Gritty epic fantasy lacks depth and detail

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

‘Somebody warned them that we were coming. The sympathisers left nothing behind but an empty apartment and a few volumes of illegal verse. A half-eaten meal, ransacked drawers. They’d scrambled together what little they could carry and fled east into the Misery. Back when I wore the uniform the marshal told me only three kinds of people willingly enter the Misery: the desperate, the stupid and the greedy.’

The republic faces annihilation. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel, and far across the wasteland known as the Misery a vast army is on the move.

I was sucked into the world of this story from the first page, but unfortunately, after the thrilling opening this book started to let me down. The more I read, the more bored I became and the less concerned I felt about what was going to happen.

This is a gritty epic fantasy that starts off well. There’s a lot of jargon thrown at you in the first couple of pages but the action is so exciting that it doesn’t matter at the time. But this world doesn’t have enough depth and the writing is strangely lacking in detail for a fantasy novel, so I had trouble visualising the world.

There are plenty of interesting concepts in this book; I particularly liked the Spinners, people who can spin energy from moonlight and use it to unleash powerful blasts of magic, and the Misery, a desert wasteland inhabited by horrible creatures warped by magic. But all the clever concepts in the world won’t save a book if you don’t care about the characters, and that was my main problem with Blackwing.

Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow: fighter, alcoholic and cliché. I understand what McDonald was trying to do and, don’t get me wrong, I love a story with an antihero protagonist. But Galharrow is an awful person. He goes on about how much he hates fat people and judges many of the other characters based on their appearance. McDonald seems to think that having a character swagger around is enough to make up for an absence of personality.

Even if you didn’t know the name of the author of this book, you would still be able to tell it was written by a man, because the female characters are walking mouthpieces saying whatever the author wants them to say, rather than acting like real people. This is particularly true of Ezabeth, the ‘mysterious noblewoman’ mentioned in the blurb, who is a plot device rather than a character (she could have been replaced by a powerful magical object and it wouldn’t have made much difference). This is a prevalent problem in fantasy; why is it some authors can conjure fantastical worlds that stretch the boundaries of imagination, but they can’t imagine that women are people too?

My other main problem is the writing. McDonald writes with very strange pacing, so events that should have been major moments were rushed over in a few sentences. Subplots were left hanging or else resolved without any explanation. The style also swung wildly between melodrama (particularly in the romance scenes) and gritty realism. As a reader it was hard to know where I stood.

From all the reviews I’ve read I seem to be in the minority here. Unfortunately, this is a book that fails to live up to the hype. It’s the first in a new trilogy, but I won’t be reading the rest in the series.

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New book releases March 2018

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Among the bustling markets of 18th century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Nahri knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… be careful what you wish for.

This debut fantasy novel has been called ‘stunning and complex and consuming and fantastic’ by bestselling author Sabaa Tahir, and is easily one of the most anticipated fantasy novels of 2018.

Release date: 8th March

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

After the death of her mother, Poornima is left to care for her siblings until her father can find her a suitable marriage match. So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by this joyful, independent-minded girl. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves everything behind to find her friend.

This story of ambition and the strength of female friendship explores the darkest corners of India’s underworld and takes the reader on a harrowing cross-continental journey.

Release date: 6th March

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilisation is banned, and the Personhead Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers.

This book has been highly hyped and, with its strong feminist slant, could be the next The Handmaid’s Tale.

Release date: 8th March

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969 the four Gold children sneak into a grimy building in New York’s Lower East Side to visit a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies given to them that day.

Karen Joy Fowler (author of the fantastic We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) has said ‘The Immortalists is about as good as it gets’ – what more incentive do you need to pick up this book?

Release date: 8th March

The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

Recovering from a breakdown, Jay and her husband Simon move to Two Houses in the north of England: a crumbling property whose central rooms were supposedly so haunted that a previous owner had them cut out from the building entirely. But Jay and Simon soon discover it’s not only the Two Houses that seems to be haunted by an obscure past.

Following the hugely successful novel These Dividing Walls, Cooper’s next offering is all about buried secrets and the people who hide them.

Release date: 22nd March

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Let Me Lie by Claire Mackintosh

One year ago, Caroline chose to end her life in a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since. Now with a baby of her own, Anna starts to ask questions about her parents’ deaths, but in doing so may be putting her own future at risk.

