INTERVIEW // Take Five with Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with author Natasha Ngan as part of my ongoing Take Five interview series!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Natasha’s answers in plain text.

20180428-DSC04172_edit-cropNatasha Ngan is a writer and yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from, and the UK. This multicultural upbringing continues to influence her writing; she is passionate about bringing diverse stories to teens. Natasha studied Geography at the University of Cambridge before working as a social media consultant and fashion blogger. She recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand, wineglass in the other. In reality, she spends most of her time getting lost on the metro and confusing locals with her French.

Set the scene: Can you tell blog readers something about where you are right now? 

Natasha Ngan: I’m sitting at my desk in my little studio apartment in Paris, looking out at rooftops and a beautiful blue sky! It sounds idyllic – except there’s two different sets of works going on in my block of flats, so the air is filled with the rumble and squeal of drilling, and people are shouting angrily in French in the street below. However, I have a cup of tea nearby and am wrapped up in blankets, so I’m pretty cosy!

160701411. Girls of Paper and Fire is the start of a new series. What makes this book different from your previous books (The Elites and The Memory Keepers)?

NN: GIRLS is my first fantasy book, which is funny since that’s the first genre I fell in love with and have spent so much time since young creating various fantasy worlds to lose myself in! I also feel like GIRLS is the most personal of my books to date. It’s own voices in more ways than one – the Asian-inspired world, queer characters, the theme of sexual abuse. So it feels pretty vulnerable offering up this story to the world! But I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response so far, and to see readers connecting with something that means so much to me is just incredible.

2. What served as your inspiration for Lei’s story? What kind of research did you do to build her world?

RNN: With Ikhara, I wanted to create a world that felt completely authentic and real to me as a person who has Chinese heritage but isn’t from mainland China. My mother’s side of the family is from Malaysia, and we spent a lot of time there when I was young so I could grow up surrounded by the languages and cultures that my mum is familiar with. But I’m also half English and was born in the UK. So I really wanted a fantasy world that had all these different influences and really celebrated them.

Research-wise, I’m lucky as a lot of things in Ikhara have come directly from my own memories and experiences, so during the writing many details such as clothes, superstitions and symbolism, architectural styles, language and food (LOTS of food!) are things I’m already familiar with. While I was dreaming up the world and story, however, I did do lots of research into the history of the regions I’m drawing from and brushed up on various mythologies and folklore too.

181965163. By the time Girls of Paper and Fire releases, it will have been four years since your last book was published. What do you feel you’ve learned about writing in that time?

NN: SO MUCH! And if you ask me this question again a few more books down the line, I’m sure I’ll say the exact same thing! I love how writing is a skill that constantly evolves alongside you. Not just in style and technique, but also in topics, ideas, the whole being of writing – it’s always changing, just as we are. If I had to rewrite GIRLS today, I’ve no doubt it would come out very differently, since it’s been almost four years since that first draft!

I’ve definitely learnt more about the craft over the past few years. I’m an instinctive writer and a total panster, so I struggle to explain the hows and whys of my writing, particularly whilst I’m actually writing. But I’ve made an effort to study and explore the technique of it more, listening to how other writers work, reading craft books, watching YouTube videos that break down why good films work etc. So even if I’m not consciously applying them, my subconscious is hopefully doing it for me!

4. As well as writing for teens, you’re also a fashion blogger and yoga teacher. Do you ever feel that you’re contributing to the pressure on young women to look a certain way by being involved in the fashion industry? Does that background ever affect your writing?

NN: This is such an interesting question! I actually think blogging back in its youth moved against those pressures by showcasing different looks, styles, shapes and personalities, particularly those underrepresented in mainstream media. Sadly, as blogging has become commercialised and social media use has exploded, it’s lost that quality. I don’t really blog much anymore, and that’s a big reason for it. Now I’m happy just sharing the odd picture here and there on Instagram with little snippets of my life in Paris.

