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.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Widow Queen by Elżbieta Cherezińska

This week I’m waiting on The Widow Queen by Elżbieta Cherezińska (translated by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim)

The bold one, they call her—too bold for most.

To her father, the great duke of Poland, Swietoslawa and her two sisters represent three chances for an alliance. Three marriages on which to build his empire.

But Swietoslawa refuses to be simply a pawn in her father’s schemes; she seeks a throne of her own, with no husband by her side.

The gods may grant her wish, but crowns sit heavy, and power is a sword that cuts both ways.

This isn’t really a new book I guess (given its status as a translation), but I’m keen to learn something about Polish history via fantasy (my knowledge is very limited, so it won’t take much). Plus women defying marriage is a trope I always love.

The Widow Queen will be released on 6 April 2021 by Tor.

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.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Sistersong by Lucy Hounsom

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on Sistersong by Lucy Hounsom.

535 AD. In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, King Cador’s children inherit a fragmented land abandoned by the Romans.

Riva, scarred in a terrible fire, fears she will never heal.
Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, when born a daughter.
And Sinne, the spoiled youngest girl, yearns for romance.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold – a last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. But change comes on the day ash falls from the sky, bringing Myrddhin, meddler and magician, and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the siblings apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne must take fate into their own hands, or risk being tangled in a story they could never have imagined; one of treachery, love and ultimately, murder. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.

(Very) early Middle Ages? Check. Feminism and sisterhood without gender essentialism? Check. Perfect for fans of Madeline Miller? Check. I also love the cover and can’t wait to see this book on shelves.

Sistersong will be released on 13 April 2021 by Macmillan.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Sequels edition

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine & Namesake by Adrienne Young.

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.

Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found

I’ve been reading R.J. Barker’s Call of the Bone Ships (which is so far incredible), and it reminded me how many other great books are awaiting sequels in 2021. A Memory Called Empire was a well-deserved Hugo winner and one of my favourite books of 2020, and I can’t wait to see what potentially empire-shattering trouble Merit and Three Seagrass find themselves experiencing in the sequel. (I luckily have an ARC, so shouldn’t have to wait much longer). Meanwhile, Fable was one of the best YA fantasy books I read in 2020 (and had one of the best covers): it slipped under my end of year roundup radar due to all the amazing adult SFF I read, but this rollocking pirate adventure is well worth a read.

A Desolation Called Peace will be released on 2 March 2021 by Tor Books. Namesake will be released on 16 March 2021 by Wednesday Books.

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.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings.

This week I’m waiting on The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird.

Welcome to The Emporium of Imagination, a most unusual shop that travels the world offering vintage gifts to repair broken dreams and extraordinary phones to contact lost loved ones.

But, on arrival in the tiny township of Boonah, the store’s long-time custodian, Earlatidge Hubert Umbray, makes a shocking realisation. He is dying…

The clock is now ticking to find his replacement, because the people of Boonah are clearly in need of some restorative magic.

Like Enoch Rayne – a heartbroken ten-year-old boy mourning the loss of his father, while nurturing a guilty secret.

Like Ann Harlow, who has come to the town to be close to her dying grandmother. Though it’s Enoch’s father who dominates her thoughts – and regrets . . .

Even Earlatidge in his final days will experience the store as never before – and have the chance to face up to his own tragedy . . .

I loved Bird’s 2020 debut, A Lifetime of Impossible Days, a hard-hitting magical realism novel about the intergenerational impacts of abuse, and I have no doubt her sophomore novel will be as beautiful, and as heartbreaking.

The Emporium of Imagination will be released on 30 March 2021 by Penguin Random House Australia.

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.

However, there were a few reasons I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped I might. Frankly, 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.