The Copper Promise – 3.5*

Book: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

This book has been hard to get round to reviewing because I really did enjoy it and I definitely want to read more of the series, but there were elements of it that threw me and the most confusing thing is that I am not sure I can think of a better way they could have been done so I don’t know exactly why it didn’t quite entirely come together for me.

But anyway, brief overview of the book is that two friends, Wydrin: A woman who is excellent with knives and Sebastian: an ex-Knight, are off into a dungeon that used to belong to very powerful Mages along with a nobleman called Frith. The two friends are in search of a friend of theirs who already went into the dungeon and didn’t come out, the other is paying them to get him into the place as there is something in there that he wants.

The book doesn’t actually stay as long in the dungeon as you might expect, in fact the number of directions the book takes can be dizzying at times. I am an avid roleplayer and at times it felt like a party of PCs who refuse to follow the GMs instructions and keep haring off on their own in different directions, which can be disconcerting at times. But every split up and reunification makes perfect sense in light of what is going on so the most I can say is that it doesn’t fit what you might expect from most fantasy books.

There is quite a lot of emotion in the book and it definitely packs a good punch at a couple of points. I think I would have liked more slow bits at times and less frantic action (though again, given the plot the frantic pace makes sense). The characters make you very fond of them and their very human flaws are wonderful to see.

I will definitely be picking up the rest of the series at some point and I am also bearing in mind that this is Jen’s debut novel and I know she has recently won a British Fantasy Award so I think overall there is great potential here for her later books to be even better.

So worth a look if you don’t mind imperfect gems and I am sure her later series is definitely worth a read (and I shall certainly be doing so at some point!)

Note that I gave this book 4* on Goodreads because I feel that it’s much better to round scores up rather than down. 3 would be doing it a disservice.

Planetfall series (5* on average)

The Planetfall series by Emma Newman (Planetfall, After Atlas and Before Mars)

I was going to write separate posts for each of these, but I haven’t written anything for the blog in far too long so instead of trying to make myself write a post for each I thought I would try and push myself back into writing this by doing all of them at once. There may be some spoilers though I will try and keep them to a minimum.

Planetfall (4*)

So I read the first book of the series for my book club and the way it ended up I read it completely on two train journeys (not a fun journey unfortunately, but the book was a very welcome distraction) which took me around 4 1/2 hours in total because it sucked me in completely and totally, so for a fast reader like me I really clipped through it.

The main character is very compelling and as is the mysteries presented in the book. What is the weird organic city? What did happen in the past? Where did the stranger come from? And it unravels all of these using flashbacks mixed with the present story of what is happening.

What really amazed me was the slow revealing of the main character’s mental health issues, which was wonderfully well done. I should warn that the book has a really well done description of a panic attack so if you suffer from these be warned as it might grip you a little too hard if you are not careful.

The pacing towards the end is perhaps a little off, at least the biggest complaint about it was that the ending came around a little suddenly. It may just be that where the story was going isn’t as noticably telegraphed as people expected. I mean, it was fast but I will admit that I loved the ending. It was beautiful to watch someone process their trauma and for someone who has been through trauma and has mental health issues the whole story made me want to cry with joy and relief that someone could write something that spoke to me so clearly.

And if the ending wasn’t your cup of tea I still recommend sticking with this series because the next book is even better than this one.

 

After Atlas (5*)

The book is set in the same universe of Planetfall, but this book follows what happens on the Earth after the people who left on Atlas have gone and what that means. The main character is an indentured servant working as a detective and follows him trying to determine who or what killed a man he used to know in his youth.

I have heard that the reason many people set detective novels before the internet and mobile phones is because they think those things will wreck their story. Well, this book basically sticks fingers up to that idea and manages to pull off an amazing murder mystery despite the protagonist having technology at his fingertips that modern day policing would love I am sure.

There is a wonderful tension between him unravelling what happened and also dealing with his own past trauma as well as his personal situation. The atmosphere created when you realise how little control he has over his own life is heart-rending and claustrophobic and so very well written.

I’ve never had an issue loving male characters (or characters who do not echo me closely), but it’s rare for me to see myself so strongly represented in some ways in a male character, but the way he deals with his trauma caught my breath a number of times and I felt so strongly for him and wanted it all to work out.

Oh and the ending will knock your socks off. Well, I mean it might not, but it definitely did for me!

 

Before Mars (5*)

This book runs slightly concurrently with the events in After Atlas and deals with a woman arriving for a stint of working on Mars only to feel that something is off. She finds a strange note, things aren’t quite where they should be, and it seems that there is more going on here than there should be. That or she is slowly losing her mind.

