Review: Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

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

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

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

. . . she is not the hero.

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

Review

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Tuesday: Dynamic Duos

I struggled with this prompt for a little while since while I love stories about BFFs, I sadly didn’t have many to recommend. So behold, instead, a post about duologies:

  1. The Greenhollow duology by Emily Tesh
    Two delightfully lush, woodsy and queer stories about the Green Man, Tobias and his lover Henry. As well as the romance, this duology is well worth reading for Henry’s mother, the indomitable Mrs Silver
  2. The Philosophers series by Tom Miller
    This series is one of my all time favourites. I love the alt!history premise and the characters all leap off the page, while the author’s expertise in emergency medicine also shines through.
  3. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
    Natasha Pulley has gotten better with time, and while these aren’t my favourite of her books, many of her trademarks are already there: the quiet, contemplative atmosphere, the musings about language and communication, and the slow-burn romance in particular.
  4. A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland
    I love the enormity of the world-building in this series, and there’s also some fantastic humour underneath. The first book was good, but the second book stole the show for me, thanks to Ylfing, whose continued desire to right wrongs (regardless of who made them) is incredibly uplifting.
  5. The Shadow Histories by H.G. Parry
    Firstly, I’m still mad that Parry made me have a bunch of feelings about William Pitt, of all people. Secondly, this series is a great example of how a duology can be used to play with reader expectations. I enjoyed the first book, but thought it was far too white male centric; so of course the second book flipped that narrative and focused on why ignoring other voices is a complete folly.
  6. Sorcerer Royal by Zen Cho
    A fantasy of manners duology that focuses on people of colour and queer people in Britain. I didn’t like the second book as much as the first – because no one can beat the delightful pairing of Zacharias and Prunella, who I wish had been the stars of both books – but I’m still recommending it for a series that does something different with the genre.
  7. Teixcalaan by Arkady Martine
    It’s hard to put into words why these books are so good – though to start with Martine uses words to much better effect than I do. I really enjoyed the political intrigue element of the story, the focus on world-building through cultural institutions, and of course the burgeoning relationship between Mahit and Three Seagrass.
  8. Poison Wars by Sam Hawke
    I really loved seeing the evolution of Hawke throughout this series from good debut author to talent to watch. This series is full of unique world-building, excellent disability representation, and engrossing political intrigue.
  9. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
    This is excellent retelling that makes the Romeo & Juliet story its own without losing the original themes. I particularly enjoyed the detailed Shanghai setting, and the story itself is fast-paced with plenty of twists and turns.
  10. Clocktaur War by T. Kingfisher
    This duology is more like one story split into two books, so I recommend reading them closely together. It’s not the most unique story on this list, but it’s so much fun – there is plenty of action, witty banter and romance.


Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.

And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

Publication details: 19 April 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

Spear was one of my most anticipated books of 2022, despite the fact that I’ve never read any of Nicola Griffith’s other works (because of, really; a shiny new book is always the best way to get me into an author, at which point I know I will then dedicate myself to their backlist). I also really love Arthurian myths. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a lyrical story about Peretur, a Welsh girl with an uncanny connection to nature, who sets out on a quest to find her true self. The highlight is definitely the prose; it’s rich and ethereal, much like the main character herself. Griffith smartly blends inspirations from the original text (of note, this story adopts the relatively free-form structure of ancient ballads), with more modern language that brilliantly creates a sense of time and place. Spear feels a lot like a fine, hand-knitted garment; the finished piece is smooth and faultless, but you can also sense the amount of time and effort that went into every word.

The story itself is a simple one, but it’s easy to get swept up in Peretur’s adventure. For those looking specifically for a queer retelling, it’s both an important part of the story and just another part of Peretur’s life; the women she loves shape her story, but she certainly doesn’t give a lot of thought to examining her sexuality, which is want for the time period. Spear does suffer a little from the fault borne by many of the Arthurian legends – Peretur’s magical gifts do make her a little too perceptive and skilled at times to really connect with, despite Griffith’s best efforts to hone in on the challenges she faces in her emotional journey as a counterpoint – and some of the side characters are very lightly sketched. But those are my only real complaints in an otherwise wonderful story.

