[Friday Flash Review] Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

❧ Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
❧ Author: Laini Taylor
❧ Publisher: Little, Brown Books For Young Readers
❧ Publication date: 27th September 2011
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦✦.5
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Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.
When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?
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daughter of smoke and bone❝In A Nutshell❞
✎ Angels and demons (chimera)–and ne’er the twain shall meet! (Except they do and they hate one another and they fight.) A big, very old war between angels and demons that is about to get far worse and drag old wounds and memories to the surface.
✎ A blue-haired girl who has hamsas on her hands and trades in wishes and works for a monster in a shop. She draws monsters in her sketchbooks and speaks more languages than she should. She has a sense that there’s a secret within her, only she’s not sure she ever wants to know.
✎ The supply of wishes that the monster peddles is running dangerously low–a valued and valuable currency–and its up to the blue-haired Karou to do something about the dwindling supply. But as she sets out on what appears to be a normal errand, she has no idea that she’d about to find out more than she ever expected about who she truly is. Or, perhaps, who she was.
✎ An angel who once loved a chimera and who still loves her even after she was executed by her own people for their love.
✎ Diverse 🚫 (unfortunately, nope)
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❝What I loved❞
✎ The chimera and their differences; so many different races/species of chimera, some more monstrous than others.
✎ Wishes as currency and with different “value” and potency: not all wishes are equal or cost the same amount. Some are tiny wishes that cost practically nothing, whilst others are as valuable as gold or silver and are far harder to spend.
✎ The setting, the world, the everything. Taylor’s writing is perfect and poetic and wonderful. The audiobooks were beautifully narrated, too, which was a bonus.
✎ Zuzana!!
✎ Prague, Poison Kitchen, and Zuzana!
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❝What I didn’t love❞
✎ No diversity. Boo.

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❝If you liked this…❞
…then you might also like: Strange The Dreamer, also by Laini Taylor, or The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. Taylor’s latest duology, of which Strange The Dreamer is the first, is as magical as the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, telling the story of a librarian and the leftover children of the gods. The Raven Cycle combines the same sometimes-whimsical strangeness with a story that has been taking place for centuries, with the search for the tomb of a dead Welsh king.

The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco [The Bone Witch #1]

Title: The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)
Author: Rin Chupeco
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date:  7th March 2017
Rating ★★★★★

30095464The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco, the first of a new YA fantasy series, has been likened to The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Usually I take these things with a pinch of salt and decry “advertising!” instead of walking into the book expecting to be given just this. But in this case, the echo of style and verve truly is there—and that’s one of the things that made me love this book so very, very much.  There’s a kind of slow, soft poetry to a story told through the eyes of a single character as they recall the (however distant or recent) past; as if we’re being told a story within a story. We’re told the story by Tea as she recounts it herself and we not only learn about her in snatches and glimpses, but that’s the way we’re invited to see the world of The Bone Witch as well, which is immensely rich and satisfying, as well as tantalisingly slow. The way in which Tea tells her story allows you to curl up and savour every word, simultaneously eager to spend time in the past through her recollection and race back to present day in order to follow the unravelling story wherever it is headed.

Tea is a bone witch, which she discovers when raising her dead brother from the grave, ultimately making him her familiar; in this way he is something resembling alive, though he remains very, truly dead. When a bone witch creates a familiar, the once-more-living creature retains their personality and memories and becomes linked to the witch who raised them. Which is why, when Tea is found by Lady Mikaela, a bone witch on her travels, raising and slaying the monstrous daeva as a bone witch is tasked to do, her brother is forced to remain with her. Neither sibling seems to mind this new and strange turn of events, however, and although Tea is apprehensive about leaving her sisters and family to become an asha-in-training, she is pleased enough to have raised her brother and be headed away from her tiny, insignificant village.

But it won’t be smooth sailing. Perhaps if Tea was any other kind of witch, then perhaps. Only Tea is a Dark asha, a bone witch who can only draw the Dark runes; runes for raising the dead and other darker, murkier things. And the raising and slaying of daeva. Only bone witches can kill the terrible creatures who rise up and bring death wherever they tread and though Tea has just arrived in the city with her new teacher, she already knows that this will be her fate.

