Hidden Huntress, by Danielle L Jensen [The Malediction Trilogy #2]

✎Title: Hidden Huntress (The Malediction Trilogy book #2)
Author: Danielle L Jensen
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication date: 2nd June 2015
Rating: ★★★★★ x one million and one

21851568Hidden Huntress, by Danielle L Jensen, is the sequel to the much-praised, fantastic YA fantasy debut, Stolen Songbird. With the closure of Strange Chemistry, for a short time the future of Tristan and Cécile was up in the air—but not for long. Angry Robot soon realised they’d be absolutely mad if they didn’t keep Jensen. Stolen Songbird was praised from here to the moon, and with very good reason.

It is incredible.

In the aftermath of Stolen Songbird, Cécile’s life has grown complicated. Recovered from her injuries, Cécile is free from Trollus. But she is separated from Tristan, with whom she is bonded—and she feels the same ache from Tristan’s mind that she knows he feels from her. It was a forced union in the beginning, when she was kidnapped and taken under the mountain—said by a prophecy to be the answer to breaking an old witch’s curse and finally freeing the Trolls.

She was only ever supposed to be a means to an end. Only Cécile is nobody’s tool. However, in pite of it all, romance blossomed and now Cécile is just as invested in the future of the Trolls as Prince Tristan is. Except that freeing the Trolls seems to be the last thing the Troll prince wants; hesitant to set free his people and possibly force a new age of servitude upon the humans on the Isle after their inevitable return to power. Freedom for the Trolls could mean tantamount to slavery for the humans.

But nothing is ever that simple.

The halfbloods, part Troll, part human, are second-rate citizens and freedom for them could mean true freedom. But at what cost? With the threat of Tristan’s mad, blood-thirsty younger brother set free along with the oppressed halfbloods, there are more factors to consider than it seems at first glance. And what of the politicking and machinations of the nobles of Trollus and its king? The ruling class is divided in the dark, scheming.  And now Tristan is shut out from that world, completely in the dark. With the discovery of Tristan’s true loyalties, and his subsequent imprisonment by his father, his brother has been named heir in his place—and the balance of power has never been less stable.

When Cécile left Trollus, left Tristan, she was determined to find the witch and break the curse—at least she believes she was. It is only when she is forced into a promise to the king that she truly understands what determination and compulsion feel like. Soon she is exhausted and struggling against all the conflicting urges of finding Anushka, and her doubt as to whether the answer is indeed to free the Trolls. Soon all she can think of is finding the witch. She barely eats, barely sleeps, barely manages to perform and maintain her veneer or normality—all that matters is the promise.

But Anushka has remained hidden for centuries and the Trolls have tried everything. What can one girl do against a centuries-old witch with enough hatred to damn an entire race for the actions of but a few? Cécile is about to find out. Not only did she discover the magic in her line whilst being in Trollus, but she’s since realised that she is powerful. If only she has the courage to push past her limits and commit to the magic, she will find she is capable of far more than she expected.

But magic can be addictive… power can be addictive.

Cécile’s friends are few as she performs with her mother for the people of Trianon, an opera singer by night and a huntress by day, searching for Anushka. The situation worsens with each day and she begins to doubt just who she can trust. Certainly not her mother, with whom Cécile has never had a splendid relationship. And what of her friends? Sabine’s thoughts of Tristan and the Trolls are seemingly set-in-stone and unlikely to change, regardless of what Cécile tells her. Only Chris remains unwavering at her side, dependable and always far more clear-headed than she.

Before long, Cécile grows desperate and her enemies begin to mount: suspicions begin to rise and yet the closer she gets to answers, the more mysteries and questions she uncovers. And then, just when she thinks everything is over, for better or worse, everything changes. In a single moment the centre of Cécile’s world shifts on its axis and nothing will ever be the same again. The extraordinary happens—she makes the extraordinary happen. A small something given to her in Trollus finally makes sense to her now. And she uses it, not realising what consequences her actions will have.

Yet she must still accomplish the impossible and until she does, the promise will continue to push her until either the curse is broken or Cécile herself is dead.

Meanwhile Tristan is struggling. Weak and sickening and doing what little he can on behalf of the halfbloods, whilst desperately trying to secure the tree that has kept the mountain in place over the heads for so long, Tristan has fallen from his father’s favour and bears the marks of his imprisonment and torture. And he can feel his father’s compulsion—her promise—pushing her to her limits. He has played a long game for a long time and although unseen pieces are moving on the board, Tristan knows how to play. Though his allies are few, he is determined to somehow turn things around.

