Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince cover artThe Cruel Prince by Holly Black is a young adult, fantasy novel dealing with the political machinations of the fae. Jude’s mother used to be married to a faerie lord but she ran away with their half-faerie daughter, married a human, and had two purely human daughters: Jude and her twin. Then the faerie lord came looking for her. He murdered Jude’s mother and took the children back with him to his lands.

Years later, Jude is being raised alongside the children of the lords and ladies of faerie, who resent having humans among them. Bullied and belittled by the faeries, Jude hates feeling powerful. She wants to do something to get real power so that she won’t be hurt again, but her path to power involves making a deal that may put her in even more danger when she agrees to work as a spy for a prince of Faerie.

This is an interesting story that deals with politics and factions all vying for power. As Jude learns more about the different players, we get a feeling for how the different groups interact, but it also feels sometimes that this is barely scratching the surface. There’s an interaction quite late in the book when she turns to another character for advice and I think this is a key moment, because it shows how complicated the situation really is and how much Jude is struggling with it.

Jude is a great character. She’s clever but young enough that she makes mistakes that are believable. She gets into difficult situations through her own actions, but the reasoning that got her there makes sense. She’s not exactly nice, but it’s understandable why she acts the way she does. We see enough of the bullying and pain she suffers through that her choices make sense. The same is true of some of the other characters. There are characters who are horrible people, but you get enough of a glimpse of their lives to understand how they became that way.

There are a lot of horrible people in this book, but there are some who are friendly and fun. I really enjoyed the scenes between Jude and the other spies. The other relationships I really liked were those between Jude and her sisters. I got a feeling of a real family relationship between them. There are arguments (even a duel at one point) but also love. They fight with each other, but also fight for each other. They don’t always agree, but they always care. The dynamic between the sisters is there throughout the book and plays out in interesting ways, sometimes adding to the conflict and sometimes helping Jude. That complex dynamic helps even a story about magic and faeries feel grounded in something real.

This book isn’t going to make my favourites pile, but it’s definitely an enjoyable book of its type. I have no particular criticisms of it. The story is interesting enough to keep me reading and the characters are nicely rounded. A solid four stars.

Review: Retreats for You

I’ve spent the past week at a writer’s retreat in Devon called Retreats for You. I thought I’d post about my experiences.

The most important measure of success for the week is that I got a lot of writing done. I finished the final tweaks/cleaning of A Monster’s Kindness, wrote a synopsis, and submitted the manuscript to a publisher. I went through/edited/rewrote almost 28000 words of the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy. I wrote about 9400 words of the first draft of the next book in the Codename Omega series. All in all, I’m extremely pleased with how productive I was over the week.

The retreat is in an old house in a small village in Devon where you’re shut off from the distractions of the outside world. There’s not much there in the village – a pub, a village shop, a handful of houses. Apparently you can go for nice walks in the countryside if the weather’s good and there are some National Trust properties within reasonable driving distance, but I (and the other writers there) spent our time shut up in the house getting on with our writing projects. Each bedroom has a writing desk, so we generally spent a good chunk of the day shut in our rooms writing. There were other places we could have gone to write – the dining room, the garden, a summer house, a studio across the garden, etc. – but the weather wasn’t great and the bedrooms afforded quiet and privacy.

The rooms didn’t have ensuite, although the owner of the retreat has plans to fit this for some of the bedrooms before the end of the year. When I was there, there were a couple of shared bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. This was fine, but the house was quite old and if I wanted to sneak to the loo in the middle of the night every floorboard in the place creaked like I was in a horror movie. I think the ensuites will be a big improvement, but everyone was reasonable about the shared bathroom so we didn’t have any issues with it and the owner made sure we had plenty of toiletries available if we wanted them.

Everyone was very friendly. The owner was a lovely lady who was nice and supportive and checked to make sure we were all happy. There were a couple of other staff who came to look after the place and cook meals who were also very nice. And the other writers were great too. There were four of us staying the week I was there – me, two other writers, and a non-writer who was there for the retreat part – but the place could hold up to six guests.

