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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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 Song Rising by Samantha Shannon // a strong sequel in a complex supernatural saga

Today on the blog, I’m catching up on some (you might want to sit down for this) adult science fiction and fantasy! As it’s the third book in the series, there may be a few spoilers but I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum!

28433405Author(s): Samantha Shannon
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: March 7th, 2017
Category: 
adult, crossover
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Paige Mahoney has risen to the dangerous position of Underqueen, which gives her rule over London’s criminal population. But with vengeful enemies still at large, including the lethally dangerous Jaxon Hall, the task of stabilising a fractured underworld has never seemed so challenging.

Scion are closing in on the clairvoyant community, determined to quell rebellion before it spreads. And their next step could spell the end for Paige’s bid for freedom before it has even really begun… 

I caught up on the third book in Samantha Shannon’s seven-volume high-concept science fiction and fantasy saga earlier this spring. Series opener The Bone Season had a blockbuster premise, while The Mime Order made effective use of what was essentially a murder mystery plot. However, these books are dense, their stories long, the wait between them even longer, and any faltering in pace or efficacy risks the reader’s attention wandering. The Mime Order ends on a pretty intense sequence, but by the time The Song Rising came around, it was one of the only dystopian series I was still reading – the strong presence of fantasy elements like clairvoyance give it just enough of a cross-genre feel – and it could have been make or break.

A clairvoyant with the rare ability to dreamwalk – to leave her own body and enter the subconscious or dreamscape of others – Paige Mahoney has risen from criminal mollisher to the rank of Underqueen, overthrowing her old boss Jaxon Hall in the process. But Paige wants something Jaxon didn’t. She’s mobilising London’s unnaturals into a rebellion against Scion, the all-seeing anchor which has spent centuries feeding clairvoyants to otherworldly beings known as Rephaim. Hers is a ragtag collection of voyants, from longtime friends Nick and Danica to the battle-hardened Ognena Maria. They’re joined by several Rephaim sympathetic to the cause, including the ever dark and enigmatic Warden. With Scion closing in, they’ll need to destroy the latest piece of clairvoyant-hunting technology in order to give their rebellion a chance.

It’s fortunate, then, that The Song Rising showcases some of Shannon’s best work yet. Her writing is clear and more assured than ever before. Solidly constructed and smartly plotted, with admirably tight pacing and a compelling conflict, it thrums with action, from high-octane escapes to the series’ most dramatic finale yet. Its motifs of rebellion are fierce and evocative. There’s plenty to like, from inventive names and slang to intriguing details that will surely take root and reappear in later books. Also, shout-out to seeing more of Paige’s Irish heritage – there’s even use of Irish and the Scottish equivalent Gáidhlig! Needless to say I’d like to see more of that in the sequels.

There are the requisite elements of the supernatural, but there’s notable elaboration in setting and world-building, too. Paige discovers a world north of London, one of grimy slums and ancient cities and even snowy wilderness. For the first time in this series, there’s a sense that there’s a world beyond the one Paige knows to explore. It’s finally possible to see the scope of this saga, and I’m intrigued to see just how big and bold Samantha Shannon will make it.

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A strong addition to to Samantha Shannon’s name-making series, with an enthralling, pacy plot and a vivid, action-packed finale. Surprisingly unputdownable. 

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman // in a land of myth, and a time of shiny book covers

Author: Neil Gaiman30809689
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: February 7th 2017
Category: short stories
Genre(s): fantasy, mythology
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

In an arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants,  Gaiman stays true to the myths which envision the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, incredibly strong but perhaps not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and Asgard’s perpetual trickster. 

Through deft and witty prose emerge gods with fiercely competitive natures, a susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and a tendency to let passion ignite their actions. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, he must disguise himself to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people. Long inspired by ancient mythology, Gaiman brings to life a distant world for a brand new audience.

Neil Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Norse myths announced itself with unsurprising bombast. The built-in thrill of this being the new Neil Gaiman project was used to full effect. It reached me in autumn with glossy confidence, some rather overzealous cover copy, and titled simply Norse Mythology, as if to declare well, this is it. The only one you need. Why on earth would we call it anything else?