As with the rest of the series it deals with the mystery of what is going on superbly and though you can definitely work out parts of what is going on before the whole thing is revealed, there is enough surprises to keep you guessing and interested in what is going on.

The other thing I want to talk about is how well Emma deals with the subject of post partum depression and how motherhood is not always a magical, wondrous thing for ever mother and how isolating and difficult feeling like that can be. Now, I am not someone who is ever planning on having children and being able to see this perspective on things was still really interesting and made me really feel for the character. I mean, from a different angle but I know what it is like for society to make you feel like you are broken for not being what is expected of you.

There are some spoilers in the book for the finale of After Atlas and whilst you can still read them in any order between the two, you will miss the impact of the bigger world events at the end of After Atlas if you didn’t read that one first (also it’s really good).

This one is just as good as After Atlas in my opinion and like the whole series the blend of mystery and someone dealing with personal mental health issues is fantastic. One of the things I love is all the main characters in this series are very competent at what they do, their mental health affects things sure, but it doesn’t stop them from excelling in other ways and that is really refreshing to see.

Emma also has characters who are LGBTQIA+ and it’s mentioned but it’s not the focus of their story, just a part of who they are and that’s pretty cool. There’s nothing wrong with those things being a big part of a story if that’s what someone wants to tell, but it’s also lovely to have characters who are casually queer without commentary on the fact, make it normalised in a way that is frankly fantastic.

 

The next book, Atlas Alone, is out in April and available to pre-order, so that’s something to look forward to!

Empire of Sand – 5*

Books: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

I have been wanting to read this book since I found out about it at FantasyCon and was lucky enough to meet the author and chat to her a bit. Sadly I missed out on picking up one of the five advanced copies they had on sale, but was lucky enough to get one at SFXCon on the 10th, so a few days before it’s actual release on the 15th.

I’ve been reading quite a few debut novels lately and I am very much enjoying this as you get to see such promise in them and they are often a breath of fresh air, something new and different to read, and Empire of Sand definitely meets that promise. One of the reasons I was so keen to read it was because I found out it was based on the Mughal Empire of India.

Now in case you start thinking that you can’t possibly relate to a story from a culture not your own, this story is a very human tale of love, loss, family, despair and hope and there is plenty for you to relate to, even if the culture it is based on is not your own. It’s not my culture but I absolutely adored this books.

The language does an excellent job of making you envision the world, I had a really good idea of what everything looked like in my head as the story swept me along with it. I loved the characters too, especially the fact that they get quite a lot of development time and the motivations felt very real, even those of the antagonist.

One of the things I loved was that the book does get quite dark in places, there is some nasty violence particularly towards women (though no sexual assault) and in places it also deals with forms of slavery and lack of free will. Despite this, the book never loses its sense of hope and the characters never entirely lose their agency either. None of the violence feels gratuitous or done just for effect either, it has a point in the story and also real consequences for the characters.

I read a lot of books with female protagonists and one of the reasons I loved Mehr in this book is that she is not a fighter, she doesn’t kickass through everyone who tries to hurt her, but she doesn’t need to do so to be strong. Her courage in getting through dark times, in trying to protect her family and those she loves is wonderful to behold and her own journey of realising what she is capable of and her place in the world is fantastic.

Well I have gushed quite a lot so far on the book so did I think there were any issues with it? To be honest I have only one minor niggle. There is a bit early on in the book where the main character details that men get to remove their marriage sigil at a certain point, though it’s clear she doesn’t know when and then later on she gasps when someone removes his when he hasn’t earned it. There is an explanation then of how she found that out, but it still felt jarring as where she learned it is skipped and so that scene didn’t quite work for me.

But seriously, I can’t really think of anything else bad to say about the book, it’s better than many books I have read that were someone’s third or fourth books, let alone being their first.

Having read the brief blurb about the second book in this series you can be guaranteed I will be awaiting the next instalment with baited breath.

Under the Pendulum Sun – 5*

Book: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

I first heard about this book last year at Nine Worlds, but I only made a note of it in the margins of my panel notes (like a fool) and then got distracted by life and forgot to track it down later.

Thankfully I then heard about it again at Nine Worlds this year and then it was for sale at FantasyCon when the author was around so I managed to finally pick up a copy and get it signed (just before she won an award for it too!)

When talking about the book the author described it as “come for the faeries, stay for the theology) which is a pretty apt description of how things work. The book is told from the point of view of Catherine Helstone, the sister of a missionary who has been sent to spread the word of God in Faerie and she follows him there to help with that task.