It felt very sociable as we would share evening meals together or could hang out in the living room and talk. Lunches and breakfasts were laid out buffet style, so we had the option of eating with everyone else at the table or taking the food up to our rooms and continuing to write. We spent the time talking about our projects and progress, sharing advice and tips, and have general discussions about writing and everything else. I think this was what really made the retreat. Yes, we got the quiet time to get lots of writing done, but it never felt isolated because of the shared meals.

The meals themselves were excellent. It was all home cooking with plenty of fresh vegetables, and the staff were happy to take into account allergies and preferences and other dietary requirements. I didn’t have a bad meal when I was there and there were flapjacks and cakes available. On Wednesday, the retreat opens the dining room as a tea room so we were able to get cream teas. I took mine up to my room and ate a lovely, homemade scone with jam and cream while working on my books. It was really nice.

While I’m talking about food, I need to make a special shout out to the butter. This was the greatest butter I have ever tasted in my life. It was made at a local farm and sold in the village shop, so I bought myself a roll of butter to bring home with me. The retreat deserves a full ten out of ten marks for the butter alone. I realise it may seem strange that I’m dedicating a whole paragraph of this review to butter, but I’m not kidding. This butter is amazing.

So on the whole, I had a great time at the retreat and got a load of work done. The biggest drawback of the place is the shared bathrooms, but as I said earlier, the owner has plans to put in some ensuites before the end of the year, so that issue should be resolved soon. It was a great retreat and I’m already planning on going back next year.

Recipe for a Story

My nephew has the most amazing book. It’s called Recipe for a Story and it’s all about creating a story, but told using the metaphor of baking a cake. The narrator mixes in ingredients like characters and words, good and bad. At one point, the narrator stirs it until the plot begins to thicken.

This is the sort of story that will appeal to writers because there are lines like “I’ll weigh out the words – just enough. Choosing the rights ones can be tough.” There’s another bit later about not knowing what the story’s about until you roll it out, and I’m reading this thing going, “Yep, sounds about right.”

There are some wonderful illustrations too, like a jar of “giggly words preserves” that’s full of smiley faces, and full stops are in a pepper shaker. On one page, there’s a pile of books with various word pun titles.

My nephew enjoys it but as a writer, I think it’s fantastic. It’s my new favourite book because it’s a beautiful way to talk about the writing process.

This isn’t exactly a formal book review, but if you have young children you want to read to, I highly recommend it.

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Book cover Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (UK link, US link) is a fun book that walks the border between science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, it feels like science fiction, with futuristic technology driving the plot, but there are hints at elements from mythology towards the end that lend it a fantasy air. It tells the story of St Mary’s, a historical research organisation with a difference. These historians actually go back in time. Technological developments allow them to go back and see what actually happened at major historical events, answer key questions, and take recordings of what they see.

The main character is Max, a historian who signs on as a trainee at the start of the book. She is surrounded by a mixture of academics, engineers, security staff, and medics, who are all disaster magnets and generally obsessed with getting a good cup of tea. It’s a lively story, told with a lot of humour and most of this humour comes from the interactions between the various characters. I did struggle sometimes to keep some of the minor characters straight, especially since they might be referred to by first name, last name, or nickname. There was a list of characters at the start of the book which served as reference and I found a big help, but it didn’t stop me from getting muddled now and then.

There are some dark moments in the book. While the tone through most of it is light, there are some dramatic events that stand in stark contrast and the emotion of these sections really works, probably because of the contrast. It makes them feel more raw and real.

On the whole, I’d say that this book is good entertainment. It’s an enjoyable read and very easy to get through. It’s a perfect holiday read for when you just want to relax with something amusing and fun. Where I think it struggles is in terms of a coherent plot. There are some plot threads that flow through the book as a whole, but there are times when the book feels more like a series of events rather than forming a solid whole. As the title suggests – it’s one thing after another. There are separate chunks of the book with their own focus and activities and I almost think it would have worked between if the author had made more of these distinctions, breaking the book into separate parts and treating each as a separate episode within the larger narrative. It did pull the plot threads together a bit at the end though, so this criticism is a fairly minor one.