And it is often brilliant. It’s a tremendously enjoyable book. The prose is distinctive, the tales are memorable, the pacing is clever. The mythology is rich, splayed across the pages like a hoard of jewels. It is vivid and varied. There are some fantastic story choices, each broken into bite-size short fiction-style pieces, which illustrate a wealth of long-ago myth and legend. There is loyalty, betrayal, injustice, punishment, reward and achievement. This is a veritable cacophony of courage and cowardice, magnificence and misadventure. And of course, these were once the beliefs, the foundation even, of entire peoples and societies. There is acknowledgement that what we know of them now is just a fraction of what has been lost, but there’s plenty of keep up with and get your teeth into.

The gods and goddesses of Asgard – Thor, Sif, Loki, Odin, Freya – are joined by allies and enemies alike. Many leap into life with distinctive flair and personality. They are given histories, as with the creation of the tree, Yggdrasil, on which the nine worlds rest; backstories, as with the recounting of how Odin lost his eye; families, as with Sif as Thor’s wife. I particularly liked tales in which lesser known gods played a starring role alongside more familiar figures. They’re not exactly real as characters (they’re very fond of superlatives, these gods) but that’s not the point. These are not tame gods. They are larger-than-life even in their imperfections. Several have fatal flaws. Some are just troublemakers. If you take them for what they are then you can experience this collection for what it is: lush, sweeping, flamboyant, brutal, ridiculous, entertaining.

Full of magical objects, strange creatures and dangerous quests, it has the unmistakable air of folktale – the bardic style, the recognisable characters, the stylised numbers – but wrapped in crisp white paper, a glittering cover and straightforward prose. It is at once both old-fashioned and modern. It takes liberal creative licence, but this isn’t supposed to be accurate summary or academic collection of Norse myths. It’s pure storytelling, crammed with detail but trimmed down so only the good bits are left. There are flashes of fantastic humour, too: “When something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is: it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

It’s a little light on the world-building (slightly ironic given that a sizeable chunk is dedicated to, you know, the actual building of worlds) and description. Some readers may find the style grating. It’s definitely more retelling than guide. I would’ve liked more on goddesses, or a longer work generally. And for a time, I couldn’t quite figure out who the audience was supposed to be. It’s simple enough to be shared with children, except for the gore. It’s too consistent for connoisseurs of the short story anthology. It’s too contained for audiences used to sprawling high fantasy. And then it clicked: this book doesn’t need a target age range or style, because its target audience is simply fans of Neil Gaiman. And why not? A man who is fiction’s favourite genre-hopping novelists, SFF’s favourite multi-talented medium-dextrous contributor and television’s go-to drama scriptwriter at once has his pick of the projects, and this isn’t a bad one to have chosen.

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Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a retelling of myth and legend from one of literature’s most versatile writers. It’s lush, entertaining and brutal. t’s not the most earth-shaking or unprecedented of collections but it’s a very enjoyable read. 

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DECK THE HALLS WITH BELLS OF HOLLY (BOURNE): books to give as Christmas gifts this year

We all know the drill: it’s getting closer to Christmas, and you’re wondering if you can swap out the traditional novelty mug and socks for something a little more…conducive to your their book addiction. Or maybe you’re still doing the bookworm’s good work in trying to convince friends and family of the wonders of books in the first place (moment of silence for all those still struggling with this quest). Or maybe you don’t celebrate but just want an excuse to peruse the shelves for hours give birthday or seasonal presents anyway. But what to choose?! To shed some light on the matter, I thought I’d take you through some YA and kidlit perfect for that hard-to-please reader in your life…(even if it’s yourself)

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THE CONTEMPORARY CONTINGENT

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne: I figured we should just get this out of the way first since it’s one of my favourite books to recommend and it’s kind of amazing. Heartfelt, raw and real, it’s the opening book in a trilogy about teens Evie, Lottie and Amber as they tackle friendship, feminism, and feeling less alone in the world. Focused on Evie, this book is also a great introduction to some of the best handling of mental health YA has to offer. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s chatty, accessible and honest. Fabulous.

Love Song by Sophia Bennett: Love Song is warm, feel-good and so well-written. It’s about unexpected allegiances, fractured friendships, new experiences, good food, great songs and of course, a boyband. (If you’re not aware of the #boybandlit phenomenon, check out this post for all the details). i don’t even have the words to describe how fantastic it is, only that it’s one of Sophia Bennett’s best books. It’s full of drama, gorgeously tender moments (I personally love the scene where Jamie sings to heroine Nina’s sister Ariel) and, of course, music.

