Paladin’s Strength by T.Kingfisher

When I saw that T.Kingfisher (better known as Ursula Vernon) had released another book in her Saint of Steel series (go here for my review of her first novel, Paladin’s Grace) I knew I had to read it. There’s something about reading a more mature romance, one filled with honest, unabashed conversations and (quite frankly) hilarious scenes that made me fall in love with this series all over again. Paladin’s Strength doesn’t disappoint.

What’s it about?

In this second installation we follow two protagonists: the first being Istvhan, one of the Paladin’s of the dead god as he tracks the murderous and downright supernaturally creepy clay golems (the ‘Smooth Men’ mentioned in Paladin’s Grace) across the continent. The other is a newer addition to the Saint of Steel series – Clara, a nun of St.Ursa, desperate to track down a wagon of fellow sisters who have been kidnapped. 

The novel opens as Clara is delivered to Istvhan’s tent as a form of payment to settle a dispute. Together, Clara and Istvhan set across the country, both trying to focus on their own missions and with their own secrets to keep. Of course, mild spoiler alert, those secrets don’t stay such for long even if the entire romantic subplot is incredibly slow-burn (I mean, seriously. You’ll have to be very patient with this one). As a pair, the two have an undeniable chemistry. Their growing romantic relationship as the book progresses is both full of sexual tension (Istvhan’s berating inner monologues never failed to make me laugh), and genuine depth of feeling. It was refreshing too, for things like consent to be so openly discussed and considered in a romance novel, especially by the male protagonist. 

“He liked her. He liked the way she carried herself. He’d only met a few women of her size before, and mostly they tried to downplay it.
[…]
Clara walked like she was taller than everyone else and knew it and if anyone cared, be damned to them.”

As individuals, they both drew me in equally. Both Clara and Istvhan are each troubled in their own way, each seeking a way through a world that is perhaps not built for people as big or as different as they are. Indeed, there are many scenes where these characters are made to seem larger than they are in towns and villages that aren’t suited to them, cramped in chairs or in rooms that won’t fit their frames. They are outsiders, driven by purpose and drawn together by fate and mutual understanding.

As I’ve mentioned before, I adore novels which delve into exploring theology and religious matters. As a nun and paladin of absent gods, I really enjoyed getting to see how Clara (imbued with the “gift” of being a werebear), and Istvhan (a berserker) coped with forging their own paths in the wake of this religious absence in a society that would either be wary of them, or downright reject them. 

Kingfisher writes mature romance fantastically well. Whilst there are hilarious, awkward moments that would make anyone blush, there is a sense of inner understanding and maturity that comes with this relationship. Moreover, as I read on, I was delighted to explore more of the world these characters live in. One of Kingfisher’s greatest strengths, and one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel, is her worldbuilding: how magic works, the cultures of different towns, how different faiths are viewed and exist. The mystery of the Smooth Men sought in this novel is well and truly solved with grizzly finds and a climatic, breath-taking bunch of chapters towards the very end. But that is only a small part of what is a deep, many-layered, romantic adventure novel with many moving parts. 

“In life, if you were careful, there were simply not that many times when you absolutely, positively, had to turn into a bear.”

There are many wonderful scenes in this book (wait for the scene where Clara turns into a bear for the first time!), discussions that evoke pathos, scenes that had me covering my face with second-hand embarrassment, and oh my the puns. The supporting characters are interesting too, and I cannot wait to see if Kingfisher revisits them in their third book (I shan’t give too much away).


Final verdict:
Much like Paladin’s Grace, this second novel Paladin’s Strength is funny and delightfully heartwarming, filled to the brim with rich characters and a whole lot of intriguing places to explore. It works well as a standalone book, but I’d recommend reading this as a second book in the Saint of Steel series. It gives you a greater sense of where the paladin’s slot into this wider world, and has you pondering just what might be next in store for these servants of a dead god.

Find this book, and give it a read. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

*Thank you to Hodder and Stoughton & NetGalley for approving me to review this in exchange for an honest review!


