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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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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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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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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Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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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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Mafiosa by Catherine Doyle // a fitting finale for a tale of feuds, fisticuffs and forbidden love

Author: Catherine Doyle25059637
Publisher:
 Chicken House
Publication date: 5 January 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, crime
Series or standalone?: series (#3)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

A dangerous feud rages on the streets of Chicago.

Protected by an infamous mafia family, Sophie is living a lie, pretending to lead a normal life while shadowed by the threat of violence and retribution. But the deceit can’t last for ever. Her heart belongs to someone she can’t have and her past makes her the prime target of a rival family. Dragged into the criminal underworld, there’s a part of her that wants revenge, but is she willing to pay the price – can she really be a mafiosa?

The highly anticipated conclusion to Catherine Doyle’s Blood for Blood series comes complete with a gorgeous cover, an action-packed plot and plenty of drama. Caught in a blood war she never asked for, Sophie finds herself trapped in a bitter rivalry with deadly consequences. Betrayal can come from unexpected places, and she must be on her guard if she wants to last long in the brutal criminal world which has claimed her as its own. After the shocking events of Vendetta and Inferno, the stakes for Sophie are higher and riskier than ever.

Dark, edgy and sensational, the is a finale readers will love. It’s pacy, full of plot and even throws up some last-minute shocks and surprises. The twists – one of which I did guess way back during book two – really keep you reading and I sped through it. This is contemporary-crime-romance-thriller all rolled into one: it’s got a touch of Gabrielle Zevin’s ice-cool All These Things I’ve Done and a shade of V.E. Schwab’s bloodthirsty This Savage Song,  but there really is nothing else like it on the UKYA shelf. I’d recommend a trigger or content warning for this finale as the violent Falcone-Marino blood feud threatens to lay waste to Chicago’s innocent and guilty alike, but if you have the stomach for it, the pacing and tension are undoubtedly gripping.

The Falcone boys are back, of course, and with a rival Mafia clan baying for blood, tensions are high in the household. All five of them get ample time on the page, but their family obligations are never far away. Nic sees Sophie as the mafiosa she could be: ruthless, furious, out for vengeance. Luca longs for a life free of feuds and bloodshed, where he and Sophie might stand a chance at a future. There is crowd-pleasing forbidden romance here and there’s a particular scene of stargazing fans are sure to lap up, though in a series which takes realism with a pinch of salt from the outset, it’s occasionally a little stylised. It’s in the pursuit of clearer character that Doyle really makes her mark; in these moments of clarity – whether it’s with poetry, one-on-one conversation, much-needed light relief, realizations of what characters are or are not capable of – improvements in writing style show.

The breakout star of Mafiosa for me, however, was Sophie’s light-hearted, deeply loyal best friend Millie. It’s been said that Blood for Blood would make for ideal Netflix Original series material, and I have to agree – it’s thrilling, dramatic, and super stylish – but the friendship between Millie and Sophie may be my favourite part of Mafiosa. After two books where their friendship was prominent but sometimes flat, it finally, feels natural: their dialogue is funny, silly and serious, their bond warm and strong, their love story in some ways more important than any other in the trilogy.

And the ending? Oh wow, the ending. It is a fitting finale. This is a spoiler-free zone, but I will say it’s the kind that will have you glancing at the dwindling page count, wondering how on earth Doyle’s going to get the characters out of this one…

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Dark, dangerous and twisted, there’s a sense of fervour to Catherine Doyle’s Mafiosa: full of ferocious feuds, fistfights, masquerade balls, murder, chases, poetry, sweeping romance, murder, inauspiciously interrupted kisses, climactic showdowns and more murder, this finale brings to a dramatic end one of the most unusual series in recent YA.  I’m intrigued to see what Doyle writes next. 

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