Review: The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

Joe Tournier has a bad case of amnesia. His first memory is of stepping off a train in the nineteenth-century French colony of England. The only clue Joe has about his identity is a century-old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse that arrives in London the same month he does. Written in illegal English-instead of French-the postcard is signed only with the letter “M,” but Joe is certain whoever wrote it knows him far better than he currently knows himself, and he’s determined to find the writer. The search for M, though, will drive Joe from French-ruled London to rebel-owned Scotland and finally onto the battle ships of a lost empire’s Royal Navy. In the process, Joe will remake history, and himself.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

Natasha Pulley has a type: tender, lonely characters who find themselves (often literally) caught of out place and time. Sometimes her books have worked for me, sometimes they haven’t, but: The Kingdoms really, really did. This is, in my opinion, Pulley’s best book yet.

It’s hard to explain The Kingdoms without spoilers, so suffice it to say that the blurb tells you most of what you need to know going in, except one thing: I love Napoleanic War stuff, and this is Napoleanic War fiction (though not always the version we know from history), which was an added bonus and would have prompted me to pick up this book even faster had I known. I should also note that this is a real genre-bender; it’s obviously science-fiction/alternate history, but we also get a taste of the gothic when Joe spends some time at an eerie lighthouse in the middle of a wild and stormy sea, and some sections read like straight up historical fiction with no shenanigans in sight. The time travel element is confusing in the beginning, but is ultimately well explained throughout the book, and while it’s clear early on who Joe Tournier really is and why he’s found himself stuck in this time loop, watching him figure it out for himself is a rewarding journey in its own right.

The best thing about this book is the characters. Like I said, Pulley has a type, but it’s hard not to root for Joe and Kite, who are both an enigmatic mix of hopeful and hopeless, both so desperate to love and be loved in return, and who are very clearly moulded for better or for worse by all the weird and wonderful things happening around them. Joe in particular remains a very strong sense of self despite the amnesia and lack of certainty about his true identity, which made his story all the more heartbreaking at points.

The prose, too, is excellent: incredibly atmospheric, but with the occasional pithy aside where it’s impossible to do anything but grin. Pulley always does a fantastic job at describing the non-things: the long silences, the words that her characters don’t speak, and this book is no exception.

I do have a few small quibbles about the endings for some side characters which weren’t as satisfying as I would have liked, and I would have appreciated a little more reflection on some of the love interest’s actions during the book, but otherwise I was so incredibly engrossed in this story from start to finish. Now, if Pulley would like to drop a few hints about her other (!) book coming out this year, that would be great.

Note: I received an ARC from Bloomsbury. The Kingdoms will be released on 25 May 2021.

Review: The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Loestetter

In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.

Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.

It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from The Helm of Midnight, but it sounded fascinating… and a little creepy. After reading it, I can definitely say it’s imaginative; the world-building is highly ambitious and the plot is very clearly linked to the consequences of the magic system(s) that have been developed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to offset the lack of attention to character development and relationships for me, but readers who prioritise world-building are likely to love this one.

Broadly, The Helm of Midnight follows three perspectives – in the present, we have Krona Hirvath, the Regulator (sort of like a bureaucrat/police officer) responsible for discovering who stole Charbon’s mask and is now copying his distinctive mass-murdering style. In the past, we follow Charbon himself, as we learn what drove him to become a serial killer, as well as the story of a suspect in the mystery. There are also multiple magic systems, linked to different gods, which allows for an expansive world. My curiousity about the various gods and how the different magic systems worked was what kept me going – for example, one form of magic is related to time, and every citizen has some of their ‘time’ siphoned from as infants, which they can buy back at the end of their lives, and I thought this was a fascinating but macabre idea that I wanted to know more about.

