Review: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker

The sea dragons are returning, and Joron Twiner’s dreams of freedom lie shattered. His Shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenge.

Leading the black fleet from the deck of Tide Child Joron takes every opportunity to strike at his enemies, but he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and the Keyshan’s Rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world.

But the sea dragons have begun to return, and if you can have one miracle, who is to say that there cannot be another? 

Rating: 5/5

Review

I’ve been putting this review off for a few days because I wasn’t sure where to start with how much I loved this book. Anyone who has read the first two books in the series – The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships – will know what to expect, but Barker really took it up a notch in this finale. I don’t typically get outwardly emotional about books, but The Bone Ship’s Wake left me open-mouthed and a little teary.

We pick up where Call of the Bone Ships left off, with Joron as the new shipwife of The Tide Child, and desperate to get Meas back from her captors. The synopsis paints this as a revenge story, but in my opinion it’s much more nuanced than that – the book is ultimately about about Joron coming to terms with what it means to be a leader and how to weigh up what is necessary, what is right, and the consequences of one’s actions. We also return to a number of the other themes threaded throughout the series – courage, duty, and finding hope and light in the darkness. Joron has no idea who he can trust as friends become enemies and enemies become allies, but there is still a focus on finding meaning and solace in relationships with others despite all the treachery and betrayal the Tide Child’s crew face.

Those who came to the series for the naval battles also won’t be disappointed; there is plenty of action, particularly in the first part of the book, including a terrifying encounter with a sea kraken that had me on the edge of my seat. My biggest concern with the first two books, and the reason I didn’t give them five stars, is because I found the pacing could drag a little, but that’s not the case here – the story moves along at a perfectly balanced pace. There is always some event unfolding, but readers are also given time to soak in the world-building and themes that Barker has layered throughout the series. The action scenes are great, but I also love the little details, such as the uniqueness of the flora and fauna (which goes beyond the dragons and the guillame), and the subtle shifts in language that mark the Hundred Isles as a matriachal society in all aspects of its culture.

If you’ve read to this point in the series (which – this is definitely not a book that stands alone) you’ll know not to expect a happy ending, but the conclusion is appropriately bittersweet and, most importantly feels right for the characters that we, as readers, have gone on this journey with. Thank you, R.J. Barker.

Note: I received an ARC from Orbit. The Bone Ship’s Wake will be released on 28 September.

Review: The Splinter King by Mike Brooks

Darel, dragon knight and the new leader of Black Keep, must travel to the palace of the God-King to beg for the lives of his people. But in the capital of Narida, Marin and his warrior husband will be drawn into a palace coup, and Princess Tila will resort to murder to keep her hold on power.

In the far reaches of the kingdom an heir in exile is hunted by assassins, rumours of a rival God-King abound, and daemonic forces from across the seas draw ever nearer…

Rating: 4/5

Review

The first book in the God-King Chronicles series came out in March, which I thought was an incredibly promising start to a new series – so I was very thankful to get an ARC of the sequel.

In some respects, The God-King Chronicles is a pretty standard epic fantasy series. There are a range of characters from the north, south and west of the map – some of them are some of them are nobles, some of them are raiders, and some of them are religious leaders or gutter thieves. There are dragons (though these particular dragons are more like dinosaurs, really). This book does the standard things reasonably well: the world is relatively well-fleshed out with limited info-dumps, as we see the different cultural groups that make up Narida and its surrounding regions come into each others’ orbit, and the characters are all interesting enough to follow, even if I still have my favourites from book one, most notably Daimon and Saana, as well as Daimon’s brother Darel.

But there are two things the series does differently, and they are both on display in The Splinter King.

Firstly, I love that this is a series about conflict resolution via negotiation, rather than fighting. There are some battles, and some people do die, but this is overwhelmingly a hopeful series about what can happen when two parties seek to communicate with each other, compromise, and make genuine efforts towards reconciliation and harmony.

