Review: A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king. But when Dracula draws a cunning aristocrat and a starving artist into his web of passion and deceit, Constanta realizes that her beloved is capable of terrible things. Finding comfort in the arms of her rival consorts, she begins to unravel their husband’s dark secrets.

With the lives of everyone she loves on the line, Constanta will have to choose between her own freedom and her love for her husband. But bonds forged by blood can only be broken by death. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

A Dowry of Blood is the sapphic, polyam Dracula retelling I didn’t know I needed until I saw the synopsis. And thankfully, it lived it up to the premise. This is a relatively short book, at about 250 pages, but it packs a hefty punch.

The main character, Constanta, is a Romanian peasant girl who is transformed into a vampire as she lies dying, her entire family victims of war. Constanta’s story is told as a letter to the unnamed Dracula, as she recounts her transformation from wide-eyed young woman to a wife trapped in an abusive marriage that lasts centuries. When two new ‘brides’ are brought into the mix – sharp Magdelena and fiery Alexi – Constanta realises the extent of her husband’s manipulation and begins to find the courage to break free.

It takes a little getting used to, but the decision to deliberately not name the villain (even if we all know who he’s meant to represent) is so powerful: in both fiction and real life, the names and stories of perpetrators are shared and remembered, while their victims become nameless, faceless women with no agency except to further myths and legends. (A great recent read on this topic was the The Five by Hallie Rubenfold, which aims to share the stories of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper). I am privileged enough not to have personal experience in this area, but I will also say the depictions of gaslighting and emotional abuse resonated very clearly: you can see the villain expertly pulling Constanta’s puppet-strings – and Magdalena’s, and Alexi’s – but you could also understand and empathise with why the characters might decide to stay.

As for the rest of this book, the writing is frankly gorgeous. It’s vivid, poetic and lush, and perfectly captures the sensual, Gothic feel of the original Dracula without ever becoming overly florid or self-indulgent. I definitely found myself stopping to re-read sentences to take in the imagery. The character work is also excellent. In the space of a short book, Gibson fleshes out Constanta’s relationship with her husband, her burgeoning relationships with Constanta and Alexi (both together and separately) and their relationships with each other. Each of these relationships feels distinct and directly related to the desires and fears of the individual characters, and it is so satisfying to see Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi each forging their own path towards the end.

There isn’t a lot of world-building – this book spans about six centuries, from 1300s Romania to 1900s Petrograd and Paris (and a sojourn in medieval Vienna, my favourite location in the story) but the sense of time passing is fairly superficial. That didn’t impact my personal enjoyment of the story – this is deliberately written as a close-knit tale rather than a sweeping epic – but if you expect deep historical insights from this novel you might be disappointed.

After this book, I’m keen to check out Gibson’s shorter work, and can only hope she comes out with another full length novel in the future.

Note: I received an ARC from Nyx Publishing. A Dowry of Blood was published on 31 January 2021.

Review: Daughter of the Salt King by A.S. Thornton

As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: 2.5/5

Review

Daughter of the Salt King is a desert fantasy, about a girl who falls in love with a jinni with the power to grant wishes. I really enjoyed this book at the beginning, but ultimately found myself wishing for a book that actually lived up to its feminist promise.

To start with, I think Thornton is a solid writer with a knack for description: this book evokes a sense of the great, endless desert stretching far out onto the horizon, as well as the suffocating nature of the palace where the main character, Emel, resides. I really love settings of this type, so if you’re looking for something other than the typical medieval fantasy, I would typically recommend this book.

However; the actual world-building that sits under the prose felt lazy, due to a heavy reliance on tropes. This is a fantasy novel set in a desert, so of course the king is a cruel despot with a harem of wives, the daughters are routinely forced to provide sexual pleasure to sleazy old men, and the only gay couple in the books could be put to death if they’re caught. I don’t mind stories that explore sexism and homophobia through the lens of a made-up world, but this book didn’t really shed any light on these issues. Frankly, I’m tired of reading books where women’s (lack of) rights to bodily autonomy are an accepted part of the setting, without no or limited critique.