Unfortunately, the world-building was about the only thing I enjoyed in this book. Loestetter has a very clinical narration style, and The Helm of Midnight spends very little time in the heads of its main characters, exploring their innermost thoughts (we do get a little of this with Charbon, and it’s chiling stuff). The writing essentially provides a blow-by-blow account of what characters get up to, and as a result relationships emerge because the plot requires them to, rather allowing the reader to see them organically grow and change over time. Not every book has to be a character-driven book, either, but the problem is that The Helm of Midnight‘s final twists rely on character bonds (such as the relationship between Krona and her sister De Lia) that just weren’t strong enough in the text for me to truly feel like I’d been stabbed in the gut. While I thought Loestter did a good job of differentiating her POVs clearly, the decision to spend so much time learning about what characters – including Charbon – got up to in the past took out a lot of the suspense for me, since the discoveries Krona made had already been so clearly telegraphed. While murder mysteries involving serial killers require having some indication about the killer early on – since they clearly have a distinctive pattern – knowing so much about the person responsible made this feel less like a mystery.

I won’t be reading on in the series, but those who like darker fantasy with ambitious world-building may want to check this one out.

Note: I received an ARC from Tor Books. The Helm of Midnight will be released on 13 April.

Review: Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

England, 1895. An unsolved series of magician murders and opus thefts isn’t a puzzle to Elsie Camden. But to reveal a master spellcaster as the culprit means incriminating herself as an unregistered spellbreaker. When Elsie refuses to join forces with the charming assassin, her secret is exposed, she’s thrown in jail, and the murderer disappears. But Elsie’s hope hasn’t vanished.

Through a twist of luck, the elite magic user Bacchus Kelsey helps Elsie join the lawful, but with a caveat: they must marry to prove their cover story. Forced beneath a magical tutor while her bond with Bacchus grows, Elsie seeks to thwart the plans of England’s most devious criminal—if she can find them.

With hundreds of stolen spells at their disposal, the villain has a plan—and it involves seducing Elsie to the dark side. But even now that her secret is out, Elsie must be careful how she uses the new abilities she’s discovering, or she may play right into the criminal’s hands.

Rating: 4/5

Review

So first, a confession: when I requested a review copy of Spellmaker I thought it was the first in the series, rather than the sequel. I quickly read Spellbreaker in order to pick this one up, and I’m in fact glad I read them in succession: Spellmaker picks up almost immediately following the action of Spellbreaker, and the two books work really well together as a complete story.

The Spellbreaker duology is a historical fantasy/mystery/romance hybrid centred around Elsie Camden, an unregistered spellbreaker (someone who has the ability to undo magical enchantments) and part-time viligante on behalf of England’s less well-off demographics. Her work throws in her into the path of Bacchus Kelsey, a magician recently returned from Barbados, and also sets off a chain of events that cause Elsie to question everything she thought she knew about her past and the mysterious group she’s been working for. Spellmaker sees Elise and Bacchus grow closer together, as they seek to finally solve the mystery of the missing opuses (spell books) stolen during Spellbreaker and expose the criminal that’s put both their lives at risk.

My overall impression of the duology was simply: it’s a lot of fun. Holmberg does a really good job at integrating the various genres she works with into a fast-paced, cohesive story with plenty of twists and turns. There’s a few laughs along the way, but also some more sombre moments of reflection on issues including racism and the treatment of the poor in Victorian England. Bacchus’ struggle to integrate with British aspectors (magicians) due to his Carribbean heritage was particularly well portrayed. The magic system in this story isn’t particularly complex or unique, but it works well as a framework for the broader story, which is really one about Elsie learning that she’s worthy of love and respect, despite being abandoned by her parents as a child. While I don’t want to provide spoilers, I will say that Spellmaker also contains one of my favourite romantic tropes: a marriage of convenience.

If you want an easy, lighthearted read that still packs the occasional emotional punch, the Spellbreaker duology is a great fit.

Note: I received an ARC from 47North. Spellmaker was published on 9 March 2021.

Review: Dirt Circus League by Maree Kimberley

Asa’s running from a troubled past. To a remote outback town, a disappointing father and a fresh start that’s already souring.