I think the author assumed considerably more historic knowledge of the reader than I had. There were references to historic events which were largely explained. Some of these references I got, but others just passed me by. Someone with more of a background in history than I have would probably have enjoyed this more, as it was I could have done with a little bit more information about the things being referred to. Thankfully those that were more critical to the plot were explained, so it was mostly the off-hand comments and throwaway lines that I ended up missing.

Overall, I’d give this book four stars out of five. It’s not going on my favourites list, but I did enjoy reading it and I will look out for other books by the same author in the future.

Review: Day Hunt on the Final Oblivion

Day Hunt on the Final Oblivion cover artDay Hunt On the Final Oblivion by Meyari McFarland (UK link, US link) is set on a space station inhabited by millions of aliens of a vast array of species. A new commander arrives to take over the human habitat on the station, and the former commander takes him off to explain how things work around here. Except… they disappear. Esme Mullane ends up in charge of the investigation and the more she looks, the more suspicious everything becomes. As she digs deeper, it seems that she is facing an enemy she thought she’d left behind her.

This story is part of a series and there are references to events that have taken place in a previous book, but the important concepts are introduced as required so it’s possible to read this book without having any background knowledge of the earlier book. I think a few aspects of the book might have been clearer to me if I’d read the earlier book first, but I was able to follow this one without getting lost.

I really like Esme as a character. She’s tough, she’s dependable, she cares about saving the people around her without necessarily being nice to any of them. She has a tendency to give everyone nicknames, which actually worked really well because the story threw a bunch of characters at me and it was easier to keep straight the characters with nicknames like Bright Boy and Shiny than if I’d been bombarded with a load of names. Esme is slightly bitter and cynical, but manages to maintain a sense of humour and she will do what it takes to get the job done and that makes her a really easy character to root for.

The plot itself moves quickly. It’s action adventure with a touch of mystery thrown in. I think the mystery aspect might have had more impact on me if I’d read the earlier book because I was busy trying to figure out the way this world works as well as following the mystery.

One thing I struggled with was the names of the various races. A lot of the aliens had thoroughly unpronounceable names. Esme’s tendency towards nicknames did crop up a little bit, and one of these races was nicknamed the Fur Babies, which makes it easier to create a mental picture of them as well as giving a name I can pronounce. I would have liked it is some more of the major players in the story had nicknames for their species as well.

From the diversity angle, Esme is bisexual and there are a few other sexual identities represented, including a minor character who is in a poly marriage.

Overall, I’d give it four stars, but it’s possible I might feel more generous with stars if I came at it having read the first book in the series. It needed a better proof-reader though. There were quite a lot of typos and some threw me out of the story while I tried to figure out what was meant and that nearly dragged by assessment down to three stars.

Review: Riptide by B C Matthews

Riptide coverRiptide by B C Matthews (UK link, US link) is a book that straddles the boundary between fantasy and horror, romance and drama. Mark, the protagonist of Riptide, is a part-siren who starts this book by luring his boyfriend into the sea and eating his heart. I was therefore surprised how quickly and how deeply I started to sympathise with Mark. The opening of the book shows him grieving and full of guilt for his boyfriend’s murder, but then he begins to grow hungry again, craving human flesh. When his friend Sam discovers his secret, Mark begs him to help, to keep him from murdering anyone else. From there, they quickly slip into an unhealthy and abusive relationship, with Sam using this secret as leverage to keep Mark under his control.

While the story is a fantasy novel, the relationship between Mark and Sam draws on a lot of patterns and behaviours of real-world abusive relationships, which makes the whole thing seem more real. Things like Sam demanded to know where Mark is at all times, making Mark depend on him, making Mark feel like he deserves the abuse, all come from a very real place and make it clear that the author has done his research on abusive relationships.