On the other hand, being a yoga teacher is all about empowering your students to look after themselves from the inside out, and becoming confident and comfortable with who they are. I’ve struggled with anxiety since young, especially surrounding my chronic genetic health condition, and yoga has helped me enormously to be at peace within myself and whatever is going on in my body. These issues definitely come into what I write. GIRLS is a lot about inner strength and reclaiming your body after others have controlled and abused you, and I hope these messages come across positively.

5. Finally, can you tell us what’s next for you (and for Lei)?

NN: I’ve just finished the first draft of book two in the GIRLS trilogy! It was an … experience. There’s still a lot of work to come of course, but I’m actually very happy with the direction the story takes and the new characters, settings and conflicts book two explores. [BLOGGER’S NOTE: What comes next is a mild spoiler for Girls of Paper and Fire. If you’re not lucky enough to have read the book yet, skip over the white out. Highlight it at your peril!] Without giving away too much, I can tell you that Lei and a certain someone have escaped the palace, and they’ll be travelling all across Ikhara in a bid to secure allies for the upcoming war.There’s a big cast of new characters to fall in love with (I hope!) and we’ll see Lei learn and grow from what happened to her in book one, as well as explore the ethical dilemnas of the dark side of what she’s got herself caught up with. I can’t wait for readers to continue her journey! 

Thanks to Natasha for this fantastic and detailed interview! Girls of Paper and Fire is out on November 6th 2018 in the USA and March 21st 2019 in the UK and Ireland. On that note, there’s a special postscript from Natasha for readers in the US: 

Oh and I’m also coming to the US on a tour in November to celebrate the release of GIRLS! I’d love to meet you and chat all the bookish things. I’ll be posting up my tour dates very shortly over on my website. Please do come say hi!

———–

39449484Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for… and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, traumatised by the loss of her mother. Now, the guards who took her mother are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after. 

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

Is Girls of Paper and Fire on your TBR? Let us know in comments down below!

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DISCUSSION // How to write a book review

Today on the blog, I thought I’d talk about how to write a book review. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal reviewing process, which you can check out if you’d like to see a detailed explanation of how I approach reviews. But no two review writers or bloggers or critics are the same, so this is more about tips on review writing – and how to develop your OWN reviewing process (or just get through a homework assignment).

1. Ask yourself questions

Asking yourself questions about the books you’ve read is something you’re probably already doing – now you just need to know how to get them on paper (or keyboard, as the case may be). They can be simple: What did I like about this story? What didn’t I like? Who were the heroes? What were the big themes? Or they can be more complex: What was the writing style like? What were the character arcs? Why was this book written or published at this moment in time?

Try to figure out the difference between subjective (“what did I think of this book”) and objective (“what is actually going on in the pages of this book”) questions and responses. Think about the book from the perspective of the target audience. Maybe you thought the plot of this picture book was too simple, but would the three-year-old who just wants to look at animals?

The answers to these questions and more will form the substance of your review. You may find that certain elements  naturally go together, like linking heroes and character arcs, or big themes and topical relevance. Once you start reading in a way that prompts questions of it and yourself –  bam, that’s critical reading.

326020092. If you’re stuck, make things as straightforward as possible

Whether you’re experienced or just starting out, you’re going to get stuck sometimes. You’ll struggle to put into words why you loved a book so much, or how uncomfortable it made you feel, or struggle to explain the exact vibe a story gave you. You may not capture that feeling entirely – and that’s fine! Reading is an individual experience. But if it’s just a case of writer’s block (critic’s block?), writing a really straightforward sentence is one of the best ways to get started. You might cut it out at the end when you’ve said in more detail what you want to say, but there’s no harm in just explaining to yourself: “I picked this book off the shelf because…” or “I love this series because…”

The opening line of my review of Lisa Lueddecke’s first book is “A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages.” Early on in my review of Night Owls by Jenn Bennett is simply the line: “I was surprised by how much I liked this.”  Sometimes the only way to get to expressing more complicated ideas is start with simple ones. It’s also one of the best ways of keeping yourself honest.

3. Be conscious of developing your own style

If you plan to write more than one review, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own style. This can take a long time, but there are ways you can consciously aid the process. Figure out what kind of reviews you like to read (What kind of language do they use? Is it short and chatty, is it funny and clever, is it serious and sophisticated?). Look back over your own reviews a few weeks or months after you’ve written them and see what you would change. Experiment with new styles and see what you think of them.