My issues in this regard extend to Emel’s character. When we first meet Emel, she is trapped in the palace with twenty-six other sisters, and her only hope of escape is to be married off to one of the rich and powerful men from the neighbouring lands who come to court them. Emel is desperate to escape the confines of the palace and see more of the outside world, but she also defines her entire self-worth in relation to men – her desire to please her father, and her terror at potentially being thrown on the scrap-heap and deemed worthless if she doesn’t secure a husband soon. The djinni, Saalim, offers her a chance at a better life, but soon all Emel’s wishes are bound up with him – another man, even if this one isn’t quite human. By the end of the book, Emel’s desire to leave the palace simply to adventure becomes almost a secondary goal. There simply isn’t a lot of character growth; Emel’s sister Sabra, and her friend Firoz have much more interesting character arcs that we barely get to see.

For what it’s worth, I did enjoy the romance – Thornton captures the sheer overwhelmingness of falling in love well, and Saalim’s backstory is slowly unfurled throughout the book, allowing him to maintain an air of tantalising mystery. Saalim’s story is also intrinsically linked to the desert setting, which helped bring the world to life. I just wish more time had been dedicated to developing Emel’s character and poking holes in the sexist world she lived in.

Note: I received an ARC from CamCat Books. Daughter of the Salt King was released on 2 February 2021.

Review: The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

Rating: 4/5

Review

The Councillor is a Machiavellian inspired fantasy set in the fictional kingdom of Elira. Well, sort of. There’s a definite Renaissance-influence in the world-building, with a series of city-states all banding together against those that surround them. (Oh, and they produce a lot of wine, and olives). The main character, Lysande Prior, also shares a lot of her history with Niccolo Machiavelli himself: both serve roles as political understudies and advisors, both write treatises on the subject of power, and both are shrewd, cunning and intelligent.

But where Machiavelli was known for the ruthless that gave Machiavellian political philosophy his name, Lysande is a much more likeable character, concerned about the welfare of her community and her friends, and willing to put her smarts to good use to protect them. The result is a compelling character arc.

I should note here that Lysande is also an interesting character because she’s unlike so many others we see in fantasy. She’s mildly addicted to a drug that has effects not unlike cocaine (so I’m told), and she has a strong sense of sexual desire, even about those she intellectually knows it’s not a good idea to get involved with. None of this is ever justified or excused, it’s just a part of who Lysande is – and we get to see how she grapples with the consequences. I don’t enjoy reading about drug addiction as a general rule, but I did appreciate that this book is more in line with actual drug use in society (i.e. high functioning individuals you’d never expect) and that we weren’t treated to a sermon or a pity party about it. This is also a good place to note that Lysande is bisexual (and there are flashbacks to a past f/f relationship) and it’s entirely unremarkable.

As for the plot, don’t expect too many battle scenes or clashing armies (though there are a few). The battle for Elira is mostly one of wits. Lysande is a scholar at heart, and we see her puzzle her way through events, calculatingly cultivate alliances, and rethink everything she thought she knew about former Queen Sarelin. A lot of this book is spent second-guessing the motives of the city-state leaders Lysande is ostensibly meant to choose between. It’s compelling stuff, and I love seeing a quieter, more intellectually focused fantasy that shows off a different set of character traits and exudes a different kind of intensity and energy.

I did have a few small issues. The pacing was a little slow in the middle (not helped by the giant chapters, with nowhere good to take a break). I also thought some of the big reveals about the villain and the true extent of magic in this society came a little late given this is a standalone novel: the last hundred pages were riveting, but they also had to do a lot of work to wrap up all the plot threads and create a compelling rationale for what had come before, and it didn’t always pull it off. I haven’t seen any news of a sequel, but I really hope there is one, since I think this world is ripe for a follow up that revisits some of the characters from this book and maybe gives us a glimpse into some of the other city-states we spent less time in.

