The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury // fighters and folktales face off in this fantasy finale

Today on the blog, I review The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury (and crack out the alliteration again. Oops). You can read my review of The Sin Eater’s Daughter here; my review of The Sleeping Prince here (go on, I’m quite proud of that one); and my warning that this post may contain mild spoilers for the series, well, here!

31627294Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: 2nd March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (The Sin Eater’s Daughter #3)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

As the villainous Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla, queen’s executioner turned rabble rouser. Errin, scrappy apothecary turned prisoner. And what of Merek, prince turned runaway rebel?

But Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. A final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever…

If you’ve ever read a Melinda Salisbury book – and chances are you have, what with this being the conclusion to a trilogy and The Sin Eater’s Daughter being one of the blogosphere’s most talked-about additions to recent UKYA fantasy fiction – then in many ways you’ll know what to expect from The Scarecrow Queen: high stakes, lots of twists, rebellion, betrayal, a now familiar style full characterised by pacy, businesslike prose and descriptive Scandi minimalism, more betrayal. Salisbury certainly delivers a novel that will satisfy long-time readers, including by ensuring her characters are put through the ringer seven or eight times as the pages fly by. Fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse should find this stark, eerie series is up their alley.

Banking on the existence of its established world of austere castles, shady villages, impoverished peoples, hidden enclaves and shifting priorities, readers are thrown straight into an action-packed plot. Alchemy remains central, but the emphasis is on the building of a rebellion. Twylla takes on the role of recruitment officer and unlikely symbol (there are definite echoes of Katniss in The Hunger Games to her singing tactics). Errin battles to escape Aurek’s clutches in order to rejoin the fight against him. Merek, a favourite with fans early on, also returns, as do side characters like Nia and The Sleeping Prince’s standout newcomer, Silas. I would’ve liked more of the romance between Silas and Errin, but it’s not unexpected that it often takes a backseat to tension and atmosphere. Lief – Errin’s brother and Twylla’s former love interest – turned tail at the end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter and has been doing a swandive into increasing treachery ever since, though even with this book’s twists, the character’s motivations are still a little unclear, or at least not entirely compelling.

Not so in the case of the series’ big bad, the Sleeping Prince. Sinister and steeped in folktales – a treacherous semi-mythos which undoubtedly entails one of the most interesting parts of the saga – Salisbury has written a bone-chilling villain. It may be the finest feature of the book, if not the crowning achievement of the trilogy. Aurek is utterly despicable and reeks of the creeps, yet it’s undeniably effective. Its prose is more accessible than extravagant (“Scarecrow queen. Nothing but a dupe, alone in a field, hoping to keep the crows at bay”), but this finale is at its most gripping when the looming machinations of the Sleeping Prince abound.

Both major characters helm different sections of the first-person narration, though Errin only gets about one-third to Twylla’s two-thirds. Errin proved the more active and resourceful protagonist on her arrival, but it was always evident that Twylla would return as the series’ focus. Looking at the trilogy as the whole, Twylla’s arc is very clear – from passivity as the evil queen’s executioner, to awakening as a runaway, to activity as a rebel leader (“I am tired of running away from everything. I want to be like Errin. Like Nia. Like Sister Hope. I want to be the girl who fought a golem, the girl who slammed her hands on a table and told a room full of powerful women that I was going to fight”).

Frustratingly, the relative shortness of this series as a whole somewhat compromises the true potential for character development and subplots, particularly if you delight in the sprawling richness of writers like Laini Taylor or Rae Carson. Some minor characters fall flat and there’s a touch of the ‘miracle cure’ trope to Silas’ fate. The world-building is strong in many ways, but one can’t help feeling that the books would benefit from simply having more room for it. Perhaps this tightly-paced style is just a UKYA thing, but I’ve found I definitely like my high fantasy a little more complex, a little more time-consuming, a little more luxuriating.

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An action-packed, twisty conclusion with a bone-chilling villain from a writer who has established herself as a notable voice in recent UKYA fantasy fiction. This series as a whole feels relatively short and tightly paced, particularly if you prefer your high fantasy long and immersive, but it is perhaps a form of praise in itself to say that one of the only things that could’ve improved a trilogy was having more of it!

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017 – July Check In!

Every year, the blogosphere is flooded with most anticipated lists, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in releases which are five or six or seven months away while your current TBR stares accusingly at you from across the bookshelf. But sooner or later these posts vanish – often never to be given any kind of conclusion or follow through. This year, I wanted to check in with my most anticipated books of the year  and see whether they’ve made it off the list and onto my shelf!

