Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Source:
Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Source:
Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.

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A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 

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The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
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When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)

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An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.
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*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.

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The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book One) by Jessica Townsend // pleasingly fun and utterly immersive

dfp1adkuqaaos5lAuthor(s): Jessica Townsend
Publisher: 
Hachette/Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): fantasy, adventure
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
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Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on the unlucky day of Eventide, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes from hailstorms to broken hips. Worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die on the next Eventide – until, that is, a strange and remarkable captain named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black smoke-hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he offers her the chance to escape her draughty, unwelcoming manor and enter an unpredictable but magical city called Nevermoor.

Jupiter believes Morrigan could contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. If she can pass four difficult and dangerous trials, she will have a chance at a future full of strange adventures. But there are hundreds of children with extraordinary talents in Nevermoor, and as far as Morrigan is aware, she hasn’t got a gift anyone would want. Morrigan will need to discover more about who she is, and more importantly, who she could be – or she’ll have to leave the city and confront her fate, once and for all.

Having only recently read Katherine Rundell’s terrific historical standalone The Explorer, I was itching to dive into more new children’s fiction  – but whatever I expected when I picked up this book, it probably wasn’t something quite as wonderful as Nevermoor. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I had, I raced through it in a couple of hours. This is charming, utterly immersive stuff.

As Eventide draws near, the last thing cursed eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow expects is for a magical and magnificently dressed Captain called Jupiter North to offer her a chance to escape the fate she thought she’d been resigned to long ago. Exciting and rhythmic but not overstuffed, the plot is one of discovery and cleverly placed detail. It doesn’t reinvent the literary wheel but almost every page features something interesting or memorable. Townsend’s use of familiar tropes, like the whisking away of a downtrodden child hero to a secondary world or the appearance of an unconventional pseudo-father figure, is highly effective. There are requisite foes in a compelling conflict with a Big Bad called The Wundersmith and some lesser enemies made at a very intense garden party. While the final showdown is a bit anticlimactic (it’s cut short and the stakes don’t quite make an impression), there are some suitably spooky, atmospheric moments in the build up which show the shadowy side of the Republic and even of the otherwise glittering Nevermoor.

It is in worldbuilding that this book really shines. Startlingly inventive and entertaining, the sheer imagination and delight at play is astonishing. There are hints at the workings of a broader fantasy world – it is, for example, run on Wunder, a mystical medium few truly understand, and opens in the gothic ‘Great Wolfacre’ – but much of the novel spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.

Plunged into a city where the impossible seems positively ordinary, self-effacing, black-clad Morrigan is startled to realise that it is a place in which she might be able to feel she belongs. The Hotel Deucalion is full of colourful, eccentric characters. The charismatic, gregarious Jupiter North was undoubtedly my favourite, but trouble-making dragon rider Hawthorne was a close second. Even minor characters like Martha and Dame Chanda have their moments. One of the finer details of the book is that many of the core cast feel like they could be the hero of their own story, and one imagines there are thousands of untold escapades just waiting to spill from the mysterious Wundrous Society (“Tales from the Wundrous Society” is totally the title of a short story spin-off collection).

The best of the book’s prose comes from its descriptions (“Days of splashing in the sun-drenched Jasmine Courtyard pool gave way to balmy nights of ballroom dancing lessons, barbecue dinners and long lounging sessions…”, “an enormous rose-coloured chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship, dripping with crystals and bursting with warm light”). The writing is fairly undemanding, but it’s accessible and surprisingly funny (“the first day of Morningtide, Spring of One, Third Age of the Aristocrats. Weather: chilly but clear skies. Overall city mood: optimistic, sleepy, slightly drunk”). I would’ve liked a positive female friendship for Morrigan or more useful guidance from Jupiter rather than seeing her be kept in the dark, but these are small quibbles. A lack of hugely expansive explanation leaves this one feeling very much like a series opener, but then it is a story readers will likely be thrilled to return to. There is such tremendous potential in this energetic, appealing piece of storytelling.

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Vivid, imaginative and surprisingly funny, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fiction début. 

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The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

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The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

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The Space Between by Meg Grehan // a delicate debut you may have missed

Author(s): Meg Grehan33972290
Publisher:
 Little Island Books
Publication date: 30th March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Beth has made a resolution: to spend a whole year alone. But she never counted on fate – or floppy-eared, tail-wagging Mouse, who comes nosing to her window, followed shortly by his owner, Alice.

As Beth’s year of solitude begins, Alice gently steals her way first into Beth’s house and later into her heart. And by the time New Year’s Eve comes round again – who knows?

Delicate, elegant and straightforward, The Space Between is a notable addition to the recent trend for verse novels in YA. As sorrowful as it is sweet, it tells the story of Beth, a teenager whose life has been slowly whittled away by agoraphobia, anxiety and depression, and Alice, the girl who opens up her world (and her window) as if by chance. Or a very curious dog named Mouse. Full of small details and featuring an even smaller cast, the book’s focus is so intense it sometimes feels almost microscopic. It’s not the most exciting of books, but it packs a solid punch for its relatively simple style.

