Converted to Romance: A Rogue by Any Other Name

February 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Before this year, I had exactly zero interest in reading romance novels. I had this deep-seated perception of romance novels as being tawdry, poorly written and full of vapid, fainting females and emotionally unavailable men – no thanks.

I’m not going to say I was wrong. I’m certain that there are some novels out there that live up to the stereotype I had in mind. But, thanks to the glory of the internet, I have found a whole world of romance novels that leave the outdated standard of the flimsy heroine in the dust.

I am in the habit of visiting Book Riot every day. I love their articles and their ideas for bookish gifts, and I’m always interested in their insightful book recommendations. Their article “Our First Time: The Books that Made Us Romance Readers” convinced me to finally give the genre a go. I decided to start with Sarah MacLean, purely because the cover art made her books seem more accessible and modern than some of the others on the list.

I expected to encounter a formulaic story with cookie-cutter characters that probably took itself too seriously. I expected to close the book and feel vaguely ashamed of having bought it in the first place. I also expected to feel proud of myself for at least attempting to break down my preconceived ideas about the genre, even if I did assume they were correct.

But A Rogue by Any Other Name was so, so good. I was addicted after the first chapter.

1In the opening pages of this novel, the first in a series of four, Sarah introduces us to the Marbury family. It would be impossible not to connect the Marburys to Bennets of Austenian lore; a number of sisters, a mother fearful that her daughters won’t marry well, and a father with an apparent disinterest in the goings-on of his family. I did enjoy the sly caricature that MacLean painted, because it ever-so-subtly harpooned the Bennets. It was almost as if she gave Austen a cursory nod, and then signalled to the reader “ditch your Austen-fixation, we’re moving on from here.”

“Penelope! Marriage proposals from wealthy, eligible young men do not blossom on trees!” Particularly not in January, I wouldn’t think.”

Penelope Marbury, the heroine of Rogue, suffered the scandal of a broken engagement some years ago. The eldest of her siblings, she may have cursed her sisters to spinsterhood, unless she can secure a suitable marriage for herself (cue histrionics from her mother). Penny is mostly unconcerned with marriage, except for the fact that it might hold her sisters back, so she finds herself considering a proposal from a very friend-zoned acquaintance.

At twenty-one, Michael Bourne lost his family’s land, Falconwell, in an ill-fated game of cards. In the years since that night, he has rebuilt his fortune, and is now one of the owners of The Fallen Angel, London’s most notorious gaming hell (casino). When he finds out that Falconwell has been added to Penelope Marbury’s dowry, he sees his opportunity to return the land to its rightful owners. In the most unromantic of negotiations, he marries Penny and thus commences their oddly unhappy marriage.

“Even now, even as she faced a lifetime with him, she thought of her sisters. She was legions too good for him.”

This is not how I thought a romance novel would begin. The love story – such as it was – took a back seat as the rest of the plot unfolded. Bourne is focused on exacting revenge upon the man who took his land from him in his youth, and coldly neglects his wife in the process. Penelope has accepted that her life with Bourne will not be a fulfilling one, but she’s determined to ensure her sisters’ marriages will be.

Summarising the plot of this book in its entirety would take away so much of the enjoyment of reading it. I do want to make mention of the setting, though – far from the parlours and garden walks of typical Regency romance, Rogue draws us into the world of the Fallen Angel, where aristocracy meets vice, and the lines of societal hierarchy are blurred. The characters, too, are another element that makes A Rogue by Any Other Name an outstanding book. All of the characters, from the hero and heroine to the background payers, are brought to life by snappy dialogue, well-balanced personalities and a healthy dose of humour.

I loved this book so much that I jumped straight into its sequel – One Good Earl Deserves A Lover – immediately after I finished it. And I loved One Good Earl even more. So more on that, and peculiar Pippa Marbury, in my next post.

I’m currently reading the third book in this series. I have enjoyed each even more than the last. Although I was surprised to find that Rogue broke away from many of the genre stereotypes I was expecting, there were still some that held true – namely, the hero and the heroine fall in love. A whole lot of other stuff happens too, making for a dynamic and exciting narrative, but it must be said – there is something really comforting about reading a book destined to have a happy ending.

Thanks for reading – feels good to write a review again. Stay tuned for more.

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black: Advanced Review

March 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Saul BlackThere exists an intangible, but undeniable division between crime and serial killer novels. I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘crime reader’, necessarily. I might pick up recommended crime books, but I’m not that interested in seeking them out otherwise. But real, honest-to-god serial killer novels are something of a fascination for me. I loved Silence of the Lambs, and reread it every year or so. For me, it’s the absolute standard for serial killer novels, and thrillers in general.

