Paladin’s Grace by T.Kingfisher

“Stephen’s god died a little after noon on the longest day of the year. […] It had never occurred to Stephen or any of the others that a god could die. Such things happened in mythology, not in real life”

Paladin’s Grace was a book I stumbled across – much like how Grace encounters Stephen early on in the novel – entirely by chance. I’d been riding on a high of playing a lot of fantasy ttrpg (tabletop rpgs), and wanted the chance to sink my teeth into a new fantasy book to pass the time.

And then, I found this. 


The premise of the book had me intrigued immediately before I even opened the first page, and then the first chapter hooked me entirely. Even for someone as agnostic as I am, I have a deep, abiding love of seeing how faith and pantheons of gods are depicted in fantasy worlds. I’ve seen gods disappearing in fantasy books, their magic ebbing from a broken world (R.S Ford’s A Demon in Silver is a good example of this), or fantasy books with no religion at all. But a god – the “Saint of Steel”, a god of barbarian-like, scarily precise, and holy killing machines – dying? Their followers left to pick up the pieces? This I had to read.

The book is engagingly written, a heady blend of romance, fantasy, intrigue, and mystery, such that I raced through it in less than 48hrs, my eyes practically glued to the page.

It follows Stephen – a paladin without a god, a towering man in chainmail who likes knitting in his spare time – and Grace – a talented perfumer with a wish to disappear from a distasteful past life – as they meet and, slowly, kindle a romance that is very much the heart of the story. Their bashful flirting and burgeoning sexual frustration for one another was an absolute joy to read, although perhaps clouded the ongoing plot (and trust me, there are a lot of subplots flying about) to uncover a potential murder the two find themselves embroiled in.

“Stephen had no idea how you complimented a woman on her ability to imitate someone in the throes of passion without sounding like an unrepentant lecher.”

That being said, whilst I love romance, and whilst this was maturely written with a lot of realistic bumps along the way (the protagonists are in their 30s) it was a little much for my taste, as I was also keenly interested in the other aspects of the book that Kingfisher merely touches on.

And boy, was there so much about this book that I wanted Kingfisher to explore further.

Whilst it plays off recognisable fantasy tropes and archetypes (paladins, priests, a pseudo-medieval town) that is not to say that the world-building is dull. My intrigue away from the main love story, I suppose, is testament to the rich world Kingfisher had created, and something I found myself fascinated with. What were these different sects worshipping different gods, each with different sorts of followers? Who were these other gods? So much history and lore seemed to burst from the page, and I am only sad that they didn’t have time to focus on it for longer. (If another book detailing these things ever were to appear, I would totally read it, just saying).

“Have you seen any of the severed heads that have turned up around the city?”
“Saw one.”
“And?”
“I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the cause of death was decapitation.”

Notably, Kingfisher isn’t afraid to shy away from the deeper, darker aspects of human emotion. Suicide is mentioned, and both Stephen and Grace are individuals who are very much dealing with and recovering from their own emotional baggage and traumatic pasts – which are examined and explored with both tact and empathy. But there is a lightheartedness and humour to this book that adds to this, and the supporting characters help to add to the feeling of creating this real and vivid world. The author does a brilliant job at exploring the city through smells in particular, which effectively conjures and gives an interesting perspective to the world.


As one example, given that Grace is a master perfumer, albeit far less sinister than Patrick Suskind’s Jean-Baptiste in Perfume, there is an amusing segment when she contemplates the possibilities of bottling up human scent to capture the essence of Stephen (such are the depths of her immediate sexual longing over him). It is sections such as this, that add another element of humour and depth to the novel.

The character’s aren’t perfect, but clumsy, flawed, and real – although if you’re prone to intense bouts of second-hand embarrassment from watching characters stumble through social situations, perhaps find yourselves duly warned.

So, if you’re looking for another fantasy book fix during your time inside, filled with romance, and a dash of mystery and intrigue, I would heartily recommend this book.