As Tea struggles to manage her powers and undergo all the necessary training to become a fully-fledged asha, she finds that being the new girl is hard—let alone when you’re a bone witch. For all the bone witches are essential, they are treated with suspicion and often open hatred by many people and on the whole, they are merely tolerated as a presence among other asha. Not all of the asha think this way about their bone witch sisters, but Tea finds that for the most part she will make no easy friends among the other asha and asha apprentices.

Tea soon discovers that she is very capable, surpassing the expectations of her tutors in many areas. But life remains difficult under the strict rule of the asha-ka’s matron and there are times that Tea wishes she’d never left her little village. But she’ll never take back having raised Fox.

As Tea continues her story, we begin to see the tension mounting and are given the tiniest glimpses that might reveal what her plans will come to be. Through her eyes we see her past and through the observant narrative of the bard who sought her out, we’re told the story of Tea now, where she hides in exile from the rest of the asha as her plan begins to unfold. Much like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, we are constantly held within inches of learning more about Tea, both in the present day and in her past, and the result is a compelling, lyrical story that lures you in and keeps your interest through its delectably slow unfolding and merging of past and present, with the smallest hint of what the future might hold.

The Bone Witch takes places in a diversely populated world where the asha take centre stage. In subsequent books I would be thrilled to see the male would-be-asha be afforded a place among the asha, instead of the ranks of the Heartseekers, where boys who can draw the runes usually go. I would love to see a boy join the ranks of the asha in the exact same way that Tea did: with the pretty clothes and enchanted jewellery, instead of keeping the genders separate with soldiers and witches, or by further feminising him in order to make him fit. I want Kai to be a male asha still partaking in all the traditional things that the asha do, without needing to surrender his gender somehow to do so. For me, that would mess with the gender boundaries of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ in a way that feels relevant to me and more powerful given the typically feminine education and training of the asha apprentices. Basically Kai can be asha, regardless of his gender, doing all the things a girl would. That’s what I want. It’s what I’m hoping for. In addition, since there seemed to be (what I perceived as, at least) the implication of at least an attraction, if not romance, between two of the asha, I’m happy that at least some manner of queer representation was included, though I will be hoping for more in future.

I absolutely loved The Bone Witch, finding it completely enchanting and compelling: the slow, careful pace of the book is what makes it shine, with every detail lovingly rendered on the page, weaving a tapestry which becomes the backdrop to Tea’s journey. This trilogy is going to be fantastic, I have no doubt.

The Ninth Rain, [The Winnowing Flame #1] by Jen Williams

Title: The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame #1)
Author: Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Release date: 23rd February 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

29758013The thing about Jen Williams is that she gets it. In the same way that any artist needs to know all the rules of their art intimately, in order to then bend or break those rules, Williams is so intimate with the genre of true, classic fantasy that she likely meets it in the pub for Sunday lunch and sends a card at the holidays. She knows exactly what she’s doing when she crafts these incredibly familiar worlds with almost-but-not quite familiar characters, only to then turn everything on its head and throw all expectation out the window. And she’s very good at it.

Another thing about Williams is that she writes in worlds that really ought to appear so cliché and dated that the words hang off the page in tatters and dust puffs up with every turn. In fact, the worlds she crafts are both gloriously familiar and excitingly fresh, clean and new: we’re never re-reading old “golden age” fantasy ground with Williams—even if, for a moment, we would be forgiven for thinking we are. The thing about this is that we get that cosy hot-chocolate-by-the-fire feeling that’s almost nostalgia for all the classic kinds of fantasy we thought had since been usurped by newer, reimagined fare, yet without any of the dowdy old tropes and generally completely of date nonsense we put up with without knowing there was an alternative. There won’t be any wailing damsels and certainly no chainmail bikinis or armour that is as ineffective as it is silly. Instead we have intelligent, queer (!) black women tromping around the woods, going about the business of being scholars and adventurers. Even the cliché of the womanizing rogue is bashed soundly on the head and left back in the decade from whence it came, and in its place, we have an updated elf-like almost-warrior who’s just enough of a dandy to know how the hell to dress (and to care about his appearance), but lacking in the other cliché of the useless fop who contributes very little outside of someone to laugh at for his lack of Traditional Masculinity.