At the core of The Space Between is the relationship between Beth and Alice. It’s a saccharine and understated, if somewhat rose-tinted, romance, but it steers clear of ‘love cures mental illness’ tropes and is clearly heartfelt. In a landscape of Irish teen fiction where LGBTQ+ characters are fairly thin on the ground (mostly because Irish teen fiction itself is still also fairly thin on the ground, quantitatively speaking) The Space Between is probably the best female-led contribution since Geraldine Meade’s Flick. It’s certainly more modern and relevant, complete with nods and cultural awareness contemporary teenagers will relate to. Irish YA still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to matching the surge in such titles elsewhere, but The Space Between could become a go-to recommendation.

This is a book I’d like to see being talked about more. It’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA are calling for. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, LGBTQ+ characters, strong writing, a pretty cover. It’s the kind of book that should be landing on most-anticipated lists and creating buzz, but I saw hardly any marketing or publicity for it, which is a shame. For intrepid fans of YA names like Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or of the recent explosion in ‘Instagram poets’ like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading.

Short, spare and page-turning, The Space Between, like many novels-in-verse, is quite a quick read. Grehan plays more with shape and pattern than language or vocabulary, so its verse is at times more functional than stunning. Its simplicity is a bit of a drawback when it comes to plot and pace, and I would’ve liked to have seen more inventiveness or ambition. Some of the poems grate and it’s not as forceful as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or as eye-catching as Sarah Crossan’s One. An interior style is prioritised more often than engaging storytelling, and as such it occasionally runs the risk of allowing readers used to busy, polished YA to drift away.

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A delicate and poignant, if imperfect, début novel-in-verse, which puts ever-present themes and LGBTQ+ characters at the forefront. If you like books by Sarah Crossan, Deirdre Sullivan or Jandy Nelson, The Space Between is worth reading. 

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton // an accomplished, action-packed fantasy adventure

249340651Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam its barren wastes, and rumour has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the suffocating town talented sharpshooter Amani can’t wait to escape from.

When she meets the mysterious, devastatingly handsome Jin at a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route – but in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that it would lead her to secrets that could alter the face of her world forever.

Rebel of the Sands is at once rough-and-ready, tooth-and-nail action adventure and intriguing epic fantasy. It has the bite of a merciless desert and the guile of a magic-laden kingdom.  The vivid collision of two very different worlds – the tough, gunslinging wild west in which Amani has fought to survive meets the ancient, mysterious realm of dangerous power and receding magic she’s rarely seen with her own eyes – is undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of this series opener. A highly-anticipated addition to UKYA, I first read it last year and it’s a solid début, with a fabulous cover to boot.

Led by the inimitable Amani, it stars a ragtag collection of heroes, rebels and, of course, lots of villains. Amani is kickass and courageous but her recklessness and smart mouth have a tendency to get her into trouble, particularly when she’s assuming the role of the Blue-Eyed Bandit. She’s a fitting lead for the book but there’s a definite sense that she has a long way to go from here in terms of development. Other notable cast members include the friendly, somewhat reluctant rebel Bahi and the unreliable, sometime-enemy Noorsham. My favourites, however, were the mysterious, charming Jin (love interest, prince, often on the receiving end of the Bandit’s barbs) and the strategic, brutally efficient warrior Shazad, who probably has a heart there somewhere, though she keeps it well hidden, at least at first, from the rebellion’s newcomer Amani. Unfortunately, the minor characters are a little harder to distinguish, as Hamilton seems to rely more on the reader remembering them by their abilities than by their individual personalities.

This is action-packed fantasy of the fairly short variety; it’s high impact, flash-bang, relatively contained stuff. If you’re a fan of Sarah J. Maas-level flowing prose and rich backdrops, you won’t find them here. It’s written in quite a concise style, with just a touch of the quips, sarcasm and verbal sparring YA readers will love overflowing where you might expect more lavish descriptions or ponderous musings. I would’ve liked more world-building beyond that which is established by this surface skirmish with Hamilton’s undoubtedly inventive Miraji, but if you’re looking for a fast, highly visual fantasy début which is light on techniques that sometimes slow down epic fantasy, like complicated histories or meandering detail, this punchy, cinematic alternative may be for you.

The plot is strong, too, with plenty going on and enough twists that it’s very difficult to review without giving away a whole sandstorm of spoilers. High stakes and an unravelling series of complications take Amani’s tale from mere escape to all-out rebellion. Hamilton expands Amani’s narrative horizons in familiar fantasy style as this kickass heroine finds herself reluctantly drawn into a fight for her kingdom. The climactic battle has a particularly pleasing sense of scale.  Its focus sometimes gets muddled and the pacing is occasionally uneven but the plot and intrigue keeps you reading.

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Striking, dramatic and memorable, this action-packed fantasy adventure sees a clash of two worlds woven together by magic, mirage and plenty of plot. It’s not without fault and it’s not the deepest of epics but it’s a well-contained, highly readable début. 