9781471406829Everyone has hallmarks. I finish all my reviews with a short in-brief paragraph, string multiple adjectives together at the start or end of sentences, have a terrible propensity for alliteration, and find comp titles (specific ‘for fans of’ descriptions) very useful (“For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure”). I like a challenge, so recently I tasked myself with developing a more concise review style. I still occasionally write long reviews (check out this one for Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This or this one for Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain). My shorter reviews are still content-heavy (check out this jam-packed review for Morgan Matson’s Save the Date), but you’ll also find me writing reviews like this one for Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang). 

4. Practice

Again, this is mainly if you’d like to consistently write reviews (if you’re just here trying to figure out how to do your homework, you probably stopped reading at point #2), but there really is only one way to develop a style or a process – practice! You won’t feel perfect at it straight away, but you can have fun getting there!

Do you have any tips on writing book reviews? Are there any reviews you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2019

Today on The Paper Alchemist, it’s time to peel back the curtain and look ahead to some of the most exciting releases of 2019!

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Hands down my most anticipated title of early 2019 is Samantha Shannon’s standalone high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree. There’s some terrific worldbuilding in her Bone Season series, from its different levels of clairvoyance to its inventive use of Victorian-style gang nicknames, so I was pleased to hear that she’s swapping dystopia (bleh, one of my least favourite genres) for high fantasy (YAY, one of my faves). Just some of the things that have me intrigued: it’s set in a world with bioluminescent dragons, the cover art is amazing, it has four narrators including a queen in a matriarchy, the book is the size of a brick, and DID I MENTION THE DRAGONS?

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth, the sequel to 2017’s much-awaited and highly dramatic His Dark Materials sequel La Belle Sauvage, was also on my list of most anticipated books of 2018. It never materialised then, so back on the list it goes. According to reports, we’ll finally get to see Lyra again, this time as an adult, probably working with the alethiometer, as well as characters we first met in La Belle Sauvage, like good-hearted Malcolm, and of course, those world-famous daemons.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes and Aru Shah and the End of Time returns to YA with The Gilded Wolves, a historical novel set in the darkly glamourous world of late nineteenth-century Paris. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is a treasure hunter, wealthy hotelier and keeper of dangerous secrets. When the powerful Order of Babel seeks his help, he is offered a chance at recovering his true inheritance. To find the artefact they seek, he must bind together a ragtag collection of misfits, including an engineer, a historian, a dancer and his brother in all but blood. As you may have seen, I struggled to get into the likes of Leigh Bardugo’s books, so maybe this historical treasure hunt will be more my kind of thing.

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Fierce Fragile Hearts by Sara Barnard

Sara Barnard writes such resonant and enjoyable contemporary UKYA. I adored the warm, romantic love story of A Quiet Kind of Thunder; I was surprised by the dexterous and unputdownable Goodbye, Perfect.With Fierce Fragile Hearts, Barnard returns to the world of her very first book, Beautiful Broken Things, which focused on the intense friendship between three teenage girls. Sheltered Caddy, outgoing Rosie, and whirlwind Suzanne look set to return – this time from Suzanne’s perspective, set two years after the first book, with Caddy and Rosie are about to start university. I can’t wait to get hold of this sequel in spring.

Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Back in Paris, next on the list is another historical novel – this time set on the simmering eve of the French Revolution, with added fantasy twists. Orphan Camille relies on petty magic (“la magie ordinaire”) to provide for herself and her siblings. After an apparent betrayal, she decides to risk dark magic and to pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Some of my favourite books of 2018 were historical fiction and historical fantasy (albeit from the children’s section), so this has the potential to be fabulous.

