Top Ten Tuesday: 2021 Releases I Didn’t Get To

This year, I’ll be participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by thatartsyreadergirl.

This week’s theme is 2021 releases you didn’t get to. There are a lot; one of the perils of loving books is simply coming to terms with the fact that you will never get to read all the good books out there. But here are ten I am pretty determined to read.

  1. Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
    The House in the Cerulean Sea was maybe my favourite book of 2020, but unfortunately Klune’s new book was a victim of 2021’s supply chain delays. Thankfully it’s made it here now, so hopefully I should get to it early in 2022.
  2. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
    This was a victim of the fact that there’s so many books, so little time… but I’ve heard so much about Touraine’s arms that I almost feel like I’ve read it, already.
  3. The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
    The premise of this book is right up my alley, and Ava Reid seems like a genuinely lovely author, so I’m very excited to get to it.
  4. Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
    This one dropped at the end of the year, but I’ve heard nothing but good things from everyone who’s read it so far.
  5. A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
    I love Harrow’s prose so I know I’ll love this one; unfortunately, the wait list at my library is ginormous and novella prices are insane. Hopefully 2022 comes through for me.
  6. The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse
    This wasn’t originally on my radar so I didn’t prioritise it; but everything I’ve heard since then makes me think I really should.
  7. The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
    I really don’t have any excuses to get to this one – but I’m determined to get it before the sequel. Everything about it sounds right up my alley.
  8. This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron
    I don’t read as much YA now, but this sounds incredible. And how gorgeous is that cover?
  9. Malice by Heather Walter
    This one is a deliberate inclusion – someone told me it ends on a cliffhanger, so I’m going to binge the entire duology at once. Also, yes, there are two queer Sleeping Beauty retellings I missed out on in 2021.
  10. The Velocity of Revolution by Ryan Marshall Maresca
    This is another one where I ran into access issues – seriously, how hard is to buy a reasonably priced paperback – but I will continue to cross my fingers for 2022. I love steampunk, I love (fictional) revolutions.

Let’s see how many of these I get to this time around. And as a result, how many of my 2022 most anticipated end up in a similar post in January 2023…

Review: The Magic Between by Stephanie Hoyt

In a world where everyone has magic coursing through them, legend says magic itself craves a mate. Legend says those with opposite magics have the greatest chance of forming the unbreakable Bond it desires.

A.B. Cerise is an obsessive compulsive pop star with the ability to turn invisible. He’s an out bisexual with absolutely no belief in Bonds. He has a love-bruised heart, thinks dating in the spotlight is a hassle at best and a nightmare at worst, and has no intention of going through it all over again.

Matthew Hellman-Levoie is the NHL’s number one goalie prospect, the youngest in a hockey dynasty, and one of the rare few who can see the unseeable. He’s a straight man who wears his heart on his sleeve, has grown up searching for a Bond, and dreams of finding the love of his life.

Legend never said anything about what to do when sparks fly between two people opposite in more ways than just magic.

Publication details: 14 February 2022, by Ninestar Press. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

This is a tough book to review, because I had a few major issues with it… but I also had a lot of fun. I definitely debated for quite some time about rounding up vs. down on Goodreads (and ultimately went up).

This book reminds me a lot of fanfic, in many ways; in that it’s very focused on the internal lives of our two main characters – A.B. and Matthew – and developing a sense of camraderie, sexual tension and eventually love between them. There’s a lot of fun inside jokes, callbacks to previous chapters, and a lot of tension. This is definitely one of those books where frankly, you’re just waiting for that moment where the characters finally get their shit together. All of which made The Magic Between very bingeable; it’s much longer than a typical fantasy romance at 428 pages, but it read very quickly.

It’s also unapologetically queer. In addition to A.B. and Matthew, most of the supporting cast is queer (it sort of feels like going around and collecting a big bisexual found family). The book is very clear that there is more than one way to be bisexual, and tackles bi-erasure as well as the challenges of coming out as bi (including when famous). That’s probably the strongest element of this book – and it’s worth recommending for that alone. There’s some good mental health rep as well; both characters are aware of their challenges and are working on them.