Secondly, Brooks does some really interesting things with gender. Narida is a queernorm world, with a range of different pronouns that signify the spectrum of possibilities for gender representation (in additional to multiple queer relationships). The Splinter King takes this a step further by introducing us to characters who are still figuring out where they sit on that spectrum, and how they might want to move along it and what this means for navigating their way through society. It takes a bit of getting used to as a reader, but after a while it becomes second nature, and it’s one of my favourite things about the series.

The Splinter King does suffer relatively significantly from ‘middle-book syndrome’. My main issue with book one was that a number of the characters felt disconnected from the main action that took place as Daimon and Saana tried to broker peace between their communities, and were clearly only introduced so we knew who they were in book two. These characters are much more integrated in this book – but the trade-off is that there are now far too many POVs, and the book isn’t able to fully do justice to all of their stories. There are a lot mini-climaxes and chapters that are very clearly about positioning characters for the finale, and a lot of stop-start action that comes from getting invested in one character’s story, only to transition to another.

Despite these challenges, on reflection my experience with The Splinter King was a positive one, as evidenced by the fact that I am very keen for the next book in the series – we have been blessed with the first two books arriving within six months of each other, so I can only hope Brooks keeps up the epic pace.

Note: I received an ARC from Solaris. The Splinter King will be released on 7 September 2021.

Review: The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Matrons who run the Gean religious institution but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an asteroid mining colony deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but he is not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Mercury, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Soji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed Lewis’ debut novel, The First Sister, and was thrilled to be granted an ARC of the sequel.

It’s hard to say much about this book without spoilers for book one (particularly given Lewis’ penchant for epic twists), but The Second Rebel picks up where The First Sister left off with the characters we previously followed, as well as the addition of a new point of view in Luce. Multiple POVs is always a difficult juggling act – particularly when they’re all in first person – but Lewis does a good job of giving them all distinct voices and meaningful character arcs. Luce is probably my new favourite character, as she stands out with her determination and sense of duty to her family, but I enjoyed spending time with all four characters and seeing how their story arcs coincided over time. We also get to spend time with Hiro as a character – as opposed to a recording – and really understand how their relationship with their family has shaped them as a person, which was one of my favourite elements of the sequel (if occasionally heartbreaking).

The Second Rebel also lives up to its predecessor in terms of the twists and turns. We spend more time dealing with the fallout from Hiro’s discoveries about the awful treatment of the Aster and what it tells us about Icarii society than we do with the First Sister on Gaen, and there’s lots to learn about exactly how deep the horrors go. I should add that if, like me, you forgot a lot of the political nuances as soon as you read book one, Lewis does a good job of reminding you who’s who without it feeling like a chore. It did take a little for the plot to kick off, especially since the main characters are once again initially separated and figuring things out for themselves, but the last 20-30 per cent of The Second Rebel is a total rollercoaster ride.

I do have one niggling concern with this series, which is that the world-building is a little flimsy. It doesn’t necessarily take the reader out the story as they read (due to Lewis’ other strengths), but from a more distant angle, it’s not really clear why this world is the way it is. It’s never really explained why this future universe contains such a gendered religious system, or why the internal politics of the First Sister, the Mother and the rest of their Order matter so much outside the personal consequences for those caught up in it. It does feel a little like the author wanted a dystopian aesthetic, and therefore defaulted to an anti-feminist society without thinking through the delays fully. It might be a bit late, but I’d love to see the the history of this element of the world explored more in the final book in the trilogy.

Like I said, however, this is an excellent series overall and Lewis really knows their strengths – I am still shook from the last plot twist and cannot wait for book three.

Note: I received an ARC from Hodder and Stoughton. The Second Rebel will be released on 24 August 2021.

Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Rating: 3/5

Review

To say I was excited for this book was an understatement: I love Xiran Jay Zhao’s social media presence, and really appreciate their energy, humour and what appears to be a deep knowledge of Chinese history. I also read a few articles about their fight to retain the polyamorous romance at the centre of Iron Widow, and I wanted to support them in that effort.

Unfortunately, I had a number of issues with Iron Widow.

To start with the good, however: the aesthetic is excellent. I’m not hugely into anime so didn’t necessarily recognise the specific comps, but the mecha battles are really cool. I also really liked the Chinese inspired world-building: there are lots of little details that make the world feel really expansive and hint at the cultural diversity within the setting, such as the conflicts between different ethnic groups. I really appreciated that this book didn’t treat Chinese culture (or the fantasy cultures inspired by it) as a monolith.

