There are a whole bunch of cliches about urban fantasy. About ‘strong’ female protagonists with the ability to kick demon butt and a taste for form-fitting black leather, tattoos, piercings and edgy haircuts. About irresistibly sexy Fae creatures that capture the hearts of said strong female protagonists, often after stories involving love triangles. And plots centring on conspiracies, world-threatening catastrophe and hidden pasts. So much so that when I picked up Amanda Hocking‘s Between the Blade and the Heart (review copy from Pan Macmillan) I took it for parody to begin with. But apparently it’s meant to be serious, and Hocking’s popularity suggests her writing is the source for a lot of these tropes and cliches.
This was a book I didn’t finish. There are holes in the plot and the world-building you could drive the main character Malin’s luft-bike through. And the prose was so eye-rollingly facile and over-sexualised that I struggled. This is pure chick-lit – romance with the slight gloss of a supernatural mystery to solve as Malin gets involved in correcting a mistake her mother once made that arguably puts the world at risk. It aspires to being ‘edgy’ with Malin’s bisexuality, strained relationship with her mother, references to drink and drugs, and her status as a professional slayer of immortals, but this is as derivative a work of fiction as they come.
The characters are unlikeable stereotypes, yet with Hocking making a point of telling us exactly how attractive they all are. Malin is a standard issue strong-female-protagonist, who aspires to being a rebellious outsider (by not taking her college classes seriously, by ignoring instructions and advice, and partying hard). Her flatmate Oona is a put-upon doormat. And there is a classic Mean Girl at college, who is no doubt destined to become Malin’s BFF. Add to that mix a Sexy Ex, a hot Friend With Benefits, and a Sexy Yet Mysterious Stranger and I noped my way out fast.
Hocking’s popularity and sales suggest she has a devoted readership and following of fans. I am glad they are reading work they enjoy. But this is not my cup of tea. I prefer books with a bit more substance.
Goodreads rating: 1*
I loved Paul Crilley‘s Poison City last year. Its irreverent take on the supernatural police procedural was a breath of fresh air. Crilley has followed it up with Clockwork City (review copy from Hodderscape), a direct sequel picking up on Gideon ‘London’ Tau’s work with the Delphic Division and his search for his missing daughter.
One of the strengths of Poison City was its South African setting, and the wide range of gods, monsters and orisha that setting enables Crilley to draw on for the book. That felt fresh and new compared to the run of urban fantasy and supernatural police procedural clogging the shelves. So setting Clockwork City in London was a bold move. I’m not sure it completely works, as it loses the USP of these books.
Dealing with the aftermath of the events of Poison City, Tau finds himself sent to London to investigate the disappearance of two Delphic Division agents. But this is a London full of Fae, walking brazenly and openly through the streets. Four competing Fae gangs between them control London and its organised crime, but the Blessed are seeking to take over. And they seem to have some connection with the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.
Clockwork City is a proper romp of a crime thriller, as Tau and his foul-mouthed dog spirit guide continue to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter. It’s an adventure that takes them to the heart of ancient London and the alternate world of the Fae. There’s a host of new characters and a glorious heist that is the supernatural equivalent of Ocean’s 11. This is fantastic fun, and a worthy sequel, even if not – quite – on a par with the first book.
Goodreads rating: 4*
It’s become a cliche that literary fiction tends to centre on a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis and getting together with a much younger woman who helps him resolve his emotional crisis. Peter S Beagle’s In Calabria (review copy from Tachyon press) is exactly that. With extra unicorns.
Claudio Bianchi lives on his own on a farm in Calabria. The farm provides his refuge from his past, and in particular from the break up of his marriage following the stillbirth of his daughter. The trauma divided Bianchi and his wife, and their emotional distance grew from that point. A simple life of complete isolation reflects the emotional pause in his life. But the arrival of a pregnant unicorn on Bianchi’s farm becomes the catalyst for himto come to terms with his loss and the end of his marriage. Caring for the unicorn and midwiving her through a difficult birth gives Bianchi a measure of redemption and emotional closure. All this is, of course, aided by his new love, Giovanna, the postman’s sister (and a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl).
Although competently told, there is nothing new or insightful about In Calabria. There are thousands of other stories telling this tale.
Goodreads rating: 2*
The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (review copy from Del Rey) tries to deliver a magical and whimsical tale along the lines of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, but fails to deliver any of the depth of emotion or insight.
The Toymakers is the story of a magical toy shop in Edwardian Mayfair, run by Papa Jack, his two sons Kasper and Emil, and their community of shop workers. Papa Jack’s toys are legendary for their inventiveness and magic, and the shop’s pre-Christmas opening each year is a famed spectacle. A young woman called Cathy Wray finds refuge there after she runs away from her family, pregnant by a local boy and desperate not to find herself in a home for the mothers of illegitimate children. Cathy is our window into Papa Jack’s Emporium, as it struggles to survive the challenges of the Great War, and a toxic rivalry between Kasper and Emil.
