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.

Sunday Times bestseller with quirky, offbeat charm

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

‘My phone doesn’t ring often – it makes me jump when it does – and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No one’s been in my flat this year apart from the service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I?’

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. Now, one simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.

This book has received a lot of praise. Not only is it a Sunday Times bestseller but it is also soon to be a made into a film produced by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a strange book, and nothing like what I expected, but the more I think about it the more I enjoyed its quirky, offbeat charm.

For a good portion of the book Eleanor is not a likeable character. She criticises others while remaining unaware of her own flaws and is rude more often than not because she’s unaware of the intricate rules that govern social interactions. It takes a long while to warm to her, but Honeyman is very clever with the way she drops in hints of why Eleanor is the way that she is, so that we start sympathising with her before we even realise it.

At times this book is laugh-out-loud funny, at others it is heart-wrenching. Honeyman’s exploration of loneliness is pin sharp and devastating, showing just how easy it is to go through life telling everyone you are fine; if you repeat it enough times, you even start to believe it yourself. But beneath the surface, Eleanor is not fine, and admitting that is going to be one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Honeyman is adept at creating characters that feel real. In fictional worlds it’s often frustratingly obvious who’s good and who’s bad, but the vast majority of characters here feel like they exist in the realistic space between the two, including Eleanor. They are capable of profound acts of kindness, and they are capable of being judgemental and cruel.

The twist at the end felt a bit cheap and I didn’t think the story needed it, but it didn’t have too detrimental an effect on the book as a whole and altogether the ending was satisfying. For readers who like their books to explore the relationships between characters, with a plot that is equal parts happy and sad, you need look no further.

Ali Land’s debut novel asks: is blood thicker than water?

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

‘Forgive me when I tell you it was me. It was me that told. The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round. Disbelief at first. Then, the stained dungarees I pulled from my bag. Tiny. The teddy bear on the front peppered red with blood. I could have brought more, so many to choose from. She never knew I kept them.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer. The only way she can stop her is to hand her in to the police. As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family to give her a fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But blood is thicker than water.

This book is gripping from the first page to the last, building up suspense until the reader’s every muscle is tensed with dread at what is going to happen next. It’s undeniably very dark, with some troubling subject matter, but it’s perfect for those who like their thrillers to unsettle and make their skin crawl.

The twists and turns aren’t exactly surprising but Land’s writing more than makes up for it. She knows that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than paragraphs of description; splashes of blood on a child’s discarded clothing are more disturbing than seeing the body, and peering through the keyhole can be more terrifying than throwing open the door. It’s claustrophobic and so immersive you’ll find your heart racing and your breath catching in your throat.

Annie is an incredible narrator, struggling to forget who she was and focus on who she might be. But her mother’s presence looms over everything she does, every word she speaks, and despite her best efforts she finds herself slipping back into old habits. She is adept at manipulation, knows just what to say and how to act to get what she wants, but her damaged childhood means she isn’t always in control of herself.

All the characters surrounding Annie are also realistically portrayed. Even those who veer towards stereotype have enough flawed edges to mark them out from the crowd and make the reader care about what happens to them.

The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, but if you’re able to let that go you’re sure to find lots to enjoy here. Good Me Bad Me is an incredible debut novel, and I would highly recommend it.

A fantastic piece of historical escapism from bestselling author Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

‘Beauty is your gift from God and it should be used and not squandered. Study this face as if it were a map of the ocean, your own trade route to the Indies. For it will bring you its own fortune. But always believe what the glass tells you. Because while others will try to flatter you, it has no reason to lie.’

1527. With their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome. They head for the shimmering, decadent city of Venice, where the sins of pleasure and the pleasures of sin lead them both down new and dangerous paths.

This was the only book of Sarah Dunant’s five Italian Renaissance novels that I hadn’t read. There was no reason to think that it would fail to live up to the expectation of her other great books, as In the Company of the Courtesan is a fantastic piece of historical escapism, a novel rich in the sights and sounds and smells of the 16th century.

This is a story where brutality and beauty go hand in hand. Dunant is never one to shy away from descriptions of blood and gore; the sack of Rome is described as intimately as any bedroom scene. The perfumed rooms of the wealthy are contrasted with the filth and poverty of the poorer parts of Venice, and during Fiammetta’s sensual morning routine she uses ingredients such as mercury and dove entrails to make her skin flawless and her hair shine. At every step Dunant never lets us forget the squalor beneath the splendour.

The two characters at the heart of this story – the narrator Bucino and his mistress Fiammetta – are a wonderful double act, their relationship adding welcome flashes of humour to what is a dark tale at its heart. Fiametta is far more than just a courtesan; she has trained herself to be witty and intelligent, just as talented at playing the lute as she is at plucking her clients’ strings, and she is always searching for a way to further her status, always calculating how much she can get away with. Bucino, as a dwarf and therefore an outsider, offers a unique perspective tinged with sadness and pathos.

Dunant’s descriptions of decadently beautiful Venice made me long to visit the city. Her original characters rub shoulders with real people from the time period, including writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Titian. The ballrooms lit by candles placed between the ribcages of skeletons, the narrow twisting streets and waterways of Venice, and the vaulting Catholic churches are conjured so vividly that you will look up from the book only to be surprised that you aren’t standing in Italy.

Sarah Dunant is a wonderful historical fiction writer and, for those who have yet to read any of her books, In the Company of the Courtesan offers the perfect place to start.

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

Dark and disturbing thriller about the power of family ties

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

‘On the nights my words cut deepest, sliced quick and deadly as scalpels, her eyes practically bulged from her face, and I was filled with a rotten, hellish joy because at least she was finally looking at me. At least she finally, finally saw me.’

The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies. Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was 15, over one scorching summer at her grandparents’ estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until 11 years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing, and Lane has no choice but to go back.

If I was asked to describe this book I would say it was a cross between the sweltering atmosphere of The Dry by Jane Harper and the twisted themes of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The story is set in the small town of Osage Flats, surrounded by miles of empty, dusty countryside beneath a scorching sun. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and creepy. Never once are you allowed to forget the heat, the threat just around the corner, and the feeling of dread only increases as you are drawn further into the story.

Lane is a compelling narrator, a woman struggling with a past that has twisted her emotions until love and hate have become irrevocably intertwined. Like Gillian Flynn’s protagonists, she isn’t always likeable; she hurts people just because she can and she runs away instead of confronting her issues. Lane isn’t cookie cutter; she isn’t the clichéd ‘strong female character’ who so often populate thrillers and crime novels. She is flawed but her broken edges make her fierce. Dare to cross her, and she goes for the jugular.

The writing is deliciously dark, drawing you into the story and making it impossible to look away, even when you wish you could. At times it’s a little on-the-nose and could have used more subtlety, but overall I really enjoyed it and would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Engel moves smoothly between past and present, managing to make both sides of the story equally engaging. The ending is satisfying, if a little predictable, and ventures into twee territory at the very end, which is a real shame considering the darkness of the rest of the novel.

The Roanoke Girls is a story about the power of family ties and the kind of secrets that corrupt from the outside in. An unsettling read, and one you’ll continue to think about long after turning the final page.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.