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! 

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Charlaine Harris’s MIDNIGHT CROSSROAD: An Advance Review

April 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

midnight-crossroad_612x924The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.

Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.

When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.

The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.

The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.

deadtotheworldMidnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.

Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.

I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.

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