London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning: this is a book I’ll be giving as a gift this year, because it is brilliant. Fun, fresh, fast and full of joy, it’s a dizzying whirlwind of a book, pulling you in from start to finish. You can read my full (and much more eloquent) review here for more on its fierce female characters, grumpy French boys and glorious sense of humour.

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SCI-FI THAT’S NOT STAR WARS

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: adult fiction! OH MY BLOG?! A rare sight indeed. But then The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is exceptional in many ways: a refreshing, episodic, detailed, diverse, non-dystopian space opera, it is sci-fi filled with colourful characters, rich cultures, thematic exploration and of course the occasional raising of stakes. Perfect for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a little more drama thrown in. Another one I’ll be giving as a gift this Christmas.

The Last Beginning by Lauren James: Time travel! Starcrossed romance! Knitting! This is the story of Clove, a teenager investigating the sudden disappearance of two scientists, Katherine Finchley and Matt Galloway sixteen years before. There are multiple timelines, cool secondary characters in the shape of ex-hacker Tom and snarky computer Spart, and epistolary additions like letters, emails, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints which keep book both visual and interesting. Although it is a sequel so you should probably pick up its predecessor The Next Together as well. (You can read my reviews for both books here.)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: you know the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt movie, Passengers? This is a little bit like that, except YA got it first and oh, the luxury spaceliner in question has just crashlanded from hyperspace onto a nearby planet. Apparently alone, teenagers Lilac – wealthy, privileged, whip-smart – and Tarver – a cynical war hero who came from nothing and, when Icarus crashes, apparently still has nothing – must rely on each other for their very survival. It’s alternately narrated, has an epic romance, and is just generally FULL of feels.

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FIERCE HIGH FANTASY

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: a lush, lyrical take on mythology and royalty, The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy of a slower kind. It dials things down a notch when it comes to pace and plot, but if you’re looking for world-building and a game of choice and chance that becomes steadily deadlier, then this diverse NYT bestseller may be for you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: another technically-adult book, this is classy, classic fantasy, full of magical Londons and many-sided coats. Cut-throat almost-pirate Lila Bard steals something dangerous from Kell, brother of the prince of Red London, without realizing he’s an Antari – someone born with the ability to travel between worlds otherwise cut off from each other. Throw in waiting enemies, treacherous deceptions and poisoned power, and it’s a rich, compact opener to a trilogy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: Throne of Glass is the ULTIMATE high fantasy series in recent YA. If you (or the person you’re buying for) love vast, sprawling sagas with thrilling quests, deadly secrets and just a dash of magic, and you haven’t read it yet, then you need to get on that STAT. Now’s the perfect time to get started, too, as the final book in the series releases next year (though I’m going to include the cover for the third book here because it’s fab).

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and finally: FICTION FOR THOSE PESKY KIDS

Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone: a more recent release, this is a short story collection featuring contributions from award-winning children’s authors like Emma Carroll, Michelle Magorian, Piers Torday, Lauren St. John and Katherine Woodfine. And it it’s a book with a Christmassy winter theme! Its varied, vivid stories should have something for everyone and would make a great gift for eager young readers this year.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell: elegant, extraordinary and full of adventure, Rooftoppers is already being considered a classic of children’s literature, and it was only released three years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to pick this one up, as it’s such a great book. It sees heroine Sophie escape to Paris as she searches for her long-lost mother with only the information contained on the cello case she was found in as a baby to go on, and recounts her acquaintance with the rooftoppers, street urchins who live beneath the night sky. There’s a magical quality to the book even though it isn’t strictly magical, and Rundell’s prose has moments of pure brilliance.

Never Evers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison: ideal for readers nearing YA but with one foot still in middle grade fiction, this is a tale of early teen chaos and bashful charm. Never Evers has all the drama and disaster of classic light-hearted teen fiction – think Louise Rennison or Karen McCombie – with the added pandemonium of a school trip and ski slopes. It’s a landslide (or should that be avalanche?) of shenanigans: snow sport disasters, failed flirtations, new friendships, hidden ballet, igloo building, French popstars… oh, and the smuggling of a live hamster across several international borders. It’s mayhem, misunderstandings and mischief – and full of snow, too!