While I enjoyed the romance, I am primarily a fantasy blogger, and yet – the magic system in this book was actually too much. The book started with an extended info-dump about the various types of magic in the world (which I note is now being revised before publication) that was incredibly overwhelming and almost turned me off the book before I began. It’s also a bit unnecessary; this book could have trimmed the enormous magic system down to two or three key types of magic, and it wouldn’t have changed a thing about the plot, and would have saved the need for readers to keep remembering a bunch of terms and getting distracted by more info-dumps. I did also find some of the bonded soulmates stuff a little too cheesy. I love cheese, but it was hard to take a book seriously when the main characters started glowing every time they made out.

My other complaint is that the character’s professions are a big selling point of this story – and the driver of the conflict – but don’t actually seem to matter much to either of them. We’re constantly told that coming out could jeopardise Matthew’s hockey career but we’re never told why he even likes hockey or wants to pursue it beyond being the son of a famous hockey player, and there is very little about how hockey is a part of his life: when does he go to practice? how does it impact his health and fitness regime outside of training? We just don’t know. Similarly, A.B. is a pop-star who struggles with anxiety and (quite literally) being seen, so why choose a career that makes you famous? How did he get into music in the first place? Again, we just don’t know. That probably doesn’t matter to some people, but as someone who loves stories about famous people whose lives are just unfathomable to those of us less famous, it bothered me a lot.

Despite all that I did, like I said, have a lot of fun – and with everything else going on right now, that’s probably what matters most.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Additions to My Book Collection

This year, I’ll be participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by thatartsyreadergirl.

This week’s theme is (some of) the most recent additions to my book collection. Thankfully, I made it to my city’s major secondhand book charity sale just before Christmas, so there is no shortage of books for me to share for this post. That’s in addition to my regular Amazon-one-click and ARC collecting habits, of course…

  1. The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston
    This was randomly cheap in the Kindle story, and it looks like a great choice for when I’m in the mood for something just plain fun.
  2. The Ex-Hex by Erin Sterling
    Another sale that looks perfect for when I just want some fun, lighthearted romance.
  3. The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin
    This one has had some rave reviews from friends, so I couldn’t resist – I’m very excited to see what all the hype is about.
  4. Embassytown by China Melville
    The first of my book fair hauls (I won’t get to all of them in this post). I’ve been curious about this book for a while, so I had to pick it up.
  5. The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold
    Paladin of Souls was one of my favourites of 2021, and now I have no excuse not to prioritise the next in the series… and then move on to the Penric novels my friends keep encouraging me to read.
  6. Vigil by Angela Slatter
    I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from Slatter, and I used to live in Brisbane – where this book is set – so I’m excited to see what she does with the setting.
  7. Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff
    Huff is one of those authors I’ve wanted to pick up forever, so I couldn’t resist getting this cheap at the book fair. Though I’m not sold on the very 90s cover…
  8. Gilded by Marissa Meyer
    I loved The Lunar Chronicles series, so I am very excited to see what Meyer does with Rumplestiltskin.
  9. Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
    A cheap bookstore pick up. I’ve been curious about this one for a long time – and I love the macabre cover.
  10. Flint and Mirror by John Crowley
    I nabbed this one as an ARC recently. I love historical fantasy and this seems like a great opportunity to branch out… even if it is only from the UK to Ireland.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books in January – June 2022

This year, I’ll be participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by thatartsyreadergirl.

This week’s theme is most anticipated releases for the first half of 2022. A tough choice – there are so many amazing sounding books coming out this year! I’ve gone for a mix of sequels, authors I’ve loved and can’t wait to read again, and authors that are new to me.

