reading (thank you Tolkein, Lewis et al) you can end up committing to a series and waiting a decade* to read the next flipping installment. By which time you’ve forgotten all the minutiae of the author’s world building and the theories you’ve woven around them.

Despite this, I received a copy of Truthwitch, the first book in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series in my Illumicrate a few months ago and since I was clearing my bookshelves out, I thought I might as well give it a go. Now I’m back at square one and waiting until 2017 for the next book in the series to come out.

By the end of the opening sentence of Truthwitch, threadsisters Safi and Iseult are already in trouble. The kind of trouble that involves holding up the wrong carriage, telling the wrong lie and becoming the main obsession of a Bloodwitch trained as an elite fighter Carawen Monk who knows that you’re a heretic Truthwitch and wants to sell you to the highest bidder… and from there, things only get worse for the threadsisters and more exciting from the reader. Well-paced, packed with interesting characters, dripping with tantalizing titbits of in novel mythology and set in a world poised on the brink of war, Truthwitch really whets your appetite for the rest of the series.

The thing I really liked about this book was the description of the witcheries. Truthwitches, Firewitches, Waterwitches, Earthwitches, Cursewitches, Threadwitches, Glamourers, Wordwitches and more, each with their own abilities and weaknesses. If you’ve ever liked that game where you consider what superpower you’d choose if you could, then you’ll probably like speculating on which witchery you would like best. Threadwitchery sounds like a pretty interesting one to me, in many ways more useful than Truthwitchery which would do you a lot more harm than good in Safi’s world if you couldn’t fight as well.

Some readers might be put off by the fact that this book has been a bestseller in children’s book lists (I’m never sure why this does put people off, but hey ho). What I would say is that this didn’t strike me as a children’s novel at all. Apart from some pretty explicit violence and injuries, there are some quite steamy sections. I’m not sure who it was said that dancing is a vertical representation of a horizontal desire, but the Truthwitch Safi and Merik dance scene illustrates this perfectly. I look forward to seeing the Nubrevnan four-step on the next series of Strictly…

My current series predictions: Without naming names, because spoilers, Good will naturally triumph in the end, though not without some major character losses along the way. One character who seems evil now will turn out to be good at heart (with possibly a sibling relationship?), and there will be some real shadiness among background characters who’ve seemed benign.

*It’s okay, Patrick. I know it’s only been five years. Just know that I’m watching you from the shadows of the internet…

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

A review of Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, aka Outlander number 3, in which I visit the Outlander series once more, with spoilers.

And now that little disclaimer is out of the way…

I’ve decided that if you’re going to buy into the love story of Jamie and Claire beyond book one in the series then you have to do so with total moral ambivalence. They are a pair of absolute wrecking balls, so focused on themselves and each other that they trample on the lives of everyone around them, especially those closest to them, with barely a backward glance.

Jamie wakes up lying on the battlefield after Culloden, Jack Randall’s head on his thigh. Well of course he does, sometimes the love stories with sudden, tragic endings are the most compelling, but it wouldn’t be much of a reunion with Claire if he expired in the opening pages. More interesting from my point of view was how Jack Randall’s corpse came to be lying on Jamie- did Jamie finally take his revenge or did Jack Randall save Jamie on the battlefield, thus throwing in yet another example of the Outlander series perpetrating the myth that sexual violence has anything to do with love? Well, finishing off this paragraph of spoilers with another spoiler… reader, you won’t find out in this novel. But I daresay it will come up again later in the series.

It looks as though he’s going to be executed, but his life is spared by the brother of John William Grey, the young soldier who tried to rescue Claire from the rapacious Scot in Dragonfly in Amber. From there we have a whistle stop tour of Jamie’s last twenty years without Claire, with such highlights as seven years in a cave, a spell in prison, fathering a child in a sex scene with a seventeen year old girl called Geneva which raises even more question marks about the sexual politics of the series, before heading back to Scotland with a pardon to take up a career in sedition and smuggling. Oh, and marrying Laoghaire. Remember her? The one who tried to get his one true love burned as a witch? Yeah, he married her.

So when Claire arrives back in the 18th century, after a few cursory glances into her last twenty years for good measure (which knock Frank of his pedestal and bring out the Randall genes, in case anyone had been left feeling sorry for him…) she’s roughly the same age as Jamie again, removing our prospect of a January/May romance and allowing her to favourably compare her appearance with that of every woman she comes across. And she used to be such a strong character.

It isn’t long before the cat is set among the pigeons by Laoghaire (Jamie’s second wife) catching him in bed with his first wife and taking a gun to him. Fair enough really. And it explains why Mr Willoughby, Jamie’s pet Chinaman (yes, he’s taken in a Chinese man that he found at the docks, adopted a paternalistic attitude towards him and given him a pet name… let’s not start with the imperialist, race relations connotations of this) keeps calling Claire honoured first wife.

Aaaanyway. To buy himself out of marriage with Laoghaire, Jamie needs to sell some treasure that he’s found and left in the middle of the ocean on at LEAST three separate occasions, meaning that his young nephews have to risk their lives to retrieve it when the family needs money every now and again. Why wouldn’t you just keep it hidden in the priest hole or his cave? This time, when his youngest nephew tries getting some treasure to buy off the lady scorned, he finds himself kidnapped by pirates meaning that Jamie, Claire and Fergus (with his fifteen year old wife) have to chase him around the globe to get him back.

I found this to be the weakest book in the series so far. A bit like the last novels of the Hunger Games, it feels a little like this was planned and written after the success of the initial novel so the plotting isn’t as considered as that of a novel which was conceived as a part of a series (like the Harry Potter books). Although the novels do refer to one another, it feels as though Jamie and Claire are now causing a lot of the problems they find themselves caught up in rather than finding themselves the pawns of fate. The reappearance of Gellis Duncan was problematic for me as well, and the whole forensic anthropologist moment with the skull at the start of the novel was just trite.

The Drums of Autumn is the next book in the series, which apparently will see Jamie and Claire’s abandoned daughter travel back in time to save her parents’ happiness. Looking at the dates and location I can only presume that the wrecking balls are instrumental in starting the American War of Independence… I think I’ll be taking a break before reading it.