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So there you have it: your guide to YA and children’s books ideal for gift-giving this Christmas! (Or just for treating yourself). What’s the best book you’ve ever been given – or the worst?! Are your favourites among these recommendations?

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On The Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher // sweet, saccharine sort-of magical fiction

Author: Carrie Hope Fletcher
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Publisher:
Little, Brown/Sphere
Publication date: 14 July 2016
Category: adult fiction
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Genre: contemporary, magical realism, chick lit
Source: Lend
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Evie Snow has lived a long, full life. She’s had eighty-two years to find her place in the world. When it comes to finding her place in the next, however, there’s an unexpected complication. 

Evie’s reached the door of her own private heaven, but it won’t open.

To open the door, Evie will have to unburden her soul of the secrets weighing it down – secrets she’s kept for over fifty years. Transformed into her twenty-seven-year-old self, Evie’s journey of a lifetime will see her revisit events and people she thought she’d lost forever – and come face-to-face with a love she thought she’d left behind long ago.

On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused easy reading with the occasional serious undertone. Looking back on a life that was full but not without sacrifice, Evie Snow remembers above all Vincent Winters, her lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time. It’s clear that there must be a reason younger Evie married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, and idealised, romance; in terms of content, it’s all very PG. While released as an adult book, On The Other Side’s straightforward style, short chapters and character-driven plot make it clear the aim is to appeal to a wide audience.

Fletcher is known as one of the brighter, more sincere faces of generation YouTube, but On the Other Side also bears the hallmarks of her day job (as the West End’s Éponine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Truly Scrumptious), if not literally then subtly, because, first things first, the story is there. Live theatre, particularly musical theatre, regularly seeks to make the impossible plausible, whether it’s singing a rebellion, flying a magic car, quintet-ing a gang war, defying gravity, the entirety of Cats, giving America’s favourite fighting Frenchman the fastest rap in living memory or just throwing fairytales at the stage to see what sticks. Musicals are aware that you’ve already suspended your disbelief by committing to a story where even ordinary information is delivered with synchronised key changes and the occasional good old-fashioned mid-sentence falsetto. This is the kind of suspend-your-disbelief story background Fletcher is coming from as she draws on magical realism – from semi-magical birds to talking heart trees – and gives this novel a feeling of wistful unreality.

Evie is an easy heroine to like. There’s perhaps an element of self-insert fiction here (Evie has blonde curly hair, brown eyes, an emerald-green coat and a noticeably hopeful outlook) but it’s pretty harmless. The book’s secondary characters don’t leap from the page. Overlong character descriptions do little more than introduce cardboard cut-outs from which sage advice, monotonous dialogue or unexplained villainy will leak. There is however LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).

If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, however, then you should know that even going back fifty-five years, this book isn’t set in any distinctive era. There’s a sense that it’s meant to be quirky or disconcerting, but it’s a tricky idea to pull off. In this case it leaves the reader with the sense that it was perhaps simply more convenient not to have this summer release (cleverly timed to coincide with the start of the school holidays) held up by months of historical research. The placement of relics like sexism and arranged marriage alongside modern conveniences like mobile phones and skinny jeans seem out of place, off-kilter. It’s a shame too, as I was looking forward to a book with the good-cheer-in-tough-times feel of Call the Midwife or maybe the snazzier sixties-in-Australia equivalent Lovechild. On The Other Side misses an opportunity for richer storytelling here.

Unfortunately, the writing style isn’t as polished as it should be. It’s full of excessive adverbs, vocal clichés, unnecessary repetition, and tell in place of show. It’s heavy-handed, almost as if it’s afraid to leave many details to the reader’s imagination. You know that writing style you had when you were just starting out and your idea was good, but everything still came out in stiff dialogue and great lumps of exposition, single-spaced Arial size 12, one long run-on explanation from start to finish? And that writing style was totally fine, because you were learning as you went along and almost everyone falls into the tropes and traps of early aspiring fiction anyway. That’s essentially what you’ll find in On The Other Side, and to a well-read audience it will be distracting. It’s the writing style of someone who has potential, but is still telling the story the way their early-writer self would. If it’s well-developed, make-your-eyes-widen-with-awe prose you’re after, you won’t find it here – yet.

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Simple, straightforward and saccharine sweet, On the Other Side is a charming, if uneven, fiction début. It’s warm and well-meaning, but a solid premise gives way to a writing style that needs work.

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