The book is written in the style of a Gothic novel, with all the haunting imagery, strange occurrences and mystery that this generally evokes. It’s beautifully crafted, not just the use of words but the establishment of the different characters and the slow unveiling of the plot until you are finally brought to a crashing conclusion that you do not quite want to believe.

It makes you root for things you would never expect to be rooting for, has twists and turns that can be seen ahead if you manage to stop being swept up in the story, but even then I don’t think if you do work out what is happening that it will actually ruin anything for you (though I shall have to wait and see how a second reading plays out).

There’s so much I could say, but I am very cautious about putting anything that could be spoilery into this review because I honestly do not want to ruin the experience for anyone else who reads it.

I will say that the book deals with themes of sin, belief, the nature of souls, religion and a great deal more and it does get incredibly philosophical at times. If you are expecting a fun light-hearted romp with fairies then this is not the book for you,  but if the gothic novel style appeals then this will be right up your street.

The main character is very well written, I found her journey to be very relatable, the story of a woman restricted and restrained by the time period she is a part of and trying to make what she can of herself as a result. The complex relationship with her brother is excellent depicted and the depths of it unravel in a very intriguing way, as well as how she relates to the other people/Fae in the house.

The setting of the book is also mostly around this crazy rambling mansion called Gethsemane, which is incredibly fitting for the gothic style and brings it’s own mystery as to where the house came from and why it looks the way it does. Even the otherworldly nature of the land, with it’s pendulum sun and moon made of a fish chasing a lantern, give you an excellent picture in your mind of how this strange land might look and how it might feel to those not from there.

One of the other things I loved were the quotations at the beginning of every chapter. I grew up reading books like Watership Down and I have always retained a love for these sort of thematic inserts that tell you something of what might be about to happen, without saying so directly. The ones in this book are a mix of real historical pieces of writing, or altered ones to fit with the Fae theme more. Either way I found they added a depth to the work that put it on a whole new level.

The fact that this book is the author’s debut work blows me away and I can only hope that there will be many more in the future!

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – 5*

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

This is me trying to get through my backlog of books I have read this year but haven’t reviewed yet. This one I bought back in February at SFXCon after I met the author and decided she was cool and I wanted to get something and get it signed and this one stood out to me from the books on offer.

It’s a story about a woman who everyone forgets, the amount of time it takes her to be forgotten depends on how long the interaction has been but as soon as she is out of sight the process starts and after a short while they have removed all memory of those interactions. Given it’s hard to hold down a job or a place to live when everyone forgets you, she makes her way in the world as a thief. The story takes place with the rise of a social media device that aims to make people “perfect” and she gets involved with someone who wants to bring that device down.

I don’t want to go into much more detail than that because otherwise it will get too spoilery so instead I am going to gush about some other things instead.

Basically I loved this book, one of the best things I have read this year. The writing style is very interesting, there are a few places in the book where she plays with how the words are written on the page to invoke certain feelings and effects and it really works. The language is also lovely and evocative and results in a very clear idea of who the character is and isn’t.

Also, how often do we get to see a book with a female protagonist who is a thief and yet still has a clear moral code despite her situation in life and the aching loneliness that is forced on her. Hope is a flawed person portrayed in a very realistic way and you find yourself desperately rooting for her and the ending of the book is both lovely and also in some ways still unexpected.

Seriously, read this book because it is wonderfully written and carries you along with it through a fascinating and very well crafted story.

Tooth and Claw – 4*

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

I bought this book because someone described it to me as Pride and Prejudice with dragons and since I love both of those things it sounded exceptionally appealing.

Going into this book you need to have more suspension of disbelief than usual when dealing with fantasy elements, largely because the visual of massive dragons (the sizes described in the book of some of them are really large) dancing, wearing hats and going to church is incredibly strange and somewhat hard to picture.

Bearing that in mind this is a very enjoyable book that creates a very interesting society that bears at least a superficial resemblance to the world of Jane Austen. I would say that it is deficient in one aspect that to me is very important in regards to Jane Austen’s work, there isn’t much satire of society contained within the book, which is a shame but I guess that wasn’t the story the author wished to tell.

The story follows the lives of several dragons from the same family dealing with the aftermath of the death of their father. We get to see the perspectives of several characters and they are done well, with each having clear personalities and desires that are separate from each other.

The society these characters are in is quite sexist though I would have liked a bit more of a delve into some of the issues the author touches on. There are hints of domestic abuse and a somewhat more detailed look at the notion of “purity” and it’s grip on the view of women in that society. There are clear allegories here and some definite links to real world issues but I guess I felt that the presentation was a little too hands off in places where I would have liked to see more impact and personal response.