The latest and final instalment of the Wayfarers quartet is a perfectly pitched, stunning farewell to a series I’ve loved since I first picked up Chambers’ A Very Long Way to a Small Angry Planet several years ago.

This queer, wacky, alien (in every sense of the word) sci-fi isn’t like your usual book series, much to its credit. There is no one ‘main’ character that you follow, but rather the stories are loosely connected by threads as briefly mentioned characters in one book become a point of view character in the next. One of the things I love about her work is that Chambers manages to make her novels both intimate and expansive, packed with lore and emotion, with every newly introduced character as unique and intriguing as the next. The Galaxy and the Ground Within is no exception.

What is it about?

This book focuses on the stories of three separate characters: Roveg, Pei (whom readers might recognise as Ashby’s Aeulon lover from the first book), and Speaker. The storyline kicks off when they stop – and are subsequently stranded – at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a waystation for travellers hopping between worlds run by Ouloo and her child Tupo. The “Snowed In” (or in this case “grounded by lots of space debris in the atmosphere”) trope is one that really fits her kind of storytelling well, as we follow this unlikely band of different alien species who would otherwise be strangers and see them come together during their time here.

Where Book 2 and 3 depart from the usual plot having a wider setting to play with, this final book brings back some of the intense character-driven conversations I loved about Book 1. Chambers’ strikes the right balance between poignant exploration of a whole host of topics from the meaning of family, love, loss, self-actualisation, and humour (there’s a particularly funny bit where the collective alien group discuss cheese, which I chuckled a lot at). The Galaxy and the Ground Within offers readers a concentrated exploration of “human” relationships, without a human in sight.

It’s in this book that Chambers really gets to flex her world-building muscles, dropping details about previously unexplained alien species, exploring their culture and customs a little more. Whilst one might think this “snowed in” trope means the novel is at risk of being stagnant, she continues to keep it interesting. There are twists and turns as characters learn more about each other, explore the nuances between them, argue, gossip, and change their own perspectives and prejudices that kept me glued to the page.

Without spoiling too much, the ending of this novel is a bittersweet one. As I reached the final few pages, much like Tupo, Ouloo, Roveg, Pei, and Speaker find a place in each other’s hearts, this book nestled its way into my own. I didn’t want it to end, but just as the character’s separate and get back to their original journeys, so too must this book come to a close.

Final verdict:

The Galaxy and Ground Within is a fantastic send-off for a truly unique and colourful sci-fi series. It is a must read for fans of her series, and offers long-term fans a cathartic type of closure. I’m sad to see it finish, but am so very glad that I read this Wayfarers series to the very end, and I very much look forward to seeing what Chambers publishes next.

This book is due to be published on 18th February 2021.

The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

“No plan survives contact with the enemy – Helmuth von Molkte” 

As a long-time fan of Joe Abercrombie’s work, I was excited to sink my teeth into this latest installment in his Age of Madness trilogy. Immediately following the cliffhanger of events in A Little Hatred, The Trouble with Peace is an intricately woven, stunning sequel and worthy successor to the first that has no issue matching the first book for pace or plot twists.

The shadow of characters that once dominated The First Law trilogy and appear in A Little Hatred are neatly dealt with in a way that feels natural. The world is moving on and changing, and the people with it. Where A Little Hatred and the newer characters within it wrestled with the large shadows cast by well-loved (or hated) and familiar older faces (King Jezal, Sand dan Glokta, Bayaz), The Trouble with Peace is truly where the new characters are allowed to spread their wings. The novel very firmly puts to rest the idea of the fact that, in a world where revolution and the Great Change is baring its teeth, names and who you are will soon mean very little.

In fact if anything, the higher you are to the top means the further you have to fall – a point that this book makes no small point to emphasise time and again. Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by a scene, Abercrombie managed to shock me all over again a few chapters later. In a way, I should have expected it. The world is a grisly, brutal one with little space for idealism or dashing heroics, a point put across often with wry and often dirty humour.

