Review: The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter

Alone in the world, Asher Todd travels to the remote estate of Morwood Grange to become governess to three small children. Her sole possessions comprise a sea chest and a large carpet bag she hangs onto for dear life. She finds a fine old home, its inhabitants proud of their lineage and impeccable reputation, and a small village nearby. It seems an untroubled existence, yet there are portraits missing from the walls, locked rooms, and names excised from the family tree inscribed in the bible. In short order, the children adore her, she becomes indispensible to their father Luther in his laboratory, and her potions are able to restore the sight of granddame Leonora. Soon Asher fits in as if she’s always been there, but there are creatures that stalk the woods at night, spectres haunt the halls, and Asher is not as much a stranger to the Morwoods as it might at first appear.

Publication details: 28 June 2022, by Titan Books

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

The Path of Thorns is a standalone book in Slatter’s Sourdough universe, a secondary world rather reminiscent of early Victorian England, where wise women are good for all kinds of interventions, be it a potion, or a story. I still haven’t read all of the Sourdough stories – a fact I need to remedy – but I loved Slatter’s last novel in this world, All the Murmuring Bones, and so have been looking forward to this book immensely.

And it didn’t disappoint in the slightest.

The Path of Thorns tells us the story of Asher Todd, a governess who has worked her way into the household of a manor lord, in order to seek vengeance on behalf of her mother, who was wronged in ways that are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Atmosphere is where Slatter excels, and this book was excellent in that regard; there is a cold, damp and foreboding feeling that settles over the entire novel. The plot largely sticks to a lot of the hallmarks of gothic literature – misty moors, and a ghost in the locked spare bedroom – but it was much darker in tone than I was anticipating, and I was genuinely surprised by the lengths Asher was willing to go in pursuit of justice.

Because frankly, this is not a happy book. It made me angry, it made me sad, it made me feel frustrated and so, so tired of sexism and all the injustices, little and small, that eat away at women in our society on a daily basis. Yet, it’s also cathartic; Asher Todd is downtrodden, bitter, and a victim of her own delusional attempts to cling to what little scraps of affection she’s given, lest they slip away. But her deep rage somehow manifests itself as compassion for those who suffer under the same patriarchal systems, and a dogged determination to help others find peace. There’s also a sense of righteousness in watching Asher take down those whose only intent is to do harm along the way.

I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re looking for a lighthearted read, but if you’re looking for something to absorb – or possibly magnify – your rage at the world for a few hours, The Path of Thorns absolutely fits the bill.

Review: High Times at the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson

Lana Baker is Aldgate’s finest scribe, with a sharp pen and an even sharper wit. Gregarious, charming, and ever so eager to please, she agrees to deliver a message for another lovely scribe in exchange for kisses and ends up getting sent to Low Parliament by a temperamental fairy as a result.

As Lana transcribes the endless circular arguments of Parliament, the debates grow tenser and more desperate. Due to long-standing tradition, a hung vote will cause Parliament to flood and a return to endless war. Lana must rely on an unlikely pair of comrades—Bugbite, the curmudgeonly fairy, and Eloquentia, the bewitching human deputy—to save humanity (and maybe even woo one or two lucky ladies), come hell or high water.

Publication details: 9 August 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

This is a tough book to review, because it’s hard to disentangle my feelings about the book from the fact that this was likely a mismatch for me as a reader due to some mistaken assumptions about the content on my part. I somehow missed that the author referred to this book as a “lesbian stoner buddy comedy” and was expecting something more akin to a bite-size Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – a sharp, witty fantasy of manners. Alas.

High Times at the Low Parliament takes place in an alternate England called “Angland”, where many things have stayed the same, but also there are absolutely no men and now everyone’s a lesbian. None of this is really explained, so you just have to roll with it. Various Angland constituencies are also represented in an EU Parliament (consisting of a collection of real and fake jurisdictions I couldn’t quite get my head around) that’s monitored by vicious fairies, and – like many real parliaments – the debate is pretty acrimonious. So acrimonious, in fact, that if they can’t agree, the Parliament will flood and everyone will go back to endless warfare between nations – and the fairies will also suffer as war inevitably destroys their territories.