After the stunning finale to the Copper Cat trilogy, which both tied everything up nicely as if with a ribbon, at the same time as leaving the vast stage open for our heroes to continue on thereafter, I was excited to delve into a whole different world and meet the new denizens of William’s very vivid—and very fun—imagination. The Ninth Rain does not disappoint.

We’re whisked away to a world we see in glimpses, where war stretches back through its long, bloody history and although the level of civilization and resulting technology is on its way to impressive, much of this is contained to walled cities and safe spaces upon which the overgown and worm-touched Wild does not encroach. Those who choose to live out in the Wild do so at great risk and most elect for the safety of cities and towns—anywhere the Wild hasn’t yet spread. But the Wild is spreading, slowly but surely, and this is what (among other things) prompts our wine-making scholar, Vintage, to set off from her family’s very wealthy vineyards in search of answers. What she doesn’t count on is getting entangled with a runaway witch from the infamous Winnowry, who might hold part of the answer Vintage has been looking for.

As for Tormalin the Oathless, even traipsing around the Wild with Vintage has got to be better that what he left behind at home: sickness and the slow and dusty decay of his people. No thanks—Tor would rather leave Ebora and keep on walking, and he has very little intention of looking back. Except Tor isn’t as good at pretending he’s done with Ebora as he thinks and whether he likes it or not, Ebora isn’t done with him. In fact, what he and Vinatge find out in the Wild might just change everything for the home he left behind. Tor isn’t the rogue some readers might expect, and neither is he the brooding, manly man-man warrior of total manliness who mans about doing his man thing. Even with his experience at the House of the Long Night, he absolutely is not That Guy; that wine-and-women dude. He’s more–so much more. And of course he is: because it’s Williams who wrote him and she nails him every bit as much as she nailed Frith and Sebastian.

The Ninth Rain fair sings off the page when reading and even the unusual and, let’s be fair, generally yuck and ick details of worm people and wandering, rampaging ghost plants, are conveyed clear as crystal and in with such an expert hand that, not for one moment, does the notion of said wandering ghost plants sound even a little silly.

Everything about The Ninth Rain cries classic fantasy, from the questing heroes to the fate of the world hanging in the balance. We even have an elfy, ethereal race gifted with longevity and beauty. Cue the forbidden magic that’s little understood, inextricably attached to a dodgy cult and the dutiful runaway with the dark past and we have precisely what’s needed to get very comfortable in that sepia-tinted Good Old Fantasy that brought us here in the first place.

But because this is Jen Williams The Ninth Rain is old fantasy all dressed up new and shiny and with only the good things left in, with all the dated and dodgy tropes drop-kicked into space. As usual, we’re invited to a diversely populated fantasy world that is engaging, exciting and written with complete abandon and no self-consciousness to be seen.

In others words, The Ninth Rain is peak Williams and if we learned anything from The Copper Cat it’s that from here, the bar is only going to get higher and higher. I have no doubt that when it does, Williams will step up her game and vault over it again and again.

Basically Williams’ The Ninth Rain is a shining example of just what modern fantasy can be and do. You need this book.

The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye

Title: The Crown’s Game (The Crown’s Game #1)
Author: Evelyn Skye
Publisher: Balzer+Bray
Publication date: 17th May 2016 (US) 30th June 2016 (UK)
Rating: ★★★★★

CrownsGame hc cThe Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, is another Truthwitch (by Susan Dennard). Not that they have anything at all in common—which they don’t, as it happens—but rather that this book is so hyped it’s unreal. And yet, as with Truthwitch: the hype is real.

