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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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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