Master of Sorrows – Justin Call

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.


Goodreads rating: 1*

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley

Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be Harry.  Harimad-sol – laprun minta and damalur-sol.  With a chestnut warhorse, a pet leopard, a magic sword and the ability to make desert kings fall hopelessly in love with me while I saved the world.

Robin McKinley‘s The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favourite novels, and a comfort book  that I pull out for regular re-reading.  First published in 1982 it tells the story of Harry Crewe, an orphan sent to the farthest reaches of the British Empire, where her brother, Richard, is serving in the military.  The tomboyish Harry slowly falls in love with the wilds of Daria (as the Empire calls it) and learns that she is not the only Homelander who feels that way.  She is kidnapped by Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, after his magic Gift prompts him to do it, trains as a warrior and ultimately saves the day by defeating the Northern demon-king.

So far, so typical for a YA novel: heroic young woman comes of age and saves the day when none of the adults will listen to her.  But there is much to lift The Blue Sword above the pack, despite its flaws.

This is a novel about colonialism.  It falls prey to Orientalism in the way that it romanticises Daria.  And Harry is a bit of a White Saviour (we learn Harry has mixed race ancestry late in the book, but culturally she is wholly British).  We see very little from or about the viewpoints of those living under colonial rule – they are nameless, faceless servants and tradespeople.

But McKinley shows us the fragility of colonial rule at the edges of Empire.  Authority is notional at best, based on lines drawn on maps and the presence of a small number of Empire administrators, diplomats and military, who live in a self-contained immigrant bubble.  There is little investment or interest in the place beyond the amount of the map that can be coloured pink, and the availability of natural resources (profitable mines in the area).

Language and miscommunication are key themes in The Blue Sword.  The colonial habit of renaming things and places out of arrogance or the inability to pronounce indigenous words.  Corlath is king of Damar, not of the Hillfolk.  The main town has been renamed Istan by the Empire in place of its real name Ihistan, and the pass known as Ritger’s Gap by the colonisers is the Madamer Gate to the people of Damar.  Miscommunication extends to cultural concepts and rituals: “those funny patched sashes the Hillfolk wear”.  The few translators struggle, emphasising the separation between Damarian and Homelander.

Harry is the bridge between Damar and Empire – an uncomfortable place to be, caught between two worlds.  And McKinley’s message is one that success happens when these cultures work together in a spirit of shared endeavour and mutual respect for different perspectives and traditions.  Diplomacy rather than colonisation is the right approach – but it is one that requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

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.

Tremendous fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Tarnished City – Vic James

Regular readers of this blog will know that I loved The Gilded Cage, the debut novel from Vic James.  So I was delighted to get a review copy of its sequel, Tarnished City from Pan Macmillan.  Go read my earlier review if you want the backdrop to this trilogy.

You will be relieved to hear that Tarnished City picks up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, and continues with the same, unrelenting pace.  Without spoiling the plot of either this book or the first in the series I can say that the events of The Gilded Cage have irreversible changed the lives of all those caught up in them.  Both Abi and Luke find themselves set on very different – but equally dangerous – paths.

One of the things I loved about The Gilded Cage was its commentary on English history and class issues.  This continues in Tarnished City, and James’s writing if anything has got even more political.  This book exposes in some detail the culture of the super-rich and powerful, exploring whether they should be seeking to preserve that position of power, or using it to help the less privileged.  In a searing look at contemporary celebrity culture, James looks at the way the public are at times complicit in perpetuating those power structures by lionising the very people who do the least to help them.  And where the last book fictionalised the Peterloo massacre, Tarnished City gives us both the Gunpowder Plot and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is incredibly high-grade writing from Vic James – Tarnished City is insightful and thought-provoking while delivering a thoroughly ripping yarn.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Gilded Cage – Vic James

“I hoped you were going to be here!” Vic James said as she rushed across the bar at Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club a few months ago. She gave me a big hug and pushed something very exciting into my hand: one of the very first ARCs of her debut novel, The Gilded Cage, which is out early next year and the first in her Dark Gifts trilogy. “I do hope you love it!” she said.  
And I did.  