The blurb on the ARC of The Killing Lessons promises that with this book, Saul Black will teach readers the meaning of fear. We all know ominous proclamations of this ilk are certainly not uncommon in the world of thrillers, so I wasn’t all that intrigued at first. But then, I found out that Saul Black is the pseudonym of author Glen Duncan, of The Last Werewolf fame – so, as you can imagine, I was excited to read it.

The Killing Lessons is being touted as a ‘literary thriller’. This tells us from the outset that it’s designed to mesh with the genre expectations of thriller novels, while also retaining Glen Duncan’s signature literary prose. (Otherwise, it would just be a thriller, surely?)

Before I even started it, I was told repeatedly to expect big things from this book. I also received a warning not to read it at home alone (which I unwisely ignored). Although I was looking forward to reading it, I was also aware that after all this hype, this book might end up being underwhelming. Realistically, I knew that it would have to be quite exceptional to live up to the reputation it had already garnered.

I am pleased to say that it was exactly as good as I hoped it would be. Maybe better.

In The Killing Lessons, we meet a pair of serial killers and their victims. We are dropped straight into the fatigued homicide investigation and bear witness to the horror that has ruined lead detective Valerie’s life. We start counting down the hours that the latest victim might have left to live, while at the same time struggling through the clues that might lead Valerie to her while she’s still alive. And we wait with the young girl who escaped when her entire family was murdered, hoping that the killers won’t come back for her, and knowing that they will.

Glen Duncan’s incisive characterization is the defining quality of his writing. In The Killing Lessons, the reader comes to know the characters on an intimate level in a very short time. Because of this, the novel becomes a burdensome emotional investment, and you can’t help but see it through.

There are several different point of view characters, whose storylines are converging from the outset of the narrative, and each of them is as complex and fascinating as the next.

Valerie is the alcoholic police officer whose obsession with catching these serial killers has brought her to her knees. Carla, an FBI agent with an inexplicable vendetta against Valerie, is doggedly monitoring her for any signs of incompetence as their hunt for the killer begins to narrow its focus.
Riddled with sciatica and immobilized by grief, novelist Angelo intended to spend some time alone in his woodland cabin coming to terms with his wife’s death. His reverie is disrupted when he opens the door to find a young girl, hypothermic and near-dead, on his front porch. Eleven year-old Nell escaped the scene of her family’s murder and fled to the only other occupied house in the area – Angelo’s. With her broken bones and his crippling pain, they are sitting ducks for the murderers who will inevitably return to the scene of their crime.

This is the third Glen Duncan novel that I’ve read. I’ve noticed that in each one, he holds a particular place in the narrative for love. Big-scale, romantic love; small, platonic familiar love; sudden, pitying, desperate love: each has its place in his stories. It’s particularly surprising in a novel as brutal as The Killing Lessons, but the shock factor makes it all the more evident.

There are a few aspects of The Killing Lessons that struck me (and the other people who read the ARC) as slightly unrealistic. For one, I thought it a little unrealistic that Angelo could have physically cared for Nell for an extended period of time when he was so frail himself. Much ado was made about the severity of his pain before Nell showed up, so I found it hard to believe that he was able to physically move around, even in a limited capacity, in order to attend to Nell. My booksellers also pointed out that there is a somewhat unrealistic scene at the end of the book, featuring a helicopter crash. It can be forgiven, if you think about it for a little while, but it does feel a tad extreme.

There’s a reluctant part of me that also thought that the killer’s motivation was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch also. There’s definitely a series of linked events that led to the killers ‘doing what they had to do’, but I think it would be fair to say that it’s erring on the side of tenuous.

That being said, don’t let this put you off The Killing Lessons. There is much more about it that is worthwhile than questionable, and even the questionable parts are still compelling reading.

Is it appropriate to say that I ‘enjoyed’ a novel like The Killing Lessons? Hard to say. It’s probably not a true reflection of the experience I had while reading it. I was too afraid to read it home alone, but it was too compelling not to. I was jumpy and paranoid, looking over my shoulder whenever I went out alone, and gave windowless vans a wide berth when I saw them on the street. It’s not a ‘nice’ experience, reading a novel like this, but it is a memorable one. It’s kind of like Lolita – you read it not for the enjoyment of the story, but to appreciate the fact that mere words on a page can have such an enormous impact on your state of mind.