  1. The Thousand Eyes by A.K. Larkwood – 15 February
    Larkwood’s debut, The Unspoken Name, showed a lot of promise and I’m excited to see what she does next, as well as spend more time with the snarky Csorwe and Tal.
  2. Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham – 15 February
    I’ve been hearing good things about Abraham’s epic fantasy series for years, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to jump in. I also love stories set in a single city/location.
  3. The Cartographers by Peng Shephard – 15 March
    Another one that sounds right up my alley based on the key words, since I’m a sucker for anything involving libraries or maps.
  4. Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Dodds – 22 March
    Magical heist in 1920s Seattle? Say no more.
  5. Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May – 29 March
    Two 1920s-themed books in a row says a lot about me. Post WWI is a very underused setting in fantasy and I’m very excited to see what May does with the era. Plus, it’s sapphic.
  6. Spear by Nicola Griffith – 19 April
    Griffith is another author I have been meaning to read forever, and I love Arthurian myths, so there are no more excuses.
  7. Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse – 19 April
    After the end of Black Sun, I’ve been hotly anticipating seeing what will happen next in this series – I’m curious about where Roanhorse will take us next.
  8. The Spear Cuts Through Water – Simon Jiminez – 3 May
    Another author whose debut, The Vanished Birds, showed a lot of promise and potential to grow, so I am very interested to see what he does here.
  9. Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane – 7 June
    A trans retelling of The Iliad? Yes please.
  10. A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland – 21 June
    I really enjoyed Rowland’s A Choir of Lies and have been waiting for news of their next book for a while. It also sounds like we might be getting a fantasy of manners vibe in a setting that isn’t regency England esque, which I have been wanting for a long time.

Fingers crossed I can get to all of these books in 2022!

Review: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines. Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good. But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…

Publication details: 18 January 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

One day I will read a novella and be fully satisfied with it as a novella (ok, this has happened occasionally, but it’s very rare). It’s a tricky length to get right, and while I enjoyed aspects of Servant Mage, ultimately Elliott falls into the trap that seems to catch many a novella writer – that of trying to do far too much in too few pages. The result is a novella that’s fun but ultimately under-baked.

Our main character Fellion is a fire-mage in a world where mages – those who can control aether to various ends – are routinely imprisoned and forced into indentured servitude. Fellion is freed from her servant’s position by a group of rebel mages, who need her fire-mage abilities to rescue their compatriots from a collapsed mine. There is also a broader story playing out, as our rebel mages find themselves caught up in the conflict between the current liberationist government and the previously overthrown monarchists, who have caught wind of a newborn child with royal lineage who could be a catalyst for their return.

The magic system and the broader world are unique and vibrant; I loved learning about all the various classes of mages. Those who have read Elliott’s other books will also recognise her ‘kitchen sink’ approach to world-building; even in this relatively small novella, we have magical portals, demons and soul-wraiths (and somehow a plot about cattle acting as protecters against demons), people inheriting their mage powers from dragons, and much more. It’s all a bit bonkers but a lot of fun.

That said, it’s a lot, generally, for 176 pages, which is where my dissatisfaction with the rest of the novella comes in. There’s simply not enough room for the characters to develop. Fellion is the most fleshed-out character, and I still feel like I barely knew her by the end – she’s not necessarily dragged along kicking and screaming by the plot, but she definitely bobs on its tide, and things happen to her because they’re necessary for the plot to unfold, rather than because of her active decisions. She ostensibly agrees to help the rebels in exchange for being able to find the family she lost when she was captured and indentured, but it doesn’t really feel like much of a meaningful character motivation because we are told almost nothing about the family she left behind.

The ensemble cast fares even worse. Servant Mage quite clearly wants to be an ensemble novella with some hints towards the possibility of a found family, but I would struggle to tell you any more than the characters’ names and their respective mage powers. Some of them hold secrets, but these are all dropped in service of the plot, and there’s never any understanding of why such things are secrets or what it means for the characters to hold them/reveal them. There’s also not enough space to examine the mixed relationships with the former monarchy each character has – though we are told they have them – so a lot of the anti-monarchial critique falls flat. I am primarily a character/relationship driven-reader and, putting all this together, I found the entire story a little underwhelming as a result.

Hence, I am left with the same feeling I experience all too often when I read a novella: I would have loved this if it was a novel.

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.

Battered by war and tragedy, the Kauls are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference. The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

Publication details: 30 November 2021, by Orbit Books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

I fully acknowledge that I will be somewhat of an outlier with this review – if you want a gushing 5-star review, there are plenty of them available. And I’d almost be tempted to agree with all of those, because there is no doubt in my mind that Fonda Lee is an author to be reckoned with; I’m struggling to think of another epic fantasy series like the Green Bone saga, with its vibrancy and daring. But it also took me a week and a half to read this book, as some sections really dragged, and it didn’t always hit the emotional notes I had hoped for.

