I know I’m not a natural fan of YA fiction, but I can usually manage to appreciate a well-told and constructed YA story. Sadly Master of Sorrows by Justin Call isn’t it (review copy from Gollancz).
The premise here is very familiar. A young orphan (Annev) is raised by a wise old man in a small village cut off from the world. He goes to school where he has friends and enemies, and competes to graduate and become a magic hunter. But he is hiding a mysterious secret: a deformity and his ability to do magic. What Call is trying to do is to subvert some of that classic story by having Annev be the Chosen One of the dark lord, and make him an antihero rather than a classic fantasy hero. But it just doesn’t work.
The world-building really lets the story down and makes it an unpleasant book to read. Call has chosen to have the founding principle of his world’s religion be the stigmatisation of all disabilities. Any child born with any disability is immediately marked out as claimed by the dark lord and killed. Even if Call intends this to signal to the reader that this society is one that we should not be taking as a healthy or a good place, the unremitting structural ableism makes this book a really uncomfortable read.
The characterisation is also weak. For reasons that are completely unclear, despite Annev having a disability that he masks with the use of a forbidden magic hand, he is passionate about fitting into a society that would expel him with horror if they realised the truth about him. For a Chosen One, he is remarkably stupid, regularly making unwise choices, ignoring advice and doing reckless things. The adults aren’t much better. The teachers at the Academy are two-dimensional caricatures. And Annev’s friends and classmates aren’t much better. With very little effort you could map all of them onto principal characters from Harry Potter. Except without Hermione, because without exception all of the female characters in the novel are shallow, manipulative and horrible.
A more skilled writer could do something really interesting and exciting with the idea of a story focusing on the Dark Lord’s Chosen One and a society that believes itself to be good but is in urgent need of revolution. But this is not that book.
The Ruin of Kings is an exciting new debut from Jenn Lyons (review copy from Tor) and the first in her A Chorus of Dragons series. This is the story of Kihrin, an orphan raised in a brothel by a musician. A chance encounter with a demon on the streets of the city leads Kihrin to discover that he’s actually the bastard son of one of the city’s powerful ruling families. At the same time, the story follows a slightly older Kihrin who has been sold into slavery. Kihrin owns a mysterious necklace which was the only thing recovered from his mother’s body when she was murdered and Kihrin was rescued from her dying arms. Unbeknownst to Kihrin, the necklace is not just magical, but it holds the key to destroying and remaking the world.
This is a story told in braided narratives. Chapters of each phase of Kihrin’s life alternate, until at last the two storylines meet and the climax of the novel happens. It’s an ambitious approach, and one that would fail in the hands of a different writer. I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, as I really dislike authors artificially creating suspense by witholding relevant information from the reader that their characters know. But in this novel there are a pleasing series of reveals as Kihrin’s early life starts to fill in the context for things happening in his later time line.
The worldbuilding is extremely rich. There are gods, monsters, elder races, magical artifacts, death cults, powerful families, and other races. Lying behind and running through Kihrin’s story is a conflict between the gods that threatens to tear the world apart if it can’t be stopped. And it’s clear that Kihrin and his mother’s necklace will end up playing a key role in it.
Kihrin himself is cocky, charming and can be infuriating. He’s not always the most reliable of narrators in the first person sections of the book, but he’s a pleasure to spend time with. Lyons has developed a character with a strong voice and clear personality. I am really looking forward to the next books in this series.
I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City
To take back the child that was stolen …”
Many of the people I know have deep and powerful memories associated with the film Labyrinth. Released in 1986 it stars David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, and a young Jennifer Connolly as Sarah, the girl trying to win back the baby step-brother she wished the goblins would take away from her. She has to beat the Labyrinth within the 13 hour time limit set by the Goblin King to claim back baby Toby. But this is a goblin labyrinth that changes around you and is full of surreal perils that need all of Sarah’s wit and cleverness to overcome.
Labyrinth is a coming of age story about Sarah’s growing acceptance of responsibility and her sexual awakening, but one that recognises that we all carry an inner child within us. Regardless of how adult the world requires us to be, we all have the need to play and our imaginations are a core part of what makes us who we are.