There’s always a certain glee at reading a book that everyone is telling you you’re going to love, and then you actually do love. A tiny wee part of me was braced for disappointment. Not because anything about the book or the hype had put me off, but for two reasons: a) I’d rather be ready for the disappointment of a hyped book not quite hitting the spot and b) I always enter into books with a structured conflict (such as Vika and Nikolai’s duel to the death) with a thin veil of detachment, so I can figure out if it’s worth investing myself, when we’re pretty much told from the offset that someone is going to lose.

That veil did not last long.

Because this book is wonderful.

We’re introduced to an alternate Imperial Russia where magic is secret but real, and the time has come for Russia to once again appoint an Imperial Enchanter. Ordinarily, this is a simple task, with there being a single enchanter at any given time. Unfortunately for both Vika and Nikolai, who have been training their whole lives in preparation for being Imperial Enchanter to the Tsar, this time, things are a little different.

When there are two enchanters, the Crown’s Game must begin.

Vika has been raised on an island with her father, Sergei, and she knows nothing of the other enchanter out there. One day, she will be Imperial Enchanter and she will serve Russia, making her father proud. Nikolai, on the other hand, an orphan from the Kazakh Steppe who was bought from his village for a handful of livestock, has been raised and trained to be the best. Galina, Sergei’s sister, has been a ruthless mentor, giving nothing in the way of love or a comfortable life outside of dressing him for show and parading him as her dear little charity case.

Whilst Nikolai has been studying and mastering his magic through craft, engineering and more scientific ventures, Vika’s magic is all the wildness of natural energies and the very world around her. They are unalike in every way.

But it is time for the tsesarevich’s birthday, and to coincide with the beginning of the Game, both Vika and Nikolai are commanded to make their moves part of his birthday festivities. With no other guidelines given, the two enchanters are set against one another from the offset. And with their mentors whisked away to Siberia, they are left alone to participate in the Game.

Perhaps Nikolai stands a better chance of knowing how to make an impression, since he is best friends with the tsesarevich. But Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov knows nothing of his friend’s magic, or the Game, so even though they are close, things won’t be as simple as he might have hoped. In turn, Vika soon realises that she has caught the attention of Pasha, but with the tension of the Game and the growing fear for her life with each and every move of the Game, she might be too caught up in the magic to know how to use this to her advantage.

But in the end, it is the Tsar who will declare a winner, and he is stony and resolute. The Game will be played and an Imperial Enchanter will be appointed.

The Crown’s Game isn’t what it seems. It isn’t a bloodthirsty battle or a contest of egos or even wills. It’s, instead, a subtle and deep game that revolves entirely around the small cast and their feelings and relationships with one another. There are secrets and twists and revelations that, even if you cotton on a single page before the reveal, will make you go wide-eyed in surprise or clap about like a mad thing with glee (guilty—there might have been book-waggling/hugging). This book is a glorious feast for the senses, with delightful and extraordinary magic that exceeds both expectation and belief at every turn, making the reading of The Crown’s Game almost as exhilarating and wondrous as the Game played by Vika and Nikolai themselves.

The Crown’s Game is a stunning book with such heart and such strong characters, each in their own way. Vika is a fiery thing, whilst Nikolai has brooding, thoughtful edges. Pasha was a constant delight, even as he struggles to face up to the fact that one day he will be Tsar—and the realisation that his heart might be too soft for the role.

From the depth of the friendship between Pasha and Nikolai and the warmth of the relationship between Vika and Ludmila, this book is a pleasure to be immersed in, if only for the interactions between the characters and the way they shape and form the story. Yes, this is about magic and enchantments to make you beam with delight and gape with awe. Yes, this is about a deadly Game and a battle of wills. But it’s also so much more than that. The Crown’s Game is a story about discovery and about pushing the limits of who you are and how far you will go. It’s about finding just what it is that makes you, you, and a little bit of exploring the consequences of letting others make your decisions and sway your heart.

This book isn’t just set in historic Russia—it takes you there. You feel it in the streets, in the palaces, in the people who populate the world. From the mounting tensions of the lower and working classes, to the discomfort of those in the nobility who see the dangerous ground upon which the Tsardom treads, this is a book that really feels authentic. Which, given Skye’s love for Russia, isn’t a surprise at all. She nailed it.

