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.

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Wildly imaginative fantasy invites you into a world of magic and myth

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

‘He drifted about with his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. Demons and wingsmiths, seraphim and spirits, he loved it all. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.’

Since he was five years old, war orphan and junior librarian Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep. But it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and Lazlo has the chance to follow his dream.

Laini Taylor, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, once again puts her huge, fearsome imagination to the test in her latest offering – technically a young adult novel, it is nevertheless complex enough to warrant a devoted legion of adult readers.

I tumbled head over heels in love with this book. The world is utterly engrossing, captivating and wildly imaginative. Taylor has created a world that is so rich in imagery, myth and magic that readers will be hard-pressed to find the will to put it down.

Lazlo is a wonderfully charming character. He’s very likeable – sweet, courageous and a compulsive reader – so much so that when the viewpoint shifts to our other main character, Sarai, at first I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I was leaving Lazlo’s company. Thankfully Sarai turned out to be just as interesting to spend time with – tough but conflicted, powerful but flawed. Oh, and she’s also the daughter of the most feared goddess of all time.

Despite the depth and intricacy of the world Taylor has created, she has managed to create characters who still feel like real people – they’ve just been placed in extraordinary situations.

Unfortunately, the pacing is where this book was let down. The last third or so of the book is where I began to lose interest. All the adventure and strife that had gone before was relegated to the background and in its place was a story of two characters falling in love. Admittedly the way they fall in love and carry out their romance is unusual and intriguing, but no one needs a two-page description of two characters’ first kiss. The problem was that the story felt so big, the scale and the risks so momentous, but then it kept shrinking until all it amounted to was two characters pining for each other.

It’s quite obvious to see where the plot is going most of the time, and it does veer dangerously close to the Chosen One trope so overused in fantasy fiction, but it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable journey to get there, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next book in the series.

It will be up to each individual reader to decide whether Strange the Dreamer’s positives outweigh its flaws, whether the fantastic first two-thirds of the book are enough to make up for the disappointment of a muddled ending.

New book releases December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

They call it The Doom – a deadly pandemic that starts on New Year’s Eve in the Scottish countryside. As billions fall sick and die, some survivors find themselves invested with strange, unexpected abilities.

This dystopian thriller is the latest release from New York Times bestseller Nora Roberts, who is the author of a staggering 190 novels.

Release date: 5th December

The Silver Music Box by Mina Baites

1914. Jewish silversmith Johann Blumenthal crafted a tiny ornamented box for his young son before leaving to fight in a war to honour his beloved country – a country that would soon turn against him. A half century later, Londoner Lilian Morrison inherits the box, and finds a link to an astonishing past.

This historical novel was originally published in Baites’ native German and has already received a slew of five-star reviews on Amazon.

Release date: 1st December

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Elsa Fisher retreats to Los Angeles after being fired from MoMA on the heels of an affair with her married boss. Her abandoned crew of college friends receive her with open arms and, thinking she’s on vacation, a plan to celebrate their reunion on a booze-soaked sailing trip to Catalina Island. But Elsa is hell-bent on self-destruction.

Jacobs’ debut has already been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’ early work, and bestselling author Jill Alexander Essbaum has said: ‘Liska Jacobs writes with teeth; this book’s got bite.’

Release date: 13th December

The Good Samaritan by John Marrs

The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die. But now someone’s onto her – Ryan, whose world falls apart when his pregnant wife ends her life, hand-in-hand with a stranger.

This book is the fourth from journalist Marrs and has an intriguing, unusual premise.

Release date: 1st December

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Newlyweds Jake and Alice are offered a mysterious wedding gift – membership of a club which promises its couples will never divorce. Signing The Pact seems the start to a perfect marriage. Until one of them breaks the rules.

This new thriller has perhaps inevitably been compared with Gone Girl, and author Lisa Gardner has issued a warning that ‘this will keep you up all night’.

Release date: 14th December

 

What Remains True by Janis Thomas

From the outside, the Davenports look like any other family – until that devastating day when five-year-old Jonah is killed, and the family is torn apart. As guilt engulfs them, the Davenports slowly start to unravel, one by one.

This intimate portrayal of familial guilt is told from multiple points of view – including Jonah’s.

Release date: 1st December

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss anniversary edition

An Unremarkable Body by Elisa Lodato

When Katharine is found dead at the foot of her stairs, it is the mystery of her life that consumes her daughter, Laura. The medical examiner’s report, in which parts of Katharine’s body are weighed and categorised, motivates Laura to write her own version of events; to bear witness to the unbearable blank space between each itemised entry.

This novel has been described as part memoir, part thriller, and promises to be both heartfelt and haunting.

Release date: 14th December

The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen

No one in sleepy Woodbury where Ellery works as a police officer knows she was once victim number 17 of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only one who lived. When three people disappear from her town in three years, Ellery fears someone knows her secret.

This idea has been done many times before, but Scaffhausen’s credentials as winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition suggests this might be something special.

Release date: 5th December

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

When Douglas B. Douglas – leading light of the London theatre – premieres his new musical extravaganza, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star on stage in the middle of act two.

This satirical novel from the golden age of British crime fiction between the world wars has been rediscovered in a new edition by British Library Crime Classics.

Release date: 5th December

The Name of the Wind: 10th anniversary deluxe illustrated edition by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe is living as an unassuming innkeeper. Few suspect that the man serving them drinks is actually a notorious magician, masterful musician, dragon-slayer and infamous assassin.

