Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

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Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. 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. 

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Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton // funny, feel-good teen fiction

29102795Author(s): T.S. Easton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 20th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fleur Waters never takes anything seriously – until she turns up at her local boxing club one day, just to prove a point. She’s the only girl there, and the warm-up alone is exhausting, but the workout gives her an escape from home and school, and when she lands her first uppercut she feels a rare thrill. Determined to improve, she goes back the next week. And the next. And the next.

Her overprotective mum can’t stand the idea of her entering a boxing ring, her friends don’t really get it either, and even her ever-polite boyfriend George seems concerned by her growing passion for the sport. But Fleur is learning that sometimes, you have to take a chance on yourself, and that sometimes the best things in life can come from unexpected places.

Well-written and hugely enjoyable, Girls Can’t Hit was one of the best surprises of this year’s spring UKYA for me. Straightforward, energetic and light-hearted prose makes for a fast read which is by turns warm and serious, entertaining and absorbing. Fleur’s story takes her from a reluctant new recruit to the first one out slapping posters on the walls when the local boxing club needs her help. Hers is a tale of friendship, boxing, skipping, food, bad driving, vintage costumes, more food, Friday movie nights (including Rocky marathons, natch), a collection of gangly ginger limbs, dodgy restaurants, battle re-enactments, defying expectations, and of course, finding your passion.

Scattered with pop culture references and entirely suitable description, fans of Sarra Manning, Holly Bourne, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison will each find something to like here. And not to sound like Tom Jones off The Voice, but I loved the tone: pitched somewhere between teen fiction and YA, it’s deliciously, brilliantly funny. Filled with moments of sharp wit and wry observation, Fleur’s sense of humour and touches of sarcasm permeate her voice and shine when multiple characters get together. I love a carefully done YA comedy, and this book just flows. As clever as it is chatty, it had me laughing out loud and I loved it.

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Stubborn, hard-working and always ready with a quip, Fleur is an irresistible heroine. She’s determined, committed, and undergoes the kind of character development which is based on finding out more about oneself, rather than losing who you are. I liked her ambition, her lively characterisation, her active pursuit of her goals. She does things, wants things, makes mistakes and cares for those around her. She may even be one of my favourite contemporary teen fiction heroines of the year so far.

Fabulous, passionate and flawed best friend Blossom is wonderfully drawn while the gangly, awkward, kind-hearted Pip even gets an arc of his own (somehow involving Normans, Saxons, steampunk, time travel and sword-waving). npretentious supporting characters may only be described in a few throwaway lines, but most are sketched just enough for it to work. Fleur has a tricky but close relationship with her Mum and Dad, while boyfriend George is pleasant (or at least he is until the break-up caused by his inability to accept Fleur’s newfound skill and THEN HE IS DEAD TO ME). Also, I totally ship Fleur and Tarik. They’re so good together and I want to see MORE OF THEM.

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And it’s surprisingly feminist! Toeing the thin line between trenchant support and affectionately mocking (“It’s not a gateway drug to the patriarchy, it’s a custard cream”), the book’s feminism ranges from ardent (Blossom) to promising (Fleur) to thematic (portrayals of casual or institutional sexism met with noticeable examination and admitted realism). There’s awareness of feminist issues, recognition of the importance of talented, conscientious female role models and appreciation of the feeling of belonging a girl-positive feminism brings to characters, and real-life teen girls, like Blossom and Fleur.

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Fleur’s discovery of boxing and other sports makes her a force to be reckoned with not just physically but mentally, as she finds a level of self-belief, resolve and courage she never knew she had. The descriptions of her boxing are almost enough to make you want to take up the sport, but at the very least will see you noticing the book’s encouraging approach. Fleur has to work at her sport to get better and improvement is seen as an achievement in itself. Easton touches on its dangers and injuries, and has characters point out its embedding in violence and toxic masculinity, but primarily focuses on its positive effects for Fleur. There are a few missteps in unclear background characterisation and scene choices, but otherwise I raced through Girls Can’t Hit.

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Satisfying and clever, this is terrifically funny, affectionately feminist, feel-good teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. An unexpected addition to my favourite reads of spring 2017. 

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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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LOYALTY, LOVE AND LAUGHTER: favourite female friendships in YA

Gasp! What is this I see before me?! A discussion post, you say? And it’s time to talk about FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS?! Yay!

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I love YA about positive female friendships. I’m a fan of romance and adventures and time travel and historical fiction and all those great things too, but books that do justice to friendship stand out – and what better way to celebrate than by talking about a few of my favourites?

