‘Medusa’ – Jessie Burton

This is a story that deserves to be told, and is wholly relevant now. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before its expected October publication.

Medusa is a character so many feel they know. But in Jessie Burton’s reimagining we get another version of Medusa, one that it’s hard to ignore.

Merina, as she calls herself, has spent the last four years secreted away on a deserted island. She is accompanied by her immortal sisters and her dog. Though she is reasonably content, there is no denying the fact that Merina is lonely and bitterly upset by her treatment at the hands of others.

One day she hears a young boy arrive on the island. Though she doesn’t feel she can meet him in person, she takes the time to talk to the boy and learn his story. She trusts him, and even harbours hope that he may be someone who can overlook her physical appearance. But the young boy, Perseus, has his own story.

While this narrative focuses on Medusa it paints a more sympathetic picture and seeks to encourage us to look beneath the judgments of others. It reminded me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Medusa’ in its feminist focus on the myth we think we know.

I loved the illustrations in this as they captured the spirit of Medusa, particularly towards the end. The writing was poetic and yet the thing that will remain with me is the haunting depiction of a young girl trying to find her own way in the world.

‘The Pariah’ – Anthony Ryan

The Pariah is my first experience of reading anything by Anthony Ryan, and I can safely say it won’t be my last. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication, and to the author for delivering a book that would seem to be the first in what promises to be an exciting trilogy.

Our main character is Alwyn Scribe, and events are narrated through his eyes. This means there are some details about him and his past that we don’t get answers to, but it does allow us a clear focused look at events Alwyn is caught up in. There’s a lot crammed into this, but the book is so well-structured that it doesn’t feel too much.

I have to say that first impressions were not immediately favourable. I made the mistake of trying to read this while reading another book alongside. The style/world-building was so dense that it felt difficult to engage with when not giving it my undivided attention…however, once I focused solely on this, I immersed myself in it and could not wait to see what came next.

Alwyn begins the story as an outlaw, part of a group under the leadership of one of the King’s illegitimate children. He is not above committing awful acts, but he exhibits a keen moral compass and shows himself willing to do the right thing. When the group is attacked (which is definitely suspicious) Alwyn is captured and taken prisoner. In some ways he is lucky as he survives some awful experiences, and the other characters he meets along the way give us the opportunity to see him in a slightly more rounded way.

From the outset I was struck by the attention to detail. It’s descriptive, but not in a way that seems unnecessary. Every event and setting was captured in a way that vividly brought them to life. Alwyn, in some ways, leads a charmed life but there are numerous hints that there may be more to him than has been revealed in this book.

I enjoyed the way this was put together, with Alwyn shifting from outlaw to prisoner to soldier…and to then find himself in familiar territory at the end, but with a clearer objective in mind that seems to be part of a bigger picture. Some of the characters will linger longer in my mind, but I remain convinced that there is a lot more to this man than we’ve been told about so far. I can’t wait to see how this story picks up in book two.

 

‘This Poison Heart’ – Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart is the first in what promises to be a most exciting series. I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and am genuinely wondering what will happen next.
Our focus for this story is Briseis, a character with a most unusual talent. She has an affinity with plants and is able to bring anything back to life and help it bloom. This skill comes in very handy in the florists her mums run, but the fact she has seemingly no reaction to poisonous plants suggests there’s more to this than Bri realises.
Introducing us to Bri’s talents early on is a great way to get our attention, but her lack of knowledge about what she can do means many of our questions are not answered. We are given time to get to know Bri and her mums. Their relationship and interactions are warm and caring, and spending time with them means we genuinely care when we learn of the financial pressures they are under.
Bri is adopted, and when she is told that an aunt has bequeathed her an estate just outside New York we – like Bri – have questions. They travel to what can only be described as a spooky mansion, to find over-run vegetation, mysterious people hanging round their property and a run-down apothecary filled with strange ingredients. People turn up requesting help, and it is soon obvious there is more to this arrangement than we might expect.
Naturally curious, Bri wants to find out more about her family. She unearths letters from her aunt and learns that she appears to have immunity to deadly poisons. There is talk of her lineage being traced back to the ancient Greeks, and though this would be exciting enough…there’s more.
Bri meets all manner of people in her new town. Her position lends her some respect, but it also brings great danger. For what is clear is Bri’s natural family have been guarding a great secret…something that some will stop at nothing to learn.
From the beginning I found myself really caught up in this. I loved Bri and her characterisation. The introduction to mythology lent an interesting element to the story, and there are a few characters that definitely pique your interest as you try to figure out their link to Bri and the repercussions for any friendship developing.
My only criticism of the book was how the pace picked up in the last quarter and was then relentless. We had a lot of info thrown at us, and – on occasion – it didn’t feel as if it made sense. The dramatic end to this book was, naturally, not an end at all and that is highly frustrating…but a very good incentive to have me racing to pick up book two when I can.