“Sometimes, to change the world, we must first burn it down.”

Each point of view character chapter is just as compelling, each with their own distinct character arc and setting. Whilst there were some characters which I had a harder time caring for (a personal preference rather than anything to do with the writing), to Abercrombie’s credit, the sprawling myriad of POV characters are tightly crafted and well written as ever. From the far reaches of the North to the Union, each one has their own path that makes you wonder how these pieces are all going to connect in the final book.

My favourite chapters lay somewhere between Vick, Rikke, and Savine’s POV. Since the events of A Little Hatred I was intrigued to see where each of these characters went, and this book didn’t disappoint. Whilst each person is so different from the other, each with their own unique trials, Savine’s arc in this book is particularly savage. The glamorous and shrewd woman’s journey taking some intriguing and heart-wrenching turns that still made sense for the character. I was also pleasantly surprised and shocked by Leo dan Brock and Orso’s arc for very different reasons. Orso as he stumbled to try and do the “right” thing as King, whilst jostling with the idea that maybe there just…isn’t one. Leo for – well – I’ll say that being the shiny poster boy for Angland isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

“Winning teaches you nothing,” said Tunny. “You see what a man really is when he loses.”

Something that I adore about Abercrombie’s work, and was particularly impressed with in this book, is how he writes action scenes. Every swing of the blade or lighting of a fuse had me on tenterhooks, masterfully done where writing about fighting might otherwise come across as dull. Not for Abercrombie, however. The latter quarter of the book is dedicated to a particularly brutally stretched out scene (one of my favourite moments), flitting from one character to another as they connect with each other as though a camera might pan in a film. It’s a gorgeously written set-piece, adrenaline fueled, bloody, emotional, and doesn’t hold back.

Once the dust and smoke and blood has settled, the aftermath of what this book leaves behind is devastating in more ways than one. The landscape and the characters in it have changed, some more dramatically and irrevocably than others, and with one final twist that had me mouthing “no WAY!” at the page, the stage for revolution that Abercrombie’s been building for two entire books is now firmly set.

And I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

Final verdict:

A stunning successor to A Little Hatred, this new book is packed full of plot twists and witty, gripping prose. Just make sure you’re sitting down when you read it; you’ll need it for when Abercrombie sweeps the rug from under your feet.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E.Harrow

“There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.”

*Thank you to Orbit for sending me this book, in exchange for an honest review!

Alix E.Harrow’s latest novel, The Once and Future Witches, is – to put it simply – utterly spellbinding. Following the stories of three sisters, Bella, Agnes, and James Juniper Eastwood, Harrow ties in witching and the sister’s attempts to reclaim their magic, almost seamlessly with the US women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800s.

It is a book of magic and feminism. The struggles of witches are tangled up with the struggles of women; each aspiring to gain agency and power but conflicted and oftimes separated as to how (as noted in a poignantly powerful scene near the novel’s start). I adored how Harrow mingled the idea of witches – typically identified as “other” and outside the realms of ‘civilised’ society – and aligned it with the women’s rights movement.

Through the eyes of her three main protagonists, Harrow gives her readers a highly nuanced, enthralling exploration of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society, and the distinctions between the women themselves (there’s POC representation in this discussion on women’s suffrage  – an often missed but sorely needed inclusion in more books). There are the usual obstacles for them to overcome: classism, sexism, ignorance, fear, but Harrow cleverly adds another, more supernatural and darker, twist which becomes horrifyingly evident in a gut-wrenching twist the further you read.

“If a woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box”

Each of the three women are so starkly different to the other, filling the ‘maiden, mother, crone’ archetype, each with their own worries and doubts brought up to the surface in a way that makes them wonderfully real. Bella is the academic, hungry for lost knowledge, Agnes is the core, beating heart with strength and sense, whilst Juniper is the wild-child, the feral hothead ready to change the world with nothing but a few spells and determination.