At the end of the day, The Crown’s Game is about imagination and finding those little pieces of yourself in order to move one step closer to completing the puzzle of just who you are. It’s gorgeous, it’s exciting and it’s thrilling. It’s pure, pure magic.

 

 

Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Title: Every Heart a Doorway
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 5th 2016
Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

25526296Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, is a genuinely charming and wonderful book. Not ‘charming’ in a quaint or twee (and slightly condescending way), but a book that simply charmed me as I read it. I devoured the book in two sittings, but would have done so in just one had I started it the night I read the lion’s share of it—and kept reading through the night.

I was expecting this book to be different—and it was. It was a pure delight to read.

Ever wonder what happens to all the special children, the young and wayward stars of portal fantasies? What happens after the story ends—when the adventure is over and it is time to go home? Do our heroes and heroines even want to come back?

I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I finished it. The unfortunate subject of my endless book-talk (my brother) probably knows everything about this book and why I loved it, about as familiarly as he knows his own name. Once I’m done, he’ll be eligible for a degree on Why Leo Loved Every Heart A Doorway.

Every Heart A Doorway made me want to hug the world and everything in it, especially McGuire.

We meet Nancy at Eleanor West’s School For Wayward Children, a new arrival after returning to our world from the Halls of the Dead. She is enrolled by well-meaning parents who want nothing more than to love their daughter, but really, they just want their daughter back: the Nancy who wore bright colours and didn’t act so quiet and still and distant. Their Nancy who hadn’t spent so long in the perfect stillness of the Lord of the Dead’s domain. They want their rainbow princess back.

Well they can carry on wanting.

Eleanor, a formerly misplaced and traveling child herself, keeps up appearances with parents, whilst being completely honest with the children enrolled into the school. Nobody needs to pretend that other worlds don’t exist and that they haven’t spent so much precious time in them.

Nancy doesn’t want to forget the Halls of the Dead—she wants to go back. She just needs to find the door again. However, when Nancy arrives at the school, tragedy soon strikes and she finds herself tangled up in something gruesome. Still uncertain and reeling from everything at the school she barely understands, Nancy is pulled along with a new group of friends as they band together to uncover what is happening. If something isn’t done soon, the future of the school will be in jeopardy and if it is forced to close, where will all the wayward students go?

So much depends on Nancy and her new friends solving this horrible mystery.

The school is largely attended by girls, because girls are so much more easily misplaced than loud, important boys, aren’t they? (I adored this part: the point about girls being easier to let slip away than boys, whom are usually louder and kept closer to hand than girls. Not only is this a very poignant prod towards the treatment of girls, but the addition that even the quiet boys are encouraged or cajoled—by mockery or teasing—to be louder than they naturally are, entirely because they are boys just made me generally happy, because it’s so damn true.)

There’s a great many things in Every Heart A Doorway that are true and illuminating (I’m on board for realistic depictions of parent0,s because you know what? Parents can suck), in that it reads so very much like a fairy tale in and of itself—but one written for the different ones; those who can’t help but be themselves. This isn’t a fairy tale written by adults, encouraging only as much bravery and uniqueness as it takes to be interesting and worthy of attention, but rather a complete reassurance that however you are, however you turn out to be, if you’re happy, you are enough. Do not change; do not be anyone’s rainbow.

Furthermore, it does not shy away from accusing both parents and the rest of the world for the unreasonable and selfish expectations that are placed upon the shoulders of young adults every single day of their lives. But this isn’t a preaching sort of book; it reads more like honesty. It is a blindingly good book.

Everything about this book was perfect. This is the kind of book that proves that diversity is not a difficult demand. Look around you at the world—that’s what this book feels like. An accurate representation of somebody’s life. Nancy is asexual (but not aromantic); there is a trans character; characters of different racial origins that aren’t just white. Bam, bam, bam. Three things there that you see so very rarely.