21472663Kaz and Ruby from Remix by Non Pratt

I adore this book. It’s fast, fizzy and fierce, full of music and boy drama and festival shenanigans. But mostly, it’s full of the fantastic friendship between best mates Kaz and Ruby. They have their ups and downs but they love each other, and what’s more, they’re brilliantly funny. Genuine, positive, messy teen friendship is extraordinary. It’s laughter and affection and mistakes and support and as much silliness as seriousness, and Remix comes closest, perhaps of any YA I’ve read, to showing how heartfelt and laugh-out-loud ridiculous it can be. (It helps that the rest of the book is magnificent, too. Definitely worth reading.)

Christina and Elizabeth from Feeling Sorry For Celia/Emily, Cass and Lydia from The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

I couldn’t pick just one friendship here! These books are so underrated. There are some great friendships in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield novels, particularly in Feeling Sorry for Celia, which shows teenager Elizabeth dealing with the fallout from the actions of her unreliable best friend and unexpectedly finding a healthier, more equal dynamic thanks a school pen pal assignment.

By the time Emily, Cass and Lydia – close friends facing the pressure of exams, personal dramas and the legacy of the mysterious Ashbury-Brookfield Pen Pal Project, in which they like students before them are required to write letters to students at a local school reputed to be a haven for criminals, biker gangs, drop-outs etc – take the helm, the series has totally won you over. Told in epistolary format, whether that’s letters, emails, diaries, notes, exam answers, vandalised school noticeboards or the titular secret assignments, Moriarty gives a fantastically immediate voice to her characters and to the trials and tribulations of teen friendship. The Year of Secret Assignments (also known as Finding Cassie Crazy) is perhaps the quirkiest (and only occasionally the most ludicrous) of a loosely-connected quartet, showcasing a friendship bound by loyalty and written with entirely self-aware humour.

25437747Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne from Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

A love story without a romance, Beautiful Broken Things is a heartwarming, heartbreaking début with female friendship explored on every page,  first with the long-established best friendship of Caddy and Rosie, and then with the added complication of newcomer Suzanne as she arrives in blustery, beachy Brighton. But you probably know that, since this is another one I find myself recommending over and over again. It may be one of the best books not just featuring but about teen girl friendship released this year. I liked the book so much I actually reviewed it twice, which you can check out here and here. The book sees friendship really being put to the test (with time for baking macarons and midnight escapades in between, natch) but while their mistakes and actions have consequences, Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne care about each other. It’s a great example of platonic relationships which can be just as compelling as romantic ones when done well in fiction.

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Nonie, Edie, Jenny and Crow from Threads by Sophia Bennett

Sophia Bennett’s gloriously lively first book won the Times/Chicken House competition – and it did it with a story about teen girls and the friendship which sees them feeling like they can take on the world, whether that’s by using their talents for fashion (Nonie, Crow), by stepping into the sometimes overwhelming world of acting (Jenny) or by fostering ambitions to save the planet (Edie). And against a backdrop of books which appear to echo messages to teen girls that they should put up with toxic friendships or struggle in the social minefield of teenager-hood without anyone they can trust or depend on, the straightforward but sincere friendship in books like Threads is important. This being YA, things don’t always go smoothly for them, but it’s tremendously fun; light as a Victoria sponge and flowing in talkative, jam-packed style.

Evie, Lottie and Amber from The Spinster Club trilogy by Holly Bourne

I know, I know, I wax lyrical about Am I Normal Yet? and its sequels all the time. But they’re just so good! Here, Holly Bourne takes on airbrushed ideas of female friendship and replaces them with something far more real: a deep, garrulous, comical bond between three girls who boost each other up and help each other when they’re dow29740718n. Lottie, Amber and Evie celebrate each other’s successes, no matter how small, and can talk about things like mental health, relationships and feminism with confidence, knowing their girls have got their back.

I’ve read too many books where female friendships are disingenuous or lacking in depth; books where teenagers passed off as friends essentially don’t even like each other. This trilogy shines a stark light on YA novels past with flimsy loyalties and poorly-drawn female characters. This trio’s well-written, good-natured friendship is a reminder to other YA (and to readers) that if a relationship is filled with copious amounts of competition, envy and cattiness – often influenced by a misogynistic culture that can’t seem to wrap its head around the fact that women might actually like and rely on each other in ways which can’t be summed up in conversations entirely centred on their latest conquests – then it is not a friendship. Evie, Lottie and Amber really set the bar high for female friendship in future UKYA. There’s a Spinster Club novella being released later this year, too!

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So there you have it: five of the most fabulous female friendships in young adult fiction. Do any of your favourite characters appear on this list? Are there any books about YA friendship you just can’t help but recommend?