As for everything else, well: the best way to describe Iron Widow is unsubtle. Sometimes that works – I was very into the ‘fuck the patriarchy’ vibe of this book at the beginning. Iron Widow is Wu Zetian’s revenge story, as she seeks revenge against the mecha pilot who killed her sister, but also the system that has pushed her down and denied her autonomy and opportunities at every turn. I love unapologetic women who fight for their rights, and I’m glad this book continues that tradition.

However, below the surface, the lack of subtlely in the feminist message means it doesn’t actually make much sense. Zetian’s entire story revolves around the same events: someone sense something grossly misogynistic, Zetian snaps back with a witty reply and owns them (where she learnt these retorts given the lack of feminist role models in her life is unclear). It doesn’t help that Wu Zetian gives off the biggest ‘not like other girls’ vibe I’ve seen for a while – she is miraculously somehow the most talented female concubine with the most spirit energy that’s ever been seen. She also has no positive interactions with women, either getting into catfights with them (over men), or looking down on them for choosing a different path in life (her disdain for another women who has chosen to have children with her mecha pilot partner is not the feminist message I was looking for). There’s simply no sympathy for the women who have been downtrodden and broken by the patriarchal society they live in and are yet to reach the same level of feminist enlightment as Wu Zetian.

The rest of the book is a bit of a mess, as well. The writing is clunky and unpolished, again lacking any kind of nuance or subtlety. There is a lot of telling rather than showing. And Zetian’s relationships with the two love interests, childhood friend Yizhi and fellow mecha pilot Shimin, lack consistency, making it hard to root for them. At one point, Zetian screams about how much she hates Shimin, only to passionately kiss him about three pages later. I really wanted to cheer for the relationship given the author’s attempts to break new ground and move away from toxic YA love triangles, but there wasn’t a lot to work with.

Ultimately, I really admire the intent of this book and I really hope the author continues to grow as a writer: I think they have a lot of really excellent feminist energy to bring to the genre, but lack the experience to nuance the messaging and tell a compelling story in this venture.

Note: I received an ARC from Oneworld Publications. Iron Widow will be be released on 7 October by Rock the Boat (21 September from Penguin Teen in some jurisdictions).

Review: Monkey Around by Jadie Jang

San Francisco has a Monkey King – and she’s kinda freaked out.

Barista, activist, and were-monkey Maya McQueen was well on her way to figuring herself out. Well, part of the way. 25% of the way. If you squint.

But now the Bay Area is being shaken up. Occupy Wall Street has come home to roost; and on the supernatural side there’s disappearances, shapeshifter murders, and the city’s spirit trying to find its guardian.

Maya doesn’t have a lot of time before chaos turns up at her door, and she needs to solve all of her problems. Well, most of them. The urgent ones, anyhow.

But who says the solutions have to be neat? Because Monkey is always out for mischief.

Rating: 3/5

Review

It’s hard not to be sold on a book with a premise like Monkey Around – urban fantasy set in 2011 San Francisco, dealing with the Occupy Wall Street movement and themes of gentrification and social change? Yes please.

That part of the book does live up to the hype: even though the actual Occupy movement gets limited page time, Jang offers plenty of wry observations about what it’s like to be a millennial (and, particularly, an Asian-American millennial) trying to make your way in the world. There’s also some poignant conversations about immigration and cultural assimilation, and how hard it can be to maintain cultural roots and connections in the face of rapid social change and economic challenges. Monkey Around is worth reading for those points alone.

Having said that, I wasn’t a huge fan of the underlying fantasy story. The general premise is that Maya is a shapeshifter (the full extent of her abilities is unknown, as she was adopted as a young child), who has found herself caught up in investigating a series of murders that have rocked the shapeshifting community. Jang takes an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to this idea and continually threw in new characters and concepts, without leaving any breathing space to really develop a connection to anyone. There are friends, and even a few romantic possibilities, but none of these relationships felt hugely deep or meaningful. Even Maya is a hard character to get to know, as she’s continally caught up in the action, with limited space in her narrative for reflection.

