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.

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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.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

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

I should stop dreaming about 2021 releases and actually read the backlog of books I already have available to me, but alas.

This week I’m waiting on On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu (I actually have an ARC of this one to read, so I feel slightly less guilty).

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.

The treatment of refugees in Australia is a contentious – and heartbreaking – issue, and I’m really curious to see what issues Yu brings to the forefront in a fictional context. I have no doubt this book is going to be incredibly sad, but it’s a story that I think is very important to tell.

On Fragile Waves will be released on 2 February 2021 from Erewhon.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Greek Myths

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

I’m going for a mini theme this week: a (not really) quick scroll through my TBR highlighted how many releases about Greek myths and legends I have lined up to read in 2021. Retellings – particularly ones that reconsider the original canon through a feminist lens and while also saying something about modern gender relations – are something I will always look forward to.

So, this week I’m waiting on Daughter of Sparta by Claire Andrews and Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood (are you sensing any other themes?).

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body and mind into that of a warrior, hoping to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. But an unexpected encounter with the goddess Artemis—who holds Daphne’s brother’s fate in her hands—upends the life she’s worked so hard to build. Nine mysterious items have been stolen from Mount Olympus and if Daphne cannot find them, the gods’ waning powers will fade away, the mortal world will descend into chaos, and her brother’s life will be forfeit.

Guided by Artemis’s twin-the handsome and entirely-too-self-assured god Apollo-Daphne’s journey will take her from the labyrinth of the Minotaur to the riddle-spinning Sphinx of Thebes, team her up with mythological legends such as Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons, and pit her against the gods themselves.

As princesses of Sparta, Helen and Klytemnestra have known nothing but luxury and plenty. With their high birth and unrivaled beauty, they are the envy of all of Greece. But such privilege comes at a cost. While still only girls, the sisters are separated and married to foreign kings of their father’s choosing – Helen remains in Sparta to be betrothed to Menelaos, and Klytemnestra is sent alone to an unfamiliar land to become the wife of the powerful Agamemnon. Yet even as Queens, each is only expected to do two things: birth an heir and embody the meek, demure nature that is expected of women.

But when the weight of their husbands’ neglect, cruelty, and ambition becomes too heavy to bear, Helen and Klytemnestra must push against the constraints of their society to carve new lives for themselves, and in doing so, make waves that will ripple throughout the next three thousand years.

Daughter of Sparta will be released on 8 June 2021 by Jimmy Patterson Books. Daughters of Sparta will be released on 20 July 2021 by Dutton books.

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.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings. I have an insane number of 2021 books on my TBR, so this seems like an appropriate activity to take part in.

This week I’m waiting on The Councillor, by E.J. Beaton.

This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar’s quest to choose the next ruler of her kingdom amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination.

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.

I can never pass up the opportunity to spotlight an Australian author, particularly on debut. Throw in the phrase ‘Machiavellian fantasy’, and the possibilities associated with a non-hereditary monarchy, and I’m sold.

The Councillor will be released on 2 March 2021 from DAW Books.

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).

Review: A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha

With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.

There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain.

If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers…into food.

Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.

As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?

With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

2020 has blessed us with several queer retellings of myths and fairytales, and I was admittedly concerned that A Curse of Roses would feel too similar to other books I’ve read this year to give it an objective review. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. Elements of Portuguese history and culture are both deeply interwoven into Yzabel’s story, which gave this book a unique perspective – exactly the purpose of an #ownvoices retelling.

Like most retellings, the plot is fairly basic, and Yzabel and Fatyan’s relationship follows a fairly standard cursed-mentee/wise mentor template, though both characters are interesting enough in their own right to make up for the straightforward narrative. Also, Yzabel is thirsty for Fatyan, and I loved it.

