The Mercies; or why Absalom Cornet deserves no mercy

The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel, isn’t out until February 6th 2020, which is a shame because it’s ALL! I! WANT! TO! TALK! ABOUT! It’s a gorgeous book, with the cover inspired by Rosemaling, a traditional Norwegian folk art where wood is painted with decorative floral art.

I gave this book 4 stars in my initial impressions review, available here, with the caveat that I think this would be a five star book to anyone who loves historical fiction.

Read me for the…

  • Historical fiction (1600s Norway)
  • Beautiful settings
  • F/F romance
  • Strong women
  • Witch trials ( ☹ )

Trigger Warnings:

Arranged marriage and non-graphic marital rape, non-graphic sexual and domestic violence and coercive control. Violence against women, systematic and cultural sexism. Racism, religious fanaticism, witch hunts and associated torture and murder. Grief and loss of family, mass death due to natural disaster. Also, Absalom Cornet deserves his own trigger warning.

The Plot:

The Mercies is inspired by a historical event, the Vardø storm of 1617 where a terrible storm sank ten ships and killed forty men- the majority of Vardø’s male population. This storm ultimately led to one of the biggest witch-trials in Scandinavia, and the first major witch-trial in Norway under the new laws of witchcraft and sorcery.

Maren Magnusdatter watched her father, brother and her husband-to-be die in the sudden storm, along with all of the men in her village. Left behind are just boys that were too young to go out to fish, and the women. They must learn to fend for themselves. And they adjust, as women often do, learning to cope with their collective grief and teaching themselves to fish and to slaughter and to take on the jobs that were traditionally male. They survive that way for eighteen months, before a pious Scotsman is sent to regain control of Vardø and the women who live there. Absalom Cornet isn’t just a religious man, he is also a violent witch-hunter and where his young wife Ursa sees independent, strong women, he sees danger and evil that must be rooted out at all costs. This story is as twisted by suspicion as it is empowered by love, and shows the best and the worst that can come of a very human desire to survive.

What did I love?

  • The tone: This book is dark, and miserable. It’s as cold and bitter as the winters that Kiran Millwood Hargrave so beautifully describes. This wasn’t a gentle or soft story, it was sad and haunting and it left me angry. But that was part of what made it such a powerful and compelling read. I don’t tend to read historical fiction, and I requested this book because of my fascination with witch-trials and the hype around Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel rather than an interest in the genre. But, despite my usual disinterest in historical fiction, I was engaged in this from the start. The language was poetic and vivid, and I could practically feel the cold as I read this, even in the early-September heat. Once I’d hit the 50% mark, I was in it until the very end, because I couldn’t put it down for fear of what was going to happen to the characters I’d become so attached to. There is romance in this story, and the relationship between Maren and Ursa is beautiful (more on that later) but the real undercurrent of this story is suspicion and fear.

    From the moment the first fractures appear in the Vardø women, and they start to separate into two groups, you get a strong sense of impending sorrow. It’s not going to end happily, and that only gets clearer the further you get into the book. I found myself increasingly invested in just getting the characters I love to the end of the book alive. My flatmate came home when I was 90% finished with this novel, and I think she’d agree that I was very pathetic as I told her ‘I don’t think I have enough pages left for this to end happily’. Still, the ending itself was as beautiful as the rest of this book, and I immediately turned to Twitter to find anyone I could talk about it with. My biggest regret is reading this book in September when nobody I know has read it.

  • Maren and Ursa: I loved Maren and Ursa, and their relationship. Maren is hard-working and drawn thin, embittered by the storm and her loss. She’s lost pretty much everything, and she’s watching her family fall apart as suspicion tears between her mother and her sister-in-law. She’s drawn to Ursa from the first time she sees her. Ursa was raised with servants and money until her mother passed away and her family’s fortune changed. She was her sister’s nurse and best friend, until her father married her off to Absalom Cornet for a ‘better’ future. Maren and Ursa have an organic love, one that comes naturally from care and affection and as a side-effect of two women being each other’s only gentle touch in a harsh and cruel world. It was beautiful. It felt like they had found something safe and peaceful together, and I was in constant fear that Absalom or the kirke-women were going to shatter that fragile peace.

  • Absalom Cornet: Okay, I didn’t LOVE Absalom. I hated him. I hate him viscerally, and spent most of my time reading this book tweeting angrily about how much I absolutely hate him. But that made him a really compelling villain of this piece. When we first meet him, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because some of his behaviour could be attributed to the way that society at the time treated women, and societal norms don’t necessarily make someone a bad person. The rest of Absalom’s behaviour makes him a bad person, and I progressed from benefit of the doubt to actively wanting to burn him at the stake. He wasn’t scary like a fantasy villain, because he was always just a man, but I found him upsetting and scary to read about nonetheless because he had so much power over these women and nobody to rein him in.

What did I not love?