There’s a lot of good ideas here and while I wasn’t necessarily sold – I’m unlikely to pick up any sequels, though I might try something else by Jang – there’s enough to muse over to make Monkey Around worth checking out, particularly if you like urban fantasy more than I do.

Note: I received an ARC from Solaris. Monkey Around will be published on 3 August 2021.

Review: The Bone Way by Holly J. Underhill

Teagan’s wife, Cressidae, is missing. She has left for the Shadow Realm, a kingdom of the dead filled with untold nightmares—and the only place that can save Teagan from a lethal poison that’s killing her slowly. It is ruled by a princess said to make powerful deals with those brave enough to find her, and Cressidae has gone to bargain for Teagan’s life. Cressidae has forgotten one very important thing: no one makes it out on their own.

Despite the risks to her own safety, Teagan is determined to save her wife—and perhaps even herself in the process. The princess of the Shadow Realm, however, doesn’t let mortals roam her territories without opposition. In this thrilling fantasy novella, Teagan and Cressidae must face both the horrors of the Shadow Realm as well as their own past.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Novellas are a hard gig to pull off, and while The Bone Way isn’t a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, it’s unfortunately one that is hamstrung by the limitations of the shorter format.

Firstly, I have to say that the story is a lot of fun: I really enjoyed the modern twist on an old Greek myth, and I am always here for messy sapphics who are quite literally willing to die for each other. I also really liked that this book was happy just to retell this story as a queer one – Teagan and Cressidae are treated like any other couple, and there are plenty of small nods towards other queer identities in the world they inhabit. I had though this might be a more explicitly subversive retelling that tackled some of the various assumptions about gender and sexuality in the original myths, but getting to enjoy a plain, queer reimagining with no homophobia felt somewhat subversive in its own right. I also really liked the relationship dynamics at play, and how neither Teagan or Cressidae are at fault for the breakdown of their relationship (not a spoiler, it takes place before the first chapter), but are both required to confront how they communicate what they need from each other.

Having said all that, this was not a memorable story for me, because it tried to do too much in too few pages, and felt stretched paper-thin as a result. The world-building is flimsy; almost non-existent aside from some basic descriptions of the locations they visit. Obstacles were overcome in mere moments in order to get through the entireity of the plot, and there simply wasn’t enough suspense or sense of genuine challenges for the characters. And while I really liked the relationship dynamic, the flashback scenes felt very insta-lovely as we sped through their early time together, while the resolution of their relationship woes felt rushed.

I’d definitely check out more from Underhill, and hope they expand to a longer format, because all the ideas were there, they just lacked the space to give the characters breathing room and do the story justice.

Note: I received an ARC from Nyx Publishing. The Bone Way is out now.

Mid-Year Freakout

How is it mid-2021, already? Yikes! I’m notoriously bad at doing wrap-up posts for what I read, but I’ve seen this one around on a few blogs and I thought it would be fun, so here goes:

Best book you’ve read so far in 2021:

Asking a book blogger to pick their ‘best’ anything is cruel, so here are my top five:

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (you’ll see I’ve been catching up on some long-recommended faves)
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
  • Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2021:

Jade War by Fonda Lee. I’m both excited and terrified for the finale.

A new release you haven’t read but want to:

I’m surprised I didn’t drop everything to read One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston the minute it downloaded on my Kindle, but I haven’t been in the mood for romance and I don’t want to spoil it.

Most anticipated release for the second half of 2021:

It has to be She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, and I will cry if it doesn’t live up to the pedestal I have built for it in my mind.

Biggest disappointment:

I’ve read a few books I wished I loved more than I did this year, but in terms of the cover: content ratio, unfortunately I have to pick The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. Please don’t let that stop more publishers putting BIPOC girls front and centre.

Biggest surprise:

I thought A Dowry of Blood by S. T. Gibson would be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a 5-star read that blew me away with its unique approach to the story of Dracula (even if we’re not calling him that).