Jade Legacy spans about two decades of Kaul family drama, covering the lives of both the original characters readers have grown to love – and hate – since the first series, as well as the lives of many of their children, while also giving closure in various forms to many of the series’ antagonists. Lee’s best work comes in the form of character development, by which I mean character depth. All of the main characters are complex and multi-faceted, and it’s hard not to root for them even as they behave recklessly and demonstrate an abundance of pridefulness and spitefulness.

Lee also pulls no punches, as readers of the series will know – she’s not afraid to (literally) throw her characters under a bus, car or other heavy object if it’s what the story demands. Even three books in, I found myself shocked by some of the directions the story took, and found myself intermittently saying I can’t believe she went there – but I also totally can. The moments after these big, earth-shattering twists were my favourites, as Lee uses unexpected crises and tragedies to show what breaks her characters, and what makes them.

Unfortunately, I found the bits between these moments to be less thrilling. The long time skips meant we often skipped many of the emotional moments I wanted to see. It was particularly disappointing to me that this often happened in relation to my two-favourite characters, Anden and Shae, whose personal relationships outside the family were often glossed over, and there was less time dedicated to their personal triumphs than those of other characters. Others who have different favourite characters to me are probably unlikely to have this problem. (And I am very satisfied with Anden’s overall character arc in particular, when I reflect on the series as a whole, even if the journey was occasionally bumpy).

There was also often a lot of info-dumping about what happened in the years immediately preceding a time-skip, and at these points I felt like I was reading a fictional history with a lot of political mumbo-jumbo, rather than a story about the Kaul family. Other scenes felt like they were inserted because they were needed to advance the plot, but weren’t neatly sequenced with the scenes immediately before and after, which undercut them emotionally. There were parts of this book where I was just not feeling it at all, and had to keep pushing through. Ultimately, I wish this had been a four book series, with each of the last two books covering a similar time period to those before them, which would have allowed for a more intimate scope, and helped alleviate some of the emotional disconnect I felt.

All that said, I am in awe of the sheer ambition of this series and I hope we see more like it. I am personally not a fan of ‘grimdark’ books that seek darkness for darkness’ sake, but the Green Bone Saga is an excellent example of a morally complex fantasy series, where the characters’ suffering and torment (but also their triumphs) come from them having a variety of personality traits and flaws that play out in sometimes devastating ways – the Kaul family are jade-powered warriors, but they are also emotionally complex and ultimately fallible people. I’d definitely recommend checking the series out, for those who haven’t already.

Review: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrongmove, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for lettingthe ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

Publication details: 16 November 2021, by Hodder & Stoughton. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed These Violent Delights earlier in the year despite that ridiculous cliffhanger – so now is a great time to pick up both books in the duology. There’s a lot going on – monsters in Shanghai, not to mention the lovers to enemies to reluctant partners to lovers and back to enemies again romance (and that’s just the first book) – but ultimately it’s an action packed duology with plenty of depths. If you like YA fantasy that actually pokes at gender inequality and colonialism, and includes multiple queer characters despite the historical setting, I’d highly recommend this series. 

Our Violent Ends is a thrilling ride – it took a little bit to get going (and possibly spent a little too long rehashing character dynamics from book one), but once the plot kicked off I binged the last 50 per cent in a single evening, and couldn’t put it down. Gong really captures the complexities of 1920s Shanghai, even before you add monsters to the equation; everyone’s loyalties are constantly shifting, and the broader political tensions of the era intersect with the more localised gang conflict in a meaningful way. Juliette and Roma both love Shanghai and hate what it has become after decades of colonial interference, and the scenes where they debate whether it is worth saving are some of the most hard-hitting. 

This is Juliette’s story – she is by far the most fleshed-out character – and I found her fascinating to spend time with. She’s violent, often reckless, and quick to anger, but I wouldn’t really call her an anti-heroine (even if I was surprised by how far she pushed the limits in the sequel). It’s pretty clear she is just making all of her moral choices in the context of her tumultuous upbringing. The other characters are a lot of fun to be around even if they are not quite as engaging, and I am very excited about the recent news of a standalone sequel potentially starring one of my favourite side characters in this series. 