In the end, Cécile and Tristan will find that in order to achieve the impossible, one must do the unthinkable. And in this case, it might just be that a single unthinkable truth shines out as being the only answer to the Anushka riddle. Perhaps the answer was in plain sight all along…

But what will happen if that barrier comes down and the Trolls are freed? What happens if the curse is broken? What happens if there are other things—worse things—being kept at bay? And what might happen if they, too, are freed?

Everything is about to change—again.

Hidden Huntress is perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be and more.

It’s a gorgeous book that surpasses expectations at every turn, and with twists that you literally have to be out of your mind to even guess at (raising my hand, here!). Exhilarating and exciting, Hidden Huntress will keep you guessing right up until the end and then leave you with a hint of sweet success—before transforming the game altogether.

It is a fantasy YA novel with scope and heart and ambition. Cécile is all strength and vulnerability and delicious realness, caught up in things far larger than she is; things she was nevertheless destined by circumstance of birth to become entangled in. But Cécile refuses to be used and she knows what she’s fighting for: for the halfbloods, for Tristan—and for herself. This is the kind of book you want to take everywhere and thrust randomly into the hands of strangers, imploring they read it! You’ll want this book to meet your mother, to serenade it late at night on the library balcony, to build a little shrine to it on your bookshelves. It’s a sleep-with-it-under-your-pillow and hug-it-to-your-chest kind of book. Magical and compelling and overflowing with heart and talent, Jensen has got this down. If she isn’t soon a go-to author for YA SFF, then the world has gone mad and I’m evidently reading a very different copy of Hidden Huntress to the rest of you.  It is impossibly brilliant and rich and vibrant. What else can I say? Jensen will break your heart and remake it from the shattered pieces, newer and shinier and stronger.

Love, adore, heart-to-freaking-pieces. This kind of book is why, why, why people need to look more closely at YA fantasy if they don’t already. Let Jensen show you how it’s done. Topping Stolen Songbird was always going to be a difficult task, but naturally Jensen manages it. The bar was set and so she vaulted over it, off into the sunset to a fanfare of praise.

Hot damn, buy this book.

Buy it and fall in love with every word.

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The Prince of Lies, by Anne Lyle [Night’s Masque #3]

Title: The Prince of Lies (Night’s Masque #3)
Author: Anne Lyle
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication date: 29th Oct – 7th Nov 2013 (US/UK)
Rating★ (ー△ー;)

ThePrinceOfLies-144dpiIn this final installment of Night’s Masque I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but I’m not entirely sure I got it. There’s nothing strictly wrong with Anne Lyle’s final book with Mal and Ned: it offers a satisfying end and therefore a good and solid end to the series. I’m just not sure it worked as well as it could have for me.

Things are coming to a head in London and the guisers are gaining power, getting closer to the throne. Mal has been given a Knighthood, Coby and he are married and are raising the young boy into which Kiiren has been reborn. But for now, Kit is just a child and Mal and his new wife are raising him as their own.

Despite thinking Olivia in the hands of Hennaq and being transported back to the New World, the contrary is true and the guiser is, secretly, heading back to London to plot her revenge on Mal. He had better be careful. Especially since Kit, too, is technically a guiser—albeit a young one—and he may prove to be a target if ever his memories show through.

Still, Mal is trying to be happy, adjusting to a life where Sandy has been returned to health, his new wife loves him with all her heart, and the death of Sir Francis Walsingham has left him with very little to do as a spy for the moment. Presently, Mal is attending court and doing all the things that a recently knighted man should be doing.

But nothing is really as perfect as it seems and memories from their time in Venice still haunt them, in particular Ned, whose metal hand is now a constant reminder and the reason his old profession was put paid to. Now he runs a print shop and tries to get by, whilst his lover, Gabriel (yay, #TeamGabriel) continues acting and trying his hand at playwriting—though he still prefers the former.

And Sandy isn’t really Sandy—and Mal knows it. Despite wanting his brother back and whole, Mal knows that as long as Sandy is Erishen, he will never be his brother. Then there’s the matter, of course, of the soul of Erishen that resides still within him. Sooner or later, the soul of the skrayling will need to be re-joined, whatever that might mean for the Catlyn twins.