The Killing Lessons is out on May 7. Order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers, at Blocksidge and Ferguson Arcade on Adelaide Street!

I received an ARC of The Killing Lessons in exchange for an honest review. 

My Paradoxical Relationship with Samantha Shannon’s THE BONE SEASON

December 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Disclaimer: Yes, I have worked out how to insert gifs into WordPress posts.

the bone season coverThe Bone Season was one of the first books I reviewed when I first started my blog. I’d heard the buzz about the girl who was poised to become the next J. K. Rowling, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her book.

Shannon was only twenty-two when The Bone Season was published. We are just about the same age, and I was so jealous! Not only had this girl managed to write a manuscript, but she had scored an unusual deal – seven books, based on a debut. The last person to do so successfully, at least that I could think of, was…well, you know who it was.

The first time I read The Bone Season, I was completely underwhelmed. It was messy and sprawling, and I didn’t get much of a sense for any of the characters, including the protagonist. The world building was choppy and shallow at first, and then unnecessarily detailed as the book progressed – a quality that I find difficult to overcome. The most unforgiveable aspect of this much-anticipated book was much simpler than all of that. It was the way in which the author introduced the reader to the world of Sheol I.

Fantasy authors should show readers their world, not tell them about it. I can’t remember who said this, but I think that they were spot on. For two thirds of The Bone Season, Shannon condescends to tell the reader in lengthy, sometimes clumsy paragraphs, all about Scion and Sheol I. The story grinds to a halt while the reader is, quite literally, lectured about the various caste systems of each society (different, but equally detailed), about the seemingly endless types of voyants, and the many translations of the terminology used by each level of each caste of each system.

Brave1

Reading The Bone Season for a second time, I can feel Shannon’s relationship with her world. Her passion for it, her desire to bring her readers into Sheol I, is alive in the pages of her book. This is a wonderful thing, but for the first two thirds of the book, she falls into the same trap that Robert Jordan did toward the end of the Wheel of Time saga – both Shannon and Jordan created rich, detailed worlds, but in doing so, forgot about the stories that brought them there in the first place.

Like Jordan, I think Shannon could experience some issues with pacing, but hers will be in reverse. Robert Jordan forgot what was happening in WoT, and went rambling with his characters. He led us through his immersive landscape in the process, but his readers were left wondering about what was happening to their beloved protagonists. Pacing in The Bone Season is quite different – it’s all very quick. In the space of one book, the author tells us about the establishment of a fascist government in London (Scion), Scion’s failure to take root in Ireland (the Molly Riots), the existence of an ancient and formidable race called the Rephaim, the troubling relationship that they have with Scion, the existence of an underground city under their control, the criminal world of the rebel voyants, the history of the rebellion against the Rephaim, when and where the language of Scion came from, and all of the many ways in which one can be clairvoyant.

Fascinating stuff, but it feels irrelevant, because there is no accompanying story – at least, not for the first two thirds of the novel.

GAH

 ***

Prior to and during my reread of The Bone Season, I have been reading another book. Shrewd readers will have already made the connection between my gripes about world building and Robert Jordan, and will have realized that this book is Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

The second in his Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance is a testament to Sanderson’s complete control over his world building. If you’ve read The Mistborn series, you’ll know that Sanderson does not get lost, even when it seems that that is exactly what is happening. You pay attention to every detail, to every interlude, because they might become pivotal at some later point in the narrative.

It’s really unfair of me to compare The Bone Season to yet another master of the fantasy genre. First, it was J. K. Rowling, and now it’s Brandon Sanderson, who is probably my favourite author. At first, I felt bad, like I’d fallen into the trap of disappointing myself again – but then I saw it in a new way.

Samantha, if you’re reading this: I’ve been harsh on you, I know. But that’s only because I think you can take it. It’s only because I’ve been comparing you to Brandon Sanderson and J. K. Rowling.

Yes. Sanderson and Rowling. I see it. Roshar, The Final Empire, Hogwarts – and Sheol I.

Now that I’ve finished The Bone Season for a second time, I’ve taken a step back. I’ve been reading it so closely this whole time that all I could see were its faults. But this is one part of your writing, and there’s so, so much more to it.

The Mime OrderReaders, in the final third of The Bone Season, Paige steps off the page. Her spirit unspools itself and slams into your dreamscape, and suddenly, you’re there with her. Warden, Paige’s brooding Reph keeper, is revealed to have a depth of character that I did not expect of him. A rebellion has broken, and its second wave is brewing. Paige is in a kind of triumphant state of shambles, and everything is up in the air. She’s got a million choices to make, and whichever way she turns are the tips of the many swords surrounding her.