Even then I did thoroughly enjoy the book which kept a mostly Austen feel for the whole length of it and it was certainly a unique and unusual concept for a story and that was incredibly refreshing.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – 4*

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin.

We did this one for our Science-Fiction and Fantasy book club. It caused some interesting debate, seems to be one of those books people either really love or they hate.

Personally I really enjoyed it quite a lot, I also own The Fifth Season, but I haven’t started reading that yet (it’s the series she won the Hugo awards for) and I am now very much looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.

This is her first novel I believe, and as such I do forgive it quite a bit because obviously the first time someone is learning what works and what doesn’t and their work is unlikely to be perfect and polished. There are some definite flaws to the book, the romance is a little weird, though no weirder than many supernatural romances to be fair. There is a particular description in regards to a sex scene I won’t put here, but that did make me chuckle quite a bit.

Overall though it’s a story that goes in unexpected directions at times and I really liked that. Often the protagonist of a tale does everything right, or things just happen to end up going their way, often in a typical and choreographed fashion and that just wasn’t the case here.

The main character could do with some more exploration of what it is to be her, perhaps a little more agency in places, but overall I found it an interesting look at what someone who is wholly unprepared for the position she is thrust into does to deal with all of that, especially when she is relatively young and inexperienced with politics.

The setting was something I found particularly striking. I love mythologies and have been reading myths and legends from all over the world since I was a very small child (though the earliest ones I read were heavily sanitised versions of them) so the mythological aspect of the world building particularly appealed, with all of the stuff about the gods being some of my favourite parts of the book.

I don’t want to go into spoiler laden territory, I will say that aspects of the ending are telegraphed quite strongly in the book, perhaps a little too heavily in places where it might have been better to do more show than tell, but I didn’t find that it ruined the story for me (though it was a sticking point for other members of our book group). The ending itself surprised me in some ways given that it is a trilogy and I am curious about where the story is going from here, but I enjoyed the book enough that I will pick the others up at some point and find out.

Overall I personally recommend it, it’s a fun read with an interesting world and it’s good to see more books with diverse voices doing well in the world.

 

Station Eleven – 2*

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

This will likely be a controversial opinion as I am well aware how beloved this book seems to be, but I will admit that on the whole I did not like it. I am going to try and say some nice things about it, I didn’t hate the book, but it did make me angry at points and that coloured my opinion of it very strongly so I may have failed to see other good things in it as a result.

It is a well written book, not remotely helped by the blurb on the back of the book. This isn’t really a story about the woman mentioned, it’s an interwoven tale jumping between points before a disease wipes out a lot of humanity, and points years afterwards as the survivors are trying to put society back together.

I did like that overall this is quite a positive story. A lot of post apocalyptic fiction these days is pretty grim and horrible with little hope for the future and this was very much not that sort of thing, so I do find it a shame on that front that I did not like this book as I could do with more positive stuff to read.

My main dislike of the book comes down to points to do with its treatment of mental and physical disabilities and trauma. This is mild spoilerific, but not massively so. Early on in the book we are introduced to one of the PoV characters’ brother, who is in a wheelchair. When they are running low on supplies after the outbreak and need to head out, the disabled brother commits suicide because he apparently decides that he cannot possibly survive out there so decides not to try.

At a later point, also dealing with the direct aftermath of the outbreak, there is a group of survivors all together in an airport. A young woman, seventeen years old I think, asks around about anti-depressant medication because she has run out. No one has any, she goes through a few days of withdrawal and then walks off into the forest along with none of her stuff and I read an implication there that she has also gone to commit suicide.

These incidents are the main way in which we see physical or mental disabilities portrayed in the book and they are done in a way that suggests that such people cannot possibly survive in this new world and that made me deeply, deeply angry. I do not see why she included these and found them to be insulting and awful in a fundamental way that I just could not get over.

She also seems to glide over the effects of trauma on all of the other survivors. Brief mention is made of them all suffering some sort of trauma because of what they have been through, but we don’t really see it for the most part. I can understand, when you want to do a more positive take on things why you might not want to dwell on it, but some deeper nod to how that would have affected them would have been nice, especially in light of the above examples which she included for reasons beyond my understanding.

I mean, this wasn’t the only thing I disliked, but it did make it very hard for me to like anything else in the book as a result of it being included. I will admit I also found it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped to see. I would have preferred a narrative that did a better job of evoking the idea that we need more than survival as a species. There were hints of it: the comics, the orchestra, someone starting a newspaper, the museum of the world before the outbreak, but I felt like a thin story was plastered over those themes rather than being fully explored. In fact the main plot, such as it was, felt very thin and more as though someone had told her that there needed to be some sort of plot rather than because it was all that important and that being the case, I would rather have done without it entirely and had something else in its place.