The Gilded Cage is a dystopian sort-of-YA novel set in an alternative Britain whose path diverged from our own at the time of the Civil War. In The Gilded Cage, the country is ruled by an elite of magically gifted individuals known as Equals. Ordinary people’s lives are largely unaffected by their magical rulers, save that every person, once in their life has to serve a ten-year term of servitude to the Equals. That time is known as slavedays. During that time, a person loses all their rights and becomes a chattel. But once a person’s slavedays are complete, they gain additional rights and status in society.  

The Gilded Cage follows one family who choose to do their time together, as soon as their youngest child is old enough to serve. They hope that by doing it early, the children will benefit in later life. Abi, the oldest child arranges for them all to serve at Kyneston, the estate of the quintessential Equal family, the Jenners, whose ancestors played a key role in the Civil War and its aftermath, and were the architects of the current system

The experiences of the three children are very different. The capable Abi becomes an administrator for the Kyneston estate before finding herself a character in one of her favourite romance novels: the ‘normal’ girl who falls for one of the Equals. Her youngest sister Daisy, whose job it is to act as nursemaid and companion for a young half-Equal child, becomes the well-treated favourite of Kyneston’s heir. But it is the middle child, Luke, who has the more interesting journey. He becomes separated from the family and is sent to Millmoor, a brutal factory town in the north of England. Through Luke’s eyes we see the cruelty and exploitation on which the luxurious and moneyed society depends. Luke becomes increasingly drawn into an underground movement focused on exposing and overturning that system.  

What I love most about The Gilded Cage is how quintessentially English it is, particularly in its treatment of class and privilege. And by that I don’t mean it is some Downton Abbey-like rose-tinted view of the past where everyone knows their place and is happy about it. This is a novel that exposes the cruelty, unfairness and exploitation that underpins such privilege. Inherited wealth and power is as fickle as the magical powers of the Equals. But the novel is also steeped in the experience of the industrial revolution. The ‘satanic mills’ of Millmoor are brutal, but leavened with human kindness. And there are nods back to events like the Peterloo Massacre. Even the characters and places are gloriously English too. One of the characters (Lord Lytchett Matravers) is even named after a place near where I grew up, and I know (once Vic pointed it out to me) the endless estate wall that inspires Kyneston’s wall. 

The Gilded Cage is glorious. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mine’s a Bourbon.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is perhaps best known as the author of the Temeraire novels.  Those are glorious adventure stories about the Napoleonic Wars, but with an airforce composed of dragons.  Her new novel, Uprooted, is published tomorrow by Macmillan (as always, I got an advance copy from NetGalley).   Novik draws on her Polish heritage and turns her hand to a new world and setting.  The novel is heavily rooted in European folk tales in both setting and style.

Uprooted is a YA story about a tomboyish girl who discovers she has a talent for magic.  Agnieszka lives in a small community in a valley that is slowly being taken over by a malevolent wood populated by monstrous creatures.  The valley is protected by a wizard, known as the Dragon, who lives in a tower alone except for a girl he selects from the valley to act as his housekeeper for ten years.

The novel opens with the Dragon selecting his new housekeeper.  Rather than choosing the polished and beautiful Kasia, who has been groomed all her life for the role, he picks her best friend Agnieszka because of her nascent talent for magic.  One of the real strengths of the novel is how Novik deals with the friendship between the two girls, and the impact of the Dragon’s choice on both of them.  Kasia struggles to adapt to a different future from the one she was expecting and Agnieszka wrestles with guilt and jealousy.

Agniezka proves to be a challenging student of magic.  She finds the Dragon’s style of intricate and complex spells difficult.  What comes naturally to her is a much naturalistic style of magic that she discovers almost by accident.  She is a fantastic character and role model for young women.  She finds her own path through life, refusing to conform to the expectations of others or the norms of society.  She shows initiative and remains single-mindedly committed to solving the wider problem of The Wood.

Conventional fairy tale tropes are turned upside down in the novel.  Princes are neither charming nor heroic, except when it suits their own interests.  The aristocracy are bitchy and frivolous.

The novel also presents a refreshingly healthy view of romantic relationships: sex positive, with a strong thread about the importance of consent and thinking carefully before committing to action.

The story is as engaging as its main characters.  I found it very difficult to put down because I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happens next.  And there are few better compliments for a book than that.

Goodreads rating: 4*