I absolutely loved Mackintosh’s last novel, I See You, and I can’t wait to read her next twisty-turny psychological thriller.

Release date: 8th March

Neighbourly by Ellie Monago

Kat and Doug have settled down in the perfect community of Aurora Village with their infant daughter. But everything changes overnight when Kat finds a scrawled note outside their front door: That wasn’t very neighbourly of you. As increasingly sinister notes arrive, each one stabs deeper into the heart of Kat’s insecurities.

This suspenseful thriller plays on the question of how well you ever really know your neighbours, and what happens when things really are too good to be true.

Release date: 1st March

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

In a tiny village in 15th century Somerset, a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday. An explanation must be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim?

I love books set in medieval times, especially when they have an element of mystery to them, and this one apparently has an ‘unforgettable’ narrator.

Release date: 1st March

The Parentations by Kate Mayfield

In 18th century London, the lives of sisters Constance and Verity become entwined with the nearby Fowler household, charged with providing a safe place for a mysterious baby from far away. In 2015, the lives of sisters Constance and Verity are consumed by the wait for this boy, who may or may not be dead.

This intriguing novel about the dark side of immortality has been described as ‘epic, gothic, magic’ by Jane Harris.

Release date: 29th March

Love After Love by Alex Hourston

She is the centre around whom many lives turn. Mother. Therapist. Daughter. Sister. Wife. But Nancy has a new role: lover. Everybody can be happy, Nancy believes, so long as they can be kept apart. But when these lives start to overlap, collision becomes inevitable.

This psychological thriller examines the bonds between parents and children, and the emotional costs of adultery.

Release date: 1st March

Most anticipated books 2018

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller

In the house of Helios, god of the sun, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to a remote island. There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike.

This is the highly anticipated novel from the Orange Prize-winning author of the brilliant novel The Song of Achilles, and is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.

Release date: 19th April

  1. Folk by Zoe Gilbert

The remote island village of Neverness is a world away from our time and place. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments. As the tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation, their desires, resentments, idle gossip and painful losses come to life.

This debut novel is highly anticipated and has been called ‘as delightful and dark as the collected Brothers Grimm’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. It sounds magical and disturbing in equal measure.

Release date: 8th March

  1. The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest, while bandits roam the countryside. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince comes across a young man riding a magnificent horse. Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, Vasya.

This novel is the sequel to one of my favourite books of 2017, The Bear and the Nightingale. I’m hoping The Girl in the Tower is full of the same wonderful magic, atmosphere and lyrical writing.

Release date: 25th January

  1. The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Carcassonne, 1562. As the Wars of Religion begin to take hold, 19-year-old Catholic Minou Joubert and Huguenot convert Piet Reydon find themselves in possession of a priceless treasure. Together, they set out on a quest to uncover a long buried secret.

I love Kate Mosse’s novels (particularly her Languedoc trilogy which begins with Labyrinth) and her next book is the first in a highly anticipated historical trilogy.

Release date: 3rd May

  1. The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own? Was it the terrible accident? Or when they found the first body?

This book has been called – rather ambitiously – THE book of 2018. Only time will tell if it lives up to that promise.

Release date: 11th January

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  1. Vengeful by V.E. Schwab

We don’t have a blurb yet for fantasy author V.E. Schwab’s next novel, but we do know it’s a sequel to her 2014 novel Vicious, a novel about two college roommates whose shared interest in near-death experiences and supernatural events leads them both down a dark path. Originally thought to be a standalone novel, Vicious is a fantastic story exploring themes of ambition, power and revenge, and I can’t wait to return to these characters.

Release date: September

  1. The Corset by Laura Purcell

We don’t have a blurb yet for this one either, but the second novel from Laura Purcell (author of 2017’s highly acclaimed The Silent Companions) is also set in the Victorian period and Purcell has described it as ‘ghostly’ and ‘spooky’.

Release date: April

  1. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Among the bustling markets of 18th century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert. Nahri knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… be careful what you wish for.

This debut fantasy novel has been called ‘stunning and complex and consuming and fantastic’ by bestselling author Sabaa Tahir, and promises to be one of the most anticipated novels of 2018.

