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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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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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 Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
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

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle // Doyle comes home with island tale

Today on the blog, it’s time to dive back into middle grade with this latest review…

36634765Author(s): Catherine Doyle
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Category: children’s fiction, middle grade
Genre(s): fantasy, magical realism
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a proof 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

Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara have been sent to stay with their grandfather on the tiny Irish island of Arranmore for the summer. Fionn has never met his grandfather before – an eccentric old man who lives in a cottage brimming with candles – though he knows his islander ancestors have long lived in tandem with the sea, a force city-born Fionn is afraid of.

Unbeknownst to Fionn, an old magic is stirring deep inside the layers of Arranmore. A dark storm is coming. The same kind of storm that took his  father twelve years ago. To protect his family, Fionn must embrace his destiny as an heir to the storm keepers, for their island is calling out to him…

Catherine Doyle made her début as one of the bolder contributors to Irish young adult fiction with the Blood for Blood trilogy, a teen twist on movies like The Godfather set in the dark, dangerous underworld of the Mafia, but her first middle grade offering, The Storm Keeper’s Island, couldn’t be further from the blood-soaked streets of Chicago. With the temperamental skies and sea-salt tang of the island of Arranmore, it seems that Catherine Doyle has come home.

The island setting is undoubtedly one of the book’s stand-out features. Doyle offers up vivid, whirling descriptions, adding to an already interesting landscape an ancient mystery which stirs as soon as Fionn sets foot on its windswept shores. On Doyle’s Arranmore, tea is a must and magic is everywhere. This elemental magic is protected by a storm keeper and, in one of my favourite touches, gathered amid memories in the colourful array of candles Fionn’s grandfather Malachy makes by hand. The island is steeped in history, from miraculous lifeboat rescues to strange caves.

The book’s higher powers, Dagda and Morrigan, are plucked straight from Irish mythology, and while the pairing is not a new one, the appeal of the dichotomy is understandable (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know I have something of a soft spot for The Dagda). There are hints of fantastical worldbuilding – water-dwelling merrow, a flying horse identifiable to those literate in Irish mythological cycles – but there’s definitely a sense that this is an opening gambit written with laying groundwork in mind. Any sequels worth their salt will delve deeper into the rich and complex seam of myth teased here.

The story is enchanting enough to keep you reading through info-dumping and erratic pacing; explaining the fate of the SS Stolwijk before Finn sees it play out, for instance, sucks the tension out of what would otherwise be a strong sequence. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling that I knew there was a plot in there somewhere, but it just kept getting caught up in an ill-defined structural muddle. It needed more textured secondary characters and more developed motive for the villains. One seemed to be mainly characterised as ‘bearded’ (“Where is he off to with a beard that big, anyway?”). And, while this may be a bit niche, making more use of the Irish language could have added to the magic, as the real-life Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal, is known for its Irish-speaking.

Still, The Storm Keeper’s Island is a fast read and practically unputdownable. I liked the focus on the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather (I’d only recently written this post about grandparents in YA and teen fiction). I was racing to get to any scenes which expanded on Fionn and his father, Cormac, one of the book’s most compelling emotional cornerstones. A dramatic, action-packed finale – always one of Doyle’s strong suits – provides hope of a series with plenty more to give.

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The Storm Keeper’s Island isn’t the most subtle of books, but it is a vivid, energetic adventure with a great setting. This is magical realism-turned-fantasy for younger fans of Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. 

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky by Lisa Lueddecke // an impressive, icy fantasy debut

Today on the blog, I’m diving in to some YA fantasy…

32602009Author(s): Lisa Lueddecke
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: October 5th 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

On the frozen island of Skane, the sky speaks. Beautiful lights appear on clear nights, and their colours have meaning. Green means the Goddess is happy and all is well. Blue means a snow storm is on the way.

But red is rare. Red is a warning.

Seventeen years ago, the sky turned red just as Ósa was born, unleashing a plague that claimed the lives of hundreds of villagers, including her own mother. But when she sees for herself a night sky turned crimson, this time she decides she must find a way to stop the onslaught before lives are lost again.

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages. I think it probably got a bit snowed under in the blizzard that is October in publishing, but when I did finally manage to pick up a copy, I found a fantasy so atmospheric and engrossing I had to go and put a scarf on while reading it.

Long ago, Ósa’s people were chased off the mainland by a monstrous enemy, the Ør. For generations, they have eked out a living on the inhospitable island of Skane, at the mercy of sudden snowstorms and half-frozen seas. When a plague outbreak threatens, seventeen-year-old Ósa sets out to find the Goddess in the mountains and ask for her help. She leaves behind her bitter father and sister, who have resented her ever since her mother died soon after childbirth, and her closest friend Ivar, a rune singer who can read the ancient words of their ancestors. Ahead of her there is great danger, but it is a path to hope.

Lueddecke’s worldbuilding is straightforward and evocative. Skane’s wind-chilled plains, snow-covered forests and hunkered-down villages seep off the page. Certain details – the runes, the caves, the fishing, the clothes – are particularly memorable. And the plot is so elegant. Ósa has a clear goal. Her story has clear structure. There’s one big twist in a handful of smaller twists. It was music to my review-hardened ears. Lueddecke’s writing style is rangy enough to handle action sequences and more thoughtful stretches. To encompass simpler (“Cold was an unforgiving intruder”) and more elaborate moments (“It would be the kind of storm the sky would have warned us about, if it hadn’t been bleeding red”; “A loneliness that made me better acquainted with myself”).

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is the story of determined, serious Ósa, but it also returns to the village and an equally focused but more willingly open Ivar as their community prepares for oncoming danger. The shift from first to third person is initially a little jarring, but it really works once it settles in. What begins as a grounded fantasy actually embraces myth and magic in an intensifying fashion, and while it’s relatively short for a fantasy, in the early stages it still exquisitely draws out its pacing. It savours some of its time on the page.

What’s more, the book feels original, not because of the innovation of its parts – associating the constellations with myth is common across human history, the room sequence is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,  the whole vibe is very North-of-the-Wall Game of Thrones – but because of the deft way they’re put together. The book is light on the romance, but squint and even in the freezing temperatures of Skane you could probably see it as a slow-burn. I had a few qualms – the characters could have been more developed, it was a bit grim for my tastes at times, I could take or leave the incidents with the giants, a female friendship for Ósa would have been a welcome addition, and there are some loose ends which look set to remain untied given that the next book is a prequel – but otherwise, this is a pretty great fantasy début.

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky is evocative, atmospheric and elegantly plotted. One of the best young adult fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

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