The premise is a great one, and there is definitely a lot of magic in Papa Jack’s Emporium and the family’s creations. Where the book is strongest is in its exploration of the traumatising effects of war in a period where understanding and empathy about mental health problems was very immature and gendered expectations of men made it very difficult to explore those issues. One of the underlying messages of the book is that the experience of trauma can sometimes be necessary to enable one to tap the deepest wells of creativity. The magic of childhood and its toys is made all the more precious when contrasted against the darknesses of war, poverty and trauma.
But I was left fundamentally unsatisfied and disappointed. At its heart this is the story of the rivalry between two Great Men. Cathy, despite being the viewpoint character, is relegated to the role of helpmeet and observer. Loving and loyal, her role is to endure, and she lacks any agency of her own. It is strongly implied that she is the victim of rape, having been pressured into sex by her childhood playmate, but she shows little sign of any lasting trauma and the crisis pregnancy seems little more than a narrative device to force Cathy to move to the Emporium and stay once the winter season is complete. The other female characters are equally thinly drawn. Without greater depth this book will never reach the subtle and delicate heights of something like The Night Circus.
Not only am I tired of reading books about Great Men, but there is a missed opportunity to tell a really interesting story. I want to know more about Cathy and the other women working to hold the Emporium together while her husband and the other men go to war, and dealing with a psychologically damaged husband returning home afterwards. The Cathy dealing with a crisis pregnancy and coming to terms with sexual assault and the rejection of her family. A Cathy who feels trapped by her circumstances. We do Cathy and women like her a disservice by relegating them to passive victims and bystanders in men’s stories.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Last year’s The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favourite reads of the year: a feel-good adventure story about a young girl overcoming a threat to her village with the help of the fairies and other mythical beings that live near her Russian home. The Girl in the Tower (review copy from Penguin Random House) is the sequel, and second book in the trilogy.
The Girl in the Tower picks up straight after the events of the first book. Mourning her family and lacking a place in the world, Vasya decides to try her luck in the world, riding out dressed as a boy and with a pocket full of silver. She finds herself on the trail of bandits burning villages, before accidentally meeting up with her brother Sasha, travelling to Moscow and finding herself pitted against another of Morozko the frost demon’s bitter enemies.
This is a classic – and winning – formula. A tomboyish girl fighting against the gendered conventions of her time, a magical horse, adventure, peril and a happy ending. Arden ups the stakes in this sequel, with Vasya also fighting to save her niece from a cloistered life as a Russian noblewoman within the even more constrained environment of the Moscow court. Vasya continues to be impulsive, wilful and an utter delight.
Goodreads rating: 4*
Michael Marshall Smith gives the familiar subject of marital breakdown a new twist in his novel Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence (review copy from Harper Voyager). The titular Hannah Green is a young girl dealing with the break up of her parents’ marriage. Her mother has left her father for a work colleague, and has moved from the West Coast of the USA to London.
The marriage break up is the unfeasibly mundane part of Hannah’s life. So common a set of experiences and so frequently covered in fiction as to be unremarkable. This is a well-trodden emotional journey for all the participants in it.
Hannah’s family story becomes interwoven with that of the Devil, when she is sent to stay with her grandfather for a while. The Devil is trying to deal with a coup aimed at unseating him, and enlists the assistance of that same grandfather. This allows Marshall Smith to take the domestic story on an abrupt jink to the side. Introducing these supernatural elements lets him explore the family’s crisis in an allegorical manner, focusing on humanity’s ability to cause harm to family and friends. It lacks no less of the emotional punch and impact of a traditional literary fiction treatment of these issues, but is delivered with a wry, sideways smile.
This is a heart-warming book that uses traditional genre tools to tackle a traditional literary fiction topic.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Second novels can be difficult things, particularly the middle novel of a trilogy, which can never provide the resolution the reader is seeking. So, how do you follow up a smash like Nevernight? Jay Kristoff‘s Godsgrave (review copy from Harper Voyager) takes Mia Corvere away from assassin school to pursue her mission of revenge against the people who unseated her father and executed him.
Godsgrave picked up after the cataclysmic event of the first novel – the Red Church is diminished, with many of its top echelons dead and its branch offices destroyed. Now a fully fledged assassin, Mia is plying her trade, killing the great and the good to order, when she spots an opportunity to progress her revenge. But it is one that may mean she must breach some of the most fundamental tenets of the Red Church, and will take her down a path that involves working with former enemies.
Mia Corvere engineers her way into gladiator school to earn a place at the biggest tournament of the year. If she wins, she will have the opportunity to target her father’s killers. But it is a life or death gamble – the survival rates from being a gladiator are low, and Mia rapidly finds out that her Red Church training will only take her so far.
In Godsgrave Mia’s single-minded focus on revenge begins to come under some pressure. Time as a gladiator slave forces her to grow a social conscience about social and economic inequality. But it also forces her to learn about the value of community and companionship, as she grows closer to her fellow gladiators. There is not quite the same competitive culture that she experienced during her assassin training.
This greater social conscience adds depth to the novel, but takes away some of the sparkle of the first book. Add that to some of those difficult middle novel issues, and Godsgrave doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Nevernight, but it’s still a great read.
Goodreads rating: 4*