Into this mess wanders our narrator, Lana, a scribe who isn’t particularly interested in politics, but is interested in getting drunk and bedding other ladies.

Putting aside the utterly ludicrous world-building, which I found far too convoluted and nonsensical for such a short piece, Robson isn’t the first author to take on Brexit via fantasy fiction, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. There are plenty of moral lessons and endless seeds of stories to come from that political calamity.

In one sense, there is a really interesting Brexit metaphor here; most of this book is taken up by Lana getting high on psychadelic mushrooms and arguing/flirting with her fairy companion Bugbite and one of the politicians, while Parliament disintegrates into chaos around her and rogue parliamentarians slowly undermine the institution without anyone at first noticing. On the other hand, that metaphor is mostly lost because the reader can’t make sense of why this parliament even exists in the first place, or what’s at stake in this version of united Europe. By setting this story in a fake “Angland” with a completely different social structure to the country we know, any connection to England and therefore the politics of Brexit is severed, and it feels like the politicians are just fighting in the background over hypothetical ideas, while Lana spends all her time distracted, elsewhere.

That said, I did like the idea of an alternate world where sexism and misogyny are not a key issue plaguing politics (particularly having just survived the recent Australian election campaign), and I always appreciate books where characters are openly queer and explicit about their intentions in that regard, but those ideas didn’t really mesh neatly with the rest of this book at all. If you just want a fun romp, you might well still enjoy this book, but if you’re expecting a treatise on parliamentary democracy – or even just a parliamentary system that actually makes sense – you might want to look elsewhere.

Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

“No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.

But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.

Publication details: 10 May 2022 by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I love books about Hollywood. I don’t necessarily care about a lot of real life celebrities, but I love fictional ones, and I find Hollywood a fascinating opportunity when it comes to storytelling, because there are so many interesting ways to explore character dynamics within that environment. What makes the high price of fame so worth it? What would someone be willing to do to achieve stardom? And how do we reconcile questions of authenticity and the commodification of personal brands?

There’s no doubt Nghi Vo is a talented writer, but Siren Queen feels like a wasted opportunity when it comes to these questions.

On the positive side, the writing is wonderfully atmospheric, and really captures the other-worldly feel of Hollywood; it feels like watching Luli’s story unfold through hazy cigarette smoke. It’s almost impossible to tell where metaphor ends and reality begins, which mostly works well for this type of story (with a few noted exceptions): in a place that’s always aiming to create the biggest spectacles possible, Vo’s approach to storytelling fits in well.

I also like that this book acknowledges that while the annals of Hollywood are largely white, the industry is built on the backs of people of colour and other marginalised groups who made movies possible, even if they weren’t recognised for it at the time. It’s an important nod to a sometimes forgotten history.

But, for all that, I’m not sure I really enjoyed this book. And that’s because, in a larger than life setting like Hollywood, Luli feels far too bland a character to warrant her story being told among so many others. The book tells us a lot of things about her background and her experiences, but it never really explains why she wants to be a star, or why she’s prepared to put up with being treated like dirt for her shot at the big time. Fame is a means to an end for the story, which is based around Luli telling the reader how she got to where she did, but it’s never really a defining part of the story itself.

Similarly, the blurb for this book makes a big deal about Luli becoming monstrous, but that’s rarely backed up by the text. Other people lie to her and discard her when she’s not valuable to them… but the reader never sees her make any hard choices of her own, or have to truly face up to the consequences of her actions. During the worst stuff that happens in this book, Luli’s largely a passive bystander. Like I said, I love stories about people who make difficult decisions in the pursuit of fame and fortune, so I felt really let down by this part of the book.