Of course, there are more pressing matters at hand.

The guisers’ leader, Jathekkil, reincarnated into the body of young Prince Henry Tudor, is part of a plan set in motion far before Mal and his friends were ever involved. Though Mal might think that their enemies are young and weak and that now is the time to strike, he couldn’t be more wrong. The last renegade skraylings will not give up without a fight and with the barrier between the dream world and the waking world wearing thinner over time, victory is not assured.

In this last adventure, lives are in peril and for the first time, contacts and espionage will not save the day. With court life proving a challenge for Coby and tensions rising between her and Mal, several boats are being rocked, and one of them is the throne of England. The guisers want it—and it is now within reach.

The story takes place over a number of years and this somehow turned me off. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the time passed and this felt awkward and very unbalanced. In places the narrative seemed heavy and sometimes even irrelevant to the larger story, whilst relevant parts of the story were skimmed over so quickly as to be rendered unexciting.

I didn’t think I would end up saying this, but the finale of Lyle’s trilogy was bland and boring. I wanted to get excited, but just couldn’t. The new POV narrative of Kit bored me greatly and I desperately wanted to see more of Mal or Coby, or Ned or Gabriel. Anyone, really.

I felt the passage of time was handled inexpertly and I found it difficult to follow and this began to disinterest me. I appreciate what Lyle was trying to do, in making the final book far more reliant on intrigue and mystery and indeed, discovering who the remaining guisers are, but I feel the bar was set and never reached. I love intrigue and mystery and felt there was none. The Prince of Lies should have been a book where the reader sits glued to the page, following the team through the pages as they work to discover and eliminate the enemy, restricted by the false niceties of court and of moving below the guisers’ radar. It should have been thrilling and tense. Instead it was… not.

I got halfway through when I realised that I was, in fact, bored. I tried to pretend otherwise because I adore Lyle and I adore her work. But there’s only so much of the awkward march of time and lacking narrative that I could take.

However.

The prose is still true to the excellent standard I’ve come to expect and love from Lyle and her characters remain true to themselves. I did feel that some of the rapport was missing, however, and that made me sad. Part of why Mal and co. work so well is their rapport.

This isn’t a bad book, just somewhat disappointing. The writing is tight, the plot is tight and Lyle’s touch is still evident. It doesn’t lack heart.

Mostly I was frustrated by this book, because I was expecting the five-star excellence that I’ve come to love from the Night’s Masque trilogy. This is a good book, with the same characters I love and the same Elizabethan/Tudor (is it Tudor by the end?) setting that has Lyle’s personal touch. It is well-written and suggested a complex plot that wound through a web of secrets, lies and intrigue towards its goal. It did reach its goal and the ending is enormously satisfying, but the execution fell short of my expectations.

Generally disappointed, but still a solid fan of Anne Lyle. Desperately want news of more from her.

The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle [Night’s Masque #2]

  • TITLE: The Merchant of Dreams [Night’s Masque #2]
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE:  3rd January 2013 (UK paperback)

The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle—Night’s Masque #2—is an example of pure storytelling. Rich and well-paced, the second instalment of the series builds on the foundation of The Alchemist of Souls and completely avoids “middle-book syndrome” by becoming a solid middle point for the series, setting a high bar and allowing only for things to get better.

Often, what makes a book is a mixture of two elements, perfectly and chemically arranged on a page as suits the author’s style and tastes. Character and plot. If any one ingredient is lacking, or does not gel well enough, then the formula is ruined and the result will be subpar. When reading Lyle you never need to worry about the mixture being right—it always is. Lyle’s skill at writing character sets her apart in the genre and makes her work all the more approachable and identifiable.

In The Merchant of Dreams—helpfully hinted at by the gorgeous front cover and the play on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—the cast sets sail on Walsingham’s business to the Serene Republic; Venice. With the richness and wonder of Venice to play with, Lyle set out to really push the imagination and just what she could achieve with her characters and the setting provided. The result is a magical romp through a familiar Venice—with its canals and piazzas and masked parties—with all the tension and intrigue of intelligencers, skraylings and guisers, and secrets nestled between the Serene Republic’s soft bosom—secrets that she wants to keep close to her heart.