This was an excellent debut. As I said, I’m really hopeful we’ll see something else set in this world, but if not, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Beaton writes next.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW Books in exchange for a review. The Councillor will be released on 2 March 2021.

Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I should preface this review by saying that, in some aspects, my feelings about this book are essentially ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. I’m not the biggest fan of experimental prose, and if I’d known that I might have thought twice about requesting an ARC that doesn’t involve standard punctuation and sentence structure. I’m also a little confused about the decision to market this book as ‘magical realism’: while the genre should invoke a sense of fuzziness about whether something is “real” or supernatural, this book never really raised that question for me. The speculative elements were a very minor part of the story to the point it almost could have been told without them, and it felt clear to me that they were really just a manifestation of Firuzeh’s imagination and a way for her to process her trauma and grief.

Having said that, this book tells an important story about the heartbreaking treatment of refugees in Australia, and the horrifying consequences of those decisions. It really emphasises the sheer impersonalness of the system: the endless waiting on paperwork, the seemingly arbitary nature of the decisions, the way Firuzeh’s family are constantly required to defend their need for the basic human right of safefy. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors that have occurred on Nauru. And it also nails the symbotic relationship between policy and community attitudes – Firuzeh’s family experience racism every day in Australia from those who support Australia’s tough stance on refugees, which then enables the policy to be continued with little opposition.

But the abstract style meant I never connected with the characters or their journey in the way I would have liked. I couldn’t get a good read in Firuzeh as a person, how old she and her peers were meant to be (do ten year olds routinely wag school and use the ‘c word’ these days?) or what her dreams were for her better life. I also didn’t really appreciate the random interludes to tell us the stories of some of the other side characters (such as Nasima’s brothers, or Grace, the family’s English tutor); the stories themselves had potential, but our glimpses of these characters’ lives were too fleeting to really capture the true diversity of the refugee experience and distracted from Firuzeh’s story.

I still recommend reading this book to get a better understanding of Australia’s refugee policy and to prompt further discussions about the current approach, even if the storytelling itself didn’t live up to my (admittedly lofty) expectations.

Note: I received an ARC from Erewhon in exchange for a review. On Fragile Waves will be released on 2 February.

Review: Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long

Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveller, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Hall of Smoke is a Viking-inspired fantasy, where the Gods are real.

I admittedly haven’t read a lot of Viking literature, but this book feels like a fresh take on the genre for a first reasons. Firstly, while I wouldn’t necessarily call this a ‘feminist’ story, it’s nice to read a take on pre-medieval societies featuring a well-rounded female MC, who has a wide array of hopes, dreams and fears unrelated to her gender. In Eang, men and women are equal out of necessity (in a case of all hands on deck), and Hessa is both a religious acolyte, part of the mysterious Eangi priesthood, as well as a skilled fighter. Additionally, while Hessa receives help from many men on her journey, she also proves herself their equal – and there are rarely, if ever, romantic undertones in their meetings.

Secondly, I really enjoyed Long’s take on the gods of Hessa’s world. This book does some really deft things with the various gods and the concept of religion more generally: the Gods are real, but who the true gods are and how they should be worshipped is a matter of cultural perspective. Hessa is devoted to Eang, but when the Goddess fails to answer her calls for help, she starts to question exactly who it is she serves. The Gods themselves are also all very different in personality; some are tricksters, some are violent; others just want to go home and forget about human concerns. It genuinely does feel like a pantheon of gods, reminiscent of the Vikings and other cultures like the Greeks.

As for the rest of the story: the quality of the prose is excellent, and really evokes an otherworldly feel. This is a world similar to our history, but also a world full of mysteries Hessa is only just being to understand. However, the plot – my main issue with this book – is painfully slow-moving at points. Much of the middle of this book is Hessa simply moving from one village to another, and replaying the same crises of faith in her mind, and it gets a little repetitive. I also didn’t get a good sense of the other human characters in this book. Much of Hessa’s journey is about revenge and justice for her family, and to protect those she loves who are still in hiding, but the problem is that we simply don’t know enough about these characters to really feel the depths of Hessa’s motivations or love for them. However, the action does build nicely at the end, and I was satisfied with the payoff; always a good sign for a standalone book.