I’m about to start book two of the series, and I promise you now, Samantha – I’m in for the long haul.

The Best Books I Read in 2014

December 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

2014 has been a busy year for me, and sadly that means I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would like. But in between work and study, I devote almost all of my spare time to reading, and I have encountered some wonderful books this year. Some of them, I can’t wait to write about, and I will have jumped straight online to review them. Others, I hold to myself, and try in vain to put together the words that would accurately portray how much I loved them. So here is a list of the best books I read in 2014 – some that I raved about and some that I quietly loved. All wonderful!

  1. Daughters of the Storm – Kim Wilkins

2014 1I don’t want to be that boring reviewer who just keeps saying how much she loves something, but…I love this book. I have pushed it onto everyone I possibly could, because I believe there’s something for everyone in Daughters of the Storm, which features my favourite character of the entire year – Bluebell. This one of the ones I wanted to rave about immediately after finishing, so you can read my review here. Also, side note – Kim Wilkins is absolutely lovely, so you can add that to the list of reasons to buy this book.

  1. Queen of the Tearling – Erika Johansen

Before I read Daughters of the Storm, I would have said that QoT was my favourite fantasy of the year. Now, I’d have to tie it, but it’s still brilliant. I haven’t had as much success convincing my friends and family to try this book, but it’s just as deserving as Daughters. Kelsea, the hero of this novel, is at once a mash up of Danearys Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger, and an entirely fresh character. Emma Watson got on board with Queen of the Tearling, so you know this is gonna be good. I will review this one in the coming months, as I plan a reread!

  1. Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone. It’s so hard to put into words how I felt reading this book. Maybe “emotional” would be a good starting place, but it still doesn’t even tap the surface of how it feels to be a part of the world that Ree and her brothers inhabit, if only for those 193 pages. Winter’s Bone is harsh and stark, in setting and in prose, but it is uplifting and life affirming at its close. Not only one of the best books I read this year, but one of the greatest I’ve ever read.

  1. The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters 

2014 7I finished The Last Policeman only recently, and am still unsure of whether I want to read its sequel. You see, The Last Policeman was so affecting, so distressing, that I don’t know if I’m ready for another installment. An asteroid is six months away from hitting the Earth and devastating all human life, and recently qualified Detective Palace is called to investigate what appears to be another pre-apocalypse suicide. Existential in philosophy, hard-boiled in nature, The Last Policeman is traumatic and an exceptional work of genre fiction.

  1. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

I’m not one for chick lit, and I don’t go in for romance – so I was happy to find that Fangirl was neither. I have reviewed Fangirl (you can read it here), and I have rhapsodized about how it elevates fandom as a means of identity, so I won’t bore you with my love for the book all over again. What I will say, though, is that Rainbow Rowell recently announced that she is writing Carry On – the Harry Potter-esque novel upon which Cath’s fanfiction is based. TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THAT I HAVE A GIANT SMILE ON MY FACE AS I TYPE THIS.

  1. The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater

2014 3Maggie Stiefvater definitely has the capacity to become one of my favourite YA authors. I’ve read Shiver, the first in her werewolf trilogy and loved it, but sort of forgot to read the rest. For some reason, I picked up The Scorpio Races a few weeks ago, and for twenty four hours, nobody could see my face because the novel was stuck in front of it at all times. The Scorpio Races is a standalone novel about water horses, the dangerous animals that emerge from the sea every year on a Gaelic island. With sparse, melodic prose, Stiefvater paints a portrait of an insular community with its own set of values and ideals, and the two people who subvert those for the love of family, and of horses.

After reading The Scorpio Races, I immediately purchased the first in Maggie’s Raven Cycle, which is sitting patiently on my bedside table.

  1. The Girl Who Would Be King – Kelly Thompson

2014This book is brilliant. To call it a ‘feminist superhero story’ would do it no justice, but it’s probably a good start. There are few male characters in the novel, in part because the two protagonists are so very large. Bonnie, innately good and incredibly powerful, was literally born to oppose Lola. Lola really steals the show in The Girl Who Would Be King – she’s inherently evil and she doesn’t really understand why, but because she’s evil, she doesn’t care. Lola sets out to make herself the King of LA, killing anyone who stands in her path – except for Bonnie, who cannot be killed. This book also features a short epilogue with one of the best twists I’ve come across in genre fiction. Watch out for this one, it’s going to be big.