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Song of the Abyss by Makiia Lucier

Makiia Lucier’s Isle of Blood and Stone was one of my anticipated reads of 2018, perhaps the most anticipated by a new-to-me author, and it turned out to be one of best fantasy books I read in the first half of the year. Song of the Abyss is set in the same world (it’s apparently being termed the Tower of Winds series) but is described as a companion novel rather than a straight-up sequel. Still, I’m intrigued as it promises some more of the things I liked best about Isle of Blood and Stone – exploring, secretive kingdoms, a high-stakes mystery – and this time with a female lead.

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

Another book initially slated for a 2018 release, the pushed-back Paper Avalanche instead makes it into the 2019 publishing slate in January. Lisa Williamson’s debut The Art of Being Normal received critical acclaim, while the exuberant All About Mia proved that second book syndrome was no match for this accomplished contemporary writer. Paper Avalanche seems reminiscent of Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address, with guarded protagonist Stevie juggling crushes, the temptation of friendship and her love of music with one big secret. The house where Stevie tells people to drop her off, No. 56? She doesn’t live there at all.

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Izzy + Tristan by Shannon Dunlap

I am, as a general rule, wary of YA retellings of stories as old as this. Reimaginings of Romeo and Juliet tend to rely too much on instalove; reworkings of the love affair of Guinevere and Lancelot can seem clunky. It just seems that taking them out of their medieval or early modern context and into a teenage experience is a bit of a wrestling match. And yet, rather like the irresistible forces which brings these figures together, I am tempted back into the world of retellings every couple of years. I can’t wait to find out if someone can finally do the stories justice. Izzy + Tristan is a reimagining of the Arthur-adjacent myth of Tristan and Iseult. Set in modern-day Brooklyn, Tristan is a chess prodigy who meets Izzy, a practical-minded teenager who wants to become a doctor.

Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett

I was surprised by how much I liked Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls, and in the absence (so far) of an announced 2019 title from big-hitters of contemporary USYA like Sarah Dessen, Morgan Matson or Stephanie Perkins, this book is filling the gap. Serious Moonlight is the story of sheltered Birdie and gregarious Daniel, two teenagers who start summer jobs at a Seattle hotel and stumble upon a mystery surrounding a reclusive author. It will have to strike a careful balance between quirky and thoughtful to avoid the pitfall of pretentiousness which sometimes plagues talky, character-centric contemporaries like this, but if it does, it could be really enjoyable.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

When I reviewed Zen Cho’s near-brilliant fantasy opener Sorcerer to the Crown earlier this year, I bemoaned the fact that the release date of the sequel had been pushed back again and again – but there is one upside, in that it can now be included in my 2019 list of anticipated reads. The world of this series is undoubtedly one of its best features: there’s something so engrossing about an alternate Regency London where a decadent aristocracy meet an unruly Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. It’s also the second (third if you count Pullman’s widely-appealing Secret Commonwealth) adult fiction title on this list, and perhaps indicates that historical fantasy really is becoming my jam…

What books are you looking forward to reading in 2019? Do you have any recommendations I should add to the list?

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DISCUSSION // my reviewing process

Discussions posted, latest book finished, to-be-read pile saved from toppling – you know that this means. It’s TIME TO WRITE A REVIEW. Huzzah!

There are lots of ways of writing blog posts and review features, many of them much easier and less involved than mine (I am enthusiastic and need a constructive outlet for my flailing) but this is roughly how I go about it.

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STEP ONE: reading and annotating the book

I read for enjoyment, so I only take basic notes while reading. I used to take very detailed notes, but found it pulled me out of the story and slowed down the pace of the plot. Sometimes I’ll flick back or re-read specifically for review – I did this with The Next Together by Lauren James because it has four timelines – but otherwise I work from memory as I like to review quite soon after reading if I can.

STEP TWO: whip out the review notebook

I LOVE blogging notebooks. I’ve filled many with drafts of posts (and lots with fangirling).

STEP THREE: pick a review playlist

I love setting books to music. If I’m looking for a way to remind myself of the story, these songs allow me to review while keeping in touch with the essence of the book.

STEP FOUR (very important): planning

This is where I figure out my feelings on a book! I pack this plan with details, from the smallest plot twist to the hook. Somewhere in all of this I’ll cover plot, characters, craftsmanship, surprisingly good things, whether my expectations were met, pacing, my favourite scenes. If I’ve come up with any taglines or a fun way to introduce the review, I’ll make a note of that too.