Even the literal monsters we do see – the Hollywood executives who call the shots – feel rather toothless in Luli’s version of events compared to some of the horror stories that have come out of the #metoo movement. Part of that is the flipside of the lovely writing style – ruining people’s careers feels less confronting when you can’t quite tell if it’s metaphorical or literal – but largely, it’s as though Siren Queen feels more committed to the Hollywood aesthetic than the reality.

Review: The Language of Roses by Heather Rose Jones

Meet Alys, eldest daughter of a merchant, a merchant who foolishly plucks a rose from a briar as he flees from the home of a terrifying fay Beast and his seemingly icy sister. Now Alys must pay the price to save his life and allow the Beast, the once handsome Philippe, to pay court to her.

But Alys has never fallen in love with anyone; how can she love a Beast? The fairy Peronelle, waiting in the woods to see the culmination of her curse, is sure that she will fail. Yet, if she does, Philippe’s sister Grace and her beloved Eglantine, trapped in an enchanted briar in the garden, will pay a terrible price. Unless Alys can find another way…

Publication details: 14 April 2022, by Queen of Swords Press. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Beauty and the Beast isn’t my favourite fairytale, or my favourite Disney movie, but it’s a story that I’m always drawn to retellings of, because I’m fascinated by how authors choose to reinterpret the elements that are less palatable in the modern age. Thankfully, Jones delivers on that front, in a few different ways.

Knowing that this book featured an aromantic heroine, Alys, was a big drawcard of this book. The representation isn’t explicit – unsurprising given that this book is set in the 1700s, when such words weren’t available – but Alys does very conceptualise that she has never and will never feel romantic love for others, and that this doesn’t make her broken or defective, just different from her sisters, who cannot wait to marry. She stands true to this throughout her time with the Beast, even when pressured, and while I won’t spoil the ending, comes to realise that other, non-romantic relationships can be equally important. There’s also a highly plot-relevant sapphic relationship between the beast’s sister, Grace, and another character.

The other thing I found interesting about this book is how it deals with the Beast’s… well, beastly nature. Rather than trying to humanise him, this book clearly calls out abusive behaviour where it occurs (not just from the Beast but from others), and makes it clear that this is considered unacceptable. It’s not a huge theme of the book, but it’s a nice touch compared to the ham-fisted way the topic can sometimes be treated in retellings.

While I really valued the representation and themes in this book though, I have to acknowledge that it never really excited or surprised me – hence why I’m only giving it 3 stars. The narration is somewhat overwrought and rather distant; I felt like I was watching this story from a distance rather than truly experiencing Alys’ full emotional discoveries as she slowly came to understand herself better. Part of this is the decision to use multiple POVs to tell the story; some of the side characters reveal things to the audience before Alys works them out, which I felt undercut the experience of seeing her react to deceptions and betrayals the reader already knew about. The setting is also rather generic; this book is set in roughly 1700s France, like the original story, but it could have been set in any generic medieval place and it would have been hard to tell the difference.

All that said, I’m glad to see that the already diverse range of Beauty and the Beast retellings continues to be expanded, and it’s worth checking this book out – particularly if you’ve never read a book with an aromantic heroine before.

Review: January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky

January Fifteenth—the day all Americans receive their annual Universal Basic Income payment.

For Hannah, a middle-aged mother, today is the anniversary of the day she took her two children and fled her abusive ex-wife.

For Janelle, a young, broke journalist, today is another mind-numbing day interviewing passersby about the very policy she once opposed.

For Olivia, a wealthy college freshman, today is “Waste Day”, when rich kids across the country compete to see who can most obscenely squander the government’s money.

For Sarah, a pregnant teen, today is the day she’ll journey alongside her sister-wives to pick up the payment­­s that undergird their community—and perhaps embark on a new journey altogether.

In this near-future science fiction novella by Nebula Award-winning author Rachel Swirsky, the fifteenth of January is another day of the status quo, and another chance at making lasting change.