Overall, Hall of Smoke hits a lot of the same beats as other epic fantasy novels, but also contains enough to differentiate it from the crowd. I’m looking forward to seeing what Long writes next.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books in exchange for a review. Hall of Smoke will be released on 19 January 2021.

Round-up Post: Top 10 of 2020

2020 has been… a year (we all know it, yet we all also feel obligated to say it). A devastating bushfire season and global pandemic aside, I figured out some things about myself personally (bringing some much needed clarity), strengthened some friendships even during lockdown, and was also lucky enough to have several exciting opportunities professionally. I launched a book blog (this one!). Oh, and I worked from home for more than six months without enacting any brutal revenge fantasies on my noisy neighbours.

I also got in a lot of extra reading time at home, as well as several extra audiobooks on those long evening walks around the neighbourhood while the gym was closed.

Without further ado, my top 10 SFF reads for 2020 (in the order I read them because I’m on holidays and this post has taken long enough without the stress of ranking them).

  1. The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker | 13-16 Feb | A update on the old-school nautical genre, with unique world-building and characters that slowly grow on you. I can’t wait to see where things go in the sequels.
  2. The Girl in the Tower / The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden | April | This series feels exactly like someone telling you a story in front of the fireplace. Gorgeous prose with a spirited heroine (and an adorable horse).
  3. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune | 14 June | Reading this book is like floating in a cloud made of marshmallows, except there’s also a biting critique of bureaucracy.
  4. The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty | Feb-Aug | An immerse, expansive Arabic fantasy world, with characters you love and hate at the same time and complicated family politics (to say the least).
  5. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine | 31 Aug-2 Sep | A incredibly clever sci-fi novel with a lot to say about colonialism and the power of language, along with a sweet f/f romance (I adored Three Seagrass). A well-deserved Hugo winner.
  6. Blackbirds Sing by Aiki Flinthart | 22-27 Oct | A beautifully written collection of short stories, showcasing the diversity of women’s experiences in medieval England. Also one of the best audio performances of the year, bringing life to twenty-five (!!) different narrators.
  7. Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke | 8-9 Nov | Incredibly intricate plotting and world-building, as well as a nuanced portrayal of mental illness and invisible disabilities. Also features one of my favourite sibling relationships in fantasy, and
  8. The Philosophers series by Tom Miller | Oct-Dec | A well-thought out World War I fantasy novel with well-rounded characters and a unique, witty take on the magic school genre. Also one of the best uses of an author’s professional career I’ve seen (Miller is a former ER doctor writing about a team of flying paramedics).
  9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke | 3-4 Dec | The best kind of mind-fuck, with one of the kindest portrayals of a damaged soul I’ve seen. The less you know going into this one, the better.
  10. Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan | 18-19 Dec | Nuanced discussions of racism and sexism in science. The epistolary format is used to great effect to develop distinctive, well-rounded characters.

Goals for 2021

Firstly, to get through the large pile of ARCs I’ve accumulated (happily!) that are all scheduled for release in the first half of 2021. Secondly, to start making my way through the teetering pile of books I own but haven’t read yet. Beyond that, who knows… but if some of the books I read in 2021 are as good as this top 10 then I’ll be satisfied.

Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband Benjy have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

I want to start off by saying a few positive things about The Conductors. Firstly, I am not an #ownvoices reviewer so can’t speak to the historical accuracy nor how the legacy of slavery and the Civil War truly impacts black people, but I really enjoyed that this book included a wide variety of black characters. The Conductors features rich people and poor people, former slaves and free settlers, those who are still haunted by the Civil War and those who are doing their best to move on. Every character has unique and complex motivations, and is dealing with the cards they’ve been handed in their own way: there is very clearly no single post-Civil War mentality. When I read the synopsis, I thought this book sounded like a unique perspective on Civil War era literature, and the characters, at least, lived up to that ideal.