(This is also usually where I get snacks/fly a dragon/realiSe my foot is asleep.)

Then, I must find order in the chaos. I’ll separate details into related topics and subjective opinion, choose a rating and set the tone for the post. Will it be passionate and full of gifs, or more story-focused and serious? Will it be both? I’ll start to group details together, finding connections and highlighting what I know I’ll definitely want to talk about. I’ll arrange and rearrange, discovering what each paragraph will look like.

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STEP FIVE: WRITING THE THING

Now we get to the hard bit: finding the words to make sense of the review outline. I may decide some paragraphs aren’t necessary or they’ll turn out longer than anticipated.

Review speed at this stage can vary from lightning fast to just about keeping pace with nearby tortoises.

STEP SIX: Edit. Edit some more. Edit again.

My early drafts are very detailed, and for this reason, editing is my best friend. If I’ve only written by hand up to this point, I’ll get an extra round of edits in while typing it up. I’ll sharpen sentences, rewrite criticisms or clunkily-worded phrases, check how many times I’ve repeated the word ‘magnificent’… and I’ll cut words right up until the last second. If there’s a way to say things more concisely, editing is where I’ll find it. I’ll only occasionally add things here.

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STEP SEVEN: INTO THE JUNGLE

Finally a finished, formatted blog post! Now I can hit schedule or publish, do promo, send emails, and sneak glances at my alluring TBR. Bloggers often bemoan the fact that reviews seem to get the least traction for the most amount of work, and maybe that’s true, but I love writing (and reading) them, especially if they’re evolving and improving, so that’s what I aim for: to get better at them, even just a little at a time.

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What’s your reviewing process like? Do you outline in detail or wing it? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho // rich, inventive historical fantasy

What’s this? Adult fiction? ON MY BLOG?!

26833370Author(s): Zen Cho
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: October 1st 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. In a Regency London where magic is an everyday reality, he must juggle conflicting demands and malicious rumours. There’s the wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, where a faction schemes to remove him from his position by fair means or foul. The Fairy Court is withholding magical resources and the British government is baying to deploy increasingly scarce magic in its war with France. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy.

Prunella Gentleman is an orphan desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life. A visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it… 

I picked up Sorcerer to the Crown in an effort to find more adult fiction that suits my YA-honed tastes. It has so many things that I like: a richly constructed magic system, a detailed historical backdrop, an inventive story full of intrigue and memorable plot devices. Cho injects the grand architecture and glamourous parties of Regency London with a fitting and vibrant strain of magic. She also packs the novel with plenty of unfurling secrets and social questions, from themes of class and race to community and culture.

Overworked sorcerer royal Zacharias is trying to investigate a scarcity of magic in England, but he’s being hindered by a hostile magical aristocracy and hounded by rumours that he played a role in the death of his adoptive father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the plot is twisty and Sir Stephen is still around as a ghost. Prunella is young, reckless and ambitious, making for solid contrast between the leads. Zacharias is African and Prunella is biracial, bringing some welcome characters of colour to a historical period too often generalised as white. Supporting characters include Zacharias’ high-born, society-fluent adoptive mother; subplots include a conflict between a sultan and some very powerful witches.

The writing style takes some getting used to, but it absolutely suits the genre and even has occasional moments of knowing humour. There’s a subtle element of romance I would have liked to have seen more of. My major issue with the book is that it’s quite slow. You can practically feel the pace dragging. If it were shorter, tighter, less agonisingly slow-moving, it would actually make for a cracking bridge between YA and adult SFF. There is supposedly a sequel in the works (it’s currently slated for March 2019), but after the initial publication date of 2017 sailed by and barely a peep about the book since, the wait for The True Queen has been as slow as reading Sorcerer to the Crown can sometimes feel. Still, if we can wait for the next series installment in A Game of Thrones or Outlander, I’m sure I’ll pick up this book’s sequel eventually.

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Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is a slow but rich and unusual take on historical fantasy. For fans of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. 

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The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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