Release date: 8th March

  1. The Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

We don’t have a blurb or even a firm release date for this one but we know it should be released in 2018. The second novel in Laini Taylor’s duology which began with Strange the Dreamer in 2017 is likely to contain just as much magic, mythology and adventure as the first. Although I had mixed feelings about Strange the Dreamer, I’m still very much looking forward to the sequel.

Release date: 2018

  1. Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss

Fans have been waiting for the third book in this epic fantasy series since 2011, when The Wise Man’s Fear was released, following four years after the first in the series, The Name of the Wind. There have been some hints that 2018 will be the year we finally get to read Doors of Stone. I’ll be one of many keeping my fingers crossed that that’s true.

Release date: Unknown

First book in new fantasy series introduces cast of bold female characters

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes 10 years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse.

Fantasy novels about assassins are ten-a-penny, so if you want to stand out in this overcrowded genre you’re going to have to do something pretty special. Though it is not without its flaws, I can confirm that Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is something pretty special.

In essence, this is a fantasy boarding school novel. Much of the action takes place in the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where young girls attend classes, forge close friendships, sleep in dormitories and sneak around after lights out. It will be a formula familiar to many readers, but Lawrence ensures his world has edges sharp enough to make sure the familiarity doesn’t breed boredom.

It’s a shame that the middle of the book becomes dull and repetitive. However, it’s worth getting through these slower moments to experience Lawrence’s skill when it comes to action scenes.

There are also moments when Lawrence falls prey to the fantasy writer’s worst enemy: the info-dump (in which writers give lots of information about their fantasy world in one long section). Some of the concepts he has come up with are quite complicated and he seems unsure as to how best explain them, so he runs to paragraphs explaining the same thing in a few different ways in the hope readers will understand.

But, luckily, the world Lawrence has created is fascinating – and his characters endearing. You will have to suspend your disbelief in regard to the characters’ ages (no eight-year-old talks like that) but Nona’s spiky attitude, witty comebacks and vulnerability will quickly bring you round to liking her. The only problem is that she verges on Mary-Sue territory – the perfect character who never gets anything wrong – and I hope Lawrence takes the chance to develop her character further in the sequel.

I also loved that the majority of the large cast are female. As such Lawrence presents the reader with a wide range of women – women who are brave, bold, frightened and flawed. In a genre that is often dominated by male characters wielding swords, it was refreshing to see women take the lead.

This book has its flaws but it opens up a fantasy world that I am more than happy to spend time in.

Red Sister is dark and bloody, marking the beginning of a new fantasy series that I will definitely be keen to continue reading.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

First fantasy novel from historical fiction author Conn Iggulden

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

No one wanted to be cast out, to have to go to the city for work. There were no good endings there, everyone knew that. When young girls ran off to Darien, their parents even held a simple funeral, knowing it was much the same. Perhaps to warn the other girls, too.

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king. It will summon strangers to the city – Elias Post, a hunter; Tellius, an old swordsman; Arthur, a boy who cannot speak; Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler; Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt; and Nancy, whose talent might be the undoing of them all.

Darien is the first fantasy novel from historical fiction powerhouse Conn Iggulden. I only discovered Iggulden this year and am halfway through his Wars of the Roses series, which I absolutely love. When I heard he was crossing over into fantasy I was beyond excited to see what he would come up with. Though Darien isn’t without its flaws, there is lots here for fantasy fans to enjoy.

The world Iggulden has created is interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, but I wish he had gone into more detail. The political system of 12 ruling families wasn’t really explained and the magic system was interesting but also could have benefited from more detail. 350 pages isn’t really enough for an epic fantasy novel and it seems Iggulden made the choice to sacrifice world-building in order to spend more time fleshing out his characters.

Which explains why the characters are the strongest part of this book. They each have their own motives and have interesting backgrounds, and keep the reader emotionally engaged in the outcome of the story. The only place where Iggulden falls down is with Nancy, who comes across as the archetypal Strong Female Character and is subjected to a forced and unnecessary romance.

Iggulden is a master at pacing and the final conflict displays his skill at writing battle scenes while never losing sight of his characters’ human nature. It is a tense, exciting finale and one that will have you eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

Darien is not the perfect fantasy novel, but it was a good opening to a series, leaving enough questions unanswered to make you want to come back for more. I just hope Iggulden fleshes out his fantasy world a little more with the sequel.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.