With Coby’s secret held by Mal, their relationship begins to blossom, awkwardly—though as long as they remain in England there can be no romance between them. On the contrary, Gabriel and Ned have settled into a routine of domestic and romantic normalcy that—mostly—serves to quell Ned’s resurfacing affections for his former lover, Mal, who, despite having freed his twin brother Sandy from Bedlam and having successfully uncovered the mysteries of his past, is as troubled as ever by recent revelations and events. And with Ambassador Kiiren gone from England and Sandy with him, Mal’s humour has been better.

When he is ordered to Venice to spy on the skraylings’ sought alliance with Venice, he takes Ned with him, giving Cody strict orders to take care of Sandy, whose return is a welcome surprise, yet one he cannot fully trust. Coby swears to Mal his brother will stay safe. No sooner has the promise been made, than Sandy and Erishen inside him, begin to cause trouble—trouble that forces Coby and Gabriel both from England. Before long, more ungodly trouble hounds Coby, with the appearance of more skraylings, whose betrayal comes at sea and threatens to take them all the way back to the New World. Coby is forced to lie and think quickly and eventually they find themselves following after Mal and heading to Venice.

Meanwhile Ned is hardly cut out for the life Mal has introduced him to, and though he is a dab hand on a ship, he soon tires of being away from Gabriel and being surrounded by men on a ship who take a dislike to his preferences. More danger abounds before they even reach the Serene Republic, and with Sir Walter Raleigh in tow and appearances on the up-and-up, Mal is struggling to get done what needs doing, without arousing suspicion regarding his own secret past. After attacks at sea, storms and pirates, being in Venice should be an easy game, but Mal discovers otherwise when he finds there is no access to the skraylings or Kiiren, and that Venice is ruled from the shadows by at least one guiser.

Under the cover of seeking his brother Charles, who is rumoured to be in Venice, Mal treads as lightly as he dares through the streets of Venice, which he finds are not as serene as the name implies.

The Merchant of Dreams is a complete success that invites you into a world of intrigue and danger, fencing and romance. The sexual tension between Ned and Mal is beautifully written and adds not only a depth to the relationship, but a streak of realism. Lyle successfully writes gay and bisexual characters as naturally as breathing, and it makes for a deeply enjoyable read. Gabriel and Ned are as enjoyable as Coby and Mal, Sandy and Kiiren.

In fact, the relationships between Lyle’s male characters take the book to another level for me. She writes homosexual characters and shoehorns nothing for any minority (perceived or otherwise)—she just happens to write Gabriel and Ned, who love each other and do the dirty, and Ned, who is Mal’s former lover, who happens to enjoy the womenfolk as well. It’s as simple as that and I appreciate seeing more than just a homosexual character there for decoration, or to be penned in on all sides by heteronormative characters. Never mind the mythological bisexual character, appearing, nowhere, ever!

It’s refreshing, and damn if I don’t enjoy reading about pretty Gabriel and brooding Mal. Coby, too, is a brilliant example of a cross-dressing heroine doing it more—by now—because she enjoys being Jacob Hendricks as well as Mina Hendricks. It raises fantastic questions about gender in a new way—and I love it.

In fact, I loved everything about The Merchant of Dreams: it is exciting, thrilling and Lyle’s gorgeous prose drives the story elegantly forwards towards a goal. Lyle is good at endings—not all writers are—and amidst the bittersweet closing chapters lie the seeds of a plot that could have some incredibly awesome consequences, should they be allowed to bloom. A fantastic example of historical fantasy going all the way and holding nothing back, The Merchant of Dreams is complex and exciting.

Gorgeous prose, stunning ability to weave a story, and likeable, moreish characters—Lyle is a winner. Read her.

5/5

(P.S. I am crushing on Coby.)

Shift, by Kim Curran

  • TITLE: Shift
  • AUTHOR: Kim Curran
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 6th September 2012 (UK)

When I pre-ordered Shift, by Kim Curran, a mere handful of weeks before its release, I did so on a bit of a whim—it was another Strange Chemistry title and being so enamoured with the idea of the imprint and eagerly awaiting the eventual releases of Laura Lam’s Pantomime and Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse, I hopped on the bandwagon and despite not being totally sold on Shift, ordered it anyway.

It’s not my usual thing: I like my sci-fi in some far-flung galaxy, or on the far reaches of space/civilization. When I watch films, I don’t mind storylines with similar set-ups to Shift—I was actually put in mind of the film (which may or may not be based on a book, if memory serves) Push—but I tend to turn right off if books like that are nudged my way.