I wish I didn’t feel the need to point out when diversity is a thing in book, because it feels so completely unnecessary (the pointing out—not the diversity itself, obviously). If a book doesn’t have a varied cast, then your book is not a realistic representation of the real world in which you sat and wrote it. Fact.

So, gloriously, I will loudly yell to everyone I meet about asexual Nancy and the rest of her wonderful comrades at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children.

JBI 5 star chibiI’ve seen whispered here and there that although this is a finished book in and of itself, there are to be more books in the same setting. I hope this is true. I really, really, really hope this is true, because I can’t adequately describe how much this book delighted and touched me.

An utterly enchanting, charming story of being yourself, no matter what that means. Every Heart A Doorway is perfectly magical, perfectly strange and perfectly delightful—and I couldn’t possibly have loved it more.

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.

The Iron Ghost, by Jen Williams [The Copper Promise #2]

Title: The Iron Ghost (The Copper Promise #2)
Author:  Jen Williams
Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 26th February 2015
Rating: ★

23451034The absolute best thing about Jen Williams – aside from being hilarious, entirely aware of the genre she writes in (allowing her to make and break rules however she pleases), and one of the best new writers of SFF at the moment – is the fact that her books are classics. Not, “they’ll one day be classics”, but rather, they already are. The way she subverts the expected tropes and themes of SFF, introducing new elements alongside and welcoming tried and tested (and fun!) old ones, is nothing short of sheer poetry.

Never mind the fact that somehow she manages to discuss several relevant issues through her work, without ever becoming lecturing or trite. I’m talking about gender stereotypes and race and sexuality: all the good stuff that I’d honestly thought all the proper and serious writers had decided they were too aloof for and left those topics to the up and coming YA SFF, for whom these topics are their literary bread and butter.

I’ve been growing increasingly more disappointed and distant from regular fantasy in the last year or so. But never far away from Williams.

The Copper Promise was sensational and I loved every second. So when I got my hands on a galley of The Iron Ghost, I was instantly transformed into a garbling mess with excitement. That excitement never really left, because even after turning that final page, the book didn’t leave me.

The Copper Promise ended in a most marvelous fashion, reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, where the summer has been whiled away rolling dice and saving the world; the campaign is over, but already the seeds are planted for the next.

Naturally, The Iron Ghost begins in a very casual fashion, almost episodic in how we find ourselves in the company of the now Blackfeather Three of Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian. This feeling of a new and fresh adventure is welcome in a trilogy, definitely lacking a sagging middle that can sometimes pull down a second book. There is enough grounding reference to the first book so that more forgetful readers will feel comfortable being thrown headlong into a new adventure with the trio, but not so much that The Iron Ghost wastes time reiterating what the majority of readers already know. It’s a small peeve when writers compensate for readers by explaining what happened only one book before. It clogs the flow of the writing and slows the whole system down.

We find ourselves witness to several new developments in the lives of the Blackfeather Three, including the awkwardly budding romance between Wydrin and Frith, the mysterious force driving the hand of a young assassin – whose orders are ultimately bound to the same thread of fate as theirs – and the movements of Sebastian’s brood army as they try to adjust to life after Y’ruen.

Furthermore, as the Blackfeather Three venture to faraway shores on their latest paying job, new obstacles present themselves along with new foes and allies.  Only sometimes, it might be hard to tell friend from enemy, and when things come down to the wire, choices are hard and sacrifices might need to be made. Needless to say, when she accepts the job for them, little does Wydrin expect that she will be changed forever, in ways she can hardly understand. Their presence in the cold mountain passes, close to the boarders of a cold-blooded mountain people, could signal doom and destruction for the rest of the world.

Because something has been sleeping for a long time, something that is not quite as dead as the world thought. And now this power has found a way to rise again, to return to the world where old plans and long-dead machinations will be awoken, given life anew. And this time, Frith’s new magic, Wydrin’s blind, dumb luck, and even Sebastian’s blood sisters might not be enough to quell it. Magic is stirring, and with it, the threat of a new power, one bent on domination and destruction. Join the brilliant Blackfeather Three in a new land and a new heap of trouble. Between golems, old enemies whose grudges still hold true, and the desperation of war and racial, spiritual tension, whatever is making Frith so curt and distant will become the last thing on the Copper Cat’s mind.