I also love marriages of convenience as a trope, so I really enjoyed Hetty and Benjy’s relationship and watching them slowly come to the realisation that it meant more to them than they were willing to admit, even if they were too scared of losing each other to do anything about it. I was definitely grinning like an idiot when they finally figured it out.

So why didn’t I rate this book more than two stars?

Frankly, because I was endlessly confused for most of it. The plot tries to do too much overall and I couldn’t keep up with all the new plot threads. More relevantly, however, there is a magic system in this book which seems to be loosely based on astrology (but with some healing potions also thrown in), but it’s never really clear how it works, who can wield magic, or what the boundaries of the system are. A lot of the magic-based scenes are hard to follow as a result. It’s also mentioned that white people practice different magic to black people, and that black people with ‘too much’ magic were routinely enslaved because they were perceived as a threat, but this was never really explored and I couldn’t understand the differences except that white people waved wands about like they were in Harry Potter. I thought the idea was hugely creative and could have been an interesting allegory for race relations, but it really needed a lot more fleshing out.

The lack of world-building also extends to the historical setting itself: this felt like 1800s Philadelphia in name only (and a few honorary mentions of wagons). I didn’t necessarily need a story that was only about how much it sucked to be black/a woman/queer historically, but there was very little sense of context. There is a lot of anachronistic dialogue. There are passing references to queer couples, women seeking to escape domestic abuse, and divides in who has access to resources like education, but the impacts of these issues are never fully explored, even though we are still feeling the after-effects of 19th century inequalities today. I appreciated that this is a story about a black community, rather than focusing on the white oppressors, but it felt like there was a gap in the story that could have been explored more.

A lot of these issues feel like common criticisms of debut authors still figuring out how to balance plot/characters/world-building, and I hope that’s the case, because there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book that that never quite made it to the surface. I’m not sure I’ll read any sequels to this particular story, but I’ll keep an eye out for what else Nicole Glover writes. I’m also keen to read more fantasy novels based on this time period, and hope this might inspire a few more.

Note: I received an ARC from John Joseph Adams in exchange for a review. The Conductors will be released on 2 March 2021.

Review: Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Add Persephone Station on Goodreads

Rating: 2/5

Review

When I read the blurb for Persephone Station, I thought it sounded amazing. A genre-bending infusion of science-fiction and weird Westerns with a predominantly queer cast.

And, from the outset, at least one of those things fulfilled my expectations in a good way: Persephone Station features a large cast of characters, many of whom are people of colour, nearly all of whom are women (in addition to one nonbinary protagonist, who uses they/them pronouns) and nearly all of whom are queer. This is a queernorm world, and while science fiction is improving in this regard, I always do a little dance of joy when a book makes it clear that there’s no essentialist gender fuckery to be found within the first few pages.

Unfortunately, the flipside of being a genre-bending story is that Persephone Station simply tried to do too much, and didn’t stick the landing(s). Again, there is a large cast of POV characters, but it was incredibly difficult to differentiate their POVs from narrative tone and voice alone, and I kept getting confused about who was who. Given that some of these characters were not human, I would have liked to have seen more distinctive POVs. Additionally, there’s a lot of info-dumping about characters’ backgrounds and motivations, particularly in the first half, rather than naturally revealing these elements as the plot progressed.

There’s also two separate plot threads, and keeping track of them got confusing very quickly (especially since there are also lots of minor plot points that don’t clearly fit in). The more interesting of the two stories to me dealt with the colonisation of this backwater planet by the giant Serrao-Orlov Corporation, and the lengths the indigenous population of the planet went to protect their existence. While colonisation is not a unexplored topic in science fiction, I like that this book tackled some of its new and evolving faces: as an Australian, there were lots of parallels to the fraught relationship between indigenous Australians and mining companies.

