Review: A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.

With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

A Dowry of Blood is the sapphic, polyam Dracula retelling I didn’t know I needed until I saw the synopsis. And thankfully, it lived it up to the premise. This is a relatively short book, at about 250 pages, but it packs a hefty punch.

The main character, Constanta, is a Romanian peasant girl who is transformed into a vampire as she lies dying, her entire family victims of war. Constanta’s story is told as a letter to the unnamed Dracula, as she recounts her transformation from wide-eyed young woman to a wife trapped in an abusive marriage that lasts centuries. When two new ‘brides’ are brought into the mix – sharp Magdelena and fiery Alexi – Constanta realises the extent of her husband’s manipulation and begins to find the courage to break free.

It takes a little getting used to, but the decision to deliberately not name the villain (even if we all know who he’s meant to represent) is so powerful: in both fiction and real life, the names and stories of perpetrators are shared and remembered, while their victims become nameless, faceless women with no agency except to further myths and legends. (A great recent read on this topic was the The Five by Hallie Rubenfold, which aims to share the stories of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper). I am privileged enough not to have personal experience in this area, but I will also say the depictions of gaslighting and emotional abuse resonated very clearly: you can see the villain expertly pulling Constanta’s puppet-strings – and Magdalena’s, and Alexi’s – but you could also understand and empathise with why the characters might decide to stay.

As for the rest of this book, the writing is frankly gorgeous. It’s vivid, poetic and lush, and perfectly captures the sensual, Gothic feel of the original Dracula without ever becoming overly florid or self-indulgent. I definitely found myself stopping to re-read sentences to take in the imagery. The character work is also excellent. In the space of a short book, Gibson fleshes out Constanta’s relationship with her husband, her burgeoning relationships with Constanta and Alexi (both together and separately) and their relationships with each other. Each of these relationships feels distinct and directly related to the desires and fears of the individual characters, and it is so satisfying to see Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi each forging their own path towards the end.

There isn’t a lot of world-building – this book spans about six centuries, from 1300s Romania to 1900s Petrograd and Paris (and a sojourn in medieval Vienna, my favourite location in the story) but the sense of time passing is fairly superficial. That didn’t impact my personal enjoyment of the story – this is deliberately written as a close-knit tale rather than a sweeping epic – but if you expect deep historical insights from this novel you might be disappointed.

After this book, I’m keen to check out Gibson’s shorter work, and can only hope she comes out with another full length novel in the future.

Note: I received an ARC from Nyx Publishing. A Dowry of Blood was published on 31 January 2021.

Review: Daughter of the Salt King by A.S. Thornton

As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: 2.5/5

Review

Daughter of the Salt King is a desert fantasy, about a girl who falls in love with a jinni with the power to grant wishes. I really enjoyed this book at the beginning, but ultimately found myself wishing for a book that actually lived up to its feminist promise.

To start with, I think Thornton is a solid writer with a knack for description: this book evokes a sense of the great, endless desert stretching far out onto the horizon, as well as the suffocating nature of the palace where the main character, Emel, resides. I really love settings of this type, so if you’re looking for something other than the typical medieval fantasy, I would typically recommend this book.

However; the actual world-building that sits under the prose felt lazy, due to a heavy reliance on tropes. This is a fantasy novel set in a desert, so of course the king is a cruel despot with a harem of wives, the daughters are routinely forced to provide sexual pleasure to sleazy old men, and the only gay couple in the books could be put to death if they’re caught. I don’t mind stories that explore sexism and homophobia through the lens of a made-up world, but this book didn’t really shed any light on these issues. Frankly, I’m tired of reading books where women’s (lack of) rights to bodily autonomy are an accepted part of the setting, without no or limited critique.

My issues in this regard extend to Emel’s character. When we first meet Emel, she is trapped in the palace with twenty-six other sisters, and her only hope of escape is to be married off to one of the rich and powerful men from the neighbouring lands who come to court them. Emel is desperate to escape the confines of the palace and see more of the outside world, but she also defines her entire self-worth in relation to men – her desire to please her father, and her terror at potentially being thrown on the scrap-heap and deemed worthless if she doesn’t secure a husband soon. The djinni, Saalim, offers her a chance at a better life, but soon all Emel’s wishes are bound up with him – another man, even if this one isn’t quite human. By the end of the book, Emel’s desire to leave the palace simply to adventure becomes almost a secondary goal. There simply isn’t a lot of character growth; Emel’s sister Sabra, and her friend Firoz have much more interesting character arcs that we barely get to see.