I actually only read Shift as soon as I did because I’d just eaten two other books in close succession and I needed something fun and quick to read. Shift not only didn’t disappoint, but exceeded my expectations, thoroughly.

Scott Tyler is your average sixteen-year-old, the kind that thinks he’s less than he is; beaten down by the “cooler kids” at school, out-classed by his little sister, and generally either forgotten about or used as ammunition or backup by warring parents bent on weekly character assassinations of each other over dinner on a Friday. But Scott is also a Shifter—and a powerful one, too. Only, he’s never Shifted before, and he doesn’t even know what Shifting is. That is, until he accidentally shifts one night when he’s somewhere even he knows he shouldn’t be, and with people he has no good business being with. Instead of a deadly fall from a pylon he only climbed because it seemed like the “cool”—read as “stupidly daring”—thing to do, he falls flat on his proverbial after flopping slightly less heroically off a fence.

As if it’s not bad enough that Scott remembers climbing—and falling—from much further up, everyone laughs (including his “friend”, Hugo…nice) and he feels like his one chance at fitting in just got grounded. Then a pretty girl, who looks at her cigarette with a decided concentration before smoking it, as if she’s making a profound decision, looks at him, takes him to one side and… arrests him.

Apparently, he’s guilty of Shifting in public, without permission—and that’s bad. Scott might agree, if he knew what Shifting was and what it was he’d done wrong. Luckily, Scott seems pathetically clueless enough that Aubrey—fast becoming the new centre of Scott’s universe—believes him when he claims to know nothing. She takes him with her and explains everything clearly and in detail. Between learning about ARES and a chance meeting with the SLF and drinking a little too much of the booze that Aubrey seems to drink without a problem, Scott ends up at Aubrey’s place, on her sofa, with too much info and not enough processing power.

He’s pathetic, useless and gets to thinking about what Aubrey told him… about Shifting… and he wonders… if he just…

Before he knows it, his world is upside down, people are dead, and he’s in big trouble. What began as a stupid reaction, the desire to be cool and accepted, turns into a nightmare that reveals Scott as a powerful Shifter with the power to undo his decisions and recall the consequences of each different reality. On one side is ARES, offering training and guidance and a place to belong and on the other is Aubrey—who is part of ARES, but not by choice, pushing him away from the organisation and towards induced entropy—and the mysterious SLF who keep popping up and whose charismatic leader gets right under Scott’s skin and flashes big on his Do Not Trust radar.

When Scott sails through the ranks and is partnered with Aubrey things start to get worse when he narrowly Shifts and avoids being killed as part of a suspected SLF attack. Then a body he and Aubrey found, victim of a gruesome murder at the hand of a brain-nibbling loon, is marked down as suicide and only he seems able to remember the original reality before the sneaky Shift that changed it.

Something is up and things are getting deep, only Scott is a complete rookie and doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, or who to trust—all he knows is that he can Shift, remember what happened in the previous realities, and that people are dying. Knowing that only the SLF can be behind it, but thinking that something still seems a little off, Scott starts investigating as best he can, only to find himself knee-deep in the middle of a conspiracy bigger than he or Aubrey could imagine. But when it comes to protecting his friends and himself, Scott pushes inexperience and mediocrity aside and steps up to the game.

Shift is a story about belonging, about believing in yourself and about trusting yourself—things that are difficult for anyone. At some point in their life, everyone feels substandard, useless, worthless, trodden down and as though they simply don’t belong. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or has never thought about it. It’s part of being a living, breathing person and has little to do with growing up. That’s why Shift, along with most of the Strange Chemistry imprint appeals so easily to the teen market and to the general adult market: they recognise that everyone who wants to  can identify as a young adult, as a teen. It’s refreshing.

Shift is also about fun, as well as being about consequences and choices. It’s a surprisingly pacy, engaging and exciting adventure that takes itself just seriously enough to succeed at what it sets out to do, whilst remembering that it’s okay for a story to be fun and funny and enjoyable to read.

It’s a story of friendship and acceptance and of being the best you can be, even if it takes a while to realise your potential. It’s a damn good story and hits the spot just right.