  1. The Fever – Megan Abbott

If you haven’t read a Megan Abbott novel yet, you’re doing yourself a
disservice. Megan writes about women in a way that no other author can. I’m a huge fan of her noir fiction, but The Fever is perhaps more accessible to non-genre fans. Like Dare Me, The Fever explores the horrors of female adolescent relationships. It’s entirely relatable and completely terrifying at the same time. An infectious disease that causes seizures grips the girls of a small high school, and nobody can work out what is causing their illness. Mass hysteria? Something in the water? You won’t be able to tell, because it’s Megan Abbott. 

  1. Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor (and Days of Blood and Starlight. I’m still holding on to Dreams of Gods and Monsters for a rainy day)

2014 8I have this stupid habit of not reading the books I am most excited about. This year, I have been massively excited about and have not read: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson and Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. I harassed my booksellers on the day they were supposed to arrive, so I would know the second they landed, and then rushed into the store to get my hands on them (for WoR, it was a two-handed ordeal!). I then put them on my shelf, and told myself I would wait for the right moment to read them. The right moment still hasn’t come for Magician’s Land and for Dreams of Gods and Monsters. Both are the conclusion to incredible trilogies, and I don’t know why I can’t read them. But I think it’s because I just love them so much, I don’t want them to be over. It’s not even because I think they’ll end badly – I know they’ll end wonderfully. I just…can’t do it. Also haven’t watched the final seasons of my favourite shows, including Gilmore Girls, Frasier, and 30 Rock. I just…can’t.

Suffice it to say, I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone, to the extent that I cannot yet face its conclusion. Review here.

Also, I am halfway through Words of Radiance and it is so beyond excellent that I can’t yet articulate how much I love it. So maybe it will be Karou’s turn soon.

  1. Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

2014 5Last but not least, Tahereh Mafi’s trilogy, beginning with Shatter Me, was my favourite YA of the year. With flowery, musical prose, Mafi tells the story of Juliette, whose burgeoning superpowers are more frightening than they are magical. In The Juliette Chronicles, we go from Juliette’s asylum prison all the way to a military compound for superheroes, all the while watching a damaged protagonist become the physical and mental champion she was destined to be. Another awesome attribute of this series is the relationship side of things; Mafi is one of the few YA authors to really, truly portray the transition from one relationship to another without simplifying or minimizing any of the emotional content involved. Such a fun, addictive trilogy, for fans of dystopian YA looking for their next obsession.

 

As 2014 comes to a close, I’d like to thank Pulp Fiction Booksellers for giving me the opportunity to work with them at Supanova, and for providing me with ARCs throughout the year (including Daughters of the Storm)!

Happy Christmas to you if that’s your thing, and if not, I hope 2014 ends peacefully and happily for you all.

Look out soon for my picks for books to watch in 2015! x

My Votes for the Goodreads Awards!

November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, I just voted in the Goodreads Best Books of 2014. I’m not the greatest advocate of Goodreads, given its affiliation with Amazon, but I voted in the poll for two main reasons:

  1. Much as we may hate to admit it, Goodreads is an important platform for authors, especially up-and-coming ones. Authors frequently request that if you enjoyed their book, you should leave a positive or starred review on Goodreads. I can’t review every book I read, so I do sometimes like to do this for the books I enjoyed. To be a ‘Goodreads Best Book’ is quite a boon for a book, so why not put my two cents in and help out the authors who have made my year awesome?
  2. I really like filling out surveys.

Oh, and I really only voted in categories where I’d read more than one of the books. Just FYI.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Fiction:

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was, hands down, the best of the selection. This book is magical and sorrowful, and exceptionally moving. The author knows what she’s talking about, as she has worked closely with death row inmates. Read The Enchanted, and you might find yourself rethinking how you see death row criminals. Especially when you get to the unexpected, agonizing reveal at the end.

 Best Fantasy:

Tough choice, but had to go to Queen of the Tearling. One of my two favourite fantasies of the year, tied with Kim Wilkin’s Daughters of the Storm. If Emma Watson’s endorsement of QoT isn’t enough to tell you that this book is amazing, take my word for it: this is the next Hunger Games.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In by John ScalziScience Fiction:

Best Science Fiction:

For someone who doesn’t think they read SF, this was a surprisingly difficult choice. It came down to a trade off between Annihiliation by Jeff Vandermeer and Lock in by John Scalzi. Lock In won out, due to the sheer obsession that it incited in me for the short time it took to read it. The concepts and the plot will have you thinking long after you finish it!