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Hold Back The Stars by Katie Khan // striking sci-fi splices space and society

26804769Author: Katie Khan
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 26th January 2017
Category: crossover, adult
Genre(s): science fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In whose name? 
Not God, not king, or country.
In whose name?
My own.

Adrift in space with ninety minutes of air left and nothing to hold on to but each other, Carys and Max are fighting for their lives.

Their shuttle is damaged and Earth looms far below them. They can’t help but look back at the well-ordered  world they left behind – at the rules they couldn’t reconcile themselves to, and the life to which they might now never return. But in a society where love is banned, what happens when you find it? And when the odds are stacked against you, what do you do to survive? 

A simple premise, straightforward prose and a striking plot shape this remarkably confident début. It sees two fairly familiar stories entwined – one in space, the other earthbound – in a page-turning, engrossing read which slowly reveals how heroes Max and Carys go from aspiring chef and scientifically-orientated pilot to astronauts trapped in the vacuum of space. It’s smart, stylish and memorable, with a plenty of tension, conversation and even a few surprising twists. It’s a fast, pacy read, and I was so gripped I read it in one sitting.

Carys and Max’s Earth is a world in which the problems of the past are being solved by a new way of life: one where everyone spends time in each other’s countries, where languages are picked up like clockwork, and where the only loyalty is to oneself. This distinctive world-building makes for a strong backdrop to the exploration of the line – which sometimes turns surreptitiously sinister – between utopia and dystopia. At turns chilling, vibrant, unsettling and effective, Khan takes time to create a feasible utopia while simultaneously illustrating its flaws and the ultimate inability of the system to fit everyone. Max was raised with the ideals of Europia, which have brought peace, prosperity and understanding to a war-torn world. Carys is more skeptical, scornful of believers who send their children away and condemn them to years of loneliness on Rotation through different Voivodes. But neither wish to tip the balance that has made their world a better place – until they find each other.

Here’s where the book’s cover copy gets a little misleading. Love isn’t banned (this isn’t Delirium) but long-term relationships have become obsolete in a system which obliges citizens to move to randomly-assigned cities every three years (at least in those under 35, when they are permitted to choose a partner and have children). Unfortunately for a novel so pinned on a relationship, I wasn’t swayed by the romance. There’s an effort, however, to avoid the pitfalls of “the fate of this system depends on these two specific youths being definitely, completely unable to be together for REASONS!” trope, and they are interesting, compelling characters.

Then there’s the minor complication of Max and Carys spending much of the book FREEFALLING WILDLY AWAY FROM THEIR SPACESHIP. IN SPACE. The planet is surrounded by a recently-arrived, apparently-impassable asteroid field, and Europia wants to know how to navigate it. Fast-tracked to the space program and losing signal with on-board computer Osric, Max and Carys are going to have to rescue themselves. It’s a high-stakes concept and I couldn’t wait to see them aboard Laertes. 

Except we never get to see them aboard Laertes. There are almost no scenes set on the shuttle! There are mentions of experiments, a greenhouse and Carys’ flying skills, but the book never once lets the reader see what they’re ACTUALLY DOING in space in the first place. It builds up to their journey and just skips right by it. Imagine listening to a great song only for it end before the rousing chorus. Or buying an ice cream and getting an empty cone! It leaves out potentially the best part! Anyway, I WAS TOLD THERE WOULD BE SPACESHIPS AND THEIR ABSENCE IS DISAPPOINTING.

As a portrait of societies and human psychology, Hold Back the Stars frequently delivers. Max’s relationship with his parents is strained, while Carys is much closer to her mother Gwen. Many third-generation Europians have stopped investing in meaningful relationships altogether, overcome by the endless series of leavings, monotonous contribution and the isolation of being separated from family and any notion of lifelong friends. Secondary characters are each almost visibly confined and kept at arm’s length in a system which above all values the transient individual.

The downside to this characterisation is, however, that some seem flat, and if the book is occasionally thin on narrative richness, it can be traced to the base calculation of the novel: a cinematic efficiency in which the simplest of plots can be shaped to yield the highest impact result. I would’ve liked to see some character and world details more richly fleshed out. Older fans of Lauren James’ The Last Beginning and Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars will find some things to like, but I still prefer Becky Chambers’ brilliant The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 

Of course, there are plot holes. Why do two characters walk into a grand hall to discuss their love lives and walk out in charge of a space shuttle? Who thought this was a good idea? If Carys is such a skilled pilot, why don’t we get to see her being a pilot for more than ten seconds? Why can different languages exist but not associated cultures? Did anything aside from impromptu Shakespeare readings happen on Laertes? Will I ever read more than two sci-fi books in a year where the romance is actually consistently romantic? Why is this book being marketed as YA when its characters and content are clearly adult fiction? WHO EVEN KNOWS.

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Page-turning, striking and atmospheric, Hold Back the Stars is snappy sci-fi which is as much about a society as it is about a relationship. In some ways I would’ve liked more from it – more romance, more developed characters, more spaceships, more detail – but it’s still an engrossing read.

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