But then the notorious Dirt Circus League arrives. A troupe of outcast teens performing spectacular fight sequences and challenging any who dares to take part. They’re ruthless. Menacing. Thrilling. And led by the magnetic Quarter. He’s dark, powerful and intensely attractive—and he faces a threat only Asa can see.

Will Asa be drawn into the league’s mysterious community? And, as she discovers the violent secrets at its heart, will she delve into her own untapped abilities to save herself—and heal those caught in its evil web?

Rating: 2/5

Review

While I have to admit that I’ve mostly grown out of YA these days, there will always a be special place in my heart for Aussie YA, due to a combination of nostalgia and the fact that Australian YA authors routinely hit it out of the park with stories that are uniquely relatable. Throw in some paranormal elements and I expected to love this book, but sadly it wasn’t the case.

Dirt Circus League follows Asa, who has recently moved to north Queensland from Brisbane, in search of a fresh start. We quickly learn that Asa has had a rough childhood and constantly been let down by those who are meant to care for her, and she has problems trusting others as a result. It’s a classic YA premise that typically works well, but that was where my troubles began with this book. Asa (and the other side characters) had no consistent personality and simply did whatever was necessary to advance the plot. One minute, Asa is deeply suspicious of everyone, the next, she’s throwing herself in with a crazy cult without a second thought. Characters fight and then fall in love in the space between one breath and the next.

I also struggled with the plot itself: frankly, there was way too much happening in Dirt Circus League and none of it came together in a cohesive fashion. The synopsis focuses on the fighting element, but that’s only a small part of this story. This is also an eco-thriller of sorts, about a group of teenagers who worship Gaia and are dedicated to protecting the earth, only Asa sorts learns that their devotion to Gaia has led to a cult-like community which takes ritual sacrifice very seriously. Oh, and there’s a Lovecraftian horror sub-plot involving a creepy surgeon (the only adult in the community) who conducts scientific experiments on the teens, including attempts to develop human-animal hybrids. None of this is built upon or explained in enough detail to make sense of why these things are happening, and it all feels very incongruous when stuck together.

There were a few things I liked about Dirt Circus League: one is where Asa finds herself at the end of the story (which I won’t spoil except to say I found it refreshing for YA fiction), and the other is the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ connection to country in Far North Queensland. But, unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed this book or that I would recommend it to others.

Note: I received an ARC from Text Publishing. Dirt Circus League will be released on 30 March 2021.

Review: All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

I read a collection of Slatter’s short stories several years ago, and her masterful prose was enough of a reason for me to request All the Murmuring Bones on Netgalley. Some of these stories (or similar stories inspired by them) appear in this book, though you don’t need to have read them to follow along.

Miren’s story starts with the death of her grandfather, and the subsequent discovery that she’s about to married of to her despicable cousin, in order to save the family’s fortune and continue the family name. It takes a while to get to know Miren, but as the reader spends more time with her on her journey, her strength, determination and resilience shine through. This is a quietly but deeply feminist novel; while Miren doesn’t loudly proclaim her right to equality, she does whisper it to herself, repeatedly. Meanwhile, the inherent danger that comes with being a woman, and the chaffing caused by a lack of agency permeate this story. The side characters are less well-rounded, perhaps with the exception of Miren’s grandmother, a terrifying but also pitiable woman who has fallen victim to the same insidious family politics as Miren is about to be subjected to.

Additionally, on the atmospheric front, Slatter absolutely delivers. All the Murmuring Bones contains all the hallmarks of a gothic novel – murderous mer-people, ghastly ghosts, terrible weather, and plenty of family secrets to be uncovered. Warning: Miren (and many of her family members) did not have nice or normal childhoods. There is also a dash of magic – Miren doesn’t consider herself a witch, but with a drop of blood and a few words, she can make even the most barren garden bloom.