However, this book is much more a historical novel than I anticipated; Yzabel and her fiancé, Denis, are based on real Portuguese royals, and there are several references to the Reconquista. This leads to the most interesting part of the novel, for me: Yzabel struggles deeply with internalised homophobia and reconciling her desire for Fatyan with her Christian faith. I thought this book did an excellent job of pointing out the role that religion played in controlling women’s lives in the Middle Ages and the hypocrisy of various religious leaders, while also respecting Yzabel’s beliefs and the way she embodied what she saw as Christian values of charity and kindness. Pinguicha also does an excellent job at balancing the period-typical homophobia with an acknowledgment of the fact that queer women existed everywhere in history, and were often able to use gender stereotypes to their advantage in carving-out safe spaces for themselves without men getting suspicious.

If I had any issues with this book, it’s that I would have liked a slightly broader scope. This is a very tight-knit book with a small cast of characters, and almost all of the action takes place within the castle and the immediately surrounding streeting (save for one steamy scene in the local baths… ). I also think this book could have benefited from expanding a little more on Portuguese history for those of us who are relatively unfamiliar; without going into spoiler territory, some of the final conflict in this book is based on the divide between Christians and Muslims, which feels a little abrupt without a good understanding of the historical context. (I did quite a bit of Googling afterwards).

I’m not sure it’s really necessary for me to extoll the importance of ownvoices narratives to anyone who’s gotten this far into my review, but A Curse of Roses was definitely another example of how much diverse perspectives can bring to the fantasy genre.

Note: I received an ARC from Entangled Teen. A Curse of Roses is available from 1 December.

Review: Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam

When Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as the heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire behind. But her recruitment by the Novantaen Resistance, an organization opposed to the empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.

Eris has been assigned a new mission: to infiltrate a spaceship ferrying deadly cargo and return the intelligence gathered to the Resistance. But her partner for the mission, mechanic and hotshot pilot Cloelia, bears an old grudge against Eris, making an already difficult infiltration even more complicated.

When they find the ship, they discover more than they bargained for: three fugitives with firsthand knowledge of the corrupt empire’s inner workings.

Together, these women possess the knowledge and capabilities to bring the empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: the new heir to the empire plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining alien empire, ensuring the empire’s continued expansion. If they can find a way to stop him, they will save the galaxy. If they can’t, millions may die.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I have been eager to read this book ever since I heard about it – I was sold on the concept of a queer, feminist space opera duology and then I learnt that the title was inspired by a Florence and the Machine Song (which reminded me of my fanfic-writing days, trawling through my music library for the perfect song lyric because I had no idea what else to use as a title and wanted to be ~poetic). In the authors’ defence, the lyrics suit the mood of Seven Devils perfectly:

Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out

Seven devils all around you
Seven devils in my house
See they were there when I woke up this morning
I’ll be dead before the day is done

This book absolutely lives up to the queer, feminist hype: all five of the POVs are women, including black and brown women, and women who are bisexual, lesbian and asexual, as well as a trans woman in a position of power. For the most part, Seven Devils doesn’t explicitly grapple with feminist themes, but it was nice to have a book where all of the ‘heroes’ are women with their own roles and responsibilities within the crew, and no one bats an eyelid. One character Ariadne, is also portrayed as neuro-divergent, while Clo has a prosthetic leg. Oh, and there’s a (somewhat) explicit queer sex scene. Note: this is not a young adult book, and I’ll save my rant about it being classified that way for another day.

I loved all of the characters, though I had some particular favourites in Eris (the former Princess Discordia) and Rhea, a former courtesan for Princess Discordia’s brother, the awful Damocles. The POVs all felt relatively unique – a hard task when juggling five of them – and all the characters are given opportunities to be both strong and vulnerable. (There are no tropey badass warrior women here).

The plot is pretty much resistance fighters in space 101. This didn’t bother me – since women have so rarely gotten to tell and star in those stories – but may bother more hardcore science fiction fans looking for something unique.