 Horror Fiction:

I was torn between three contenders for this one. I loved Sarah Lotz’s The Three, was glued to Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, and The Girl with All the Gifts had me in its thrall from its first page to the last. All of these deserved my vote and the exposure that the Goodreads Best Book title might provide. However, at the end of the day, I wasn’t 100% sure that Girl with All the Gifts is true horror. Gotta make a decision somehow, so I scratched it. And The Three was pretty scary, but it didn’t incite the gleeful revulsion that Broken Monsters did. So, my vote went to the latter, with honorable mentions to two other books I really did love this year.

 Graphic Novel and Comics:

Saga. Always Saga. Nothing further.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Debut Goodreads Author:

Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which is one of the few books I have read twice this year. Honorable mention to QoT, which I almost voted for again, I loved it so much. Side note: pretty excited for Son of Ares to come out in Jan!

 YA Fiction:

We Were Liars by E. E. Lockhart. What a wonderful book. It’s impossible to tell you why, because of the twist at the end. The twist that you might see coming, that might sound predictable if I were to explain it to you, but which feels like an ice-cold glass of water poured slowly over your head as you come to realize you’ve been fooled all along… We Were Liars.

 YA Fantasy and Sci Fi:

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Titles I considered nominating were: Red Rising (again); Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters; and Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi. Dreams of Gods and Monsters was out of the running for one very simple reason – I haven’t read it yet. I loved DOSAB so very much that I keep finding reasons not to read Dreams of Gods and Monsters, because I simply can’t bear for it to be over. This might be a reason to vote for it in and of itself, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Ignite Me. Red Rising obviously got scratched from this section because I’d already voted for it, and I wanted to share the love.

I would never have picked up Shatter Me, if it wasn’t for the recommendation of one of my dearest friends. Earlier this year, I burned through Tahereh’s trilogy obsessively. Ignite Me has everything – beautiful, poetic writing; a wonderful protag; a really exciting magic system; a dystopian society to be scared of, and a very intriguing romantic lead. (shoutout to Chapter 62!) I LOVED it, and it’s one of my favourite books of the year.

Did you vote in the Goodreads Best Books awards? Who got your vote?

Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins: 5-star Fantasy

November 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

Daughters of the Storm cover art

Daughters of the Storm cover art

The warrior.

Through blood and steel, Bluebell has forged a reputation as an unkillable soldier. The eldest of the five princesses, she is fiercely protective of her family, unashamedly bloodthirsty in battle, and is ruthless in her decision-making. Pragmatic though she may be, though, Bluebell is not heartless.

Nothing is more important to her than peace in the land she will one day inherit, with the possible exception of her father’s health. When she discovers that the King has been poisoned with elf magic, she will stop at nothing to find the cure – and the person who cursed him.

 The magician.

For years, Ash has lived the academic life. Her elders tell her that the second sight she experiences cannot have manifested in one as young as she, but the truth is that she is plagued with unearthly visitations all the time. Ash abandons her studies without a second thought when she receives a sending from Bluebell, asking her to join her on journey back to their father’s kingdom. As the King’s condition is made clear, Ash realizes that the answer to his recovery may lie in the dark world of undermagic – and she may have to lead her sisters to its heart.

 The lover.

Rose was married to King Wengest as a peace offering brokered by Bluebell for the good of the kingdom. Her life with him is not uncomfortable, but Rose pines unendingly for Heath, the lover she can no longer be with. Her daughter Rowan brings her some happiness, but the possibility of Wengest discovering her true parentage is always looming.

It is Heath himself who accompanies Rose and little Rowan back to AElmesse. On the road together, and even in the larger convoy with Bluebell and her other sisters, Rose cannot deny herself the pleasure of Heath’s company.
Bluebell, who does not have room in her heart for a lover (or so Rose believes), warns her sister that her passion is not only selfish, but also dangerous. Fed up with having her love life dictated by political motivations, Rose ignores Bluebell’s instruction. The price for her disloyalty will be steeper than she realizes.

 The zealot.

Fifteen-year-old Willow wants only to be a loyal servant of the one true god Maava. Her twin Ivy disapproves of her piety, and the kingdom at large does not recognize the trimatyr faith, but Willow knows these are just trials she must endure. Though she barely knows her father, she is happy to care for him while her siblings leave to find an undermagician who can cure him. Alone with the king and his remaining guard, Willow is visited by Maava’s angels. She knows her destiny now: to become pregnant with the kingdom’s first trimatyr king.