  • Absalom Cornet: I’m putting him on this list too, because while I loved the way Absalom Cornet was portrayed, I maintain that I absolutely HATE him.

Where can I buy?

Pan Macmillan // Waterstones // Book Depository // Amazon

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

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My BOTY ’19: Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year

All the Grace Year covers are pretty, but this is my favourite for sure.

Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year is my personal best book of 2019. Certainly my favourite of all the new-releases I’ve read so far this year, even though there has been some FIERCE competition. It releases in the UK tomorrow, October 10th.

Unsurprisingly, I gave The Grace Year 5 stars in my full review, here.

Read me for the…

  • Feminist horror
  • Wild girls
  • A Handmaid’s Tale/Lord of the Flies dystopia
  • A strong female character
  • Movie worthy high paced drama

The Plot

The Grace Year is set in an unspecified world where women are subjugated, and men lauded. Women have to wear their hair one way, tied back from their faces and held with a ribbon that states their status. White for the daughters, red for the grace year girls and black for the wives. Black, for mourning? The grace year is a term to refer to a girl’s 16th year, which they must spend isolated with other grace year girls. This is because grace year girls are held in fear. Their skin emits an aphrodisiac that can draw men from their marriage beds and drive women crazy with jealousy. Their very blood is steeped in magic, and they must be isolated to burn through this magic, so that they might return purified to be married off to the husbands that chose them. Not all of the girls return. It’s time for Tierney’s grace year, and she has no intention to be a wife. All she wants to do is survive her grace year peacefully, and work in the fields, dreaming of a world where women aren’t pitted against each other in competition. Once she’s in the camp she realises that her biggest threat isn’t learning to survive, or the poachers waiting to capture her if she strays from the camp, but the grace year girls themselves.

What did I love?

Honestly, the first point I want to make about how much I loved this book is that I’ve been writing this post up approximately 2.5 months after I first read The Grace Year and now I’m desperate to re-read it. I’m going to make myself wait until the release date, so that I can jump back on the hype train with everyone reading it for the first time, but hell if I don’t want to pick it up right now – 30+ TBR list bedamned. Anyway. Actual list of things I loved:

  • Tierney: Tierney doesn’t want to be married off, she just wants to keep her head down and work in the fields. She doesn’t want to be a wife, in a gilded cage. She’s a tomboy, and she’s kind to her core. Even when other girls turn against her, she’s still trying to help them. I’m not going to go on about her too much, because I talked about her in my full review, and also a LOT of my feelings about her are tied up in spoilery spoilery scenes that I don’t want to go into here. But trust me, she’s real and lovable, and she’s the strong woman that we all need in our lives.

  • It’s dark: This is a book that doesn’t pull its punches. It’s dark, and it’s not sorry about it. This is a world in which girls are chosen by men without their consent. If they’re not chosen, they’re destined for a life of hard work in the fields, or worse. If they are chosen, they get a life of luxury, as long as they fit the ideal wife stereotype with the husband they didn’t choose. They’re sent away when they’re 16, over a ‘magic’ that has no real evidence. Fear and belief rarely needs evidence. And the poachers – hell. The poachers made me sick and uncomfortable. They earn money if they can catch and kill a grace year girl outside of the camp, because the girls bodies fetch a high price due to this ‘magic’.

    The girls punish each other without hesitation, with brutal physical punishments even though they aren’t been overseen. They’ve been indoctrinated by society to believe that if the men aren’t there to punish them, they should carry the punishments out themselves. Even that historically, girls burn their camp down when they leave, so that the next year’s grace year girls don’t have a single advantage is so sad. It made me think about how women are taught to bring each other down, and how easy it is to jump to criticisms of other women instead of helping to raise them up. It’s this that made me love this book so much, because it has actually impacted the way I think about the women around me, and I make a concerted effort to be kinder, even in my thoughts.

  • The ending: in brief, because spoilers, it’s vague and ambiguous. It’s powerful and I love it. I hope this novel doesn’t get a sequel, because it doesn’t need it. The ending of this novel is perfection, and the last line has stuck with me.

What did I not love?

If I was forced to give a criticism, I’d say that personally I could have lived without a romantic side-plot, but that’s partly because I’m aromantic and get excited when characters say things like “Being married off isn’t a privilege to me. There’s no freedom in comfort. They’re padded shackles, but shackles nonetheless.” because I love aro-representation. But, that being said, I did enjoy the role that the romance played in the story, and once I’d settled into the change to the narrative I found the role that the romance (left intentionally vague here for spoiler reasons) played in the story was powerful and played into an ending that I absolutely loved. I’m also self-aware enough to know that Tierney’s dislike of marriage is tied into the society she lives in, and her lack of choice, rather than her romantic leanings like it is for me.

Where Can I Buy?

Penguin UK / Amazon / Waterstones / Book Depository

If you can, please support local booksellers instead!