Manuscripts of the Mind by Jessie J’ng

*Thank you Ghost and Ribbon for this gifted copy of Jessie J’ng’s poetry collection. #Ad

Poetry is a genre of literature which has the unique quality of needing so few words to affect us profoundly. Or as Edgar Allen Poe puts it, “poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words”. That idea is precisely what Jessie J’ng’s poetry collection Manuscripts of the Mind aims to do, writing with ‘innate rhythm’, to explore bi-polar disorder, and the meaning of life more broadly, in a different light.

As she states in her foreword, her words are carefully chosen, each syllable and word placed like steps to a dance, poised and written down with such precise forethought and meaning, you cannot help but be impressed.

It has been a while since I read poetry, and so the opportunity to read a flourishing new poet and her collection was a joy. J’ng’s poems are largely freeform, and short, although that is not to say they are simplistic by any means.

Her attempts to explore bi-polar through the written word in such a unique context is an interesting one, and whilst I thought certain poems didn’t quite offer up any particular meaning, the rhyming couplets were too forced, or there was no apparent connecting thread that I could follow between certain lines, perhaps that is the point. As she states in her poem ‘Mind of Mine’ halfway through this collection ‘Yet mine / a mind / uncategorised’ putting her poems in a box to understand them better is precisely what we shouldn’t be doing.

My favourite poems were the ones which contained vivid metaphors or description, such as ‘Sinking Voyager’ or ‘Paralysis’ – the latter poem one which I felt really struck to the core of this collection’s exploration of bi-polar.

However, it should be said that poetry is a very polarising genre, and so the poems might not be to everyone’s taste, depending on what your opinion of what “good” poetry looks like. People who prefer a more modern twist – J’ng is not unlike Rupi Kaur in that sense – will undoubtedly like this. Indeed, the poetry evident in this collection, is as much about the highly aesthetic structure as it is about the words.

Her poem, ‘Consequence’, is one such example of a concrete poem (a poem that takes a shape, where the shape itself has meaning). Here, the words at the start symbolise raindrops, which form into block sentences towards the end. Just as the raindrops form a shape, so do smaller actions build up to larger consequences. It is this precise attention to detail in her work that I especially liked about this collection.

J’ng ends with a poem named (I think aptly so) ‘The Sound of Metamorphosis’. Metamorphosis, she says, ‘sounds like / Movement in silence / a moving stillness / a juxtaposition’ – and through this process and her work, the author herself has grown, distilling her unique sound and mind in one final symphonic note that lingers on the page.

About Manuscripts of the Mind:
This poetry collection can be bought in the Ghost and Ribbon online shop.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Luke Arnold’s debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City – the first installment in the Fetch Phillips Archives – is the type of noir fairy-tale so immersive and vivid, you can almost smell the scent of whiskey (or in this case Milkwood, a sugary drink favoured by our protagonist) smothered on the page. Its heady blend of fairy-tale fantasy characters are mixed with the teeming seedy metropolis that is Sunder City, making for a unique, highly enjoyable blend of genres.

We are introduced to a city whose heart has been bloodily ripped out of its chest; a shambolic, zombified cityscape, shuffling through and struggling to come to terms with the “Coda” (the term for the ruinous period of time the world now finds itself in, where magic has simply stopped working – and a piece of naming lore I really enjoyed).

“So you’re a Man for Hire?”
“That’s right”
“Why don’t you just call yourself a detective?”
“I was worried that might make me sound intelligent”

Because, of course, this is a book that starts at the end. We are thrown into the wake of a magical disaster, and as we fall into this pit of grey, grim despair we find our protagonist, through whose first person perspective we see. A “recluse, recruit, soldier and a criminal”, Fetch Phillips is possessed of the perfect blend of dry humour, gruff likeability, and emotional depth. A perpetual underdog and barely functioning alcoholic trying to make up for the mistakes of his past, Arnold creates a surprisingly emotionally nuanced character, who you want to see do better. Tasked to find a disappeared vampire teacher, we follow Phillips on a journey as he uncovers more and more mysterious, tangled threads, all the while trying to atone for his past as the person who caused this magical catastrophe.

