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

New book releases for October 2017

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

Notorious ghost hunter Harry Price has reluctantly reunited with his former assistant Sarah Grey to unlock the secrets of an abandoned English village called Imber. Each winter, on one night only, Imber’s former residents return to visit loved ones buried in the overgrown churchyard. But this year, something has gone wrong.

Spring returns to the characters of Harry and Sarah following the events of the brilliantly creepy The Ghost Hunters. October is, of course, the perfect time of year for a ghost story, and this one comes out just in time for Halloween.

Release date: 19th October

 

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents near Oxford. Across the River Thames is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua.

This has got to be one of the most anticipated books of 2017. Pullman returns to the world of His Dark Materials with the first volume in a new series that promises to be just as full of magic and adventure as The Northern Lights.

Release date: 19th October

 

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

Historian Lindsey Fitzharris recreates a critical turning point in the history of medicine, when Joseph Lister transformed surgery from a brutal, harrowing practice to the esteemed profession we know today.

I find the history of medicine endlessly fascinating and this new non-fiction book promises blood-soaked Victorian operating theatres and early experimentation with anaesthesia.

Release date: 17th October

 

The Mayflower Generation by Rebecca Fraser

The voyage of the Mayflower is one of the important events in world history. But the group of English Puritans who ventured across the Atlantic in 1620 had no sense they would pass into legend. Rebecca Fraser traces two generations of one ordinary family as they adapt to the challenges of life in America.

Another area of history that fascinates me is the arrival of early settlers in America, and this book sounds as though it will put people at the forefront of the story.

Release date: 19th October

 

Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett

Kamzin has always dreamed of becoming one of the Emperor’s royal explorers, the elite climbers tasked with mapping the mountainous Empire and spying on its enemies. When the eccentric River Shara, the greatest explorer ever known, hires her for his next expedition, Kamzin is determined to prove herself.

This highly anticipated debut novel is the first in a fantasy duology and promises plenty of adventure and nail-biting action.

Release date: 19th October

HP

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Richard Shakespeare is an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

This is a departure from the norm by bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, but I love historical fiction, particularly if it’s set in the Tudor period, and this one sounds particularly intriguing.

 

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

As a computational biologist, Theo is more familiar with digital code and microbes than forensics. But a field trip to Montana suddenly lands him in the middle of an investigation into the murder of one of his former students. As more bodies come to light, the local cops determine that the killer is either a grizzly bear gone rogue, or Theo himself.

This new release from well-known author Mayne promises thrills, suspense and violence aplenty.

Release date: 1st October

 

Origin by Dan Brown

Robert Langdon arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to attend the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever”. But Langdon and several hundred other guests are left reeling when the evening is blown apart before the discovery can be revealed. With his life under threat, Langdon flees to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock the secret of the discovery.

We all know Dan Brown isn’t the best writer, but that doesn’t mean his books don’t make for enjoyable reading, particularly those featuring Harvard professor Robert Langdon. This will be Langdon’s fifth outing.

Release date: 3rd October

 

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella overhears two men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it – until she realises the men are fresh out of prison. But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls has disappeared.

Sometimes you just need to cosy up with a thriller that really grabs you and will make you want to read it in one sitting. This book seems like just that type.

Release date: 1st October

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Illustrated Edition)

The third book in the Harry Potter series gets the illustrated treatment from Jim Kay, whose beautiful illustrations have already brought to life The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Personally, The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite in the series so I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this one. This time, we’ll get to see the Knight Bus, meet Buckbeak and Sirius Black, and experience the iconic moment Hermione punches Malfoy in the face.

Release date: 3rd October

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.

New book releases for September 2017

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

This collection of short stories is the result of eight authors being given after-hours freedom at their chosen English heritage site, immersed in history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings.

There’s nothing I love more than a truly chilling ghost story, and these short stories from authors including Sarah Perry, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Jeanette Winterson promise to be the perfect read for that time of the year when the nights start closing in.

Release date: 28th September

Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

The first in an epic new series, this is the story of England’s medieval queens, stripping away romantic mythology to reveal the real lives of these royal women in the century after the Norman Conquest.

I’m a fan of Alison Weir’s historical fiction but I’ve never read any of her non-fiction. This new release promises to tell the untold and often ignored tale of England’s early queens.

Release date: 28th September

The Ravenous by Amy Lukavics

When the youngest daughter of the Cane family, Rose, dies in a tragic accident, her sisters are devastated. And when she is brought back from the dead, they are relieved. But soon they discover that Rose must eat human flesh to survive, and when their mother abandons them, the sisters will find out how far they’ll go to keep their family together.

This book sounds bizarre and horrifying in equal measure, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Release date: 26th September

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Liza Cole, a novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. As the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, Liza’s husband is arrested for the murder of his best friend, forcing Liza to face up to the truths about the people around her.

I’m still searching for the 2017 thriller that will really blow my socks off; I’m hoping this one could do just that.

Release date: 28th September

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a student. The student claims she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect.

Described as ‘harrowing’ and ‘a haunting mystery’, this book promises to be full of twists and turns.

Release date: 26th September

Eight Ghosts SV

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

Jerusalem, 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade set up the Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors. Over the next 200 years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world.

I’m trying to read more non-fiction this year and, as I don’t know much about the Crusades, this book from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones sounds very intriguing.

Release date: 19th September

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Paul loves his wife. But he also wants to get rid of her. So he promises her a romantic weekend getaway, and with every hour that passes he ticks off another stage in his carefully constructed plan.

A new thriller from a bestselling author, this book has been described as ‘fast-paced, dark, and slightly disturbing’.

Release date: 7th September

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

In 1860, a 70-year-old widow named Mary Emsley was found dead in her home, killed by a blow to the back of her head. What followed was a murder case that gripped the nation, a locked room mystery which baffled even legendary Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The case has finally been solved by author Sinclair McKay, in this captivating study of a 19th century murder.

I do love a bit of true crime and this Victorian murder mystery sounds right up my street.

Release date: 7th September

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, the women become feral and violent. In West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women’s prison, affecting all the inmates except one.

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King, but any new release from the master of horror (plus his first full-length collaboration with his son) deserves a mention.

Release date: 26th September

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

15 years ago in small-town New Jersey, a teenage boy and girl were found dead. Most people concluded it was a tragic suicide pact. The dead boy’s brother, Nap Dumas, did not. Now Nap is a cop, but he’s a cop who plays by his own rules, and who has never made peace with his past.

I have a soft spot for Harlan Coben; his books are always fun and easy to read (even if all his female characters are the same person) and his standalone novels are often his best.

Release date: 26th September