Ryan La Sala’s Reverie; fierce, queer and heartwarming

Reverie’s GORGEOUS cover art

Reverie by Ryan La Sala has its UK release on December 3rd, and it should DEFINITELY be one of your pick ups for the magical time of the year.

I gave Reverie a 4 star rating in my full review, here.

Read me for the…

  • Unabashed, queer characters
  • Fierce, drag queen sorceresses
  • Rainbow magic!!!
  • Daydreams gone rogue
  • Amnesiac main character
  • Love and friendship

The Plot:

Kane Montgomery has amnesia after a car accident that his family believe was an attempt at suicide – but he’s not so sure about that. He’s slowly piecing his memories back together when he finds himself drawn into a battle over control of reality himself, fought out in Reveries – the real manifestation of daydreams. Each reverie is highly personal, a person’s most private fantasies made real, and once they come into being they can only be unravelled and the souls within them freed by bringing the story to its resolution. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as any tiny mistake can spiral the reverie through a dangerous plot twist, and turn it from daydream to nightmare. Unravelling a reverie is dangerous work undertaken by The Others, a team that uses their individual powers to run the reverie to its conclusion, and was apparently run by… Kane. Up until one of The Others stole his memories at least. Now Kane is chasing the truth, whilst being chased by a drag queen who wants the reveries for her own.

What did I love?

  • The reveries: The concept of the reveries is SO COOL, I wish I’d come up with it. Especially considering I’m very guilty of spending half my day lost in a wild daydream that’s more interesting (and usually more dramatic) than my day to day life. If my daydreams ever manifest as a reverie, I’m sorry to anyone caught up in it. It’s probably a musical. The reveries are themed around each individual’s fantasies, meaning that this novel dips into different settings from dystopias to historical fiction, and casts the main characters in different stereotypes throughout the novel. Without delving into spoilers, one of the reveries also touches on the heteronormative attitudes that a lot of passing-queers face, with a reverie twisting because the heterosexual characters in the Others completely misunderstand that the ‘hero’ is queer.

  • The amnesia plot device: I mentioned this in my full review, but I’m usually SO wary of amnesia as a plot device. It’s very rarely done well, but Ryan La Sala has done an incredible job with Kane’s amnesia. It doesn’t feel like a way to hide information from the reader, nor is it used for cheap exposition. Instead, it felt like I was right there with Kane, picking up the breadcrumbs left behind by his previous life and piecing his memories together piece by piece. I also particularly love the way that there is no assumption that Kane was a good person before his memories were lost. No main-character morality armour here, Kane has to struggle with not knowing for sure whether he was in the right or wrong before his memories were erased. Personally, I’ve got a big soft spot for main characters who aren’t automatically the picture of Good and Righteous, so I liked this internal struggle.

  • Poesy: Well, all of the characters actually, but I don’t want to talk too much about the Others because I really enjoyed the experience of learning about the individual members of the Others through Kane’s rediscovery of his friends. But POESY. She’s fierce and she’s fabulous. If drag queen sorceress doesn’t make you desperate to read this book, I don’t know what will. She’s a reality manipulating, magic wielding badass, collecting reveries for her own purposes and controlling a cool as hell shadow monster dreadmare.

What did I not love?

Honestly, I didn’t have any huge criticisms of this novel. If I had to pick anything, I’d actually only say that it was a shame that the novel advertises Poesy as a villain. There was a good section of the book that, if it hadn’t been for the outward description of her as a ‘sorceress villain’, that I would have been truly uncertain about whether Kane should trust her or the Others, but there was always that descriptor hovering in the back of my head and making me mistrust Poesy.

Where can I buy?

Amazon

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

Circe – a story of love, power and womanhood

‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonour me.’

‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’

I’ve had this book sitting around since April and never got around to reading it. I can’t believe it took me so long in the end, because this book is INCREDIBLE and gave me a hell of a book hangover.

I gave Circe 4 stars, and it was so good that I just had to pick up The Song of Achilles. Hearing that Achilles might even be better than Circe had me practically buzzing with excitement, and I think my TBR might be getting a hefty shuffle ready for October to bring it closer to the top.

Read me for the…

  • Greek mythology
  • Feminist retellings
  • Badass female characters
  • Character driven stories

The Plot:

Circe is the daughter of Helios, sun god and Titan, but her hair lacks his golden sheen and her voice is too soft and too weak. When her kin turn away from her, even her siblings ignoring her or mocking her in turn, Circe turns her gaze away from the gods to the mortal world. She finds more than just the companionship she was searching for when she discovers a power that gods dare not wield. Jealousy and misplaced love leads to her banishment after she admits casting a dark spell, and she finds herself on a remote abandoned island: Aiaia. Her punishment only makes her stronger, and her banishment doesn’t mean that she will be alone, no. The fates have woven her fate with others who pass through her exiled island. Hermes, Daedalus, Jason, a flurry of nymphs. And finally, Odysseus on his way home from war.