Whilst admittedly cliched in parts, The Last Smile in Sunder City feeds into classic noir tropes with gleeful, reckless abandon, done in such a way that it comes across as enthralling rather than off-putting. Tangled up with this fantasy element, in some ways this novel reminded me of the premise of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us (an RPG where you play as the enigmatic Bigby Wolf in the suburb of Fable – a place for lost fairy tale creatures), but also in a way that is delightfully unique as the opening scene in which we see children of different races watch a film about coping with life after the Coda proves.

“All that was left were the sparks, petrol, and pistons of the Human factories. The Human Army had won the war, but their victory had destroyed the spoils.”

The effects of this magical “castration” is vibrantly evidenced in the people who inhabit this decaying world. Elves are no longer beautiful, but aged, ancient creatures. Vampires are walking skeletons, rendered inert by their inability to feed, and Sirens have lost their voice. Humans are the only ones left untouched – both a blessing and a curse. It is under this hazy, drug and alcohol induced cloud that we follow Fetch, the weight of what he’s done sitting like stones in his shoes and culminating in a thrilling scene where we find out exactly what took place to make the magic disappear and Fetch’s role in the destruction of a city he is now trying to piece back together.

Indeed, there is something to be said for Arnold’s worldbuilding, and the cleverness and poignancy with which he presents to us the beauty and life of the world that had come before, only to shatter it over and over again before our very eyes in the present day. The exposition and stories that intermingle with the plot are pitched as sad, bitterly remembered memories as we delve more and more into Fetch’s backstory, the people he cared for and knew, and find out more of exactly what happened in this ‘Coda’. 

Not only did I wish to find out more of the world and the people that had come before the Coda – of the majesty of elves, and dragons, and angels that are hinted at in the present or are shown in brief flashbacks – but to see what happened as Fetch’s search for his vampire charge led him into deeper, darker waters as mysteries tangle on top of the other. Phillips’ regret is palpable, and as his past relationships – with past friends and mentors and lovers – are brought up, we see just how heavy the burden of responsibility lies.

With a bunch of intriguing characters, rich backstory, and vivid world-building, I for one cannot wait to see what is next in store in the Fetch Phillips Archive. This book is a wonderful addition to those who love gritty, grim novels that pack a surprisingly strong emotional left hook.

[*Thank you for the lovely people at Orbit Books for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review!]

This book is now out in paperback, and can be purchased from all good book shops.

Buy it here.

The Gift of Foresight by Raven Knox

Life was almost perfect until he left them.
Will was a good man, torn and confused.
Alyss was bitter, hurt, and lonely.
Harriet could never see what she always knew was there.
They always loved each other.

Blurb of ‘The Gift of Foresight’

*[This is a sponsored Ad review]

The Gift of Foresight is an intriguing and, at times, moving debut novel by Raven Knox, published by Ghost and Ribbon. It follows a fractured family – Alyss, Will and their daughter Harriet – as they each explore and come to terms with the ripples caused by Will and Alyss’ divorce, an event which takes place at the start of the book in an emotionally devastating flashback scene.

This is a novel which deals with divorce and disability; two weighty topics that are rarely explored in literature in one narrative, especially from the perspective of a young, disabled teenage girl. Knox explores this with a thoughtful and at times poignant hand, and I am a firm believer that representation in novels is important in today’s age so this is particularly wonderful to see tackled. To deal with such messy and stigmatic topics such as these is something that Knox should take credit for exploring and basing her novel around.

As the arguable main character of this piece, Harriet is a perceptive and bright girl who tries to navigate the choppy emotionally fraught waters left in the wake of her parent’s divorce since Will (her father) walked out 10 years ago. It is made clear that she harbours hopes that they might get back together, a drive that influences and shapes her behaviour in this book. She is also blind. Whilst I would say this is not the main point upon which Knox focuses her novel, it is still hugely important and rears its head at particular chosen moments in the text where it is discussed. It also makes for a simultaneously heart wrenching and heart-wrenching final chapter in the book.