This deluxe edition marks the 10th anniversary of this brilliant fantasy novel, and would make a great Christmas gift for any fantasy fan in your life.

Release date: 7th December

New book releases November 2017

Mythos by Stephen Fry

Comedian and actor Stephen Fry turns his hand to retelling Greek myths. From Zeus and Hades to Persephone and Pandora, discover why the Greek gods and goddesses are just like us.

Greek myths are admittedly something I don’t know much about, and I can’t imagine I would be in better hands to learn more about them than Fry’s.

Release date: 2nd November

Artemis by Andy Weir

Welcome to Artemis, the first city on the moon. Jazz Bashara lives in a poor area of Artemis and subsidises her work as a porter with smuggling contraband onto the moon. But it’s not enough. So when she’s offered the chance to make a lot of money, she jumps at it.

From the author of The Martian comes a sci-fi novel that promises a fun adventure in 1/6th gravity.

Release date: 14th November

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people. But when he single-handedly stopped that tornado on a stormy Christmas Day in Oklahoma, he realised just how different he actually was. This is the story of Weylyn’s life from the perspectives of the people who knew him.

This debut novel has been described as ‘Charlotte’s Web for grown-ups’, and sounds bizarre and intriguing in equal measure.

Release date: 14th November

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

The Breakstone family arrange themselves around their daughter, Heather, and the world seems to follow. But as Heather grows, her radiance attracts more and more dark interest. Meanwhile a very different life, one of poverty and violence, is beginning its own malign orbit around Heather.

This first novel from award-winning Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is a highly anticipated noir thriller that promises thrills aplenty.

Release date: 7th November

The House by Simon Lelic

Jack and Syd moved into their dream home in London a year ago. It seemed so perfect that, when they made a grisly discovery in the attic, they chose to ignore it. That was a mistake. Because someone has just been murdered outside their back door.

Called ‘taught, tense and terrifying’ by author Sharon Bolton, this psychological thriller is probably not one to read just before bed.

Release date: 2nd November

Artemis by Andy Weir SV

Mother by S.E. Lynes

Christopher grows up so lonely it hurts. Until the day he climbs into his family’s dusty attic, and finds a battered old suitcase. Inside the suitcase is a letter, and inside the letter is a secret about his mother that changes everything.

So many psychological thrillers promise a killer twist that ‘you just won’t see coming’, but this one has an intriguing premise and I’m eager to see whether Lynes pulls it off.

Release date: 22nd November

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

A girl runs a coffin hotel on a remote island. A boy is worried his sister has two souls. A couple are rewriting the history of the world. And mermaids are on display at the local aquarium.

This is a collection of 12 modern fairy tales brimming with magic, from the author of the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series.

Release date: 2nd November

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Seven years ago the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a mockumentary bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Now a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain.

This sci-fi novel from the bestselling author of the Newsflesh series has already been called ‘a whip-smart thriller overflowing with social commentary’ by Kirkus.

Release date: 14th November

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade is the lifeblood of the city of Janloon – a stone that enhances a warrior’s natural strength and speed. When a modern drug emerges that allows anyone to wield jade, simmering tension between two crime families erupts into open violence.

This epic fantasy of family and honour promises plenty of magic and adventure.

Release date: 7th November

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

It has been 10 years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all evidence of her small town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career and her pick of one-night stands. But when a new case takes her back home, the life Abby created begins to crack.

This debut book from Jessica Jones actress Krysten Ritter doesn’t sound particularly original, but has already been called ‘dark and disturbing’, so I might just have to give it a go.

Release date: 9th November

Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight features a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

“You’ll be a rumour. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last thing you will ever be, girl, is someone’s hero.”

Mia Covere is only 10 years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Six years later, she takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. It took me a good 150 pages to get into it and, after that finally happened, I mostly enjoyed reading it, but there were problems at every turn.

The fantasy genre is full of stories of young boys and girls training to be assassins (two of my favourites are The Name of the Wind by Philip Rothfuss and Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb) and Nevernight didn’t feel as though it had anything new to add. It borrows too heavily from books in the same genre to be truly unique.

Kristoff has a serious case of purple prose. He frequently uses convoluted similes and metaphors that made me want to put the book down and severely hindered my enjoyment of the story. The descriptions often didn’t make sense – ‘If her face were a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished’ – and Kristoff’s determination to make every scene overly dramatic only added to this problem.

It also felt a lot like cheating for Kristoff to include footnotes which often took up half the page detailing the history of the world the story takes place in. One of the hardest challenges for a fantasy writer is to avoid the dreaded info dump, and footnotes felt like a new way for Kristoff to do just that. More than anything they disrupted the rhythm of the story.

The world itself is interesting and definitely has potential, but the more I read the more it seemed that there was nothing magic couldn’t do. Want to look more beautiful? We have a spell for that. Mortally injured? A spell can fix that. Dead? We can bring you back with a spell. It became exasperating because, although the characters were in terrible danger, you knew it was going to turn out alright in the end.

There are parts of this book that I really liked. The city of Godsgrave is an intriguing setting I would have loved to see more of and the protagonist, Mia, is a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge. I also enjoyed the political aspects of the novel, which were reminiscent of A Game of Thrones.

I’m undecided whether I will read the rest of this trilogy (the second book has just been released) but, either way, I won’t be in any hurry to do so.

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.