For what it’s worth, I did enjoy the romance – Thornton captures the sheer overwhelmingness of falling in love well, and Saalim’s backstory is slowly unfurled throughout the book, allowing him to maintain an air of tantalising mystery. Saalim’s story is also intrinsically linked to the desert setting, which helped bring the world to life. I just wish more time had been dedicated to developing Emel’s character and poking holes in the sexist world she lived in.

Note: I received an ARC from CamCat Books. Daughter of the Salt King was released on 2 February 2021.

Review: The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

Rating: 4/5

Review

The Councillor is a Machiavellian inspired fantasy set in the fictional kingdom of Elira. Well, sort of. There’s a definite Renaissance-influence in the world-building, with a series of city-states all banding together against those that surround them. (Oh, and they produce a lot of wine, and olives). The main character, Lysande Prior, also shares a lot of her history with Niccolo Machiavelli himself: both serve roles as political understudies and advisors, both write treatises on the subject of power, and both are shrewd, cunning and intelligent.

But where Machiavelli was known for the ruthless that gave Machiavellian political philosophy his name, Lysande is a much more likeable character, concerned about the welfare of her community and her friends, and willing to put her smarts to good use to protect them. The result is a compelling character arc.

I should note here that Lysande is also an interesting character because she’s unlike so many others we see in fantasy. She’s mildly addicted to a drug that has effects not unlike cocaine (so I’m told), and she has a strong sense of sexual desire, even about those she intellectually knows it’s not a good idea to get involved with. None of this is ever justified or excused, it’s just a part of who Lysande is – and we get to see how she grapples with the consequences. I don’t enjoy reading about drug addiction as a general rule, but I did appreciate that this book is more in line with actual drug use in society (i.e. high functioning individuals you’d never expect) and that we weren’t treated to a sermon or a pity party about it. This is also a good place to note that Lysande is bisexual (and there are flashbacks to a past f/f relationship) and it’s entirely unremarkable.

As for the plot, don’t expect too many battle scenes or clashing armies (though there are a few). The battle for Elira is mostly one of wits. Lysande is a scholar at heart, and we see her puzzle her way through events, calculatingly cultivate alliances, and rethink everything she thought she knew about former Queen Sarelin. A lot of this book is spent second-guessing the motives of the city-state leaders Lysande is ostensibly meant to choose between. It’s compelling stuff, and I love seeing a quieter, more intellectually focused fantasy that shows off a different set of character traits and exudes a different kind of intensity and energy.

I did have a few small issues. The pacing was a little slow in the middle (not helped by the giant chapters, with nowhere good to take a break). I also thought some of the big reveals about the villain and the true extent of magic in this society came a little late given this is a standalone novel: the last hundred pages were riveting, but they also had to do a lot of work to wrap up all the plot threads and create a compelling rationale for what had come before, and it didn’t always pull it off. I haven’t seen any news of a sequel, but I really hope there is one, since I think this world is ripe for a follow up that revisits some of the characters from this book and maybe gives us a glimpse into some of the other city-states we spent less time in.

This was an excellent debut. As I said, I’m really hopeful we’ll see something else set in this world, but if not, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Beaton writes next.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW Books in exchange for a review. The Councillor will be released on 2 March 2021.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Widow Queen by Elżbieta Cherezińska

This week I’m waiting on The Widow Queen by Elżbieta Cherezińska (translated by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim)

The bold one, they call her—too bold for most.

To her father, the great duke of Poland, Swietoslawa and her two sisters represent three chances for an alliance. Three marriages on which to build his empire.

But Swietoslawa refuses to be simply a pawn in her father’s schemes; she seeks a throne of her own, with no husband by her side.

The gods may grant her wish, but crowns sit heavy, and power is a sword that cuts both ways.

This isn’t really a new book I guess (given its status as a translation), but I’m keen to learn something about Polish history via fantasy (my knowledge is very limited, so it won’t take much). Plus women defying marriage is a trope I always love.

The Widow Queen will be released on 6 April 2021 by Tor.

Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I should preface this review by saying that, in some aspects, my feelings about this book are essentially ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. I’m not the biggest fan of experimental prose, and if I’d known that I might have thought twice about requesting an ARC that doesn’t involve standard punctuation and sentence structure. I’m also a little confused about the decision to market this book as ‘magical realism’: while the genre should invoke a sense of fuzziness about whether something is “real” or supernatural, this book never really raised that question for me. The speculative elements were a very minor part of the story to the point it almost could have been told without them, and it felt clear to me that they were really just a manifestation of Firuzeh’s imagination and a way for her to process her trauma and grief.