I do have one complaint, which is that I really wish this had been an adult book – and I really think Gong is capable of writing a great one, despite only being in her early 20s. I simply couldn’t believe the strength of Roma and Juliette’s love for each other – a love that started when they were 14, per the series’ timeline – which meant that a lot of the romance scenes didn’t quite land for me (an important part of any Romeo and Juliet retelling!). I also had to keep mentally aging the characters up in my head because otherwise some of the plot elements felt somewhat far-fetched, particularly the extent to which several grown men were scared of or went along with the whims of an 18 year old woman. I am fully aware that I am outside the target age range, however, and accept that as my lot. 

The ending is appropriately bittersweet: it’s a Romeo and Juliet retelling, so I hope no one was expecting a perfectly happy ending. But it’s satisfying and rounds out the story nicely, particularly after some of the high stakes scenes in the middle. And it leaves open the possibility of more stories in this world, which I’m definitely looking forward to. 

Review: The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Emperor is Dead. Long live the Emperor.  
 
Lin Sukai finally sits on the throne she won at so much cost, but her struggles are only just beginning. Her people don’t trust her. Her political alliances are weak. And in the north-east of the Empire, a rebel army of constructs is gathering, its leader determined to take the throne by force.  
 
Yet an even greater threat is on the horizon, for the Alanga – the powerful magicians of legend – have returned to the Empire. They claim they come in peace, and Lin will need their help in order to defeat the rebels and restore peace.  
 
But can she trust them? 

Publication details: 23 November 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

To recap briefly (and without spoilers), The Bone Shard Daughter saw the Emperor’s Daughter Lin and renowned smuggler Jovis embroiled in a revolution, and also prevent their island kingdom from going – literally – underwater. There are also a number of mysteries around the creation and use of the bone shard constructs – animated creatures made from samples of people’s bones, which are programmed to protect the kingdom from external threats. Of course, I was always going to come back to this series for the character Mephi, who remains a delight to spend time with – who doesn’t love animal companions?

Thankfully, there are other things to love about The Bone Shard Emperor as well. I continue to be impressed by Stewart’s world-building, which takes inspiration from a variety of East Asian cultures and blends them into something that feels unique, instead of being a simple cultural analogue. As someone who grew up by the ocean, I am also particularly into the island aesthetic. Additionally, I think Stewart would make an excellent horror writer if she put her mind to it, as the entire concept of the bone-shard constructs and the tithing festival that facilitates people having their bones harvested to make them is appropriately very creepy – I found myself recoiling at several points as we learn more about the practice of making and controlling constructs.

The Bone Shard Emperor is also much more politically complex than the first book – everyone is conflicted, their loyalties tested. There are no easy or clear answers, and everyone finds themselves pulled between multiple loyalties. I’ve seen a lot of reviews say they don’t buy the romance that springs up between Lin and Jovis in this book, but it’s for this reason that I actually really enjoyed this element of the story: Stewart makes it very clear that their feelings are as much driven by them looking to process what is happening to them individually as it is about whether or not they have romantic feelings for reach other. Of course, this means there’s a lot of potential for it to all blow up spectacularly – and for it to be very messy when it does.

All that said, there were two issues for me with this book, and they’re both the same issues I had with book one. The first of these is pacing – the first half of The Bone Shard Emperor is very slow, and I feel it could have benefited from another round of editing to make it tighter, as there is a lot of unnecessary exposition. Stewart really builds up to her explosive endings – which are great – but I wish it didn’t sometimes feel like a chore to get there.

The other issue is the uneven POVs. In addition to Lin and Jovis, we have married couple Phalue and Ramani, who rule over one of the islands in Lin’s empire and Nisong, a character with a mysterious past. I typically always gravitate to the sapphics, but where Lin and Jovis feel like dynamic characters, Phalue and Ramani feel rather one-note and seem to play out the same interpersonal conflict on repeat. In addition, their contribution to the plot simply isn’t as compelling as Lin and Jovis’ story, and I think this book would have benefited from finding some other way to integrate the parts of their story that the reader absolutely had to know about, rather than having us spend time following their POVs. I’m not sure there’s much scope to change this now – given we’re two-thirds into this trilogy – but it’s a fairly significant element and the one thing that stops me recommending this series wholeheartedly.