Circe is a solitary and independent woman – and there’s nothing that men or gods hate more than a witch that needs no husband, brother or father. Circe’s love, and her power, find her torn between the mortal and immortal worlds. No longer content to be a footnote in Odysseus’ story but a master of her own destiny, Circe must make choices and wield powers unimaginable to protect her world.

What did I love?

I’ve always been a sucker for a book with a strong character driven plot. I get invested in people before I get invested in stories (probably why I spend so much time reading fanfiction, honestly) and Circe is a beautiful tale spanning hundreds of years of Circe’s life.

Initially, I was drawn to this book because I knew of Circe as a wicked and wild enchantress as a side-character in Odysseus’ epic story. This is the kind of story that makes me sad for past me for thinking that. Miller’s Circe is a powerful, independent woman surrounded by overbearing men that think they Know Best. Her father’s a Titan, the sun god, and her mother has little interest in her because she won’t make much of a bride. Circe’s initial forays into magic are based out of a visceral desire to feel loved, and throughout the novel that thread of loneliness and a need for companionship thread under a lot of Circe’s actions. To me, Circe’s fatal flaw isn’t a lust for power, it’s a love for humanity, much like Prometheus. And when she reaches the crux of her powers, her thoughts still turn to protection before they turn to harm. Circe is a tale of an immortal learning what it is to be human, and what it means to be mortal, and Miller has managed to create a hauntingly beautiful retelling that makes your heart ache for her, but more than that this feels to me like the story of a downtrodden girl learning to be a woman, and finding strength in the realisation that she can be whole and strong all on her own, even in a male-dominant world.

Where can I buy?

Waterstones / Amazon (not-affiliated)

Add it on Goodreads

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

Renee Ahdieh’s The Beautiful: Romance, murder and vampires, oh my!

“Don’t fall in love with me,” Celine blurted without thought. “Nothing good will come of it.”

I gave this one a 4 star review, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’ll be the featured book in my next Fairyloot box, and after reading the eARC I’m looking forward to having a copy in my hands. Especially when the cover is this pretty.

Read me for the…

  • 19th Century New Orleans
  • Secret vampire society
  • An enigmatic love interest
  • A take-no-shit main character
  • A creepy murder mystery

The plot:

When seventeen year old Celine Rousseau flees to New Orleans, hiding from a secret that would ruin her life if she were ever to tell it, she finds refuge in New Orleans. It’s 1872, and New Orleans is ruled by the dead, not that Celine knows that just yet. She’s too busy being enamoured by the city’s busy beauty, music and food and parties that she never got to attend herself back in Paris. And far too busy being enamoured by La Cour Des Lions enigmatic and trouble-making leader Sébastien, despite her better judgement. When one of the girls from the convent she’s staying in shows up dead in the lion’s den, Celine struggles to balance her attraction and her suspicion of him. She’s not the first or the last victim, and as it becomes clear that New Orleans is being terrorised by a serial killer with his eyes set on Celine herself, she takes her life in her own hands to uncover the truth about the killer, the man who stole her heart, and the mysterious court that runs the city.

What did I love?

  • Celine: Celine is fierce, and takes-no-shit. She wants to do good, but also has to deal with her internalised belief that she’s a ‘murderess’ and the trauma of attempted rape in her very recent past. She feels a little stuck and is very aware of the way that women and POC are treated in 19th Century society. This can be a little jarringly modern, but it also leans into one of Celine’s most interesting characteristics. Celine passes as white with her French father, but her mother was an ‘unspecified race’ that her father didn’t even deem important enough to tell her about. This is a huge part of her life that is completely blocked off to her, and her father has raised her to believe that she can’t tell anyone about her heritage, so she’s learning to shake a lot of entrenched shame about the secrets she’s keeping.

    Celine’s relationship with Sébastien is complicated. She spends most of the book conflicted between her attraction to him and her fear that he’s involved in the unravelling murder mystery. He’s nothing like anyone she knows either, rough around the edges and no kind of gentleman, and their interactions are engaging and satisfying for a YA romance sub-plot.
  • Odette: Odette is the character that draws Celine into La Cour Des Lions, and I loved her. She’s queer and powerful, a woman in trousers in a world where women shouldn’t even be showing their ankles. She’s also definitely the coolest and the most interesting of the vampires, with a complex characterisation as she’s pulled between her friendships and her Maker. I liked her as a wild and feminist character, threatening to burn all the men and then two pages later swearing never to love anyone more beautiful than herself. I would admit that she sometimes seemed a little too modern. Celine did that too sometimes, but this is a YA novel and I’m willing to overlook that because the experience of reading this was fun and engaging and I was still left wanting more.
  • The vampire ‘powers’: The vampires in The Beautiful lean away from the traditional vampire tropes a little, which I like. I’ve read so many vampire novels that it’s nice to see something a little different. I like the idea that different vampires have different powers that can pull from their personality. I do wish that more of the characters in the book had their powers explained, and that links to my only criticism of this book below. Hopefully, the next book will go into this in more depth, because I want to know what everyone’s powers are.