Having said that, this book tells an important story about the heartbreaking treatment of refugees in Australia, and the horrifying consequences of those decisions. It really emphasises the sheer impersonalness of the system: the endless waiting on paperwork, the seemingly arbitary nature of the decisions, the way Firuzeh’s family are constantly required to defend their need for the basic human right of safefy. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors that have occurred on Nauru. And it also nails the symbotic relationship between policy and community attitudes – Firuzeh’s family experience racism every day in Australia from those who support Australia’s tough stance on refugees, which then enables the policy to be continued with little opposition.

But the abstract style meant I never connected with the characters or their journey in the way I would have liked. I couldn’t get a good read in Firuzeh as a person, how old she and her peers were meant to be (do ten year olds routinely wag school and use the ‘c word’ these days?) or what her dreams were for her better life. I also didn’t really appreciate the random interludes to tell us the stories of some of the other side characters (such as Nasima’s brothers, or Grace, the family’s English tutor); the stories themselves had potential, but our glimpses of these characters’ lives were too fleeting to really capture the true diversity of the refugee experience and distracted from Firuzeh’s story.

I still recommend reading this book to get a better understanding of Australia’s refugee policy and to prompt further discussions about the current approach, even if the storytelling itself didn’t live up to my (admittedly lofty) expectations.

Note: I received an ARC from Erewhon in exchange for a review. On Fragile Waves will be released on 2 February.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Sistersong by Lucy Hounsom

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on Sistersong by Lucy Hounsom.

535 AD. In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, King Cador’s children inherit a fragmented land abandoned by the Romans.

Riva, scarred in a terrible fire, fears she will never heal.
Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, when born a daughter.
And Sinne, the spoiled youngest girl, yearns for romance.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold – a last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. But change comes on the day ash falls from the sky, bringing Myrddhin, meddler and magician, and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the siblings apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne must take fate into their own hands, or risk being tangled in a story they could never have imagined; one of treachery, love and ultimately, murder. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.

(Very) early Middle Ages? Check. Feminism and sisterhood without gender essentialism? Check. Perfect for fans of Madeline Miller? Check. I also love the cover and can’t wait to see this book on shelves.

Sistersong will be released on 13 April 2021 by Macmillan.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Sequels edition

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine & Namesake by Adrienne Young.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found

I’ve been reading R.J. Barker’s Call of the Bone Ships (which is so far incredible), and it reminded me how many other great books are awaiting sequels in 2021. A Memory Called Empire was a well-deserved Hugo winner and one of my favourite books of 2020, and I can’t wait to see what potentially empire-shattering trouble Merit and Three Seagrass find themselves experiencing in the sequel. (I luckily have an ARC, so shouldn’t have to wait much longer). Meanwhile, Fable was one of the best YA fantasy books I read in 2020 (and had one of the best covers): it slipped under my end of year roundup radar due to all the amazing adult SFF I read, but this rollocking pirate adventure is well worth a read.

A Desolation Called Peace will be released on 2 March 2021 by Tor Books. Namesake will be released on 16 March 2021 by Wednesday Books.

Review: Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long

Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveller, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Hall of Smoke is a Viking-inspired fantasy, where the Gods are real.

I admittedly haven’t read a lot of Viking literature, but this book feels like a fresh take on the genre for a first reasons. Firstly, while I wouldn’t necessarily call this a ‘feminist’ story, it’s nice to read a take on pre-medieval societies featuring a well-rounded female MC, who has a wide array of hopes, dreams and fears unrelated to her gender. In Eang, men and women are equal out of necessity (in a case of all hands on deck), and Hessa is both a religious acolyte, part of the mysterious Eangi priesthood, as well as a skilled fighter. Additionally, while Hessa receives help from many men on her journey, she also proves herself their equal – and there are rarely, if ever, romantic undertones in their meetings.

Secondly, I really enjoyed Long’s take on the gods of Hessa’s world. This book does some really deft things with the various gods and the concept of religion more generally: the Gods are real, but who the true gods are and how they should be worshipped is a matter of cultural perspective. Hessa is devoted to Eang, but when the Goddess fails to answer her calls for help, she starts to question exactly who it is she serves. The Gods themselves are also all very different in personality; some are tricksters, some are violent; others just want to go home and forget about human concerns. It genuinely does feel like a pantheon of gods, reminiscent of the Vikings and other cultures like the Greeks.

As for the rest of the story: the quality of the prose is excellent, and really evokes an otherworldly feel. This is a world similar to our history, but also a world full of mysteries Hessa is only just being to understand. However, the plot – my main issue with this book – is painfully slow-moving at points. Much of the middle of this book is Hessa simply moving from one village to another, and replaying the same crises of faith in her mind, and it gets a little repetitive. I also didn’t get a good sense of the other human characters in this book. Much of Hessa’s journey is about revenge and justice for her family, and to protect those she loves who are still in hiding, but the problem is that we simply don’t know enough about these characters to really feel the depths of Hessa’s motivations or love for them. However, the action does build nicely at the end, and I was satisfied with the payoff; always a good sign for a standalone book.