New author:

Hench didn’t quite make my list of faves, but I will pick up anything else Natalie Zina Walschots writes, because she has a real knack for deadpan, cynical humour and I’m curious to see what she writes next.

New character:

Adam Parrish from The Raven Cycle. The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in the series and is definitely a story about Ronan Lynch, but Adam is the character I can’t stop thinking about, and I love his eggshell optimism, his journey towards self-respect and his desire to live life on his own terms.

Made you cry:

I don’t cry much at books, but I did occasionally get emotional about Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, which has one of the best depictions of living with grief that I’ve read in a very long time.

Made you happy:

Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater is exactly the kind of story I like: a wholesome romance featuring kind-hearted, competent characters who deserve all the good things.

The most beautiful book you’ve bought:

I picked up a full set of Melissa’s Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy at the secondhand book store for the price of a single book (I’m yet to read them, of course) and the covers look absolutely splendid when lined up together – I love the striking colours.

Books you need to read by the end of the year

I’m focusing on a combination of r/fantasy bingo, book club books and ARCs for the rest of the year, but five books I know I’ll get to that I’m excited about:

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  • A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark
  • Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
  • Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko
  • The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin (don’t judge me for how long it’s taken me to read this series)

Review: Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

For those that lived there, Neverland was a children’s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests – all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old.

But Wendy Darling grew up. She left Neverland and became a woman, a mother, a patient, and a survivor. Because Neverland isn’t as perfect as she remembers. There’s darkness at the heart of the island, and now Peter Pan has returned to claim a new Wendy for his lost boys…

Rating: 3/5

Review

I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this book, and they all boil down to: I think this is a fascinating story, but a really poor reimagining of Peter Pan.

Wendy, Darling is not really a retelling, but an additional story, set somewhere between the events of the original Peter Pan and Hook, the Robin Williams movie about a version of Peter Pan that really does grow up (you don’t need to have seen the latter to read this book). Broadly, in Wise’s version, Wendy grew up, got married and had a child, and is forced to revisit Neverland in order to save her daughter from Pan’s clutches.

However, it tells a much darker story than the original J.M. Barrie story, about what it actually means for someone to refuse to be an adult – and therefore take responsibility for the consequences of their actions – and how terrifying it is that Neverland is built on the backs of children effectively stolen away from their parents. It also takes a huge swing at the racism and misogyny inherent in earlier iterations of the books, including the idea that Wendy, as a woman, must mother the Lost Boys, as well as the caricicatures of Native Americans. Give us more retellings that poke at racist but otherwise beloved stories, please and thanks.

The story is split between three perspectives: Wendy in the present, in search of her daughter; Wendy in the past, as we learn that she was institutionalised by her brothers after returning from Neverland, for her inability to let the story go; and Jane, Wendy’s daughter, after she is kidnapped by Pan and forced to fight her way out of the strange new world she finds herself in. The middle story is compelling; there is a real gothic element to it as Wendy finds herself trapped and alone, with no way of processing her memories, trying desparately to convince others she’s not crazy even as she starts to wonder if Neverland was the utopia she thought it was while there. There’s also a lot of interesting themes here around processing of trauma (and remembering versus forgetting as different but equally legitmate ways of doing so), and the limited options for women in post-War England, where Wendy’s only option for redemption is seemingly to be coerced into a marriage she’s not sure she wants. (Without spoilers, there is ace/aro rep in this book which made my ace heart very happy, even if it somewhat fell towards the wayside towards the end).

The other two perspectives are less compelling, mostly because Jane feels indistinguishable from pretty much every child protagonist ever, but it feels like the author wanted people to engage the most with Wendy in the past, so I didn’t mind this too much. The story as a whole is also a bit too much at points: Wendy gets abused, institutionalised, forced into marriage and then has her daughter kidnapped, and there were occasions where I was begging for a moment or two of lighthearted brevity. For those into dark retellings, this may be less of a problem – it’s certaintly a personal preference on my account.