Publication details: 14 June 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I was after something short and punchy to read for a plane ride earlier this week, and January Fifteenth seemed like a good fit (with the added bonus of getting ahead on my ARCs). It mostly fit the bill as it read very quickly, though it does deal with plenty of tough topics – so some readers may be better off picking up something else for their flight.

January Fifteenth is less a novel and more a series of vignettes about the experiences people might have if a Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme were to be introduced in the near-future United States. Three of the four stories are explicitly about marginalised or under-represented groups: a lesbian Jew who has survived domestic violence; a black woman and her transgender younger sister; a young Mormon girl who has suffered abuse within the church community.

Something I found interesting about Swirsky’s choice of perspectives is that a UBI program isn’t portrayed as a universally good thing for these people. In some cases the implementation of the program is still classist and racist, as certain recipients must jump through hoops to receive their money (similar to voter disenfranchisement in many countries); in other cases characters question whether giving everyone the same amount of money now is sufficient reparation for historical injustices. There is no easy answers to these questions, but Swirsky isn’t necessarily interested in providing them, simply getting the reader to think through some of the potential challenges we would face were we to ever implement such a system.

Swirsky also does an excellent job of creating a near-future America where things are mostly the same but kind of different: technologies have evolved (phones are now ‘wristers’), and the weather is unseasonably bad but not yet apocalyptic. But January Fifteenth also has the occasionally moment of perceptive wit and isn’t afraid to poke preemptive fun at what cultural trends might continue in the years to come, with a few throwaway moments (you’ll know them when you see them) that made me snort.

The vignette format won’t be for everyone, and it does have a few pitfalls; one section tries to do too much by introducing too many minor characters and unfortunately distracting from the key message in the process, and overall I found the ending a little too abrupt. It’s also less political than I expect some readers will want: the text never makes a decisive statement about whether or not introducing a UBI policy is a desirable choice, nor does it explicitly refute pro or anti UBI statements.

But there’s definitely a lot to chew on here, and I’ll be thinking about some of the questions raised for a while, so I highly recommend it on that front.

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.

This is Alys’s.

When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. 

Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.

Publication details: 15 February 2022 by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Daniel Abraham is one of those authors that has been recommended to me for a long time, so I was thrilled to get an ARC of his latest series opener… and promptly put it off until I was in the mood for epic fantasy. Having now read it; however, I’m struggling with what to say, so apologies to anyone who recommended his work wanting my opinions.

Age of Ash is not a bad book, for anyone wondering. Abraham is a talented writer and I enjoyed his various turns of phrase and found myself easily able to visualise Kithimar, the city at the centre of this story, as well as the cast of characters. While it starts off a little slow, there’s also plenty of action in the final third, where some of the decisions taken previously start to pay off.

But my problem is that, in a golden age of fantasy novels, Age of Ash did the bare minimum to capture my attention, and no more. Kithamar is well-described, but it feels like basically any other pseudo-medieval fantasy city. It probably doesn’t help that we only see a small snippet of the city: the grime and disease ridden alleys that are home to society’s poorest, and a few nobles’ houses. I found it really hard to situate any of the politics happening in the city within a broader world, or to care about Kithimar’s fate.

Similarly, the main characters Alys and Sammich are well written, and the moments when their respective interests bring them into conflict are some of the best scenes in the book, as the reader can understand both characters’ perspectives that have led to their inevitable falling out. But they still feel like generic scrappy thieves, with nothing to differentiate them from any other thief characters… making this book a hard sell when there are so many books out there, all telling very similar stories.

While this all sounds negative, I will in fact be reading the sequel. Abraham has indicated he will be retelling the events that take place throughout the year this story is set in from other perspectives, and it may well be that this series is one where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ll give it a second chance – but book two is going to have to really blow me away.

Review: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field, and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.