What didn’t I love?

I’m a sucker (ha!) for vampire novels, and I’ll be the first person to admit that I was Twilight obsessed as a teenager (and okay I still love the books and the terrible movies). So when I saw this marketed as 19th Century New Orleans with vampires, I was pumped, but it’s not quite as vampire heavy as I expected. The main characters aren’t vampires, and while a lot of the Court are vampiric, the plot itself isn’t vampire-forward. I probably would have pegged this more as ‘Historical romance meets gothic fantasy meets murder mystery’. Not as snappy, but more accurate. I’m hoping that the sequel gives us a little more vampire action.

Where can I buy?

Waterstones / Amazon / Book Depository (Amazon owned)

As always, if you can please support your local independent booksellers!

Wrapping up September!

September’s Reads and Ratings:

The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
★★★★
The Beautiful – Renee Ahdieh
★★★★
Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan
★★★★
Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan
★★★☆
Highfire – Eoin Colfer
★★★★★
The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
★★★★★
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
★★★☆
Circe – Madeline Miller
★★★★
SLAY – Brittney Morris
★★★★
Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
CURRENTLY READING
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
CURRENTLY READING
The Odyssey – Homer (Emily Wilson)
CURRENTLY READING
The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker
CURRENTLY READING

The Stats!

BOOKS READ: 9 total books read in September, 1 shy of my target of 10.

PAGES READ: 3426 pages! (+195%)

BOOKS CURRENTLY READING: 4 (oops)

RATINGS: I read two 5 star books, two 3.5 star books and an impressive five four star books. That’s a much higher trend than my usual ratings.

Strong dragons & stronger women in The Priory of the Orange Tree

The cover of this book is SO PRETTY!

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon, was a 2019 release that I missed when it came out in February. I ended up picking it up solely because of an off-hand tweet of Shannon’s that I saw that said something to the effect of ‘I love dragons so much I wrote an 848 page book about them.’ I love dragons a lot too, and long books, so I picked it up on the spot, and damn was it worth it. I ended up reading it all in one sitting. It’s that good.

I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads, here.

Read me for the…

  • DRAGONS
  • Epic high fantasy
  • Feminist retelling of Saint George and the Dragon
  • Strong female characters
  • Varied narrators
  • f/f badasses in love

I know most of these are about the women, but honestly, the characters in this book are SO GOOD and reminded me how much I am so gay 🥰

The Plot:

Sabran IV is the Queen of Inys, the ruling family for the last thousand years. She’s unwed, still, and her court are growing anxious as they wait for her to conceive a daughter to protect her Queendom from certain doom. It is her bloodline that keep her realm safe – while the Berethnet house sit on the throne of Inys, the Nameless One cannot rise again.

Ead Duryan is a lady-in-waiting in Inys’ court, but she’s much more than she seems. A mage from a secretive society that draw magic from a powerful orange grove blessed by an ancient ancestor, she is hidden in the court that would kill her as a heretic to protect Sabran from assassins that are intent on ending the Berethnet line once and for all.

Across the Abyss, Tané has been training to be a dragonrider since she was a child, but a moment of kindness towards an outsider risks ruining the future she’s always wanted.

The Nameless One is rising, and his wyrms along with him, and if the East and West can’t learn to make peace, then chaos will certainly rule.

What did I love?

  • Just about everything?

    I’ve been gushing a lot about this book, but honestly it was a really powerful read. As a whole piece, this novel is beautifully crafted, and despite being 848 pages, it doesn’t drag at any point. I was gripped from the first word to the last, and I actually sulked when I hit the end and ran out of book. Not because the ending wasn’t just as good as the rest of the book but because I just wanted… more.

  • The characters:

    There are four narrating characters throughout the novel: Ead, Tané, Loth and Niclays. I’ll put my hands up and admit I found Loth to be boring, and Niclays to be irritating, but the information learned in their chapters was interesting enough that I forgave them those minor sins. Ead, Tané and Sabran on the other hand, I adored.

    Ead Duryan, or rather Eadaz du Zāla uq-Nāra, is torn between the country of her home and the country she’s been living in for eight years. She is Sabran’s lady-in-waiting, and then a lady of the bedchamber, and then, impossibly, they fall in love. Ead was so fleshed out that she felt real. I spent most of the book feeling like Ead was sat beside me telling me her story and her struggles, and more than anything else I loved her unrelenting decision to do Right and not easy. She was constantly torn between two opposing worlds, and lying to everyone she knows. It could cost her everything, but she isn’t nearly as selfish as I would have been.