‘The Book of Stolen Dreams’ – David Farr

 

When things are tough, you want those around you to be people you can trust. In the world we encounter at the start of this wondrous story, that is not necessarily the case. Under the rule of Charles Malstain life is dreary, and anyone who does not do as he requests is made to disappear. This is a time of dark secrets, where family are suspicious of each other and where things are about to get worse.

We don’t know why this has happened, but Farr immediately sets up a tense and unsettling atmosphere. We are introduced to our protagonists, Robert and Rachel Klein, when they accompany their father to the lending library where he works. This journey is done at night, and nobody is told about it so we know it is dangerous. All we know is that it has something to do with The Book of Stolen Dreams that Felix Klein steals – rumours are that it is scheduled to be destroyed – and charges his children with protecting until they can hand it over to a man called Solomon.

The children escape, but have to watch their father beaten by Malstain’s forces. They are subject to intimidation in their home as those under Malstain search desperately for the Book that the children vow to protect, though they don’t really know why.

As we follow Rachel and Robert in their task, they are placed in extreme peril. They suffer in the way that only young children in stories can. The odds are against them. They are pitched into a battle they might not win…but their determination to do the right thing and their bravery makes for a gripping story.

Along the way we meet a host of characters – at both ends of the spectrum. Malstain is a shadowy villain, orchestrating terrible deeds for his own selfish reasons. Opposing him are a motley crew, and not all are guaranteed to do the right thing when asked.

From the outset this was a book that delighted. Due for release in September 2021 I can’t wait to see the buzz it generates, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read it early.

‘All of Us Villains’ – Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

It’s thirteen years since The Hunger Games published, and I think there may be a new contender for the dystopian YA crown coming in November 2021.

All of Us Villains is set in the fictional world of Ilvernath, a place ruled by high magick and dark ambition. Every generation one of the seven families has to name a champion…someone who will step into The Blood Veil and fight to the death. The eventual winner will be awarded control of the supply of high magick and this is a powerful resource. To be a winner, you have to be prepared to be a villain.

The book began quite slowly, introducing us to each of the seven contenders and their families. We were given time to see the furore in Ilvernath after the publication of the salacious book – purportedly written by one of the families – telling all about the Blood Veil and the secrets of the contest. This book has caused an unprecedented interest in the competition, but nobody is willing to try and stop what has always happened.

It was, initially, a little confusing to keep track of who was who, but seeing events from each character’s viewpoint actually lent a depth to the book that was welcome. It felt as if we as readers were being given little clues as to the bigger picture throughout (even if we couldn’t always work out the relevance of what we were being told).

Once the tournament is about to start things picked up quite quickly. We had double-crosses, curses, alliances tested and a desperate attempt from each contestant to find a way to make themselves victorious. The increase in magic and the focus on the history of the Veil/contest stopped this from getting dull because not much happens for the first week of the trial.

People die, and there’s some scenes that may well have you taking a moment to recover from reading about them. As soon as it looks as if things are going well in terms of the competition we get something of a spanner in the works. The only way to win this is to be a villain. But what if you don’t want to be a villain?

Each of the characters is given time to reflect on the individual demands of this trial for them. Naturally, some characters are given more time than others. Our core cast of Briony, Isobel, Gavin and Alistair were very interesting. Each of them had their strengths, and I certainly felt like they were put through some tough situations in order to help us see the wider benefits of their choices.

We see there’s potential for upset here. Nothing ends in a way that makes it easy to call for the next book. Someone within the pages is shown to be more invested in the outcome than we might have believed, and I am excited to see exactly where this goes next.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me to read this before publication. It was a joy!

 

‘Once Upon a Broken Heart’ – Stephanie Garber

Due for release in September 2021, I have to thank the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

I adored the first two books in the Caraval series, and though the final brought some closure it didn’t work as successfully for me. This book features some of the characters that will be familiar to readers of Caraval (and though I think this could standalone, it offers more insight into the actions of some of the characters) and immerses us in another magical world where characters are pushed to their limits in order to define themselves.

Our main character is Evangeline Fox, who believes herself to be in love with childhood friend Luc. She is reeling from the sudden change of heart he appears to have had, and now he is about to marry her stepsister Evangeline wants to find a way to stop events that she believes shouldn’t be happening. So she strikes a bargain with Jacks…

Things do not go as expected. Suddenly the wedding party is turned to stone and Evangeline finds herself in a rather unusual situation. Without hesitation she sacrifices herself, so this is the kind of world that rewards selflessness…and then pitches her into the kind of scenario straight from Grimm’s fairytales.

We learn that Evangeline is sent up North, where she becomes betrothed to Prince Apollo. We know early on that manipulations are at play, but we’re not told the full extent. What we do learn is that many – Jacks included – believe Evangeline to be a crucial part of a long-believed prophesy.

The story focuses on the magic and machinations of those who desire something. Few are exactly as they seem, and it becomes a puzzle for Evangeline to work through. There’s plenty of hints as to what could happen, and we end on a sweet high…happy that some elements have been resolved, but sensing that Evangeline’s ordeal is far from over.

‘The City We Became’ – N.K. Jemisin

 

A fantasy like no other, in turns confusing and exhilarating.