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Originally slated for publication in autumn 2017, the final installment in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series has now been pushed back to May 2018. SIGH. There’s no other term for it: this SUCKS. I was so excited for this book – Throne of Glass remains an epic and extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA – and can’t wait to find out where it goes next. Instead of an autumn conclusion for the assassin once known as Celaena Sardothien, we’re getting a spin-off Chaol novel called Tower of Dawn and more sequels to her (ugh) A Court of Thorns and Roses books. It seems Maas has joined the likes of George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, Megan Whalen Turner and Samantha Shannon in making readers wait years for the next legit book in a fantasy series.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s new project, and it’s out this June! The concept reads like such a burst of joy.  Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this sound like a glossy romantic comedy to adore, and I’ll be picking it up as soon as I see it in a bookshop. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Another one whose publication date was pushed back, Strange the Dreamer was one of the most talked-about fantasy releases of spring, and when I read it earlier this month, I enjoyed it. It’s rich, immersive stuff, centred on a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, and a quest to get it back. It’s quite long (perhaps even a little too long) and moves at a frustratingly even pace, but Taylor’s inventive streak is unquestionable and the world-building is top-notch. The characters are clearly designed to contrast with the cast of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Taylor retains her distinctive, descriptive writing style and I’ll be picking up the sequel in this duology.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

I read the final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy – or as Schwab rather mysteriously puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – earlier this year and it was awesome. It’s a rich, chunky fantasy to get your teeth into. Full of allegiance, betrayal, bloodlust, romance, sacrifice, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, it’s a strong conclusion to the trio. However, I did find that after the first book, the series came to rely on plot devices and types of magic we’ve seen before. A Conjuring of Light leaves a veritable cadre of unanswered questions, so I’d definitely read more about Kell, Lila, Alucard and co!

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

I read We Come Apart quite early, and reviewed it on the blog in February! “Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively… collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.”

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

This is a book that had me at ‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’, to be honest. I reviewed it on the blog in March and really enjoyed it. “Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.”

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Freshers didn’t even have a cover when I added it to my most anticipated list in December, but Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA, and I’m still intrigued to see what they come up with here. It will be published by Chicken House in August.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Another notch in my ‘actually following up on debuts by reading sequels’ belt, I read Traitor to the Throne before publication but reviewed it in April. “Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, and surprise re-appearances.”

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

This companion to the New York Times bestselling The Star-Touched Queen picks up with a warrior princess, an unlikely ally, and a fight for survival in battle-scarred kingdom. Readers will recognise heroes Gauri and Vikram as secondary characters from Chokshi’s début. While this book published in March, it looks like it doesn’t yet have a UK publisher, which is disappointing as I was hoping it could improve where The Star-Touched Queen had lagged a bit. For the one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it pile.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book when it was announced: a royal tale of conspiracy and inheritance, it’s pitched as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. Unfortunately, this is another one that doesn’t seem to be lined up for publication this side of the Atlantic. I’m not particularly bothered about missing out on reading it, but it reminds me how much I wanted to see more fantasy in Irish and UKYA. Publishers here really need to work on publishing more solid YA fantasy!!

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Honourable mentions (because okay, I have to keep the wordcount down but who can leave any most-anticipated list at just ten?!):

Wing Jones by Katherine Webber: you guys, I’d been waiting for this book for SO LONG. I did a lot of work talking about it and supporting it, and seemed like EVERYONE in the entire blogosphere got a review copy, but although I requested one, mine never arrived, and I was kind of too shy to say anything about it?? (Don’t worry, I’ve gotten better about that kind of thing now.) My purchased copy has been in my TBR for ages because review books often have to come first, but SOON, my pretty, SOON.

The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle: the second standalone from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA is absolutely one to get your hands on, particularly if you liked the eerie, magical style of The Accident Season. “Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next.”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard: this book is glorious. It was my first (and so far only one of two) five star review of the year. I adored it. “This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too).”

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer: this high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling caught my eye last year, though it’s not really been a priority since. But again, where is the UK release date?! PUBLISH. MORE. FANTASY. YOU. GUYS.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White: A ruthless fifteenth century-set saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for YA, but this sequel to the dramatic and NYT-bestselling And I Darken is just as ferocious as the trilogy opener. Set against a backdrop of empires and betrayal, it’s demanding, action-packed historical fiction. I finished it last week and will be reviewing it soon!

So far I’ve managed to read eight of fifteen most anticipated reads of the year, which I’m totally pleased with! Do you keep track of highly anticipated books in your TBR? Which of these 2017 releases have been your favourites?

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

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One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

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The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury // flights of fancy turn ferocious in this fantasy sequel

Hello and welcome to a review in which I am reunited with fantasy fiction! After a not-inconsiderable flirtation with contemporary and a dash of magical realism, I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the second book in Melinda Salisbury’s storming UKYA trilogy. And because I am not a fan of jumping into series reviews unannounced, you can read my review of the first book here.