The gossip. 

Although she is Willow’s twin, Ivy is truly the youngest of the princesses. Perpetually aware of her royal lineage, Ivy expects to be treated with the respect she feels she deserves – especially by the men who catch her eye. She resents being forced to go along with Bluebell’s attempt to find a cure for her father’s illness, and she’s immeasurably bored. That is, until she meets Heath.
Determined to take him to bed, Ivy can’t understand why he keeps rebuffing her. Despite this, Ivy follows him around with the determination of an infatuated teenager. She comes to realize that Heath’s heart belongs to her sister; her sister who is, in fact, queen of a neighboring kingdom.
Against her wishes, Ivy is sent to bring Rowan home to her father while Rose continues on with Bluebell and Ash. On the long journey back to Folcenham, Ivy considers the valuable information she has gleaned about her sister’s fidelity. What kind of trouble could she cause with this one small fact?

I do love a nice, magical forest. With a touch of eeriness about it, if possible.

I do love a nice, magical forest. With a touch of eeriness about it, if possible. Plenty of those in DotS.

Daughters of the Storm was pitched to me as ‘a female-centric Game of Thrones’. I’m always wary of comparisons to popular franchises, because I think they’ll inevitably be disappointing. Furthermore, I hadn’t read anything from Kim Wilkins before and didn’t really have any idea of whether she could pull off such a feat. I did, however, attend some of Kim’s lectures when I was a student, so I decided to take up the offer of the ARC.

DotS offers up a palate of political intrigue that is almost on par with GoT, so the comparison is actually not an unfair one. Just like in GoT, there is much contention for the throne, but in DotS, the contenders for the crown are mostly trying to preserve the tentative diplomatic balance that already exists.

What stands out most about Daughters of the Storm is the highly polished characterization. Bluebell is one of the best protagonists I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel, regardless of her gender. When you consider her as a female character…well. She stomps all over her competition.
Bluebell doesn’t upend any gender roles, necessarily. She simply doesn’t pay any attention to them. She’s a battle-hardened soldier by choice, covered in sinew and tattoos, and dresses in practical soldier’s garb all of the time. She expects to be referred to as ‘my lord’ instead of ‘princess’, and her sword is rather amusingly named the Widowsmith.

But unlike, say, Brienne of Tarth, Bluebell is not hiding her femininity. It’s actually a part of her, just as much as her tattoos, or her sword. Bluebell is the heir to the kingdom, and she must make the political decisions everyone else is too scared to. As pragmatic as she can be, she does so with a degree of compassion and kindness that belies a feminine nature. In Bluebell, Wilkins has created a leader, a sister, a woman to be scared of – and all without making her an imitation of a man.

Kim Wilkins - click to go to her website.

Kim Wilkins – click to go to her website.

The scope of personalities that exist among Bluebell’s four sisters and the rest of the characters are varied and engrossing. The narrative plays out so well because each of the women has her own complex motivation and life story. Through the eponymous Daughters, Wilkins draws the reader into a world where politics matter, but where relationships are more important. She gives us a female leader who is not a matriarch, and not a queen, but a king.

Daughters of the Storm is one of my two favourite fantasy books of the year. It is my favourite Australian book of the year, hands down. If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre at all, I highly recommend this book to you.

Brisbane readers, do your bit to support your local independent booksellers, and pick up your copy of Daughters of the Storm from Pulp Fiction!  Also, like Kim Wilkins on Facebook here for updates and fun DotS stuff. Plus, she’s a cool lady.

International readers can pick up a digital Daughters of the Storm from Harlequin here. More news on where to buy it from if you’re outside Australia to come soon.

Still not sure? (Seriously?) Check a sample chapter here.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks to Pulp Fiction for the advanced copy, and to Bent Books for sourcing some of Kim’s other books for me. Thank you to Fantasy Faction for sharing this post, and also to Kim Wilkins, for putting up with my excitement for the last few weeks! 

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen and the Buffy Legacy

October 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a brilliant, groundbreaking show. The majority of the women in the show are unashamedly fierce, but there are also many who aren’t – just like REAL women! And the same goes for the men; some of them are stubborn and painfully arrogant, some of them are smart, shy and quiet (hiiii Oz), and some of them have hidden depths that only TRUE FANS appreciate. (Okay, I may still be a bit hung up on Spike. But who isn’t?!) There were vampires, werewolves, demons, ventriloquist dummies, goddesses, Keys, witches and proms. Don’t you miss it?