Overall, Hall of Smoke hits a lot of the same beats as other epic fantasy novels, but also contains enough to differentiate it from the crowd. I’m looking forward to seeing what Long writes next.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books in exchange for a review. Hall of Smoke will be released on 19 January 2021.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird.

Welcome to The Emporium of Imagination, a most unusual shop that travels the world offering vintage gifts to repair broken dreams and extraordinary phones to contact lost loved ones.

But, on arrival in the tiny township of Boonah, the store’s long-time custodian, Earlatidge Hubert Umbray, makes a shocking realisation. He is dying…

The clock is now ticking to find his replacement, because the people of Boonah are clearly in need of some restorative magic.

Like Enoch Rayne – a heartbroken ten-year-old boy mourning the loss of his father, while nurturing a guilty secret.

Like Ann Harlow, who has come to the town to be close to her dying grandmother. Though it’s Enoch’s father who dominates her thoughts – and regrets . . .

Even Earlatidge in his final days will experience the store as never before – and have the chance to face up to his own tragedy . . .

I loved Bird’s 2020 debut, A Lifetime of Impossible Days, a hard-hitting magical realism novel about the intergenerational impacts of abuse, and I have no doubt her sophomore novel will be as beautiful, and as heartbreaking.

The Emporium of Imagination will be released on 30 March 2021 by Penguin Random House Australia.

Round-up Post: Top 10 of 2020

2020 has been… a year (we all know it, yet we all also feel obligated to say it). A devastating bushfire season and global pandemic aside, I figured out some things about myself personally (bringing some much needed clarity), strengthened some friendships even during lockdown, and was also lucky enough to have several exciting opportunities professionally. I launched a book blog (this one!). Oh, and I worked from home for more than six months without enacting any brutal revenge fantasies on my noisy neighbours.

I also got in a lot of extra reading time at home, as well as several extra audiobooks on those long evening walks around the neighbourhood while the gym was closed.

Without further ado, my top 10 SFF reads for 2020 (in the order I read them because I’m on holidays and this post has taken long enough without the stress of ranking them).

  1. The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker | 13-16 Feb | A update on the old-school nautical genre, with unique world-building and characters that slowly grow on you. I can’t wait to see where things go in the sequels.
  2. The Girl in the Tower / The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden | April | This series feels exactly like someone telling you a story in front of the fireplace. Gorgeous prose with a spirited heroine (and an adorable horse).
  3. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune | 14 June | Reading this book is like floating in a cloud made of marshmallows, except there’s also a biting critique of bureaucracy.
  4. The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty | Feb-Aug | An immerse, expansive Arabic fantasy world, with characters you love and hate at the same time and complicated family politics (to say the least).
  5. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine | 31 Aug-2 Sep | A incredibly clever sci-fi novel with a lot to say about colonialism and the power of language, along with a sweet f/f romance (I adored Three Seagrass). A well-deserved Hugo winner.
  6. Blackbirds Sing by Aiki Flinthart | 22-27 Oct | A beautifully written collection of short stories, showcasing the diversity of women’s experiences in medieval England. Also one of the best audio performances of the year, bringing life to twenty-five (!!) different narrators.
  7. Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke | 8-9 Nov | Incredibly intricate plotting and world-building, as well as a nuanced portrayal of mental illness and invisible disabilities. Also features one of my favourite sibling relationships in fantasy, and
  8. The Philosophers series by Tom Miller | Oct-Dec | A well-thought out World War I fantasy novel with well-rounded characters and a unique, witty take on the magic school genre. Also one of the best uses of an author’s professional career I’ve seen (Miller is a former ER doctor writing about a team of flying paramedics).
  9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke | 3-4 Dec | The best kind of mind-fuck, with one of the kindest portrayals of a damaged soul I’ve seen. The less you know going into this one, the better.
  10. Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan | 18-19 Dec | Nuanced discussions of racism and sexism in science. The epistolary format is used to great effect to develop distinctive, well-rounded characters.

Goals for 2021

Firstly, to get through the large pile of ARCs I’ve accumulated (happily!) that are all scheduled for release in the first half of 2021. Secondly, to start making my way through the teetering pile of books I own but haven’t read yet. Beyond that, who knows… but if some of the books I read in 2021 are as good as this top 10 then I’ll be satisfied.