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London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning // fast, funny suspend-your-disbelief stuff

26177619Author: Sarra Manning
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 2 June 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Told over the course of a single night, London Belongs to Us follows seventeen-year-old Sunny in a mad dash across London as she juggles a race for romantic retribution with herding grumpy French boys, wingwomaning for her roller-derbying best friend, and her sudden discovery of what is probably best described as gumption. Think of it as a reverse Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight: not twenty-four hours in a new place with a soulmate, but twelve hours in our heroine’s dodgy, decrepit, dazzling city as she faces a life where first love is rarely last love at all.

When her boyfriend is caught kissing another girl, known wallflower Sunny sees her night fall to pieces around her. At first sure that it was just some kind of mix-up, her race to find answers becomes one of mishaps, detours and chance encounters with unexpected allies. From Crystal Palace (so far away from civilisation you can’t even get the Tube there) to Clapham, Soho to Shoreditch, Mayfair to Muswell Hill, Sunny’s escapades plunge the reader into a London so vivid it spills from the page. Manning whips the city into a vibrant, dizzying, living, breathing place. Whether you love London or you struggle to understand just why anyone would bother, this book is a giddy, sensationally energetic story.

It’s so good at whirl-winding about, in fact, that it foresees your raised eyebrow at the string of maybe, possibly, slightly unrealistic twists, turns and coincidences which allow Sunny to zigzag across London in search of the boyfriend who thinks he can get away with cheating on her and says, I know. Look, have another late-night takeaway, maybe some RuPaul’s Drag Race, take your mind off it. Now that’s better, isn’t it? Oh, look! A dance sequence! It’s joyous, suspend-your-disbelief stuff.

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More than anything, London Belongs to Us is unexpectedly, brilliantly, bitingly funny. Its humour is effortless, sharp and clever, an offshoot of the story rather than the point of it. If you’re looking for a book which evokes madcap out-all-night teenage escapades without the Hollywood shimmer, this is the book for you: pacy but down-to-earth and full of good humour. Sunny, a proud resident of the affectionately-termed People’s Republic of Haringey, provides the kind of snark and commentary only teens can master. Sprinkled with lists, pie-charts and chatty introductions to different parts of London, the prose is solid, if slightly too reliant on old-fashioned texts (in 2016 reality, the whole thing would probably go down on Snapchat, but where’s the fun in that) and a little too busy jumping from one chaotic scene to the next.

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Manning’s skill lies in making even the most fleeting of touches count, whether it’s on family ties, feminism, pride in multicultural identity, sexual orientation, gender politics or any other part of everyday life for modern teens. Even the book’s hints of a potential romance are left tantalisingly out of reach. Manning saves her power for the punch of a showdown, and it’s a cracking formula. I’d love to see more YA with such distinctly story-focused style and flair.

Sunny’s quest is a decidedly buoyant one, despite the rough-around-the-edges reality of her city. It sees her coming face-to-face with all kinds of characters, from bolshy doorgirls to handsome, grumpy French boys (Vic and Jean Luc Godard, who I’m pretty sure was named after a filmmaker), whose air of mystery is somewhat punctured by their bickering and perhaps, a kind of loneliness far from home. There are even cameos from the cast of Manning’s acerbic Adorkable, including the brutally frank Jeane and the rather more laidback Michael (plus his poetry-inspiring cheekbones). Sunny’s single-minded pursuit of justice sees her on the brink of losing friends who would rather be crashing on the sofa at 3am on a Saturday night, but there are moments of strong friendship and great loyalty (except from OMG Martha, who’s probably just still in it for the drama).

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Fierce, fast-paced and fantastically fun, London Belongs to Us is ideal for fans of Holly Bourne and Karen McCombie. It’s a delightfully dramatic, astonishingly incisive and incredibly satisfying caper, as full of sarcasm as it is of emotionally powerful showdowns. Highly recommended.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

No one expects a princess to be brutal.

In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.

Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.

A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars, her entertaining, sometimes gorgeously written tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass. It’s a Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan standalone with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:

(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)

YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the reimagined what-might-have-been story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler. It’s an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy.

It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise. To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.

Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. She’s angry, blunt and spirited. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a completely different kettle of fish. She’s the person you’d want to be as far away from as possible in a fight, because she’s probably there to beat you. She’s brutal, though perhaps not quite as heartless as she thinks she is. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.

There is a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. Lada’s mother is written off almost immediately and the women of the Ottoman harem meet with her derision. White seems to notice this about a third of the way in, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels (which look set to be darker than this opener, but there’ll have to be happiness in there somewhere…)

The pacing is slow and while the first half is solid, the second half meanders in spite of action sequences. There are so many subplots they seem to merge together, hazy and hard to untangle. The jam-packed secondary cast can be difficult to keep up with and as the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.

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And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.

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