There’s a very extensive author’s note at the back (it made up about 10 per cent of the e-book ARC) where Griffith’s talks about her research into Arthurian Britain and the wide array of myths and stories about Peretur (known under various names) that influenced Spear, and which made me appreciate the care with which this story was crafted and told even more. Though my favourite part of the author’s note is this comment that: ‘… for me, historical accuracy also meant that this could not be a story of only straight, white non-disabled men’, because it’s straight to the point but also sums up Griffith’s efforts to draw upon the widest possible understanding of the Arthurian legends: both as they originally were, and as we re-interpret them in our modern world.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Too Good to Review Properly

This year, I’ll be participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by thatartsyreadergirl.

This is a mixed list of books – some of them are genuinely too good to review properly, but most of them are actually too difficult to review. This is (in part) my list of books that are so caught up with a specific time, place or feeling, it’s difficult to put such a personal experience into words.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
    Part of the reason this book is hard to review is because it’s best to go into it knowing as little as possible, and to let yourself be swept along with the main character. It’s definitely an experience best lived without expectation – making Piranesi very hard to review for other readers.
  2. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
    It’s equally hard to review a book where the pitch is just ‘it hurts. You need to read it’. Plenty of people have put into words why Butler is a master of the genre, so luckily I didn’t have to.
  3. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
    This one is so specifically caught up in a time period for me that any review would struggle to articulate why it’s objectively good. I read this in the middle of a global pandemic, sad about celebrating my birthday alone – at any other time it may well have been too twee, but in that moment, it was exactly the soft, quiet balm for my soul that I needed.
  4. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
    I read this book when I was just getting back into epic fantasy after a long absence, and a large part of its meaning for me was in reminding me that there is a place for women and queer people in the general after all. Someone actually wrote a 900 page tome (that, admittedly, totally should have been a duology) with people like me in mind.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
    This is the book that made 14 year old me want to be a writer (still a dream, if I ever find the right plot). I’ve read this several times and I always find something new in the richness of the language and the way the story unfurls over time. I’ve also met the author (this is my most treasured signed book) and he’s a total gem of a person.
  6. The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty
    I binged my way through all 700+ pages of this two years ago, and never wrote a review. Looking back, I’d struggle to review this book because I’ve forgotten a lot of the details, I just remember being completely immersed in the world and feeling a desperate need to keep reading and find out what happened next.
  7. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
    Another book that I read at the right time when I was desperately in need of something optimistic. It’s also hard to review without mentioning the highly formal prose – but I worry that would turn many readers off when, imo, it’s one of the most creative and fun parts of the book once you get your head around it.
  8. To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
    I find Chambers more hit and miss than many do, but this is by far my favourite of her books. It’s technically very competent – good prose, well-rounded characters, story fits nicely in the restricted novella length – but what it really does well is capture the sheer awe and horror of space exploration, and really bring back all those childhood feelings about how cool it would be to explore the great unknown, but with an adult tinge of better understanding the difficult ethical questions that come alongside it. I’m glad I read this pre-pandemic when I was less jaded.
  9. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
    These books are actually fairly easy to review individually – Lady Trent charms us with her narrative voice, plot things happen – but this is a series where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, for me. Each book is fun on its own, but the real joy is in seeing the mystery unfold across the series, until the jaw dropping moment in book #5 where you realise exactly what Isabella is seeing, and all the clues slot into place. I don’t typically re-read, but I’m very tempted to revisit this series this year.
  10. The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
    Another book that should be easy to review; this is basically the textbook example of how to write a science fiction thriller that uses all the elements of the genre to best effect. But I spent most of the book with my heart in my mouth, making it very difficult to form coherent sentences when I was first done.

Five Mini Reviews, Part II

How is it already mid-February (and time for another five mini reviews)? This round of reviews includes two books I really loved, and a few I wished I enjoyed more than I actually did.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
One of those books that has some objective flaws, but that I had too much fun reading to care. I enjoyed the sci-fi and mystery elements, but the highlight for more was definitely the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainen; miscommunication as a trope is very risky, but here it was the good kind of painful as both characters worked through the various personal traumas they carried into their arranged marriage. Maxwell uses various romance tropes to great effect to showcase the characters’ shifting dynamic over time. 4.5/5

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Despite being more renowned for his long fiction, Tchaikovsky is responsible for two of my favourite novellas in the past twelve months, this one being the second. It’s a pretty simple concept – sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – but I loved how Tchaikovsky played with the language barrier between Lynesse and Nyr, and the idea that we all interpret meaning in different ways. It’s also – surprisingly – the best book I’ve read about clinical depression that I can remember, as Nyr struggles to keep his brain chemicals in check with the help of medical aids, while doing his anthropological duties and trying not to suffer under the weight of being the last of his kind on this particular planet. It does suffer for balance, due to Lyn’s POV being essentially standard epic fantasy fare and therefore far less engaging than Nyr’s, but it’s still an excellent read. 4/5