That said, I do still recommend this series – there’s a lot of elements I love and I definitely think it’s worth giving it a shot if you haven’t already (or picking up book two).

Review: Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler

Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Publication details: 5 October 2021, by Head of Zeus. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed Ashes of the Sun and was glad to get an ARC, which didn’t disappoint.

The premise of this series is fairly straightforward – two siblings, one a staunch upholder of the Republic’s ideals, the other a sworn rebel – but what’s interesting about it is Wexler’s interest in examining some of the often unstated mantras of fantasy worlds. There’s no black and white, here; the Twilight Order has an important role to play in protecting people from the plaguespawn, but they’re also founded on ideas about magical supremacy that are fundamentally incompatible with equality. This makes a nice change from of a lot of stories – cough, Star Wars, cough – that never really think about what it might mean to have an exclusionary group of people calling the shots. Meanwhile, the rebels have a vision of a society free from rule by the Twilight Order, but there are many different views about what it might take to get there. These conflicts play out for both Maya and Gyre in this book, which also makes them compelling characters – what are they willing to sacrifice, and how do they reconcile the good and the not so good parts of their communities? (It does occasionally see them – particularly Maya – make some really dumb decisions, but these are at least believable in the context of what they know).

Blood of the Chosen also expands the world in interesting ways, exposing us to more of the fallout from a war centuries’ ago, and also allowing us to get to know some of the side characters a little better, particularly Beq, Maya’s girlfriend, and Elariel, Gyre’s ghoul companion. They’re a lot of fun to spend time with, and there are plenty of lighthearted moments among the plaguespawn attacks and other horrors lurking in every tunnel. I did think the central conceit of Gyre and Maya being separated with opposite storylines dragged on a little too long – we are now two-thirds through the trilogy and they’ve spent more page time apart than interacting – but the sequel set their relationship up to move into a new phase in book 3. Which can’t come soon enough, given the ending. I’m curious to see how Wexler ties everything up, and where Maya and Gyre’s loyalties will eventually lie.

Review: Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.

Publication details: 19 October 2021, by Wednesday Books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

Within These Wicked Walls is a tough one to review, because it had a handful of things to recommend it, which were overshadowed by me really not liking the most significant element of the book at all: the central romance between Andromeda and Magnus.

To start with the good, while this is more of a Jane Eyre inspired story than a proper retelling (more on that in a second), it does keep up the gothic atmosphere of the original while adding some new elements. The creepy house, the suspicious servants and general sense of foreboding are all well done, and I liked the integration of the magic system, which revolves around the carving of metal amulets to ward against evil spirits. There’s also a few nods to the Ethiopian setting, around the time of Italian occupation, such as the harshness of the desert landscape. I would have liked a little more detail, since the setting often felt a little unmoored and lacking in specificity, but it was nice to read a gothic story not set in dreary old England for a change.

There’s also an interesting side-plot about the relationship between Andromeda and her adoptive father Jember, though it comes somewhat out of left-field in the second half of the book and doesn’t mesh neatly with some of the other elements of the story.

All that aside however, unfortunately I did not click with the romance in this book at all, which is clearly intended to be the story’s crowning jewel. Part of this is the way the Within These Wicked Walls functions as not-really a retelling of Jane Eyre (a book I didn’t even necessarily love myself). A big part of what’s compelling about Jane Eyre is that we understand what a terrible idea the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester is, but are captivated by their relationship in all its messiness anyway. There’s also a strong critique of class, exemplified by their differing social statuses.

Here, Andromeda and Marcus fall in love pretty much straight away and are prepared to throw their lives away for each other after knowing each other for mere days. At no point did I feel they had real chemistry or any reason to be together except that it’s a hallmark of gothic novels for the heroine to fall in love with the monster. It doesn’t help that Marcus is, frankly, kind of an asshole, as well as holding all the power over Andromeda as her employer – a fact conveniently forgotten by Andromeda as soon as she realises she’s in love with him, and by the narrative at large.

I didn’t necessarily expect a stroke for stroke retelling, but I think this book would be more engaging if it had used the different setting as an opportunity to build on and critique the original story rather than simply telling a rather bland romance. I’m disappointed I can’t really recommend this one, though I’m still glad to see it as part of the growing pile of non-western retellings we’re getting these days.