Bowie’s Jareth had a huge influence on many of my contemporaries, who were all at extremely impressionable ages when the film came out.
Let’s get that one out of the way now: the bulge is even more impressive when you finally get to see the film on a proper cinema screen for the first time as a grown woman. (Previously, I’d only seen it on tv.)
This is a film with a huge number of iconic sequences, but one that is particularly visually striking is the Masquerade Ball scene. Enchanted by a magic peach, Sarah is whisked away from her friends and shown what life could be if she opted to stay with Jareth: a glamorous life as a beautiful princess. It’s a scene full of emotional intensity that shows how Sarah has got under Jareth’s skin. This is about so much more than a stolen baby for either of them.
It’s a classically 1980s vision of a fantasy ball: off the shoulder meringue dresses and big hair.
I’ve always had the urge to do this as cosplay. Who wouldn’t want to dress up as a beautiful princess and get to be on David Bowie’s arm? But it’s difficult to do on your own.
A little over a year ago I met a woman who has since become a very dear friend. She does the most astonishing Jareth cosplay. It’s uncanny. So it was with some trepidation that around the end of last year I suggested that perhaps I could be the Sarah to her Jareth. She was incredibly enthusiastic about it.
So we did it at WorldCon in Dublin.
And it was the most magical day you can imagine. It’s instantly recognisable, and there is huge love for the film still. I felt like a princess all day.
A friend kindly gave up most of the afternoon for a little photo shoot. (Though we are both considering a pro photo shoot at some point.) My Jareth has done some modelling work in the past, and it was fantastic to do this with someone who knew how to set up interesting shots. (Left to my own devices I tend to stand fairly awkwardly and self-consciously.) Playing off someone for the pictures was wonderful.
But how did I go about making it?
This was the largest cosplay project I’ve undertaken since Missy. As with Missy, I needed to mix two different dress patterns to get the look I wanted.
I used the pattern on the left (Butterick 4743) for the base of the dress. It had the right shaping for both the neckline and the bodice and skirt. I opted for the full length skirt with fishtail, and added a thumb loop to help manage the skirt (SO important for practicality). But I used the puff sleeves from the pattern on the right (New Look 6031). With modifications – the sleeves were fully lined.
The fabric was from one of the little fabric shops on Goldhawk Road. I found this perfect polyester satin. It’s white, with green lurex thread woven through it. That gives it the perfect shimmer for the pearlescent look of the film. As with much Goldhawk Road fabric it wasn’t perfect – it had a flaw running through it close to one selvedge that I had to cut round. But 8 metres of it was relative cheap and gave me plenty to play with in case I needed to recut. (And I did: I had to recut the same lower sleeve twice after it got stained by some spilled balsamic vinaigrette I’d failed to spot on the black dining table. Wah!) I spent more per metre on some good quality cotton lining for the bodice and sleeves.
After that it was a fairly straight sewing job to make the dress.
I bound the raw edges on the inside of the sleeves. The puff sleeves are stiffened with netting between fabric and lining, and the raw edges would have been extremely scratchy otherwise.
I added little bra strap keepers, made from bias binding.
I used some 1 mm white rattail (Kumihimo braid) for the button loops on the sleeves. I sandwiched this between the lining and the outer fabric.
The sleeve openings were trimmed with a lace and pearl trim.
The biggest challenge with this dress was the decoration. There is a lot of sparkle going on in the original. This was always going to be a case of “More Is More”, but finding the right sparkle proved to be a challenge. I spent a lot of happy hours searching “Wedding Dress Applique” on eBay and looking in the trimmings section of every haberdashery shop I came across.
Yeah, that got a bit silly …
Ultimately I settled on a few key bits of sparkle.
The bodice of the dress is decorated with a crystal applique design. This came ready attached to a net backing. I trimmed it and then couched the whole thing down using silver embroidery thread.
I trimmed the seam between bodice and skirt by couching on a resin crystal drop trim. This was an embellished cup chain that came in a single piece that was a perfect length.
The other key part of this look is the accessories. They present another key opportunity to add MOAR BLING to the outfit. The key one here is getting the hair to look right. To me, the solution seemed pretty obvious: embellished hair combs. Attach the right feathers, beads and streamers to them and you have an instant, easy approach to the look.