But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable, and also exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence… because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret, and discover the true power that lies in maps…

Publication details: 15 March 2022, by William Morrow. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

It’s hard to know what to say about this book, because I don’t think the blend of elements will work for everyone, particularly pure genre readers who hate to see their mysteries sullied with magic, but they were perfectly tailored to my interests. As someone who loves genre mashups – the more genres in a book, the merrier – I adored this book.

The premise is a simple one – Nell Young’s estranged cartographer father has just been murdered in the New York Public Library, but her investigation her father’s past and what really led to his death turns up a lot more than she was expecting. But there’s a lot going on in the story itself.

As the plot progresses, Shepherd deftly blends fantasy (what if there was more to maps than we ever knew?), a contemporary mystery/thriller, as well as some light sci-elements, with the inclusion of a geospatial mapping company, that is compared to the FAANGs in terms of market power, but also has capabilities I don’t think Google Maps has just yet. The Cartographers is definitely a ‘dark academia’ story in parts, as some of the characters struggle not to be corrupted by what they learn about the true secrets of maps, but it’s also a hopeful one that hit all of my nerdy childhood cartographer fantasies. This book has a lot to say about the power and sheer joy of discovering something new, the promise of adventure that maps signify, and how niche interests can bring together family and forge friendships.

It’s also compulsively readable. The first few chapters are perhaps a little slow, but once the plot kicked off, I binged about two-thirds of this book in a single evening, because I just wanted to know what happens next. There are quite a few characters, but they are all distinctive, even though those with limited air time.

The Cartographers is one of my early favourites of the year, and I will definitely be reading Shepherd’s other book, and looking out for what she does next.

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.

Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.


But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

Publication details: 15 March 2022, by Solaris. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Tchaikovsky is fast becoming one of my favourite novella writers, and not just because he’s so prolific. It’s clear that he really understands the format and how to use the limited word count to his advantage, telling the reader exactly what they need to know to get hooked in the world and the story, without it feeling too bloated, or too thin.

Part of this is that he’s really good at telling what are, on the face of it, simple stories that follow well-recognised archetypes, and then peeling away the parable’s layers to reveal something deeper underneath. Ogres is no exception to this rule. The premise is a basic one: humans live in what is essentially a serfdorm, ruled by a race of ogres. Our main character, Torquell, is a rebellious child, not at all interested in politics, but before long he is spun into a tale of actual revolution, that draws on both examples of the historical oppression of the working classes and the perils that await us thanks to late-stage capitalism and the climate crisis.

The use of second person narration (a trick I love, but one that I know can rub others the wrong way) is often a pretty clear marker that parts of the character’s identity will only be revealed over time, since there must be some reason why we are being asked to experience the story directly. But I will say, without spoilers, that I was surprised by exactly how the story unfolded (even if I could predict the general direction), but that it also made complete sense in hindsight. Again, Tchaikovsky knows what he’s doing when it comes to picking his moments to reveal information throughout the story.

After the successes of Ogres, Elder Race and One Day All This Will be Yours, I am really looking forward to seeing what Tchaikovsky does next – and the good news is, we likely won’t even have to wait that long!

Review: Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.

Publication details: 17 February 2022, by Hodder & Stoughton. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Honestly, the blurb for Only a Monster sounds a lot like generic YA-fare. A girl with a monstrous power, a love triangle… thankfully, it’s actually one of the more unique YA books I’ve read in a while, in that it actually takes a look at some of the tropes in a critical light.

It helps that I love time travel stories, but the premise of this story is basically: what if time travel was limited to a small number of powerful families with magical abilities, and only made possible by shortening someone else’s lifespan in exchange? All those fun jaunts back to the 1920s for a garden party now essentially involve taking months off someone’s life… making those that travel in time rather monstrous, indeed.