Harmony - will you ever learn? (she didn't)

Harmony – will you ever learn? (she didn’t)

Long before Willow turned dark, before Buffy died (the first time), and before Anya started threatening to hit things with frying pans, the Hellmouth opened beneath Sunnydale High School. A sixteen-year-old blonde chick showed up and started hacking away at the demons that began to manifest in and around the high school. The rest, as they say, is…well; it’s seasons two through seven.

Many attempts have been made to resurrect BTVS. Comics, novels, fanfic, Angel – you name it, the creators and the show’s fans have attempted it. Although I enjoyed them (and, uh, may have participated in the fanfic), I don’t really think any of these forays has truly captured the spirit of those glorious early days.

Readers of The Novelettes, I hold in my hands the legacy to BTVS. It is Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

From Buzzfeed - #Sunnydale problems

From Buzzfeed – #Sunnydale problems

Cyn and Annie, best friends since who-knows-when, share everything. Under the rules of best-friendship, Annie has been subjected to Cyn’s mooning over Ryan Hadley for years. Really, it’s lucky that Annie hasn’t ever really had a crush of the same magnitude, because Cyn does enough swooning for the both of them.

As technical director of the school’s production of Sweeney Todd, Cyn isn’t really all that interested in the goings-on of the school library. And neither is Annie, really – until Mr. Gabriel arrives. The new school librarian is young, disturbingly handsome and just a little bit too charismatic for Cyn’s liking, but Annie has fallen head over heels for him. Mr. Gabriel seems to be taken with Annie too, which would be repulsive enough all by itself – but when Cyn walks in on the librarian covered in the blood of another teacher, she knows for certain: Annie’s life is in danger.

“An evil librarian is taking over the school. He appears to be making my best friend his special evil library monitor.”

All over the school, students are exhibiting disturbing signs of some kind of brainwashing. Only Cyn, and the object of her affections, Ryan, seem to notice that the zombie-like entrancements are connected with Mr. Gabriel. All of a sudden, Cyn and Ryan find themselves in the middle of a demon war – with their high school as the battlegrounds.

“Because, you know, evil demon librarians, not so much known for the honesty policy.”

Seriously, though, Cyn’s got other things on her mind than stopping the denizens from hell ripping her school to shreds. She’s only got three weeks until Sweeney Todd’s opening night, and there’s so much to do! Normally, she’d need a lot of time to analyse the progress between she and Ryan, but she’s had to put all that energy into saving Annie from becoming a demon bride.

But she loves Annie. So much so that she’d go to Hell and back to save her. Which is lucky, since that’s exactly what she’s going to have to do.

My favourite cover art of the year.

My favourite cover art of the year.

Since reading Fangirl, I’ve been more interested than normal in well-developed romances, particularly those that are a sidebar to the main plot. Ryan and Cyn’s story is just the right balance of awkwardness, humour and sweet determination to get it right. Just like Cath in Fangirl, Cyn’s relationship with Ryan develops and grows along with Cyn. That is the sign of a romantic subplot done right!

Although Evil Librarian is being touted as Knudsen’s YA debut, I really believe that adults are going to get just as much out of this novel – if not more – than teenage readers. At twenty-four, high school might be over for me, but BTVS dialogue is still present in my everyday life (whether my friends know it or not). I think that as an adult, you might have the capacity to find this book funny in a way that teenagers won’t yet be able to.

“He looks at me again and the flames vanish and the knife is gone and his voice goes light and breezy and all coffee-shop conversational, as if he wasn’t just one second ago impaling me with fiery eyes and discussing the dark fate of my best friend and the souls of all my classmates.”

Evil Librarian feels original and familiar all at once. It’s funny, dramatic, kind of gross and very sweet. Without ever copying anything from Joss Whedon, Knudsen manages to capture everything that I loved about Buffy and bring it to an original setting in a new universe. It’s selflessness and scathing sarcasm in the face of the actual bloodthirsty monsters. It’s flippant quips when your world it is coming crashing down around your ears. It’s the ferocity of adolescence, channeled into all-encompassing friendship; the kind of friendship you’d die for.

Want a copy of Evil Librarian? If you’re in Brisbane, grab one from Pulp Fiction, now at Adelaide Street.

PS – I have a Gentleman T-shirt. I don’t actually wear it in public because it’s kind of scary. But here you go:

Hush, hush.

Hush, hush.

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