There are lots of You Tube videos about how to embellish combs. The principle is simple: you need comb blanks, beads and other embellishments and wire to attach everything. (I used 0.3 mm silver plated.)
The combs were embellished – in roughly the order I added them to the combs – with:
Two different kinds of silver feathers – silver sprayed feathers for the top (the more rigid ones) and silver goose feathers (the longer ones are the bottom). Each feather was individually wire wrapped onto the comb – if I lost one I didn’t want the whole comb unravelling.
Lengths of cord tied to the bottom. I used 3 mm white rattail (kumihimo cord)
Lengths of lighter Kreinik Balger tapestry braid (#12) at the top. The shade ‘Easter’ has a green shimmer that matches the fabric of the dress. (This took most of a reel of braid.)
Fabric flowers made by gathering lengths of silver organza ribbon around a large central bead.
A picot edging made from small Czech fire polished AB crystal beads plus some crystal AB leaf shaped beads.
Larger Crystal AB Czech fire polished beads in a row along the base of the comb (largely to hide the untidy wrapped wire)
A couple of Crystal AB drops at the bottom edge of each comb.
On top of that I added a large paste crystal necklace that I already own.
And I made some earrings from Swarovski crystal drops (also Crystal AB) and chandelier findings. (As I don’t have pierced ears I used screwback findings.)
I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper. And I was not disappointed!
The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass. She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour. She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend. But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.
Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel. But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book. Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court. Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path. The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule. Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.
This is a great book, and a worthy sequel. I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!
Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story. In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic. Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed. They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound. In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.
After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form. Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery. One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound. Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett. Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete. He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it. Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.
This is one of the real strengths of the book for me. Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world. In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought. But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants. Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty. Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences. The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.
But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story. It unfolds throughout the second part of the book. Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity. It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature. It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.
This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels. Hard.
There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun. Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades. The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?
Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world. Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before. They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet. But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive. Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign. Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again. Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away. But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers. Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school. Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.
One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies. Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it. He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles. Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it. And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn. He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.
Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons. It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused. But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.
And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier? That had me punching the air in delight.
Imagine if you will, a low-peril version of Harry Potter. That is Tamora Pierce‘s Tempests and Slaughter (review copy from Harper Voyager). This is a middle-grade story following three young friends at Carthak’s university for magicians. Arram Draper is young and powerful, but lacks control over his magic. He is fiercely intelligent, but naive and from a distant island. Varice is a young woman with a bit more knowledge of how the world works. Ozorne is a spare heir of the Emperor, being trained in war magic. I understand that these are characters that play a significant part in the author’s other novels. But as someone who hasn’t read any of the other books the beats here are predictable – Arram and Varice will end up together, and Ozorne will end up as Emperor.
The book follows the schooling of this trio. There are lots of details of their lessons (Arram’s timetable for each term is set out in painstaking detail) and trips out, and some rivalries and fallings out with fellow students. But it’s all pretty … bland. All the teachers are sympathetic, including the grumpy ones. There is little sense of peril or conflict in the book. Even the ending was underwhelming, and I was left surprised that the book had finished. Surely there was meant to be something more climactic.
It’s always really exciting to see a fresh take on the fantasy genre that gets away from tired tropes and recycled plotlines. Foundryside from Robert Jackson Bennett (review copy from Jo Fletcher books) does exactly that. This is the story of Sancia, a talented thief with a very special set of skills, who is hired to steal a box. She makes the mistake of looking inside, and what she finds inside – a sentient gold key that speaks to her telepathically – turns her life and world upside down, thrusting her into the midst of a conflict between the big artisan houses that control the city of Tevanne.
Each House jealously guards its intellectual property: a language that lets it build and sell magical artifacts. But the Houses are desperate to track down ancient artifacts that might enable a step change in what they can design and build. There are rumours of a secret language known by the ancients that would let them change the world, not just create localised effects that bend its rules. An archaelogical dig on a remote island on the far side of the world has created rumours that ancient artifacts could be found, prompting a bidding war between the Houses desperate to lay their hands on any item that can be found. Clef – the gold key that Sancia steals – is one of those items, with the ability to open any lock, however complicated. Sancia finds herself pursued by people wanting to recover Clef, and Gregor, a police officer who wants to catch her for the original break in where she stole the box.
