Tag: fantasy

The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater

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It is the first day of November and so today, someone will die…

How’s that for an opening line? It’s one of my absolute favourites. 

The Scorpio Races takes place on a small island where rabid horses rise out of the sea every autumn. The population of the island trains them and races them, and this story is about two racers. One is a boy who is an excellent trainer and one is a girl who’s only ever ridden a normal pony, but who needs the money from the races to save her family. 

It’s seldom I read a standalone so satisfying. Stiefvater creates a whole world in such a short space of time with this book. She manages to capture the life and beauty of this strange island in a way that makes it feel so very familiar. I was so sad to say goodbye to these characters that I immediately started the book again as soon as I ended it.

I aspire to write environment and character as well as she does. 

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Dawn’s Bright Talons – Nerine Dorman

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I don’t usually go for vampire stories, but when my friend, Nerine’s, novel became available on Audible, I had to give it a try. There’s a reason why this lady is my writing mentor. Her descriptive writing is beautiful and she creates an incredibly evocative vibe that is both haunting and lush.

Dawn’s Bright Talons is the story of Isabeau, a beautiful dancer, whose true nature is revealed after she gets bitten by a vampire. She’s a weapon against the night, and now all the night’s creatures want her dead. All except for the vampire Michel, who becomes her unlikely ally.

I’d highly recommend this story to fans of Anne Rice and eagerly await the sequel.

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Girl of Fire and Thorns – Rae Carson

On her 16th birthday, Elisa is married off to a king. She is the chosen one of her people, bearing a sacred stone in her navel, but she is barely an adult and has no concept of the dangerous machinations around her that may very well get her killed. She has to find her power, and the inner strength to use it, before it’s too late to save those she cares about most. 

After I read this book, I saw there was a lot of controversy around it, which made me sad. I initially bought it after waiting ages to find it locally (and it’s since been region locked on Audible so I can no longer purchase it in South Africa! Thank goodness I found it when I did.)

These are the things I loved about the book:

  • It’s beautifully written. The descriptions are rich and I found it easy to get into the main character’s head
  • The main character is overweight (the controversy stemmed from her losing some of the weight during the course of the story)
  • We often expect our YA heroines to be kickass or nothing at all. She doesn’t start off kickass, but she is always kind and that makes me route for her.
  • The main character is not without flaws and weaknesses, she isn’t perfect and accomplished from the get go 
  • The book is not Eurocentric, and offers a fresh fantasy experience
  • The cast of characters is memorable

Some people didn’t enjoy that the main character was religious, which is not something that I found off-putting myself. I see it as part of her character, and her discoveries about flaws in her religion are part of her character development.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-written YA. 

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Crooks & Straights – Masha du Toit

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You know that feeling you have on Christmas morning when you have a pile of presents before you, filled with potential? You’re excited to open them but also a bit trepidatious because maybe the promising shapes belie the contents. Maybe they’re going to be disappointments and you have to smile and be grateful all the while wishing that the shimmering paper had been filled with something else.

 

I came to Crooks & Straights with that Christmas morning feeling. I read the description on Amazon and thought, “Wow, I’ve got to get my hands on that”. Here it is:

 

Gia’s brother Nico is different from other boys. And being different can be dangerous in Gia’s world. Cape Town is no longer the haven for magical refugees that it once was. The Purists want to get rid of all magic and the newspapers are full of dreadful stories about the Belle Gente, the magical terrorists.

 

None of this concerns Gia, until the Special Branch— police who investigate the illegal use of magic— come knocking at her door, looking for Nico. When Gia turns to her parents for help, she finds only more secrets. Then she realises that she was the one who put her brother in danger.

 

I am delighted to report that Crooks & Straights was not in any way a disappointment. As I turned the pages, it really felt like I was unwrapping a beautiful and thoughtful gift.

 

There are so many surprises and hidden bits of magic along the way. I won’t spoil them, but here are a few of the things I liked best about this book.

  1. Masha isn’t only a writer but an artist too. She has scattered the book with her own illustrations.
  2. Politics plays a big part in this story. Politics between the magical and unmagical but also in an allegorical way. There are issues of cultural sensitivity that are common in South African fiction, but in this case the cultures in question are things like trolls and fairies.
  3. Magic is normailsed in this world in a way that makes me think of embroidery. Masha has done an amazing job of stitching it on to everyday life in such a way that it feels totally familiar and natural.
  4. There is a very South African flavour to the world that Masha has created. You get an idea of what it’s like to live here – the diversity of language (magical creatures have different names in different languages) and culture, the socio-economic divides.
  5. Subtle world building that’s the perfect recipe for a book hangover.

 

Luckily, Crooks and Straights is the first part in a duology and, as I’m late to the party here, the other book, Wolf Logic, is already out 🙂

 

Disclaimer: I was given a digital copy of this book as a gift from the author.

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

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People had been telling me to read Sanderson for ages, so I was very happy to discover this standalone in a secondhand bookshop.

It was good. But it wasn’t as amazing as I was expecting. Apparently it’s not the best starting point, but it was less of a commitment than the alternatives (and at over 500 pages that’s saying something!).

Synopsis

Two princess sisters are forced by circumstances to play the political roles they are unprepared for.