27281393Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher:
 Scholastic
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ever since her brother Lief disappeared, Errin’s life has gone from bad to worse. Between caring for her sick mother and scraping together rent money by selling illegal herbal cures, she doesn’t have time for the war against the vengeful Sleeping Prince, woken as if from a terrible fairytale – but when her village is evacuated, she finds herself caught in a mythical conflict she never asked for. Desperate and homeless, the only person she can turn to is the mysterious Silas, a young man who buys her deadly poisons and won’t reveal why he needs them. 

Then Silas, like her brother, vanishes, and Errin decides she must save herself, and her mother, alone. Journeying across a kingdom on the brink, what she finds may force her to make icult choice and shatter everything she thought she knew about her world.

Set in the same stark and treacherous world as that of her débutMelinda Salisbury’s much talked about fantasy follow-up sets itself the twin challenge of satisfying fans of the first book and introducing a largely new cast of characters. It reads quite like the opening book in a series – for me it was less static and even a little more inventive than its predecessor – but readers will certainly benefit from the world-building and set-up imparted by The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

A long way from the austere confines and murderous royalty of the now-fallen kingdom of Lormere, teenager Errin faces poverty and strife in the shady village of Almwyck. Abandoned by her brother, desperately seeking a cure for her sick mother and with the wrath of the newly reawakened Sleeping Prince looming, Errin will do what it takes to survive, even if that means selling illegal herbal remedies and risking persecution to make ends meet. Errin is level-headed, determined and not afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s a perhaps somewhat inevitable sense that she’s been designed to contrast with Twylla, the more passive heroine of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, but whatever the motive, it works: Errin is a heroine full of tangible vigour and is likely to appeal.

There is something of the air of a folk-tale about The Sleeping Prince, and it is archly deliberate. Salisbury’s distinctive writing style – neat, compact and relatively minmalist for the genre – lends itself to the eerie overtones of folklore and superstition, including the vast and vehement quest of the titular prince, a well-conjured (and semi-undead) villain. A kind of Pied Piper meets Sleeping Beauty mash-up, the mythology of the novel is symptomatic of the fact that while little here is shockingly original, it doesn’t have to be: the skill and shrewdness with which Salisbury blends the familiar and the fantastic is enough to cement the place of what is one of the most unique recent series on the UKYA shelf. (Basically, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question “What would the Sleeping Beauty story be like if Aurora were not a princess but a prince? And also MANIFESTLY EVIL?!” this is the book for you.)

When her village is evacuated to make way for soldiers but she daren’t risk leaving with a mother prone to the cruel rages and red eyes of a semi-mythical affliction, Errin turns to the mysterious Silas, a hooded young man who buys her poisons and never reveals his face (though she thinks she saw the end of his nose once when he laughed)Silas is a complex character – one of the best in the novel – at once both apparently kind and incredibly enigmatic, a real puzzle for the reader, and I liked that. One of my favourite things about the book, about any good book, is the ability of the writer to prompt questions from the audience almost before they even realize it themselves. The Sleeping Prince is packed with twists, turns, tensions, treachery, secrets, schemes, betrayals, bust-ups, revelations and, of course, revenge. The pace is a little uneven and some of the secondary characters are flat, but the plot absolutely keeps you guessing.

There are hints at a romance, but plot takes precedence and, particularly importantly if you’re not a fan love triangles, there’s not a whisper of a ménage à trois. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, which is perhaps why the book ends on a rather hilarious acknowledgement (“And finally, Javert. I did not forget you. I did not forget your name”). I was a bit bemused by the fact that several returning characters display such notable yet unexplained changes in personality and these relatively short books are ultimately too tightly-packed to satisfy my love of sprawling high or epic fantasy. However, the twists keep coming to the final page and the stakes are certainly high for The Scarecrow Queen, so if you liked the first book, this will be right up your alley.

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For fans of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab and the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, this sequel is a relatively short but plot-packed take on folktale-fantasy UKYA, with a vicious villain and plenty of twists among its highlights.

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CELTIC REVIVAL: recommending (recent-ish) Irish YA

So you’ve heard all about Irish authors bursting onto the YA stage of late, with their award wins and their YALC appearances. You’ve read books by Eoin Colfer, Louise O’Neill and Moïra Fowley-Doyle. But what to read next? Where’s the rest of it? And did Irish YA even exist before 2015?

In answer: it did! As for what to read next and finding the rest of it, we’ve got you covered. I’ve chosen fairly recent (read: 21st century) releases here, but I may do another post with older reads or upcoming releases. If you’re new to Irish YA: welcome! No, no need to take off your shoes. Cup of tea? 

(And yes, Irish YA has pretty much always been this bleak. Irish children’s and early teen fiction is madcap stuff. Then YA is all like BAM. Hormones. Adolescence. Darkness. Eyeliner.)