One thing I especially like about this book is that it doesn’t romanticise the abuse. Often in books that are shelved as dark fantasy romances, there are abusive patterns of behaviour that are glossed over or treated as though they’re something to aspire to. Here, the abuse is made clear for what it is. Early on in the relationship, Mark is warned off by an ex-lover of Sam’s. A friend is clearly concerned when Mark freaks out that Sam might learn of a minor incident that happened while on a night out and a character explicitly talk about the relationship as abusive. The book makes it clear through text and subtext that this relationship isn’t something that should be aspired to while still showing the emotions behind why Mark stays in a way that’s very understandable.

Even though Mark is a killer, we get to see the story from inside his head and that makes it possible to empathise with him. He is like an addict, wanting to taste human flesh again but knowing that he shouldn’t, craving the next hit and terrified of what will happen if he gives in to it. As readers, we see his struggle and sympathise with him, while Sam deliberately manipulates that struggle to inflict further harm and to make sure Mark stays locked in the cycle of abuse.

It’s probably clear that this is a book that deals with some very dark themes. If you have a history of abuse, this may be a difficult book to read. The emotions feel very raw and real. If you can deal with reading books on such a difficult subject, then it is well worth the read. The only criticism I have is that I wish the ending had been a little bit longer. I would have loved to have seen a little more about how the characters adjust to certain things that I’m not going to spoil for anyone. Other than that, it’s an engrosing and highly emotional read. Five stars.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

Review: How to Save the World by Tam MacNeil

How to Save the World coverHow to Save the World by Tam MacNeil (UK link, US link), not to be confused with one of the many other books with the same or similar name, is a book that walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. Monsters are rising from the sea and emerging from the forests, death gods who call to the people nearby. Anyone who hears their song is drawn to them and filled with the urge to commit suicide. A man named Cameron runs the company who produces mech – huge metal machines that can fight against these monsters. The mechs are designed to be driven by a human being, but the experience is horrifying. In this world, Alex and Sean are assassins working for Cameron, killing anyone he sends them after. They decide to escape their life by killing Cameron but when the attempt fails, Sean manages to get out and start a new life but Alex is caught and forced inside one of the mechs.

When I first started this book I had my doubts about it. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with Alex or Sean, who we see committing murders without seeming to care about it. How wrong I was. It didn’t take long for the book to start exploring their history, the way they protect each other, and their desire to have a better life than the one they’re forced to endure. Once the book got going it was very easy to have sympathy for both of them and some parts of the book were absolutely heart-wrenching. I was in tears in places.

The story deals with some very dark themes and difficult issues. There are explorations of rape, child abuse, grooming, suicide, grief, and some scenes that can only be described as torture. These issues are dealt with in a very respectful way and it really tugs on the heart-strings, but it could be a very difficult read for some people because of how real the emotion feels.

The book is definitely driven by the emotion. There is some mystery and a fair amount of action, with the characters working to, as the title says, save the world from the monsters, but really the core of the book is the emotional journey between Sean and Alex.

The relationship between the two main characters is beautifully written. We get to see their history and the background behind their interactions as well as the moments on the page. It works in a very layered way. You can genuinely feel how much they love each other. The interactions with the other characters is great too, and there were some brilliant moments where we get to see the two main characters through the eyes of characters like Mad and Rak. We spend so much of the time in this book inside their heads that it’s interesting to see what they look like from the outside.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it needed a better editor. There were a lot of typos and there were several points where a new chapter or section started with a pronoun and it took me several paragraphs to work out who was the viewpoint character for this bit. A chapter would start with “he” and I would spend a page trying to work out if this was Alex or Sean, only to find out this bit was from Rak’s point of view. I through me out of the story. It’s a shame because otherwise this was a brilliant book.

Very emotional and highly recommended, but do be aware of the fact it tackles issues of rape and abuse. Five stars.