The other plot thread deals with the rights of AI, and I frankly wasn’t particularly interested in this issue at all, which wasn’t helped by all the jumping around. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it picked a single issue and stuck to it.

Overall, I really loved the ideas in this book, and will always champion diverse fiction, but I didn’t connect to any of the characters enough for a 500 page book. I hope this book finds a home with readers who will love it more than I did.

Note: I received an ARC from Saga Press in exchange for a review. Persephone Station will be released on 5 January 2021.

Review: The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother–The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper–has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.

But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.

To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.

Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything–ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun–to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Firstly, The Forever Sea has already secured itself a place on my hypothetical ‘top covers of 2021’ list…. and 2021 hasn’t even started yet. It drew me in right from the start with its bright colours and then got me intrigued… sailing ships are on the covers of nautical fantasy everywhere, except wait, that’s grass.

The creativity and boldness of the cover thankfully carried over into the world-building, which was by far my favourite thing about this book. It’s a little too grounded to be classified as ‘weird fiction’, but there’s that same sense of a completely alien world that’s impossible to imagine juxtaposed anywhere on earth. The descriptions of the dense, lucious grasses and the crackling, spluttering hearthfires in the centre of the ships were vivid, and I felt the wonder that Kindred experienced every time she contemplated the Forever Sea, but I could also sense the unknown dangers that kept others in Kindred’s crew on edge. This is truly an epic environmental fantasy: there is a clear message about adapting one’s way of life to the local habitat, and everything in this story – the foods the characters eat, the materials their homes are built from, even the way they regulate their exercise and movements due to lack of water – is influenced by the fact that they are literally floating on a giant sea of grass.

Energy was a luxury. There were no fights, no drunken brawls in poorly lit alleys. Such anger required blood singing with water. Rage was for the rich and not to be wasted.

There’s also a hint of magic in this book – Kindred is responsible for tending to the hearthfires that power ships across the Forever Sea. These fires use bones to fuel them – a mystery I’m keen to learn more about in the sequels, since little is known about the process of harvesting these bones from their willing donors – and while anyone can learn to tend the fire, very few people can hear the fire singing to them, telling them what it needs, and Kindred is more adept than most. I get the sense there’s a lot more to play out on this front in the coming books.

And, of course, there is also a very clear message about environmental degradation. The Forever Sea is starting to die due to over-harvesting, forcing people to venture further and further from their homes in source of materials and creating a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction, while water scarcity is leading people to more and more desperate acts. I would have liked to have seen more of the politics surrounding these issues: the war over water often took a back seat to the story about Kindred’s affinity for the hearthfire and the grassy seas, and it wasn’t always clear who the key players were or what tipping point had lead them down this path.

As for the rest of the book: the characters are well-rounded, particularly Kindred, her love interest Sarah, and the Captain of their crew. I did struggle to like Kindred as much as I wanted to, though I expect that will be a matter of personal preference: she’s incredibly instinct-driven, often to the point of recklessness, and her actions have consequences that can be devastating for the crew. Even when I understood her motivations, she was a little too headstrong for me. The romance between Kindred and Sarah is sweet, but felt a little rushed – we learn early on that Kindred has a giant crush – but we never really see the pair interact before they’re falling headfirst into romance. It was also great to see a story where all the key roles on a ship are taken by queer women, and this is clearly unremarkable.

My main criticism is that this book needed a judicious pruning (sorry, not sorry). The story at times feels bloated, as the same messages about Kindred knowing the sea better than anyone are hammered home repeatedly. At points, there’s a little too much waxing lyrically about the beauty of the sea, and not enough time spent getting on with the plot. That feels like a fairly minor complaint given how much I loved learning about this world, but I did have to drag myself through some of the middle of third of this book, and resented retreading old ground. There’s also some gaps in the plot – nothing that ruined the story for me – but a lot the events that take place once Kindred and crew reach the Once City come seemingly out of nowhere, and aren’t really integrated well into the rest of the story.