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente is an an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and I definitely admire her chops – there is a lot of wit in this story about Eurovision in space. Too much, in fact; it takes a long time to establish who the main character even is, and it’s quite clear that they’re of secondary interest compared to various tangents that poke at some pretty uncomfortable truths about 21st century British society, but also seem designed to show off exactly how smart the author is. Also, there was way less singing than I would have expected from a (literal) space opera. 2.5/5

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Martha Wells is an author I admire greatly and this book came highly recommended, but sadly it wasn’t for me. There’s some really excellent world-building: it feels expansive, and it’s full of non-human shifters that genuinely feel alien in perspective. But I never connected with any of the characters and didn’t find the plot particularly compelling either. 3/5

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
I finally came back to this series almost two years after I read (and enjoyed) the first book. It still has all the things I enjoyed about book #1 – the fast-paced plot, the seamless blend of Arabic and Roman influences, the well-executed plot twists – and I found myself easily re-immersed in the world. That said, I found the villains rather cartoonish; there’s a lot of deaths in this book that feel like the mass murder equivalent of the evil dude kicking the dog. 4/5

Review: The Liar’s Knot by M.A. Carrick

In Nadezra, peace is as tenuous as a single thread. The ruthless House Indestor has been destroyed, but darkness still weaves through the city’s filthy back alleys and jewel-bright gardens, seen by those who know where to look.

Derossi Vargo has always known. He has sacrificed more than anyone imagines to carve himself a position of power among the nobility, hiding a will of steel behind a velvet smile. He’ll be damned if he lets anyone threaten what he’s built.

Grey Serrado knows all too well. Bent under the yoke of too many burdens, he fights to protect the city’s most vulnerable. Sooner or later, that fight will demand more than he can give.

And Ren, daughter of no clan, knows best of all. Caught in a knot of lies, torn between her heritage and her aristocratic masquerade, she relies on her gift for reading pattern to survive. And it shows her the web of corruption that traps her city.

But all three have yet to discover just how far that web stretches. And in the end, it will take more than knives to cut themselves free…

Publication details: 9 December 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

The Mask of Mirrors was one of my favourite books of 2021 and I was thrilled to get an ARC of book #2 not long after I read it (even if I then delayed said review, since I was decidedly not in an epic fantasy mood for a few weeks).

Luckily, I loved The Liar’s Knot as much as The Mask of Mirrors, though it’s a very different book in some ways. Secondary world urban fantasy is something that I wish we saw more of, and this series does it wonderfully. Like the first book, the setting is a real highlight. There are clear Venetian inspirations, but none of it feels paint by the numbers, particularly given the various high fantasy concepts woven throughout, which we learn a lot more about in this book. Nadezra also feels like a lived-in place, as we get lots of little details about both the city and its various inhabitants that help build the big picture.

A side note, but I really like the way that ethnic tensions are seeded throughout the book. This series is not a full-blown war story between rival factions, but you can feel things bubbling along under the surface (with the occasional fiery outbreak), in a way that feels much deeper and more complex to unpick than just ‘culture A hates culture B for reasons’. It’s clear the authors have spent a lot of time thinking through their world-building in all its sociopolitical detail.

But while the world-building remains top-notch, it’s clear the characters have moved on from The Mask of Mirrors. By the end of book #1, Ren had tied herself up in all kinds of knots as she tried to maintain three seperate secret identities, and there was a sense of frantic energy as you knew it had to unravel… but when? The fun, and the tension, came from watching each of our characters trying to hide all of their various secrets, and digging themselves a new hole with every one they climbed out of. To their credit, the authors don’t try to keep this masquerade up past the point that it’s no longer believable – instead, the focus shifts to what it means for characters to trust each other and find common ground in pursuit of their various goals. The result is a much more intimate – but equally tense – sequel, as we see what choices our characters make armed with new information about each other.

I am very curious to see whether our characters’ tentative new bonds can weather the storm that’s inevitably coming in book #3. After all, all our characters – not just Ren – still have plenty of secrets to be revealed.

Top Ten Tuesday: Character Names in the Title

This year, I’ll be participating in Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by thatartsyreadergirl.

I thought this was going to be difficult to come up with ten choices, but it turns out I’ve actually read a lot of books with names in the title… and have a lot more on my TBR.

