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.

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.