25613853If you liked Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden (a tale of orphans, an ancient order of knights who keep comic-book style monsters at bay, and a boy with the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick – reviewed in more detail here), you’ll like…

Death and Co. by D.J. McCune

If this was American YA, Death and Co. would be a high-concept, big budget action adventure in the style of Rick Riordan or Maggie Stiefvater. Instead, this Northern writer’s début takes a more down-to-earth approach.

17313512For generations, Adam’s family have been tasked with guiding the newly deceased into the afterlife. It’s a role his brothers are happy to fulfill. They, like their father Nathaniel, feel a sense of responsibility in bringing peace to the departed. Adam, on the other hand, would rather be at school with his friends than upholding a supernatural duty and has trouble even keeping his breakfast down when faced with the prospect of coaxing souls into the light. But the Lumen rules are clear: follow in the family footsteps, or consider yourself no longer a part of the family at all. A page-turning urban fantasy from Hot Key Books.

6609851If you liked Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It or Only Ever Yours (two hard-hitting, headline-grabbing titles which tackle tough topics and have female leads), you’ll like…

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Holly is sick of being in care – of social workers and too-nice foster families, of her nagging school and being stared at – but as far as she knows, she’s stuck there. Until she finds the wig. Long, flowing blonde locks transform her, and Holly becomes Solace: a girl so mouthy, daring and fearless she’ll run away from care and hitch-hike h7509075er way back to Ireland, where she hopes her mother will be.

Siobhan Dowd’s novels remain striking and sharp long after you’ve read them. Holly is an unreliable narrator, refusing to acknowledge the false hopes she’s woven into her memories of her mother and her life before social services stepped inbut her story is her own. A Swift Pure Cry is probably closer to O’Neill’s stark examination of social and cultural conditions which litter Ireland’s recent history, but it’s also one of Dowd’s more famous books, and while Solace is gut-wrenching and gritty, it’s perhaps a little more accessible.

23346358If you liked Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season (a spellbinding, shimmering story full of strange magic, evocative prose and characters who keep secrets even from themselves – I’ve also reviewed this one and already want to know more about Fowley-Doyle’s next book), you’ll like…

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes? There never seems to be enough time in Kinvara, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. When J.J.’s mother says that what she really wants for her birthday is more time, he decides to find her some. But where to look for more time in a world which seems to have less and less of it to spare? A talented musician with a mystery to solve and a penchant for stumbling into places of ancient magic, J.J. soon finds himself tangled up in a tale as old as time – in a place where time stands still. 

1500903A welcome exception to the usual so-bleak-you’ll-need-ice-cream-and-a-Netflix-binge-to-recover rule. The New Policeman (which isn’t really about a policeman) is a gorgeous, intricate piece of storytelling. It embraces lore and magic with generosity and wit. It’s interspersed with traditional music and it’s one of the best depictions of Irish myth and folk tales I’ve seen in young adult fiction. This book’s mischievous trickster god Aengus is probably my definitive Aengus, to be honest, and Thompson’s portrayal of The Dagda (he’s like, the boss god of Irish mythology’s godly cohort, the Tuatha Dé Danann) is pretty spot on, too. There are two compelling sequels: The Last of the High Kings and The White Horse Trick. One of my favourite books on this list.

27861590If you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (a searingly written, visceral take on a tough subject narrated by sharp-tongued, angry teenager Ces, who longs to be a tattoo artist), you’ll like…

Flick by Geraldine Meade

A fast-paced contemporary which focuses on a teenager who, like her friends, is caught up in school, family, and boys – except not boys, because protagonist Felicity, 9489814known as Flicklikes girls. It’s not quite as dark as Needlework (which, while a well-told relatively short read, definitely warrants a trigger warning) but it has the same boundary-pushing intent. Fans of Emma Donoghue and David Levithan may find this book is up their alley. It’s been a while since I read this one, but on a sparsely-populated shelf, this exploration of identity and sexuality is a title worth noting.

29908200If you liked One by Sarah Crossan (a heartbreaking, bittersweet, award-laden verse novel about sisterhood, friendship and loss from one of the most elegant voices in YA verse fiction), you’ll like…

Illuminate by Kerrie O’Brien

While not strictly YA, this collection from one of the most lauded young poets on Ireland’s contemporary poetry scene echoes some of the themes of loss, grief, love, separation and self-expression found in One. It’s more abstract and intransigent than plot-focused books like coverThe Weight of Water or her more recent collaboration We Come Apart, and embraces more traditional forms than Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself In This One. Written in spare, sometimes haunting verse, if you’re looking to expand your poetic repertoire beyond teen fiction or assigned reading lists, Illuminate may be the book for you. And besides, look at that cover! SO PRETTY.

And there you have it: your guide to exploring more Irish YA (and MG, and poetry). Have you read any of the books on the list? Have you added any to your TBR?

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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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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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