While the conservative Vivenna trained her entire life to become a warlord’s queen, it’s her younger vivacious sister, Siri, who gets the dubious honour. Vivenna goes to save her sister from her fate and ends up tangled in political intrigues she can’t hope to understand, meanwhile Siri discovers a long-buried secret that could ruin them all.

Conclusion

The selling point of this novel is the magic system, which is based partly on colour. It was a nice, fresh, hook.

But it took me a long while to care about the characters and what became of them and their world. I forced myself to keep at it, because I’ve heard such good things, and I’m glad I did. About half way (or maybe three quarters of the way through) something clicked and it became a page-turner.

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Charm – Cat Hellisen

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Synopsis

Irene’s is in love with her gay best friend and things take a turn for the worst when he seems to fall for an aging goth – a man who Irene saw die. Strange magic is afoot in this Johannesburg-based urban fantasy. Little does Irene know that she’s a part of it… and it’s a part of her.

Conclusion

Hellisen’s descriptive writing is amazing.

Every work of hers has a very distinct mood that’s easy to get lost in. Her stories are always different from the norm, meaning anything can (and often does) happen. I loved her portrayal of a gritty Joburg and the characters in this story were all interesting and flawed.

I look forward to being able to purchase a hard copy for my bookshelf 🙂

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House of Sand and Secrets – Cat Hellisen

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Synopsis

Felicita has arranged her own marriage, thinking that will make life bearable, but when it’s marriage to a vampire, in a city rife with prejudice, it comes with its own set of consequences. While dark political forces are at work, Felicita has to struggle to keep herself, and the man she married, safe. Matters of the heart can wait. Or can they?

Conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised by When the Sea is Rising Red (the first Book of Oreyn) because it was so different from other books I’ve read in the genre. House of Sand and Secrets is set in the same world, but the atmosphere, to me, is much darker – and once again I found myself surprised. Hellisen doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable themes and once you realise this you know there’s nowhere this story will be afraid to go.

I really did love it. I whizzed through it in 3 days. Compared to When the Sea is Rising Red, it felt shorter and slightly less meaty, you encounter fewer characters and there are fewer twists and turns in the narrative. However, it’s the kind of story – and world – that haunts you long after you put the book down.

I think that readers approaching this novel thinking they will find a run-of-the-mill fantasy romance would probably be disappointed, but for me the world-building, human rights issues and rich descriptions have earned it a permanent place on my bookshelf. I can’t wait for the next one!

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When the Sea is Rising Red – Cat Hellisen

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Synopsis

Felicita flees her privileged life and arranged marriage in hopes of finding a fate better than her late best friend did. Living on the streets is not what she expected and she soon becomes wrapped up in matters that are far beyond her comprehension.

Conclusion

One comes to a YA fantasy expecting certain things. The female main character will do some growing up, she’ll find a lover (possibly more than one) and the world will be affected for her having been in it but mostly we’ll just be happy that she gets to live happily ever after in the end. It’s one of those genres that can become formulaic.

Let’s be clear about something: there is nothing about this novel that is formulaic. At times it flirts with those expectations, and then subverts them. At times it dances with ideas of normality, and then abandons them. You never know where the plot will take you next and that is so amazingly refreshing.

The best part about this book is the world-building. The descriptions are so rich that when you put it down you will miss it terribly. So you don’t put it down. You just read until 3am, until it’s done.

 

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A Game of Thrones – George RR Martin

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I’ll admit it: I came to this book because I saw the HBO series and loved it. I was hungry for more and I’d heard good things about the book.

I was not at all disappointed. In fact I was beyond impressed. It was the most amazing book to screen adaptation I’ve seen yet – the very dialogue was the same and the characters stepped off the pages almost exactly as they’d appeared on screen. Books have a 4-dimensional quality that a series can never have, however. It was a treat to be able to lose myself in the action I’d seen on screen, to see the thoughts behind those actions.

Synopsis

Warden of the North, Lord Eddard Stark, has to travel to the capital city to take up office as King Robert’s “Hand”. His sense of honour and duty clashes with the politics of the court and the corrupt characters there. Meanwhile a deadly Winter threatens, promising to bring horrific creatures of myth back to life.

Conclusion

Martin’s descriptions are beautiful but also full of emotive strength and poignant foreshadowing. Here’s an example:

“Through the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes upon the walls where the heads of the dragons had once hung. Now the stone was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and browns and blues, and yet still it seemed to Ned Stark that the only colour in the hall was the red of blood.”

He manages to balance this description masterfully with rich characterisation that brings the world to life slowly through the eyes of its protagonists.

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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West – Gregory Maguire

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How strange that someone read this book and thought to make a musical of it of all stories.

Synopsis

The Wizard of Oz told from the witch’s perspective, including the strange tale of her birth and parentage and her university years when she shared a dorm room with Glinda.

Conclusion

I found it incredibly dark. While there were pieces of humour and satire that poked through, they were smothered by the over-arching existentialism and blatant issue wrestling (animal rights, religious extremism and race relations stood at the centre, the characters merely painted puppets acting out the issues).

It was an angsty read with no satisfying resolution, though bewitching in its own way.

I can’t say I couldn’t put it down. I did. Many times. But I kept coming back to it so I guess that’s something.

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