    I expected to dislike Sabran from the start of this novel, but much like Ead I found myself suddenly and confusingly in love with her. She’s doing her best in a terrible situation with pressure that I can’t even imagine, and despite the way she’s been raised she proves herself willing to learn and be flexible. She’s also my absolute bicon for the just passed Bi Visibility Day.

    Tané I can’t say much about, because big ol’ plot spoilers, but let’s be real. Who needs to know anything more than brave and heroic dragonrider???

  • The varied and gorgeous cultures:

    A thousand years ago Galian Berethnet valiantly saved Princess Cleolind, the Damsel, and defeated the Nameless one. As long as the royal Berethnet line survives, born from Galian and Cleolind, the world is safe from the Nameless One’s rage. Or so the north claim. But some in the south believe that Cleolind was the one to vanquish the Nameless One, and that she never left with Galian. They call her the Mother. Not the Mother of the Berethnets, but the Mother of the Priory, sworn to slay any wyrms that rise. The east don’t believe either story. They believe that the Nameless One was slain by their water dragons, revered as gods for their powers and their protection. It created a rift between the East and Virtudom, the north, that seems impossible to heal, and the East closed itself away to protect itself from the draconic plague that is becoming more and more common as the wyrms start to rise.

    The world that Shannon created is rich and detailed, and creates beautiful conflicting regions with an interesting and realistic depiction of religious conflict. I particularly liked that there was evidence to support all of the legends, and it took a long time of weighing up the stories to decide what to believe in before evidence to disprove some of the legends started to appear. Every character had motivations that were fleshed out and influenced by the culture in which they were raised, giving a huge depth to the world and the people living in it. It felt like I’d known about this world for years, as intimately as I know my own.

What did I not love?

My only criticism of this 848 page epic is that occasionally the names and timelines were a little confusing, mostly because there were a lot of characters with different names in different cultures and conflicting mythology. There was a timeline at the end of the book that was super-helpful, but I was scared it would have spoilers so I didn’t consult it until I’d finished the book. It’s not really spoiler-y, so I was over-cautious but I can’t be sorry because this book was so perfect that I would have been devastated if I’d had it spoiled. There is also a character guide at the back, non-spoiler-y, which is very helpful.

I can’t hold this against the book too much though, because I read all of this in one sitting and on a slower re-read I’m sure I would be able to keep track a little more easily. By the time I’d hit the thick of the plot, I was able to follow the characters and historical information confidently.

Where can I buy?

Waterstones / Amazon / Bloomsbury / Whsmiths

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

Why Should I Read: Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan

I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.

Rating: 4 stars.

Initially I gave this book a 3.5 star rating, but the more I’ve been thinking about it the more I’ve wanted to bump it up. So I have. Overall, I loved this book, and it was beautifully balanced between trauma, romance and the dystopia-crushing subplot. The last quarter of the novel was an action packed page turner building up to a crescendo of an ending that left me reaching straight for the sequel.

Read if you love:

  • F/F romance
  • Asian-inspired fantasy
  • Demon races
  • YA dystopia (caste system)
  • #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings:

Kidnapping, sex trafficking, sexual assault, rape, violence, sex shaming, violence against animals, caste discrimination and racism, raids and mass murder.

The plot:

Lei is a human girl in a world ruled by the dominant demon castes. There’s the Moon caste full of humanoid animals, the Steel caste of human/demon hybrids, and the Paper caste who are fully human. Lei is Paper, and she lives a quiet life working in her father’s herb shop. Right up until the day the Demon King’s soldiers kidnap her to be one of the King’s Paper Girls, a group of eight concubines given the ‘honour’ of serving the Demon King. Her unusual eyes have painted a target on her back, and now Lei must live in the palace with the other Paper Girls, attending lessons to make her the perfect consort for the king. Manners, court proprieties and of course ‘pleasure skills’. Lei is learning to survive in her new role, until she breaks the most important rule of all – she falls in love. Her ill-fated love affair with another Paper Girl drags her into a plot to overthrow the Demon King’s whole regime, and she has to decide what she’s willing to do for justice, revenge, and freedom.

What did I love?

  • Dark fantasy: I’ve talked plenty about how much I love truly dark fantasy, particularly in YA. Girls of Paper and Fire tackles a really, really dark but really, really important topic in the realities of sex trafficking and rape trauma. Lei and the other Paper Girls go through hell. They’re either given up by their families or stolen from their homes. They’re isolated, with no contact with anyone but their tutors, their maids, the king and each other. They’ve been forced to sacrifice their present and future, and their bodily autonomy to the King as sex slaves, and even once their year is done they’re expected to stay on in the palace and never return home. This is seen as an honour to the Steel and Moon castes, because of the inherent discrimination and the socially enforced racist attitudes towards Paper castes. Most think that the Paper Girls’ lives at home with their family were barely worth living, and that they love and respect the King for keeping them “in their place”. It’s haunting to read, particularly the casual and destructive way that the Demon King uses the girls whenever he wants, and this rape is completely normalised in Ikhara.