Outline and juicy implications over, I’m going to jump straight to just what made this book shine for me.

Sebastian’s homosexuality is a huge YES PLEASE for me, because he’s a Knight; he’s kind and generous and gentle and noble and all those things that Lancelot wishes he’d been. And he’s gay. This strong, self-assured, noble Knight, a la the kind on white chargers and frequent denizen of fairy tales, is gay. That’s like the captain of the groan-groan Football team being gay. It’s huge. Neither bookish nor unassuming nor flamboyant and kamp – just Sebastian and just gay. I won’t spoil things, but the relationships Sebastian explores in The Iron Ghost are pieces of pure yesness. His friendship with Wydrin is greatly built upon and his gentle tenderness towards her is almost sibling in presentation. And it is perfect. Friendship is still alive and well between the sexes and Jen Williams knows all about it.

In addition, Sebastian goes through his own difficulties, acting both as you’d expect and as you wouldn’t, and thereby being entirely human in the process. Top marks for Williams.

Without saying too much, on the subject of being thrilled to pieces with Williams’ inclusiveness, I want to hint at what is, in the very least, a romance that crosses ethnic lines, and at most, becomes literally a cross-species/cross-race (depending on whether we decide to see humans as race, and the various subcategories as ethnicities instead of races in and of themselves, thereby all being human, or if the notion of “species” works better when considering relationships such as these personally. I prefer race, and anything nonhuman, I consider a separate race) relationship. An elf and human together is, in fact, just this manner of relationship, by virtue of both belonging to different races. Humans are not elves and vice versa. So the introduction of cold-blooded people whose description is most definitely not “human”? I’m calling two races here and letting out a big hip hooray.

Another aspect of Williams’ work that makes me float about happily, is the gender reversal of Wydrin and Frith. She is more typically masculine than he is, and he is more typically feminine than she is. Of course this is all based on assumed facts about gender and gender roles (which are a pile of tosh) but you know where I’m coming from and where I’m going.

Wydrin occupies the more traditional role of the masculine and Frith, the feminine. And this means so much because Frith is me: he’s quieter and reserved and definitely softer of feature that our dear Wydrin. He’s the noble (so, traditionally speaking, the princess, if you will) whilst Wydrin is the dashing rogue come to crash Frith’s neat and noble life, sweeping him away into adventure. Yes, Frith has his own agency, his own story, but the roles in their very base form are expressed well through this example.

The importance of feminism in SFF has two sides, and one I wish was talked about more: the fact that feminism is about men, too. It is about men being allowed to be the princesses. Never mine the “allowed” part – sometimes men are the princesses and women are the knights and the rogues. Taken as two separate concepts, the masculine and the feminine are merely traits,  personality tenancies, aspects of a type of person. Moreover, one person can have aspects of both. They can be equally balanced between to two, or favour one more heavily. I feel that Williams knows all about this, and tackles it like a pro. All casual talent and “I’m an amazing writer” style.

I could literally go on forever about this, so I’ll curb the rampant gender discussion and save that for an article at some other point!

The Iron Ghost is sensational. It is exactly what I want fantasy to be right now: it is classic fantasy for 2015. It is where Tolkien and Eddings and Hobb have led us. Jen Williams is a classic: she delivers witty and elegant prose, deep and meaningful characters and a plot full of adventure and excitement and feeling. The Iron Ghost promises companionship and love, action and humour, and naturally, a struggle to save the world. It promises everything and delivers more.

If you aren’t already reading Williams, you should start. She is a master of the craft who doesn’t just hit the nail on the head – because the nail is already sunk too deep and she’s put the hammer down, the blow delivered before you even lifted the book.Through confident, vibrant prose and complex and relatable characters, The Iron Ghost is utterly unputdownbable and has set the bar very high for SFF in 2015.

Have at it, authors, because Williams is in the building – and she’s made herself comfortable.