It’s an interesting and different way of looking at the ethical conundrums of time travel, and it also sets up an engaging story where travelling through time to escape those who hunt monsters is no longer a morally simple activity. It also establishes the basis for the relationships between Joan, our half-monstrous MC, her monster-hunter crush, and the boy she’s reliant on to teach everything she needs to know about time travel (even if his family would like to kill her too). While that sounds like it could easily descend into trope-laden madness, Only a Monster is very clear that the murderous intent of both boys is a barrier to romance, and the focus is instead on Joan figuring out her own boundaries and how far she can trust each of them, as well as coming to grips with her abilities.

In case that also all sounds painfully heterosexual, this book is also very casually diverse. Joan is half-British, half Chinese-Malaysian, and there are several queer characters – for some of them, this is quite relevant to the plot.

I will also acknowledge that I was very impressed with Vanessa Len’s writing abilities. I was a little worried at the beginning as the protagonist read a little young (though admittedly this was a nice change from all the 17 going on 70 protagonists in YA), but once the story got going, Len has a fantastic scene of pacing, knowing when to dole out information to the reader and when to just let the scene unfold. I won’t say it’s the most evocative story ever written as the prose is fairly simple, but it reads very quickly as a result, and there is still enough detail to fully imagine this version of London.

Given how events unfold, Only a Monster definitely feels complete as a story in its own right, but there are some unanswered questions, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

Review: The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

1768. Charlotte arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Two years later, her sister Antoine is sent to France to marry another stranger. In the mirrored corridors of Versailles, they rename her Marie Antoinette.

But the sisters are not powerless. When they were only children, Charlotte and Antoine discovered a book of spells – spells that seem to work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.

In a world of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, Charlotte and Antoine use their secret skills to redefine their lives, becoming the most influential women of the age.

But every spell requires a sacrifice. As love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.

Publication details: 17 February 2022, by HarperVoyager. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Firstly, The Embroidered Book is a very comprehensively researched account of the lives of Marie Antoinette and her older sister Maria Carolina (Charlotte). Marie Antoinette’s life is well-chronicled, but I knew basically nothing about Charlotte coming into this book, and there were lots of interesting tidbits that had me pulling up Wikipedia. (Though I am still struggling a little with the concept of her giving birth 18 times, especially given what an awful person her husband was). There’s also some cameos from other historical figures, most notably Lafayette.

Overall, I thought Heartfield did a good job with making her subjects seem like the flawed humans they were; she doesn’t shy away from the failures of all of Europe’s monarchs during this period, while also acknowledging that the challenges that female rulers faced in terms of sexism and their lack of preparedness to rule. I both felt bad for them, and completely understood why their subjects hated them. The relationship between the sisters isn’t quite as passionate (for good or bad) as the blurb suggests. Heartfield tries her best, but there’s only so much that can be done when the characters in question only interact by correspondence and enchanted portraits for three decades, and have greater interactions with characters that are ultimately secondary at best. But for the most part, it’s an interesting character study.

Where this book fell flat for me is… well, I’m still not sure why this was a historical fantasy, because the magic system and the associated conflicts don’t really add anything to the story except a cool concept, and a few hundred extra words. The magic system is genuinely one of the more interesting ones I’ve come across, as it requires the magician to make a sacrifice, typically in the form of an emotional connection or a memory. The more powerful the magic, the greater the sacrifice. There’s some interesting musings about what this might mean, but for the majority of the book I’m not actually sure it means much… except that occasionally the characters might forget a previous conversation, or feel no real love for a pet.

The Embroidered Book also tries to introduce a broader conflict – between those who want to keep magic secret tightly controlled, and only taught to a select few, and those who want to throw open the floodgates and make magic more freely spoken about. There’s lots of skulking about, and threats to both queens’ lives due to their knowledge of magic, but it ultimately goes nowhere. The network of magicians and the consequences of their actions for the wider world are too broadly sketched to be really meaningful, and the book introduces people who could be dangerous, but then forgets about them. And meanwhile, the real problems that led to the French Revolution truck along, and we end up exactly where real history took us, without magic really changing a thing.

All of which led to a book that for me was interesting, with real potential, but ultimately not as satisfying as I might have liked.