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).

Review: The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

In the quiet streets of Prague all manner of otherworldly creatures lurk in the shadows. Unbeknownst to its citizens, their only hope against the tide of predators are the dauntless lamplighters – a secret elite of monster hunters whose light staves off the darkness each night. Domek Myska leads a life teeming with fraught encounters with the worst kind of evil: pijavice, bloodthirsty and soulless vampiric creatures. Despite this, Domek find solace in his moments spent in the company of his friend, the clever and beautiful Lady Ora Fischerová– a widow with secrets of her own.

When Domek finds himself stalked by the spirit of the White Lady – a ghost who haunts the baroque halls of Prague castle – he stumbles across the sentient essence of a will-o’-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit known to lead lost travellers to their death, but who, once captured, are bound to serve the desires of their owners.

After discovering a conspiracy amongst the pijavice that could see them unleash terror on the daylight world, Domek finds himself in a race against those who aim to twist alchemical science for their own dangerous gain.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

As much as I love the Brits, I’m always looking for historical fantasy set in countries other than England so I was very excited to receive an ARC of The Lights of Prague. The atmosphere in this book definitely lived up to the hype, which was full of haunted castles and sinister underground tunnels, and the author used the trappings of the time period (the 1860s) to her advantage, as the reliance on gaslamps made the streets Prague feel appropriately spooky and an unwise place to be after dark. Jarvis definitely nailed the gothic feel. I would have loved more about the history and politics of Prague rather than just castles and cobblestones, but others may be satisfied with just the aesthetic trappings.

The plot starts off slow, but it gets more compelling as it progresses, and we learn more about who is really behind the pijavice (vampire) scheme to take over the city.

All that said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the character arcs in this book and the relationships – especially the romance between Domek and Ora – felt forced. Ora is the more interesting of the two characters; as a vampire, she’s had a long time to come to terms the challenges of being immortal and living among humans, and we get some interesting snippets of her life in prior centuries (also: a bisexual vampire, we love to see it). She also has a strong sense of justice in comparison to other vampires, which I found compelling. Domek, on the other hand, has no similar backstory and I found it hard to connect with him or understand his compulsion to hunt vampires beyond the superficial; this made the conflict between vampire and vampire hunter less compelling than it could have been.

It doesn’t help that the relationship between Domek and Ora starts in a weird place, plot wise – we’re told they already know each other and are good friends at the start of the story, but there was no immediate chemistry between them, and their closeness wasn’t backed up by the content of their conversations and their interactions with each other. It didn’t help that dialogue isn’t really a strength of this book; it’s often stilted at best and cliche at worst. (That goes for all the characters, not just our main duo).

Overall, I have fairly mixed feelings about The Lights of Prague. I loved the atmosphere but really wish more time had been dedicated to character development and fleshing out the relationship between Ora and Domek into a more passionate romance. Still, it’s definitely worth a read if you want gothic fantasy not set in England.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. The Lights of Prague will be released on 25 May.

Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Rating: 3/5

Solomon won me over with their novella, The Deep, and I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this book: a young, pregnant girl who flees into the woods to escape a cult, but can’t hide forever. I don’t want to say too much in order to avoid spoilers, but in addition to the horror elements, there is more of a spec-fic element than I originally anticipated, as Vern grapples with a number of supernatural changes to her body, born of the cult’s true purpose and activities.

There are numerous content warnings applicable for Sorrowland (including but not limited to: self-harm, child abuse and pedophilic relationships, rape, suicide, animal abuse/death, non-consensual medical procedures, racism and homophobia/transphobia, including against intersex individuals). All of these are handled respectfully and never used solely for shock value, but to highlight the themes of the book and remind readers of the real trauma experienced by many Black and LBGT+ people. Not that I would expect anything else from Solomon as an author. Indeed, Solomon pulls no punches in highlighting the various abuses that these communities have faced throughout history, and their far reaching consequences. It’s harrowing stuff. Readers of Solomon’s other books will also recognise similar themes of collective trauma and memory.