“If knowledge and foresight are too penetrating and deep, unify them with ease and sincerity”

Xun Kuang, Chinese Philosopher (a quote used in the foreword of the book)

Will and Alyss’ relationship is a little more difficult to track, with their scenes and conversations at times slipping into melodrama, but Knox manages to teeter her work on the side of believability when it comes to this divorced couple. As the reader, we are granted a unique view, seeing every facet of these characters from their arguments to their quieter, more emotive moments. Their respective personalities take shape as the novel progresses, and you understand more how they met and fell in love in flashback scenes and discussions with other characters, which adds more depth and plausibility to Harriet’s desire to see her parents back together.

However, at times the book has a jumbled narrative voice and perspective – especially since Harriet’s blindness is aptly described and then, at times, strangely forgotten (for instance, there are times that she can “see” certain things – a jarring point which meant I had to re-read sentences to figure out just whose perspective this related to).

Despite this, I feel that Harriet’s characterisation is one aspect of Knox’s writing that is particularly strong. She is shown to be a normal teenage girl, with hopes and dreams and fears, and comes across as headstrong and funny. She is loved in spite of her disability and not alienated or ostracised for it. This is a refreshing approach I have not seen depicted much in novels, and is a welcome inclusive addition, which does much to break down any stigma perhaps associated with this disability.

At its core, this book is about the raw, tangled, messier parts of human relationships and the emotions that come with it. Although a little heavy-handed in the message it tries to present, it should not diminish the message it focuses on. Family and the relationships are poignant, complex things, and The Gift of Foresight aptly captures this with its unique, emotional perspective.

About the book: 

10% of the profit made by Ghost and Ribbon Limited per sale of this hard-copy book purchased by the consumer (plus VAT) shall be paid to RNIB Enterprises Limited which covenants all its taxable profits to RNIB, a registered charity with charity number 226227. RNIB have neither endorsed nor contributed towards the content of this book.

Donate here today.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S Villoso

*[Thank you to the lovely team at Orbit for gifting me this book, in exchange for an honest review]

There is something incredibly refreshing about K.S Villoso’s debut epic fantasy novel The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first installment in the brilliantly titled Chronicles of the Bitch Queen. In a market arguably saturated with European faux-medieval epic fantasy books, the setting of this novel – heavily inspired from Villoso growing up in the Philippines – is a vibrant and welcome addition to the genre. From the way in which the language, food, or various cultures are depicted, to the historical lore and stories that pepper their way through the main story, the world of this novel is one that teems with life and character.

It follows Queen Talyien, the Dragonlord of Jin-Sayeng and Wolf of Oren-Yaro, as she goes to meet with her estranged husband Rayyel Ikessar five years after he mysteriously abandoned her the night before their coronation. However, the plans quickly disintegrate and during her visit Talyien finds herself the target of an assassination which almost kills her. Friendless and alone in a strange city, and abandoned by those she once trusted, the story charts her journey to try and find her husband, and moreover uncover the identity of those who tried to kill her.

“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me”

For an introspective character-driven novel like this, it benefits from having a well-rounded and complex character at its head. Queen Talyien, the “Bitch Queen of Oren-Yaro ” is arrogant, brash, and proud, brought up amongst privilege and the daughter of a fearsome and brutal warlord from the Oren-Yaro clan. But she is also a woman who, for all her titles, is still very much human.

Villoso is careful to depict her protagonist so that we see her strengths and flaws as believable, and so we buy into her as a protagonist. She is anxious, conflicted, and afraid of where she currently finds herself, but she is also brave and stubborn. In fact, Talyien’s emotional introspection about her situation and those she cares for strengthens the character, adding a surprising extra layer of pathos and depth as the novel progresses.

“Wolves ran in packs, and lone wolves didn’t live for very long. However I looked at it, I was on my own.”

Of course, the supporting characters do much to aid the novel, even if some are more believable than others. From people in Talyien’s past, to those who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in her current travels, their connections to the Bitch Queen seem for the most part convincing and real. The character of Khine the penniless good hearted con-man, whilst a welcome breath of fresh air in what can seem to be an inescapably dark narrative, is at times a little too conveniently placed for him to seem convincing. But perhaps that is the point of this novel, that you – along with Talyien – are supposed to question everyone and everything.