Unfortunately I cannot recommend this one personally, though plenty of people do enjoy it so it may well be your thing, but it certainly isn’t mine.

Guns of the Dawn – 5*

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

There are some minor spoilers for the book in the review, but I have tried to keep them to a minimum.

I have read a couple of Adrian’s books already and when I started talking about how much I liked them I kept being told that I must read Guns of the Dawn. So I was in a bookshop and saw a copy (bonus, it was signed) and picked it up to read.

The basic premise is that one Kingdom is at war with it’s neighbouring country who are now a Republic after the murder of their King. The other country are invading and the draft has already called for almost every able-bodied man between 15 and 50 but it hasn’t been enough so a draft of women is called for.

The book follows Emily Marshwic as she joins the war and her experiences there, the choices she makes and how it affects her, those around her and her country as a whole.

I adored this book, it was very difficult to put down and an incredibly compelling read. One of the main things I loved about it is that Emily manages to be a very real person, which isn’t that common, in my experience, with female characters written by male authors, especially ones who could be seen to fit the Strong Female Character trope.

But Emily is allowed to be scared, to cry, to fuck things up and also to have her own sexuality and desires without being punished for them. She is allowed to have male and female friendships and even the romantic interests she has in the book doesn’t follow entirely expected paths.

There are a couple of incidents of attempted violence on her person that is not to do with war and that was a little frustrating, though not unexpected I suppose given the context of the book. My only real issue with it was that she manages so well to deal with her attackers, something that is hard to manage in reality, though not impossible of course. Still, in many ways I would rather have that than the alternative, so it’s only a minor quibble.

The depiction of war was done very well. It’s evocative of things I have read about a number of different wars, which I am sure was done on purpose. It’s also very unusual to have a fantasy book set in this sort of era, but I loved it for that as it meant that there was something very different about it. It also had interesting comments to make on a very split society, both along gender and class lines and the effects both of those¬† have on someone’s life. In some ways her class gave Emily an advantage, even whilst her gender did not.

As mentioned before, Emily has both male and female friendships in the book and I really appreciated that. Too often the Strong Female Protagonist trope are basically surrounded by men entirely and you don’t get to see them much with other women. In this book the relationship between Emily and her two sisters is explored, along with other women she meets in the war and that was such a refreshing change.

Overall I thought it was very atmospheric, dealt with the subject matter well and sensitively and managed to create something both poignant and interesting to read without being too depressing and hopeless.

I shall add my voice to the many who already say that you should read this book for you should, it is excellent and well worth a look. I am struggling to decided whether or not I prefer this to Children of Time. In the end I think I shall say that they are two pretty different books and that I adore them both for very different reasons.

The Court of Broken Knives – 4*

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

I am going to go back and do reviews for some of the other books I have read this year, probably over the next few months (I don’t want to do too much at once). But I figured if I was going to do reviews I should start with the book I just read first so it is still fresh in my mind.

I bought The Court of Broken Knives back at SFXCon in February where I first got the chance to meet the author and I liked what she said about the book so I decided to get it. Since I have such a ridiculous to read pile it’s been sitting in that since and her appearance at the last SRFC is the reason I dusted it off and got to work.

As someone who studied Classics, a fantasy book inspired by Alexander the Great certainly got my attention. It’s a very violent book, lots of battles and gore in it, as well as some sex too (though more mentions of it than graphic depictions of sexual activities).

The strangest thing I found about this book is that it would be easy to think it was by a male author, that may be internal biases showing based on the fact that it has way more male characters than female and the focus on war and fighting is more than would be typical. I will admit to a part of me being a bit irritated about not having more female stories in it, but on the other hand I really want things to get to the point where there is so much good representation of female characters in books that it doesn’t matter if a woman chooses to write primarily from the point of men.

The main female character in the book also starts off well, but then seems to turn into someone mostly obsessed with a man who doesn’t seem to get much agency or story after that point. I am hoping that this will improve later on in the series as it is most definitely a detractor from an otherwise enjoyable book.

This is a really dark book (as the mention of violence earlier might give away), most of the characters in it are not exactly lovely people, but the world building is really excellent and I found myself very caught up in it all. There is also a lot of grey in it, characters are capable of very different acts in a short space of time.

If a fantasy based on real life wars is not appealing to you then do not read this. It does not pull punches with the violence and it will not be the book for you. Overall I did like it though and I am curious where the trilogy will go next. The second book is currently out in Hardback and when it is in paperback I will likely pick it up.