Overall, however, this book is incredibly unique and daring in its approach to world-building, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW in exchange for a review. The Forever Sea will be released on 19 January 2021.

Review: Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

It started with poison and rebellion. It continues with war and witchcraft.

The deadly siege of Silasta woke the ancient spirits, and the city-state must find its place in this new world of magic.

But people and politics are always treacherous, and it will take all of Jovan and Kalina’s skills to save the city-state when witches and assassins set their sights to domination.

Poison was only the beginning . . .

Rating: 4.5/5

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Review

I read City of Lies around this time last year, and while I liked it, I didn’t love it. However, I remember thinking that Sam Hawke was a debut author with a lot of talent, and someone to watch out for as they released more work. There are a few (minor) spoilers from City of Lies below.

And I was (thankfully) right. Hollow Empire picks up two years after City of Lies finished, with Jovan and Kalina still muddling their way through the consequences of the siege of Silasta and figuring out how to put the broken pieces of their country back together, while also preventing new fissures from emerging. The pacing – my biggest issue with City of Lies – is watertight from the start, Jovan and Kalina’s POVs feel much more equal, and the key conflicts of this book flow naturally from the previous, and are new and fresh while still being deeply connected to what has come before.

“You never get used to poisoning a child.”

Firstly, Sam Hawke is the master of opening lines, and Hollow Empire follows through. There are so many twists and turns in this book, and this pervasive sense of suspicion and fear that permeates the entire story: it’s impossible to tell who Jovan and Kalina can and can’t trust. It’s hard to say too much about the premise of the book without spoilers, but there is a combination of internal and external politics that are hard to pick apart: the city and the Guilders on the Council are still adjusting to the changes in governance that occurred following the revelations about the Darfri in book one, but there are also several foreign ambassadors in town for a festival, some of whom have political ambitions of their own.

I have to admit that I didn’t pick up a lot of the reveals, but they made sense in hindsight since the breadcrumb trail is so well-scattered. This book is also a lot darker than City of Lies in some ways: the ratio of murders to pages is probably about the same, but the attacks are more personalised, and more sinister in nature.

Both Jovan and Kalina remain the strong, stoic and kind-hearted individuals of the previous book, which I adored. The side characters are also fascinating, though it’s hard to necessarily like any of them (except perhaps Jovan and Kalina’s niece Dija), because you never know if one of them is going to metaphorically or actually stab one of the siblings in the back. (And, if I had one complaint about Hollow Empire, it’s that I would have loved to see more of a role for Tain, the Chancellor and my favourite character). But, if you like reading about good people who try their best to do the right thing and follow their own moral compass (even when it directs them slightly off-course), then I highly recommend this series.

There is also great disability rep: Jovan suffers from anxiety, while Kalina has an illness somewhat like chronic fatigue – and while the characters may be forced to slow down and take a deep breath sometimes, they are never inhibited in pursuing their goals one way or another. There is also an f/f relationship between Kalina and another character, and while it wasn’t my favourite part of the story since it didn’t get a lot of screen-time to fully develop, I know many readers will be thrilled. (Also Tain continues to be less subtle about his crush on Jovan than he’d like).

The Poison Wars is marketed as a duology, but it’s clear these characters aren’t done making Silasta a better place, and I am in desperate need of another sequel.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the chapter epigraphs. Where City of Lies started each chapter with a description of a various poison, Hollow Empire gives us entries from the diaries of previous Oromani family proofers, regarding the investigation of various poisoning incidents. I often skim epigraphs – but these are hilarious, and full of shout of outs to other authors in the fantasy community. (some of whom are the victims of insidious poison-related murder). It’s worth reading them just to see how many you can spot.

Note: I received an ARC from Bantam Press in exchange for a review. Hollow Empire will be released on 26 November in the UK and Australia and on 1 December in the US (by Tor).