5/5

The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

  • TITLE: The Assassin’s Curse
  • AUTHOR: Cassandra Rose Clarke
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot Books)
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 4th October 2012

The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke is not my first YA title—though it is the first one that I would have purchased from the teen section at my local bookstore. The Seven Realms series by Chima is, as I’ve discussed before, YA that was purchased in the regular section. A foray into the wilds yesterday revealed Strange Chemistry titles in the WHSmith Teen section, so I know where to look in bricks-and-mortar shops for upcoming titles.

As it happens, I received this as an ARC from Strange Chemistry, and I gladly devoured it—I’d been looking forwards to this possibly as much as I’m looking forwards to Laura Lam’s Pantomime, which I am aching to read.

But, onto the Assassin’s Curse.

I loved this book. I’ve seen a handful of reviews, one of which awarded this book a one-star review, and I’m slightly perplexed by some of the comments, so much that I want to address them briefly as part of my own review.

But first…

The Assassin’s Curse tells the story of Ananna, a pirate from a pirate family, who is forced to marry into a richer clan with more prospects, in order to secure an alliance for her family. Distrustful of her husband-to-be, she flees on camel-back, a wild, spur-of-the-moment decision that will change her whole life. When the clan she fled from sends an assassin after Ananna—a dark, magical sort of assassin, the kind that nobody ever escapes from—her world is turned upside in a whirlwind of blood, magic, trust and betrayal.

Before I go on, I want to implore you not to read the synopsis of the book. There are spoilers that reveal (the way I see it) the very last “twist” of the book. I’ve seen this on the backs of other books before, but none so much as this: in the last fifteen pages or so, the spoiler on the back of the book is revealed, and not before. Luckily, when I am swept away by a story I tend to forget the information of the back of a book—but not everybody does.

The Assassin’s Curse is an adventure filled with a whole heap of Eastern Promise; camels and desert and masked assassins, and even the blossoming of a first love. It’s fun, meaningful and knows when to take itself seriously, and when to just let go and tell the story. I expected to enjoy this book, and I did. It’s everything I love about YA, in that really, is not YA at all: it’s just a damn good story that happens to be about a teenage girl.

In this vein, I’ve seen comments about how “stupid” Ananna is, and how childish and that she doesn’t read as a seventeen-year-old. Well, I disagree. Ananna is strong and brave and utterly out of her depth. She has been raised at sea, by a pirate mother and father, surrounded by a pirate clan. She knows nothing of magic and assassins and the mysterious Mists. But, she does her best and she tries to stay sharp. She gets frustrated, annoyed and irritated by her situation, but she never mopes and never does anything stupid or without thinking, without accepting that it was foolish afterwards. In other words, she learns.

Her counterpart Naji is every bit the mysterious assassin. His use of blood-magic frightens Ananna after the stories she grew up hearing—both from other pirates and from her water-witch mother—but she tries to understand, tries to accept Naji for who and what he is once they are bound together. Their relationship is very real and very addictive to read: yes, it’s a romance that’s slowly blossoming between them; yes, they’re very clumsy in their emotions and not-even-close advances—and that’s what makes it wonderful. I enjoyed seeing Naji through Ananna’s eyes; I enjoyed the mystery and intensity of his character, but moreover, I liked that he wasn’t overdone as the archetype of The Mysterious Assassin. Naji is complex—I expect we’ll find how out just how complex in later books—and multi-layered and enjoyable to have around. His magic is intriguing, dangerous and exciting and it adds just the right amount of drama.

The story is compelling and the prose quick, witty and moreish.

The cover is stunningly pretty and it acts perfectly to set up the wonder of the desert and the magic that lies within. With excellent pacing and adventure in spades, The Assassin’s Curse is an utterly captivating read that has the right kind of heart mixed with the best and most exciting kind of adventure: at the end of the day, The Assassin’s Curse is a quest novel. But a quest for what? A cure to the curse? To return home? Freedom? Or is there something else that Ananna wants that even she is only beginning to realise?

Splendid, magical and brilliant.

5/5

The Alchemist of Souls, by Anne Lyle (Night’s Masque #1)

  • TITLE: The Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque #1)
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 5th April 2012

I’ll start by saying this is the first book from this imprint I’ve read; mainly as I’d never really heard of Angry Robot Books before (shame on me!). The majority of the titles I read have been published by Orbit, Gollancz, and Tor, and since I am fairly new to alternate history fantasy, or historical fantasy (a particular flavour that seems very common to the imprint) it’s not a surprise to me that this is my first.