In The City We Became we are asked to imagine a world under threat from a supernatural entity which invades its target, sucking the life out of it, consuming its essence and then taking its place in a new world. This could be seen as a metaphor for so many things, and though it did have me scratching my head a little initially I found myself engrossed in the fight.

These kinds of attacks have been going on for years. Nobody remembers the successful attacks as the city that is lost becomes nothing but a story. But this time is different because the city under attack is New York.

In this world, New York can be saved. It can be saved by the physical manifestations of the city – people who represent a borough of New York – working together to save the place they love.

When I started reading I really was not sure what to make of it. Manny, our first character introduced, remembers nothing of his life and can’t really place what’s happening to him. Though this makes it hard to gauge what’s happening, I felt it meant we learnt about the scenario as Manny did. Not really knowing New York I wouldn’t like to say whether the author has painted an accurate picture of these districts and cities, but it was a refreshing concept and highly entertaining.

‘The Gilded Cage’ – Lynette Noni

Due out in October 2021, I’m hugely grateful to have been given the opportunity to read this in advance of publication thanks to the publishers and NetGalley…and now I am in eager anticipation of book three.

The Gilded Cage opens with Kiva going to stay with Jaren. They have become close, and – for obvious reasons – Kiva is worried about her growing affection for this man who’s come to mean so much to her. He saved her during the Trial by Ordeal, and she cares for him, but her mission weighs heavily on her mind.

Much of the book focuses on the growing threat from the Rebels, and though we don’t get a lot of detail it is clear that there’s a more strategic fight going on than we’re told about. Jaren and his family are fighting to save the King, and to try to keep their people safe.

From the outset, I was curious to see how Kiva would adjust to her new situation. She finds it hard to trust people, but a couple of key moments within the book show us that learning to trust your own judgment is often the hardest battle. Much of her battle lies with her growing unease at what she has been charged with doing now she has come to see that things are not as clearcut as she has been led to believe.

After the revelations that come thick and fast at the end of this, it’s even harder to see how Kiva can hope to maintain the sense of equilibrium she had discovered thanks to Cal’s training and the support of those she trusts.

This is such a hard review to write as I don’t want to let crucial plot details slip. The pacing drew me in and I felt like I’d been put through the proverbial wringer by the end of it. There were highs…and lows…and I am genuinely excited to see how Noni continues this enthralling tale.

 

‘But for the Mountains’ – Erin Riha

 

The title of this story comes from a story retold late on in the book but which is central to the theme at the heart of this novel…that of survival. But for the Mountains focuses on the story of Arden, a young girl who has endured horrific abuse at the hands of those who should be protecting her, and how she learns to find ways to accept this element of her past and move into a new future.

While the story of survival and the character of Arden herself were engaging, I don’t feel this worked as effectively as it might have because of some of the other plot elements.

Our story is set in the fictional world of Nordania. There are many places within the country mentioned, but I never felt I really was given much to picture the world or how it came to be. We are, however, told that each year there is a group of young women who are sent to the National Institute in order to learn how to rise to their potential role within society – and, though this is never explicitly encouraged, the main aim is to secure a potential match for the Prime Minister’s son.

As a number of reviewers have commented, the competition between a group of young women to secure the hand in marriage of someone important has been done before. It is very reminiscent of The Selection – even down to the backstabbing and machinations to beat their rivals – but it was only once I got to the end of the book that I started to feel this was merely a device to allow the author to convey her message about the society, what these girls endure and how all who ‘look the other way’ are complicit in the abuse.

Arden herself is a character I found intriguing. She is broken, but by the end she is fighting and I definitely liked the way she ended the book. Her relationship with Beck was a curious one, and I’m convinced there is more to this man than meets the eye – how else could he get away with so much?

While there are elements of this book I found did not engage me, it certainly showed us a character determined not to give up, someone you want to succeed and a very real suggestion that she might do okay – in spite of the barriers placed in her way.

‘Namesake’ – Adrienne Young

Namesake picks up almost immediately after that rather frustrating ending of book one. Fable has been taken by Zola, and we are left to imagine what exactly he plans.

As we follow Fable we learn she is being taken to Holland. Though we haven’t seen her before, everyone fears her and it is suggested she is ruthless. However, over the course of the book she underestimates people time and time again and I wonder whether she is somewhat blinded by her familial ties. While it’s set up as something of a shock for those involved, Holland’s interest in Fable is obvious.

This book pits merchant against merchant. There’s the bigger picture of the wider community and how they are all affected by the dispute between Holland Saint. A lot of time is spent exploring the developing bond between West and Fable – though they are both so stubborn they forget that talking to each other is useful once in a while. We get a few diving scenes…and there’s more than one occasion for someone to spill their guts about their hopes and ambitions, and the plans they are putting in place to achieve them.

Once we’d got underway and I’d settled back into the rhythm of this I found myself racing through it. I enjoyed it immensely. However, things feel unresolved and I can’t help but wonder at the decision to leave some questions unanswered in something that is meant to be our closing chapter.