Admittedly, while this book contains all the hallmarks of the gothic genre, it doesn’t necessarily pursue the traditional narrative structure of the gothic novel. This is a character-driven, atmospheric novel where the focus is on the journey, rather than the destination. Miren’s goals are typically short-term, survival-driven, and the plot jumps from location to location as Miren continues to flee danger. There’s not one creepy, rundown house, but two, and no one ghost or mer haunting Miren’s travels, but several. The result is that All the Murmuring Bones feels a little aimless, lost adrift at times (much like Miren herself). There’s a lot of stuff happening, and it’s hard to tell what’s important and what’s just there to create a macabre feel.

Despite these occasional misgivings, I really enjoyed All the Murmuring Bones overall; the journey was definitely a rewarding (if occasionally horrifying) one.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. All the Murmuring Bones was published on 9 March 2021.

Review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

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.

Rating: 4/5

Review

A Memory Called Empire was one of my favourite books of 2020, so to say I was excited for A Desolation Called Peace is an understatement. A Desolation picks up a few months after the first book, with Mahit wandering around on Lsel and desperately trying to come to terms with the personal consequences of her integration with Yskander, as well as the potential political risks if anyone finds out. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Empire, aliens are lurking – and someone is needed to translate a language that may be untranslatable by humans.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot without spoilers, but if you’ve read A Memory Called Empire you know what to expect: lots of political machinations, relatively limited action (perhaps even less in this book; this is definitely a space opera without the pew pew guns). This duology is ultimately a thematic one, and Martine hits all the same high notes in the sequel as she did in book one. A Desolation Called Peace continues the discussion about memory (both personal and institutional) and collective consciousness, first through the hilarious attempts of Mahit to come to terms with having Yskander always in her mind, as well as through the idea that aliens may communicate and share ideas in a way that is completely well, alien, to us. I won’t say much because of spoilers but it involves fungus. So gross, but so cool. There is also an ongoing discussion – following on from the themes of the first book – about cultural imperalism and assimiliation, and how far people are prepared to go in the pursuit of either joining an empire, or expanding it. Mahit is lost here, no longer at the heart of the Teixcalaan empire but also a stranger on her home planet, and the sense of longing and grief for a culture she was never reallly welcomed into is palpable. Interesting, too, is how this plays out in her relationship in Three Seagrass: how can you love someone who loves you as you are (or as they think you are), but who is also entangled in a culture that requires you to become someone else? Fascinating stuff.

As for the characters, this book expands from Mahit’s single POV to also include Three Seagrass, Eight Antidote (the child heir to the throne we met in book one) and Nine Hibiscus, a yaotlek commander overseeing interaction with the aliens who’ve recently popped up to say hello. Of course, everyone has their own political agenda, formed through various combinations of personal ambition, political nous and access to information (or misinformation). The expanded POVs were both a strength and a weakness of this book; while I enjoyed seeing more of the Empire than would have been possible through Mahit’s eyes alone, the POVs themselves were uneven. Mahit and Three Seagrass were a lot of fun – Three Seagrass’s eternally peppy personality shines through clearly in the text – and Eight Antitode was a fascinating cautionary tale of a child forced to grow up too soon, but I found Nine Hibiscus’ sections to be pretty flat and never really felt like I had a good handle on her character. All of the new POV characters are also as endlessly self-analytical and thinky as Mahit, and while I love the deep ruminations that come from that, it did sometimes become exhausting to be stuck so deep in everyone’s heads.

As expected, this book made me think a lot and for that I am grateful even if this book didn’t quite hit the high notes of A Memory Called Empire for me. I am very excited to see what Arkady Martine writes next. I have heard rumours of a Nineteen Adze novella and while I need it urgently, I’m actually really keen to see her go beyond Teixcalaan because I think her deeply introspective style and rich world-building could be applied in so many fascinating ways.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Tor. A Desolation Called Peace was published in 2 March 2021.

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.