Sancia is a brilliantly written character. A metal plate in her head has gifted with a talent that enables her to feel and understand the shape and size of anything she touches physically. She can put her hand on the wall of a building and understand its full layout. This makes breaking into buildings and stealing things remarkably easy for her. But the talent comes with a price. She can’t touch another human being and finds contact with people, clothes and objects overwhelming and painful. She is saving up to have the plate removed, believing she has found a surgeon willing to do it. The traumatic past that resulted in her acquiring the metal plate and living in the margins of Tevanne is slowly revealed as the book goes on.
The setting of Tevanne and its magic system is particularly fresh and interesting. It imports concepts from computer programming into a fantasy magic system in a fascinating way. The Houses control giant Lexicons defining detailed strings of magical instructions that can then be combined to make artifacts. Each House has its own specialists responsible for maintaining and expanding the Lexicons and using the instructions to create new magical items. Those specialists are fiercely intelligent and extremely protective of their work. But each House’s language is also pirated by artisans living outside House walls, where there are no rules and no law to be enforced. The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and the writer has a lot to say about the exploitation of people, and those who treat them as just one more asset.
This is a fun and pacy adventure with a rewarding reveal as the book progresses. It sets up well for a sequel, which I will look forward to.
One of my favourite debuts last year was Ed McDonald‘s Blackwing. This dark and brooding tale of Ryhalt Galharrow, his lost lady love, and the horrible menace of the Deep Kings was fresh and compelling. McDonald returns that world with the second book in his Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry (review copy from Gollancz).
In Ravencry, we pick up Galharrow’s story four years later. The Deep Kings were driven back from Valengrad, but at huge cost. Galharrow is now a hero, with his Blackwings well funded and resourced by a grateful city. He uses his knowledge and skill to root out threats to the city, including spies and creatures of the Deep Kings. The cult of the Bright Lady is taking root in the city, with people having visions of a beautiful woman they believe will save the city from its enemies, offering hope rather than the dark pragmatism of the city’s normal rulers. One of Galharrow’s childhood friends has come to Valengrad, and he is thick with the leaders of the Bright Lady’s cult.
Second books are always tricky. They need to advance the story, provide enough self-contained pay off in their own right without over-topping the series finale, and help to set up the final book. McDonald pulls off that tricky second book in style. We learn more about Galharrow and his world, with a trip to the Misery that shows us the measure of the Blackwing Captain. The ending has real peril and high stakes. We see how the hope offered by the Bright Lady’s cult is so attractive that it supplants all rational logic and sense. And we see how the unscrupulous are willing to exploit situations for their own self-interest.
There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there. You know the drill: a mysterious happening brings civilisation to its knees. People living in the aftermath scrabble around living on tinned food. Our protagonist is the one who gets to the heart of what happens and (in the more optimistic ones) is able to fix it. See The Feed, Station Eleven and The Space Between The Stars – all of which are really excellent examples of the genre.
Where Peng Shepherd‘s The Book of M (review copy from Harper Voyager) differs is that the cause of the apocalypse is not a mysterious virus or act of terrorism. This is a fantasy take on the apocalypse, rather than a science fictional one. Starting in India, people start losing their shadows. And the shadowless start to gain the ability to change reality, but at the price of losing their memories. As the problem begins to spread, society starts to break down.
Our protagonists are Max and Ory. They were at the wedding of two friends in a remote location when the Forgetting starts to hit the USA. Slowly the community at the wedding hotel starts to disperse, until only Max and Ory are left. Max loses her shadow, and her husband Ory looks after her, in the knowledge that eventually she will forget even him. Unable to bear it, Max eventually leaves, following mysterious graffiti and rumours that someone in the deep South may hold a cure for the Forgetting.
Unfortunately, The Book of M fails to add anything fresh to the post-apocalyptic genre beyond its new, fantastical premise. The novel dwells on the importance of memories in how they shape and form the essence of a person. But the Forgetting is never adequately explained and – although the story is competently told and Shepherd writes with a beautiful prose style – the novel lacks some of the deep insight into the human condition and how we cope with chaos and crisis that other sister books offer.