  • Slow burn romance: While it was clear from the off who Lei was going to fall in love with, the relationship was slow-growing and felt authentic. There was no insta-love, and that felt very real for two young women who were facing trauma and danger every day of their lives. Both were, for their own reasons that are spoiler-y but equally valid, cautious in showing their affection and wary of opening their hearts. The risks to their romance felt real. The Paper Girls belong to the king, so they were breaking a cardinal rule at giving themselves to each other, and the stakes were high. High enough to claim lives. The romantic subplot in Girls of Paper and Fire was a thread of light throughout the novel that pulled the reader out of the darkness before it got overwhelming which is very important in a YA novel this dark.

  • Queer character development!!! This is probably a fairly specific thing to have fallen in love with, but Lei goes through a very authentic process of realisation regarding her sexuality where she examines her feelings for Wren and compares them to how other female characters talk about their male lovers. Is it a fairly short scene? Yes. Did it make me relate to Lei as a queer reader to a queer character? YES. I love reading about LGBTQ+ characters who have already come to terms with their sexuality (Ryan La Sala’s Reverie comes to mind as a great example of that) but I also loved getting to experience Lei’s discovery alongside her. It reminded me of being a confused teenage girl, and I loved that.

What didn’t I love?

I don’t have much of a criticism for this book. My only complaints aren’t real complaints. The ending of this book is a kicker, and I ‘hated’ it, but only in as much as I wanted a happy ending for Lei and Wren, but hey. When has that ever happened in the first book in a YA trilogy? It’s not a faultless book, but there’s no grievous writing crimes here either and if after a few days I can’t think of a criticism immediately, I’m not going to nitpick to find one.

Where can I buy?

Waterstones / Amazon / Book Depository (Amazon Owned)

If you can, always support your local or independent book sellers!

REVIEW: The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Even after all this, Maren thinks, Ursa believes herself to have power over him. Witch-hunter or no, Absalom is, after all, still only a man.

Rating: 4 stars

The Mercies is inspired by a historical event, the Vardø storm of 1617 where a terrible storm sank ten ships and killed forty men- the majority of Vardø’s male population. This storm ultimately led to one of the biggest witch-trials in Scandinavia, and the first major witch-trial in Norway under the new laws of witchcraft and sorcery.

Maren Magnusdatter watched her father, brother and her husband-to-be die in the sudden storm, along with all of the men in her village. Left behind are just boys that were too young to go out to fish, and the women. They must learn to fend for themselves. And they adjust, as women often do, learning to cope with their collective grief and teaching themselves to fish and to slaughter and to take on the jobs that were traditionally male. They survive that way for eighteen months, before a pious Scotsman is sent to regain control of Vardø and the women who live there. Absalom Cornet isn’t just a religious man, he is also a violent witch-hunter and where his young wife Ursa sees independent, strong women, he sees danger and evil that must be rooted out at all costs. This story is as twisted by suspicion as it is empowered by love, and shows the best and the worst that can come of a very human desire to survive.

My full ‘why to buy’ will be available in February, in time for the release of this book, but these are my initial impressions. The Mercies is a haunting, beautiful story about human nature and the impact of fear and suspicion on a small community. The storm took their menfolk, and the women were suddenly under pressure. This caused tiny fractures to appear, but there were more important concerns so the women kept keeping on, and made things work. It wasn’t until eighteen months later, when Absalom and Ursa moved to the village and Absalom began to apply pressure to those fractures that the whole community suddenly and violently broke apart.

The Mercies pretty much broke my heart, but I knew that was going to happen from the start. This book doesn’t give you any allusions that you’re going to get a happy, glorious ending, and what else would you expect? It’s the 1600s, and we’re talking about witch-hunters and sapphic characters. I was pretty sure I was getting an unhappy ending from the start but I still let myself get overly attached to the women in this story, and hoped somehow that they’d overcome the injustices of history and create a happily ever after. I finished the book, and I’m now genuinely kicking myself that I’ve read this book in September, and now I’ve got to wait until February before more people read it and I can talk about it with everyone I know.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing is beautiful. It’s poetic and powerful, and I was drawn into her vivid descriptions of the environment so much that I was half-convinced I could feel the chill of the ice, even when I was laid reading it in the sunshine. If this is any example of her writing, I can’t wait for my copy of The Deathless Girls to show up at the end of the month, because I’m desperate to read more of her prose. Her characters in particular were masterfully created. I felt for the women, even the kirke-women to a certain extent, because it felt so much that they were being manipulated by their society, and I felt even more for Maren and Ursa. Both women had lost everything, families fractured by loss and distance and they found each other as a tiny haven of gentle peace in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

And then there’s Absalom. At this point, there’s not much else I can say about Absalom, given that at every opportunity I write essays about how much I hate him. At first I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, reluctantly writing up his treatment of Ursa as a symptom of the way society treated women in general – still wrong, but didn’t necessarily mean that Absalom himself was a bad person. Absalom is a TERRIBLE person. I’m not going into it in much detail, because a lot of it is tied into Ursa’s discovery of her husband’s history and that’s much more powerful to read from her perspective than from mine. But let it be said: I hate him.