But the reason Wendy, Darling didn’t always work for me is that the book expects you to be fully engaged with the original Peter Pan story while also skewering it. Peter is a barely a character in Wendy’s story; we mostly see him through flashbacks as she processes his real motivations and the consequences of his actions, and he feels shadowy, half-formed at best. Scenes from the original Peter Pan are often referenced obliquely. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it left the reader filling in the gaps from the original stories, which meant trying to reconcile the fun character of my childhood with the ominous spectre that this Peter, and it felt incongruous. Though, I should note that Peter does play a more active role in Jane’s story, and he’s legitimately terrifying in his subtle manipulation of the Lost Boys, even if he didn’t quite feel like a version of Peter I recognised (and maybe that’s the point and I should let go of my childhood nostalgia too). Similarly, the attempts to point out the racism in the original aren’t as strong as they could be, because we don’t get to relive the original scenes with Hook and the Indian tribes, meaning I couldn’t remember exactly how bad things were in the films, and therefore really grapple with the changes Wise made.

I am really interested to see what Wise writes next; Wendy, Darling was an evocative story and I’d love to see what they could do with some original gothic or dark fantasy ideas, but I wasn’t sold on it as a retelling of Peter Pan.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. Wendy, Darling was released on 1 June 2021.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

This week I’m waiting on 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…

I’m (very) slowly making my way through Elliott’s backlist (starting with her highly enjoyable Spiritwalker trilogy) and her use of historical inspiration and ability to touch on related themes around colonialism and the power of government and ideology is excellent – so I expect this one to be no different. (Also, every time I see that it’s about “Lamplighters”, I’m immediately reminded of my favourite childhood movie, Mary Poppins).

Servant Mage will be released January 18, 2022 by Tor.

Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina — and himself — that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

The Beautiful Ones is an interesting book to review, in that I initially thought I would be giving it a much higher rating.

I love fantasy of manners stuff, so the beginning of this book was right up my alley. Our heroine, Nina, meets Hector, our heroine, and while they understand each other better than anyone else due to their shared status as outsiders in society, pesky social norms are conspiring to make their love affair less than straightforward (along with some deception on Hector’s behalf). Moreno-Garcia also writes well; her prose is very smooth, and I found myself turning the pages quite quickly.

The fantastical elements in The Beautiful Ones are minimal. The setting is a Belle Epoque inspired secondary world, where the standard trappings of a regency romance (a highly stratified class society, in particular) are in still full swing, and the motorcar has only just arrived on the scene. Nina has a unique talent for telekenesis, though ‘talent’ is pushing it – since she barely knows how to control it. Hector has the same ability, which he has parlayed into a career entertaining the masses. None of this really matters in plot terms, except as a front for Nina and Hector’s initial conversations, and while that didn’t bother me since I was in this for the romance rather than the magic, I can see how it might bother other readers looking for something more fantastical since this book is being marketed as a fantasy romance.

Unfortunately, the romance itself quickly falls into all the worst stereotypes of historical romance when it comes to being outright misogynistic, and any enjoyment I was feeling quickly faded. All of the characters are frankly pretty awful. Nina starts off as a sweet, if naive girl who would rather spend her time reading entomology textbooks than dancing with boys (another talent that sadly goes nowhere), but ultimately becomes a blushing young ingenue who can’t think about anything but romance. The other female character, Valerie, is frankly awful – she’s the worst stereotype of a vicious, shrewd harpy who sets out to destroy Nina’s life because her own romantic dreams were crushed and she feels trapped by society’s expectations of women. Totally relatable, until her entire personality becomes bitter and manipulative and her only role in the story is to stand between our love interests as the jilted ex-lover. The men are no better: all the male characters see women as follies, as objects, or as means to an end, and absolutely none of them are ever openly called out for it or face any punishment. I can see why Valerie’s so bitter.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for writing about the gendered social constructs of the historical upper classes: to deconstruct and shine a light on them, to give a voice to the women who suffered through them, or to provide guidance on how we can move forward. This book does none of those things. If an author can imagine a whole new fantastical world to set their romance in, I’d prefer to see them also imagine a romance that doesn’t rely heavily on gender-based stereotypes to work.

Note: I received an ARC from Jo Fletcher. The Beautiful Ones was re-released on 27 April 2021 (first published in 2017).