  1. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
    I limited myself to one per author, and it was a hard choice between The Song of Achilles and Circe, but Achilles made me cry, which meant it perversely won out.
  2. Sabriel by Garth Nix
    A classic that I came to as an adult, and I didn’t love it any less for that. Though I do wish I’d had Sabriel as an example of fantasy featuring strong women when I was younger. I’m not sure how I missed this series.
  3. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
    This middle grade novel packs a punch, and has a lot to say to both kids and adults alike. A great example of diversity in fiction for younger readers.
  4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    Again, it was a tough choice between this and Piranesi, but I have to admire Clarke for putting out a book so dense and ambitious for her debut. It’s not for everyone, but this book really rewards close reading and is one of my favourites.
  5. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
    From chonky adult fantasy to chonky YA, the Lunar Chronicles series is one of my favourites. I love the way that Meyer keeps elements of each fairytale but also makes them completely her own.
  6. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
    This book has a bit of a cult following over at r/fantasy and I can see why. It’s wildly imaginative, and the prose is excellent. I really need to get around to reading the sequels.
  7. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova 
    I included this one in last week’s Top Ten Tuesday, but I’m adding it again because I enjoyed it so much.
  8. Lore by Alexandra Bracken
    It doesn’t matter how many times I recommend this book, I still find the cover very unsettling. But the book itself is a fun blend of urban fantasy and Greek myths, and very easy to get hooked by.
  9. Fable by Adrienne Young
    I love seafaring/pirate stuff so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I enjoyed this, but I didn’t expect it to be one of my favourite YA books in recent years. The atmosphere is incredible.
  10. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater
    The Raven Cycle was one of my favourite series last year, and I was just blown away by both the depth of character relationships and the prose, as well as the way it turns a lot of the typical YA tropes on their head. (This is actually my least favourite of the quartet, but it was the only one with a character name in the title).

Five Mini Reviews, Part I

This year’s resolution (of a completely informal sort) was to talk more about the books I read that aren’t ARCs, for my own record-keeping as much as anything else. (Ever tried to articulate why you loved a book you read years ago only to find you never wrote the reasons down?). Hence, mini reviews for each five (SFF) books I read…

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Lady Astronaut is one of my favourite series, so now I’m committed to making my way through Kowal’s backlist. World War I is an underused setting for fantasy novels, so I decided to start here. I really liked that Kowal isn’t afraid to play with genre conventions (there is a twist early in the story that completely changed where I thought things were headed) and, of course, her work always shines brightest when it’s tackling historical sexism and racism in various institutional settings. There’s also a plausible explanation for ‘spirit mediums exist but history is completely the same’, which I appreciated. That said, I would have liked more character development for Ginger beyond ‘plucky red-headed American’, including a greater sense of who she was outside the war, which would have raised this book from good to great for me. 3.5/5

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall
I actually started this book in 2021 and never got around to finishing it before the holiday season, but picked it back up in 2022. At the beginning, I thought this would be a 5-star read; Hall’s Sherlock Holmes retelling is exuberant, witty, and frankly a little bonkers; it’s fascinating to read about all the various worlds Wyndham and Haas visit, even if I’m not sure I’d want to travel to some of them myself. There’s also some excellent queer representation (I particularly appreciated that Haas never once deduces that Wyndham is trans, and that it’s both an important part of his personal history and completely irrelevant to the plot). Unfortunately, after a while The Affair of the Mysterious Letter becomes trapped in its own central conceit. John Wyndham is telling a serialised stories of their adventures years after the fact, and his constant narrative asides and attempts to make certain events more ‘palatable’ for readers forestall the plot, keep many of the main characters (including Shaharazad Haas) at a distance from the audience, and made this book feel like an endless drag by the end. 3/5

Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip
McKillip is one of those names who always gets bandied about by seasoned fantasy readers, and I’m very glad I finally had an excuse to pick up one of her books. Od Magic is not a particularly plot driven book; there are a number of characters, and their stories converge around a magic school established by a mysterious old women who hasn’t been sighted in years. It’s about reconciling tradition and progress, and finding the wonder in magic all over again. Of course, you can’t read McKillip without commenting on the prose, which was excellent; wonderfully self-assured, and perfectly running the gauntlet between poetic and overbearing. I might have liked a few less POVs in order to flesh out those I loved most a little more (particularly Yar, the jaded teacher trapped between job security and pushing magical boundaries), but otherwise this was a very comforting – and delightful – read. 4/5