Indeed, even in this murky grey world of corruption, murder, and shady moralistic choices, Villoso still manages to deliver up a spine-tinglingly grotesque antagonist, despite only making his appearance in the last third of the book. This character’s description and actions actively made my skin crawl, and so superbly adds to the impending claustrophobic tension that is increased throughout.

The resultant atmosphere is one that makes for a suspenseful and well-paced narrative that teeters on a cliff edge between being an action-packed thriller, and a slower intriguing mystery as Talyien tries to evade capture and figure out just who she can trust. However, mention has to be made of the description of the food – something that I felt particularly stood out about about this novel. Not only did it make me wish I could replicate the food described, it did much to cement the world as real and palpable in my mind (and made for a colourful, flavourful change, separate from your typical fantasy meal fare of meat and some sort of cheese).

“A wolf of Oren-yaro fights to make it right, down to the last breath. A wolf of Oren-yaro does not beg. A wolf of Oren-yaro suffers in silence”

Yet, there’s a lot more going on in this novel that Villoso doesn’t delve into and there are places where the story and the lore becomes a little too saturated by its own richness. There are so many names of clans and peoples, history, stories, and monsters (I particularly liked the lore about the dragons who were said to roam the northern lands but who we hardly see) all bubbling away that made me want to find out more. But seeing as this is the first part in a series, I can only imagine that any loose threads will be picked up and focused on in later books.

In fact, the resultant pay-off towards the end is worth the denser, and sometimes confusing, earlier parts of the novel. The final 100 pages or so are where most of the questions are answered, character’s motives and identities are questioned, and in a world that seems murky and grey, a stark and unnerving revelation comes to the fore that shows you the story is only just beginning.

Taylien continues to fight, and if there’s anything you learn from reading this novel, despite the oppressive turn of events that seep in and try to smother the bitch Queen, is that this particular wolf does not do well in a cage.

A rich and expansive novel, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a brilliant opening book to what promises to be a uniquely epic series, and well worth your time if you’re looking for a vivid change of setting for your next fantasy novel fix.

-:-

To be released on the 6th February 2020 (published by Orbit Books) this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Don’t want to wait? Read a segment of the book here.

“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

There have been few books which have pulled me into the story with such giddying force that it meant I stayed up until 1am, speedily reading with tired eyes, to try and finish it. And yet – somehow – Naomi Novik’s Uprooted manages to do just that. (If you’re a fan of her Temeraire series, then you should definitely give this book a read). 

A high fantasy novel, the narrative follows the protagonist Agnieszka, a young woman in the village of Dvernik who is taken by “the Dragon” – a local wizard who takes a girl every ten years, as payment for protecting them from the magical, and extremely dangerous Wood – and their ensuing, ongoing battle against this ever-spreading malign entity.

“All those stories must have ended this same way, with someone tired going home from a field full of death, but no one ever sang this part.”

Right from the start, there is something enthralling about Novik’s work. The world building is rich and dramatic, blending rural folklore and the nightmarish monsters of the Wood seamlessly with magic of the Dragon’s high tower and religion of the large cities. The description of magic styles too is intriguing, and we see how different the Dragon is in comparison with Agnieszka or indeed with other wizards – like the “Falcon” – who appear later in the story.

Indeed, Novik’s characters are brilliantly realised. Agnieszka is a welcome, if unlikely heroine. She is clumsy, messy, stubborn, wilful, and full of heart; a character who you cheer on and empathise with as the narrative progresses. In comparison, the Dragon is irritable, but whip-smart – a perfectly realised grouchy, learned scholar with the face of a young man (even though he’s more than one-hundred years old) and a surprising, albeit begrudgingly bestowed, soft side.

“His name tasted of fire and wings, of curling smoke, of subtlety and strength, and the rasping whisper of scales.”