I don’t tend to read historical fiction, but character driven fiction is my bread and butter, and Kiran Millwood Hargrave has created a masterful character piece here, worth picking up no matter what genre you tend to read.

Pre-order here:

The Mercies is out February 6th 2020, pre-order links below. If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

Pan Macmillan // Waterstones // Book Depository // Amazon

Why should I buy Kingdom of Souls?

The UK cover for Kingdom of Souls, photo by Harper Collins Publishers

For UK readers, Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron releases tomorrow, September 3rd on Kindle and ebook, and the hardback will be out soon – September 19th! And it’s gorgeous.

I rated this book a well-deserved 4.5 stars in my full review, here.

Read if you love:

  • Diverse characters
  • #ownvoices fantasy
  • West-African settings
  • Unusual magic systems
  • Complicated family relationships
  • Dark, desperate conflicts

The Plot

Arrah is the sixteen year old daughter of two powerful witchdoctors, born to two long lines of powerful witchdoctors. Every year she waits for magic of her own, and every year Heka moves past her. When her last chance passes and she still has no magic of her own, Arrah has no time to dwell on the loss of the future she’s always dreamed of. Children are going missing, and Arrah might be the only one who can find them. There is one more way that she can use magic, but the cost is high. Every spell might be her last.

What did I love?

  • The setting: Kingdom of Souls is set in a gorgeous West-African setting, based around tribal magic and tribal gods versus ‘city magic’ and their gods. Arrah is split between the two cultures, and she loves them both equally, giving her a conflicted sense of belonging that was beautiful to read. The world is well fleshed out and interesting, particularly for someone like myself who admittedly doesn’t know much about West-African culture. It was still accessible to me, and I imagine that it’s an #ownvoices victory for anyone looking for diverse and representative African fantasy characters.

  • Arrah: Arrah is 16 years old, which can sometimes mean a whiny and unrelatable main character (I won’t name names, but I’ve read some tiresome teenage female characters lately). Arrah isn’t that at all. She’s interesting and mature, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood that we get to see grow during the course of the novel. She has something she always wanted within her grasp, and when it’s snatched away she responds far more maturely than I think even I would. When she trades her years for magic, she doesn’t do it for selfish reasons, and ultimately she risks everything to do ‘right’. Arrah is the heroine we need, brave and unrelenting even in the face of certain failure.

  • The magic system: The magic system in this book is SO INTERESTING. Magic is gifted to members of the tribe by Heka, their god. During a yearly ceremony, he will choose teenagers that he deems worthy and gift them with access to his magic. Not every member of the tribe will receive magic, but Arrah comes from a long line of powerful witchdoctors, so everyone expects it of her. She isn’t the chosen one, though, so she doesn’t. I like that. I was expecting a book where the main character discovers her magic was inside her all along at a crux moment of conflict, but Arrah is stubbornly un-magical. The only times she casts spells and rituals she has to make incredible sacrifices for it. Those who don’t have magic but want to cast a ritual have one choice – the charlatan way. This method of magic requires an unknown sacrifice, it will take some of your years and you have no way of knowing if you’re sacrificing one day or fifty years every time you use it. I love this, because it puts a sense of gravity on magic. Can’t use it frivolously when it might be the last thing you ever do.

  • The prose: Rena Barron’s prose is poetic and beautiful. It’s a delight to read her descriptions, and I felt fully transported into the environment every time I picked up the book. It was completely haunting in places, and drew me into the story completely. The characters felt real, fleshed out and three-dimensional, which made me feel for them all the more when things went wrong. It also made for beautifully described characters, and even the villains of this story felt balanced. In moments I was sad for them, even though a certain SOMEBODY is entirely evil.

What did I not love?

I’m not even bothering with a list for this one, because there was only one part of this book that I didn’t totally adore, and it was such a small thing that it barely impacted my opinion of the book. I found Part 3 of this novel to be a little slow-going, and I’m mostly only including it to tell any readers that hit this point and get slowed too to perservere. Part 4 of this book is amazing and the action ratchets back up to full pace for an incredible climax.

Trigger Warnings:

Kingdom of Souls includes blood magic (including intentional self-injury as part of the ritual), poor family relationships and familial loss, death of a child(ren), battle scenes ending in death and mass killings, mentions of animal sacrifice, animal and human possession and a scene where a character is revealed to have engaged in sexual activity under false pretences. Please read with caution.

Where can I buy?

Harper Collins / Waterstones / Amazon

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!