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
Another book I’d been meaning to read for a while and finally picked up thanks to r/fantasy book club. This is an interesting story about a realm of forest dwellers whose community is dependent on a strange bargain between the spirits who inhabit the world and the humans with an affinity for spirit magic. It’s a hard book to categorise because in some respects it’s the ultimate tropey YA novel; the outcome of Daleina’s journey is predictable from the first page. But in other respects it subverts or dispenses with the standard tropes entirely; Daleina never gains any special magic powers beyond her team-oriented nature and willingness to work hard, and the romance and complicated mentor-mentee relationship are almost afterthoughts, just another part of her life. The adult POVs are a little less interesting (Ven seriously needed to get over himself), but I largely enjoyed this book and will pick up the sequels. 4/5

Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox
This is a gay historical romance with some very mild magical realism elements, but it’s also an early contender for my list of best books of the year. This is a deeply character-driven novel, as Rufus (a disgraced, shell-shocked archaeologist), and Archie (the local vicar, who houses a cast of eclectic misfits) work through their trauma and come to find delight in a local archaeological mystery, and each other. Both characters leap off the page, as does much of the supporting cast, and the historical setting plays a huge role in their experiences and their world-views. It does get quite dark at points as a result, as this is a book that definitely doesn’t use the historical setting as window-dressing but actively tackles period-relevant homophobia, as well as the aftermath of World War II. However, it’s ultimately comforting and heartwarming, as Fox continues to spotlight how much these characters love each other and makes that the driving force of the novel. 5/5

Review: A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

Publication details: 3 February 2022, by Harper Voyager. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

A River Enchanted had some elements I really liked, and some that didn’t work for me at all, leaving me distinctly whelmed.

Firstly, I’m not sure the comp titles are the right ones, personally. This book lacks the romantic passion of a Sarah J. Maas book (and I say that as someone who aggressively DNF’d her books), and it’s much more whimsical and soft than either Uprooted or the The Witch’s Heart. I’d suggest it’s much closer to something like an adult version of the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, though that’s not a perfect comparison either.

On the positive side, the setting is excellent, and Ross writes really nicely. Her prose is relatively straightforward but there’s a really strong sense of place, inspired by Scotland, with plenty of quaint cottages and a wild, rugged coastline. I also really liked the spirit-based magic system and the way that enchanted songs, clothing and weapons were incorporated into the storyline; magic, in Cadence, has a very clear price that must be weighed up. Some of the most compelling scenes involve Jack making choices about using his bardic talents to control the spirits, even as it begins to physically weaken him.

Additionally, the mystery of the missing children is well done. Some elements are rather predictable, but Ross slowly unravels the true extent of Jack and Adaira’s (the laird’s daughter) complicated family histories throughout the novel, and there is one twist I didn’t see coming that changes the whole dynamic in terms of the characters’ relationships. I’m on the fence about whether I’ll read the sequel, but the ending of this book does set up some rather interesting possibilities for what choices Jack and Adaira might make next in light of their newfound knowledge.

Where this book really fell down for me, however, is the key relationships and the pacing. Somehow, A River Enchanted managed to be both too short and too long. The first chapter tells us that Jack has a complicated relationship with the island of Cadence and with his mother, having been away at university on the mainland for ten years until he is summoned back. Within a chapter or two more, he’s already reconciled his feelings about all of these issues… and we still have 400 pages to go. Similarly, this book has been pitched as an ‘enemies to lovers romance’, but… it’s not that. Based on how their relationship is laid out in the book, Jack and Adaira used to lightly tease each other as kids before being separated for ten years; any bickering now they have reunited could be described as friendly banter at best, which very quickly gives way to romance.

There is another romance between the older adults, Sidra (the local healer) and Torin (the chief warrior of the East), but it’s all very one-note. Sidra is the dutiful mother and healer, and Torin is a stock-standard emotionally stunted hero, and while they make efforts to overcome these tropes during the book, it wasn’t very compelling to me. The most interesting element that has the potential to change their relationship (a particular secret Sidra is hiding) isn’t even brought into play in the first half of this duology.

All of this combined means we spend most of the book rehashing the same few scenes over and over, and drawing out other elements of the story unnecessarily. A River Enchanted is a story that ultimately could have been told in about 300-350 pages without losing a thing. It is Ross’ adult debut after several YA novels, so I’m hoping she felt the need to overcompensate a little on length and will find a more natural balance in later works.

There’s plenty to like here, and those who like vibes over plot may well find some of the book’s weaknesses to be strengths instead. Unfortunately this one just didn’t quite live up to my hopes.