And what a first to begin with! I honestly haven’t had this much fun with a book since Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. They are very different books, but they share the same sort of cloak-and-dagger flavour.

I must begin by saying that Anne Lyle is a storyweaver of the highest calibre; her elegant prose is nothing short of beautiful. I enjoyed every single second of this book and everything from the characters and their relationships, to the exceptionally tight plotting, to the believable intrigue heralds Lyle as not just an insanely talented new writer, but also a poet and true master of words.

It might be somewhat obvious by now that The Alchemist of Souls was a hit with me. I’ll try not to gush too much hereafter…

I’m very new to real-world or alternative history fantasy—that isn’t of the urban variety—and I am woefully unused to the genre and the way it works, having only read The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, thus far. I’d been under the impression that I might not like a fantasy of this type—that it wouldn’t be “fantasy” enough for me, being set in our real world. In the end, that didn’t matter a jot. The most magical thing about alternate or historical real world fantasy is that anything goes. I suppose that’s why it’s fantasy.

Lyle’s imagination is a vivid and colourful one, and boy does it show through. The Alchemist of Souls offers, alongside the usual life of Elizabethan England, the skraylings—creatures from the New World—and a fashion of alchemical magic and wonder that gives a whole different edge to the story.

The characters are believable and exceptionally well written; there isn’t a single member of the cast who doesn’t vie for your readerly affections—and there certainly isn’t one who doesn’t receive them. I liked everyone. I forget the last time I read a book and liked absolutely everyone. Sure enough, the characters have flaws and the way in which the other characters see them differs depending on POV—it’s interesting and builds a gentle sense of natural conflict and tension that is so very real that it brings the characters to life on a whole new level.

Maliverny Catlyn is the protagonist, and at first glance he appears to be your typical rogue-with-a-fancy-rapier. From a noble line, but down on his luck, Mal doesn’t seem to be anything special, and at first, the supporting cast—player Gabriel “Angel” Parish, scribe, Ned Faulkner, Mal’s friend and Gabriel’s lover, and Coby, a tireman for a troupe of actors with the patronage of Lord Suffolk—seem to be far more interesting and layered. Of course, there is far, far more to Mal than meets the eye—more than even he knows.

Gabriel and Ned begin the story apart, with Ned mooning over an uninterested Mal—but that doesn’t stop Ned hoping—with Gabriel readying himself within his group of players, Suffolk’s Men, headed by Master Naismith for a playing contest, whilst Mal is conveyed to the Tower of London in questionable circumstances, for reasons contrary to his expectations. Meanwhile Coby—Jacob Hendricks—is a young Dutch boy fending for himself whilst holding a treacherous secret to his chest. The events of the story all intertwine and pull the characters closer together, with unexpected revelations and circumstances along the way.

Not one character is under- or overdone and when the viewpoint skips from one to another, there is no sense of lost pace or momentum. All the characters are equally entertaining and with equally riveting plot arcs of their own.

I particularly enjoyed the way Lyle handles homosexuality and gay sex. Since she’s a woman, I’m certain it’s something she’s never experienced, but instead of treating it as something alien, she appears to write simply as though she were writing love/sex scenes between any two characters that share lust or love for one another. And the prose is all the richer for it. I haven’t read many gay sex scenes in fantasy. In fact, the only character I’ve read who is homosexual is The Legends of the Red Sun’s (Mark Charan Newton) Brynd Lathraea. There was something more to the relationships between Lyle’s men, something far more passionate and real.

As a bisexual male, I definitely appreciated a break from swooning maidens and heroes with their eyes agog at the heroine’s fine, fine cleavage. It was a refreshing change, and a fantastic reminder of how much closer men used to be with one another, in light of the role women played, historically, in Lyle’s chosen time-setting. If we’re not mincing words; I bloody loved it.

There are more twists, plots, and subtle machinations in The Alchemist of Souls than you can shake a pointy thing at—and damn does Lyle write every second, every detail, every thread so impeccably well that you’d think she’s been writing books for centuries. Yes, she’s that good.

It has been a long time since I encountered an author whose work I would describe as poetry also. Anne Lyle is one such author. The Alchemist of Souls, as a work of elegant fantasy prose, should be considered alongside Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and (by my favour) Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth.

Anne Lyle’s writing is beautiful, elegant and gripping; be prepared to be swept away to a rich and colourful depiction of a different Elizabethan England, where treachery and danger abound.

5/5