Where this book fell down for me was primarily in the pacing: as well as experiencing all five POVs in present time, we get flashback chapters to explain how they meet each other and defining events that led to them rebelling against the Empire, and it’s a lot. The constant jumping around in time disrupted the flow of the narrative and often read more like info-dumps. There’s also a lot of world-building which comes at the expense of the characters: a lot of the word count is taken up explaining sciencey stuff or setting out the relationships between the Empire and various other races and planets)… often by telling us that the Empire destroyed a particularly place or group. The Empire is clearly evil, but you don’t get a sense of what that means emotionally because its worst atrocities are outlined separately from the main characters’ arcs. To fit all this in, some of the characters’ interactions are rushed – characters resolve their differences and fall in love a little too quickly.

I know duologies are becoming increasingly popular, but I feel like this book could have easily been the first of a trilogy that doled out the world-building and character backstories in slightly smaller doses and gave the plot and characters more time to breathe.

Overall, I recommend Seven Devils and hope the trend of diverse space operas continues. Now that the world is well-established, I’m looking forward to seeing what May and Lam do in the sequel.

Review: A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

Thea Hope longs to be an alchemist out of the shadow of her famous mother. The two of them are close to creating the legendary Philosopher’s Stone—whose properties include immortality and can turn any metal into gold—but just when the promise of the Stone’s riches is in their grasp, Thea’s mother destroys the Stone in a sudden fit of violent madness. While combing through her mother’s notes, Thea learns that there’s a curse on the Stone that causes anyone who tries to make it to lose their sanity. With the threat of the French Revolution looming, Thea is sent to Oxford for her safety, to live with the father who doesn’t know she exists. But in Oxford, there are alchemists after the Stone who don’t believe Thea’s warning about the curse—instead, they’ll stop at nothing to steal Thea’s knowledge of how to create the Stone. But Thea can only run for so long, and soon she will have to choose: create the Stone and sacrifice her sanity, or let the people she loves die. | Goodreads

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

A Golden Fury covers a topic rarely seen in YA fantasy: alchemy. Add that to the fact that I love books about the French Revolution and I was immediately compelled to request an ARC.

To start with, I thought A Golden Fury was well-written for a debut, and there were some cool ideas in here that I thought were worth exploring. I liked the science-based approach to alchemy and the hints that the field of alchemy was much broader than the stuffy European alchemists were willing to open their eyes and consider. (Though I will note that this would have had more weight if the non-white character who apparently taught Thea her skills was actually given some page time). A Golden Fury is also unafraid of madness: the standout scenes in this book are those where Thea is slowly loosing her grip on reality, to the extent that as the reader, even I wasn’t quite sure what was real anymore. Cohoe really captured the suffocating feeling of losing control.

That said, I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. Everyone, from Thea to the love interests and the antagonists, seemed to say or do whatever was necessary to drive the plot forward. I couldn’t connect with anyone in this book and thought some of their actions made little sense, which undercut some of the major plot reveals. Additionally, characters’ motivations were typically revealed only once convenient, and hints at interesting backstories were mostly dead-ends. Character development is what makes or breaks a book for me, and unfortunately for the most part, it didn’t exist in this book. Cohoe did, however, nail the thorny relationship between Thea and her mother, and Thea’s self-doubt about living up to her mother’s standards as an alchemist felt real and pervasive.. I will also give the author plenty of kudos for her treatment of the staple YA love triangle – without spoiling the outcome, let’s just say that the mere existence of a love triangle in this book is in fact somewhat of a ruse.

Overall, the weak character development overshadowed any excitement I had about the prospect of an alchemy-based plot and while this was an easy read, it’s not one that I had any deep and meaningful feelings about.

A note on the marketing

Remember how I said I love books about the French Revolution? Well, it turns out that the majority of this book actually takes place in England. The revolutionaries’ attitude toward towards co-opting science for the revolution is mentioned early on as the reason why Thea must flee to England, but then conveniently dropped and never mentioned again. As it turns out, Thea doesn’t have a lot of interest in revolutionary politics of any description. Nor does she have much interest in English politics in Oxford, except occasionally to argue that women should be able to study alchemy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I got my hopes up based on the description, and I suspect others may have as well.

Note: I received an ARC from Wednesday Books in exchange for a review. A Golden Fury will be released on 13 October 2020.