Unfortunately, while I greatly respect the themes of Sorrowland, the actual execution was lacking for me. The book read like a first draft that needed another round or two of editing and refinement before it was released. Apart from some minor plot holes and inconsistencies that I hope were fixed in later editions, several scenes read like play-by-plays of the action without much emotion, and there is quite a lot of info-dumping (including a large section of backstory about another character which appeared right at the climax, throwing off the pacing of the entire denoument of the story in a disconcerting way). I also couldn’t connect with Vern or her children, who never felt like real characters to me. I found it hard to believe that a young girl raised in a cult and two kids raised in the woods with no other human interaction could be as calm, collected and worldly as they were (Vern, in particular, understands a lot of cultural references that don’t make much sense given her upbringing). I did like some of the side characters, particularly Vern’s lover, but I wish we’d seen more of them.

I really respect Solomon’s aims with this book, but I can’t help but feel that their message occasionally got a bit muddled and would have hit home even more forcefully if told via characters the reader could connect with and a more gripping plot. Still, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Note: I received an ARC from Macmillan. Sorrowland was released on 4 May 2021.

Review: The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay. Determined to find her, Cee devotes her days to building a boat from junk parts scavenged inland, doing everything in her power to survive until the day she gets off the island and reunites with her sister.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara is also living a life of isolation. The eco-city she calls home is one of eight levitating around the world, built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But as the public decries her stance, she starts to second guess herself and decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

Firstly, how gorgeous is that cover? I love seeing BIPOC women front and centre on book covers, and the art style caught my eye right from the beginning, as it hinted at mysteries. There are a lot of mysteries in this book, but unfortunately The Ones We’re Meant to Find didn’t capture my imagination as much as I would have liked.

This is a hard book to summarise, but The Ones We’re Meant to Find is part cli-fi thriller, part wilderness survival story, each one navigated by a different sister. Firstly, shout out to He for writing a story that is ultimately about individual self-worth at its core, followed by sisterhood. There is a romance (which I found a little too insta-lovely to really enjoy), but the thematic focus of this story is on what it means to be a person, with your own independent thoughts, desires, and sense of agency and purpose. These are themes I would love to see explored more of in YA fiction, and I thought He raised some really interesting moral and ethical dilemmas that I am still thinking about (but are hard to talk through without spoilers).

In terms of the actual stories, I actually enjoyed the survival story, for the most part – Cee’s determination to survive immediately shone through, and her coping mechanisms were both uplifting and heartbreaking; in one scene near the beginning, Cee tries to make friends with the boat she has built to take her away from the island, which she lovingly calls Hubert. My only real criticism here is that occasionally there was a little too much focus on elements that were ultimately nonconsequential for the story, which bogged down the pacing a little.

Meanwhile, I had no idea what was going on in most of Kasey’s scenes. There was a lot of techno-babble about stasis pods and holograms, and a lot of world-building about the various natural disasters taking place outside the eco-city where she lives. The first half of Kasey’s story ultimately felt like a giant info-dump that still didn’t answer some pretty basic questions: how far into the future is this book set? And how did things end up like this? Kasey’s story (and Cee’s) did get significantly more interesting in the second half, as the mysteries started to unravel and the thriller aspect ramped up, with lots of twists and turns, but it was unfortunately too little too late for me. I also think some of the twists would have benefited from me being more engaged with the world-building, as I think I missed some key clues.

On Kasey, something I also think is worth highlighting is that one could easily read Kasey as being neurodivergent (I certainly did). She constantly prioritises logic and science-based explanations over emotional reactions, and regularly laments her struggles in relating to her peers and understanding the nuances of various social interactions. This made her a hard character to read about sometimes because I was, in turn, struggling to relate to how cold and calculating Kasey was about almost every scenario she found herself in. But, I also wish she had been made explicitly neurodivergent in the text; it felt very odd to me that in a world with such advanced technology, including huge advancements in medical science, and in a story so focused on how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, that this wasn’t the case.

I really wish I’d loved this book, but unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t meant to be. I do think others will get more out of it though, especially those who love sci-fi thrillers and unique genre-blends.

Note: I received an ARC from Text Publishing. The Ones We’re Meant to Find will be released on 4 May 2021.

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.