There is something joyously real and warm about the relationships depicted. Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia is a wonderful example of the power of loyalty, platonic love, and friendship – and the character is a strong addition to the story in her own right, the epitome of the human, non-magical heart that Agnieszka and the Dragon fight for. Certainly, for all the character’s battle an inhuman, terrifying foe, at its heart Uprooted is packed with raw, human emotion about friendships, family, love, and loss. It is this that grounds the high fantasy tale, and – although I won’t spoil it – makes for a wonderful ending, gripped full of pathos.

However most of all, is Agnieszka’s relationship with the Dragon that I adored, and quietly grinned over as I read (I do love a good slow burn romance). They are two people bourne together through magic and the dangers that seep out of the Wood, their interactions gradually giving way to a burgeoning sexual and romantic tension that weaves itself through the story nicely.

“There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage.”

When it comes to the Wood, the antagonist that creeps like a particularly poisonous set of vines beneath the surface of this story, there is something wonderfully sinister about how it affects, and infects, the lives of the people throughout the novel. Novik conjures up horrific images and fairy-tale like horror stories, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes and shocking reveals that keep you constantly alert. The Wood plants seeds and subtly infects everywhere, showing the reader and the character’s that danger and corruption is never really far away.

Uprooted is a darkly enchanting book, gripping and thrilling in equal measure. I promise that if you like your fairy tales dark and high fantasy rich, you won’t want to put it down.

Rating: [5/5] 

Buy it here 

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

As someone who unashamedly loves all varieties of historical fiction and romance (preferably placed together in one work), and has many copies of Jane Austen’s novels sitting on my bookshelf at home, you’d have thought I’d have come across this book years ago.

It was only until I was enthusiastically recommended and sent du Maurier’s Rebecca by a friend (who ardently promised that this would be a book I would love) did I realise about twenty pages in – why on earth hadn’t I read this sooner?

In a similar vein to Northanger Abbey (albeit with far less satire) or Jane Eyre, this book is a timeless example of just how gripping a gothic romance can be. And now with an upcoming Netflix film scheduled for later this year, what better time to review the book it is based off?

“We’re not meant for happiness, you and I”

The preface is a simple yet effective one – an unnamed young woman (the heroine of the novel and its narrator) marries the recently widowed Maxim de Winter, moves into his house, and is haunted by the metaphorical ghost of his late wife at every turn. The narrative, however, is anything but.

There is something instantly captivating about du Maurier’s writing. There is also something eerie too. An uncomfortable sense of foreboding and suspense clings to every page, conveyed wonderfully through the Nick Carraway-esque unreliable first-person narration of the heroine. There are plenty of nail-biting twists and turns as we follow the heroine settling into her new life, that made me feverishly tear through the book just to find out what happens next.

What makes this novel so effective is that you are just as kept in the dark as she is. You are privy to her every flight of fancy and are gripped by her over-active imagination. Every piece of information – true or not, important or not – is tantalisingly drip-fed to you. As I read I found myself trying to figure out the clues, if only to try and understand and see what the heroine could not.

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again” 

Of course, then there’s Maxim’s late wife Rebecca. As I learned more about her, I was slowly horrified and enthralled. Her presence is everywhere, in the people the narrator meets, and in the clothes she wears. For instance, there’s a fantastically creepy part where the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, delights in showing Rebecca’s old bedroom like some sort of glorified, well-preserved museum wing that had me wanting to fling the book away from me and shudder.

But, despite all this, it is how du Maurier writes about Manderley that is my favourite thing about the novel. There is something rich and alien about it. It is a sprawling, unfamiliar house the narrator gets lost in upon arriving, a place where she feels watched from every window, and where the garden, with its skeleton-like trees, is a monstrous place with “no sense or beauty” to it. The claustrophobic nature of it only serves to heighten the suspense, and when the events of the novel and actions of its characters have run their course, you find that Rebecca – like all good gothic novels – begins and ends with this house.

So, if you’re a fan of gothic horror, romance, suspense, or even detective novels, and are looking for a new read, I’d heartily recommend this book.

[Rating: 5/5]