The book is bursting with gorgeous prose, and wonderful character development. As someone with two sisters, I really enjoyed seeing this kind of platonic relationship as the main core of this novel. You watch as Bella, Agnes, and Juniper’s relationship – fractious at the start – merges closer as their quest to find the Lost Ways of Avalon (the source of long-forgotten witching power) gets increasingly more perilous against those who would try to stop them.

As a final note, I really enjoy books that interlink lore with the narrative, and this is a book that hits the nail on the head. There are spells, and fairy stories, and rhymes that make up the backbone of the “magic”, littered throughout the story, which really adds to the magic that drips off the page.

Final verdict:
With October ‘spooky season’ fully at our doorsteps, this new novel is one you won’t want to miss when it’s released on 13th October. A bewitching book, The Once and Future Witches is poignant and gripping in equal measure, with a powerful exploration of feminism rooted firmly at its core. I can’t wait to share this with as many people as possible.

How I Made You by Javier Goode

“Explore science, nature, hopes and dreams with your little one in this sweet tale of becoming.”

*Thank you to Ghost and Ribbon for sending me this copy in exchange for an honest review! #Ad

The first thing that struck me about this book, aimed at inquisitive young children about the facts of life and where they come from, was how it seamlessly combined science and nature in such a tender, soft way. Whilst there are no storks or pumpkin patches, fantastical images which children might better imagine, there is something magical about how science is softened and shaped in this story.

The cutesy layout with its soft pastel colours and sketched drawings of buttons – standing in for human beings – is particularly wonderful and easy to grasp. It sets out an important topic for children to learn about – how people are made – in an accessible, fun and unique way, combining the topic of science and nature with rhyme and story.

As I read, I was particularly impressed with the inclusivity shown in this book. It shows children that families can be “knit in different patterns, colours and styles”, an important learning point and one I was thrilled to see (the images of the buttons lent itself particularly well to this). The smooth prose skips between and around the illustrations, and whilst whimsical, it also very clearly aims to educate. 

“20,000 chromosomes, 46 chromosomes, 23 pairs, in our genome.”

This is certainly a children’s book that stirs up more questions – “what’s a chromosome? what’s DNA?”. My initial impression was “isn’t that too detailed for such a young audience?” as I remember learning this sort of information in secondary school. But then, teaching children at such a young age about scientific fact in such an easy to read format is a rarity amongst children’s books, and one that it can only be good to see more of. 

I suppose the question should have been “why shouldn’t they know?”. It is “nature in measure with just a bit extra” – the ‘bit extra’ being the a bonding experience between parent and child that comes from this whimsical read.

How to buy this book:

To be released on 28th August 2020, How I Made You by Javier Goode is soon to hit the shelves. You can preorder from the Ghost & Ribbon shop.

Rose’s Gold: A Comfort Food Cookbook by R.Shepherd

*Thank you to Ghost and Ribbon for sending me an advanced copy to review! #Ad 

There’s something historically poignant and rich about this book. As stated in the preface, this is a book that aims to share the “magic” of food, written to honour the life of Elma Rose Francis whose memory and inspiration lives on through this compilation of vibrant recipes. However, it is not just that. This book is a unique piece of history. After all, food is something very much tied to our culture and these dishes perfectly encapsulate the relationship the UK has with Jamaica through its cuisine (a topic woefully underrepresented and one I am thrilled to see explored).

A blend of Jamaican-British fusion recipes, this book offers a truly wonderful series of dishes to salivate over, whilst still being in the bracket of comfort food. I have no doubt that these dishes will be ones to be enjoyed by all, however adventurous your palate. 

The book itself is one that is split up into the three main meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a hint of sweetness in desserts (unashamedly, my favourite section to flip through!). The recipes are simple to follow, and easy enough to adapt depending on your tastebuds, giving general guidelines rather than strict instructions. The pictures too, are attractive and well thought out, the minimalist style really adding a sophisticated pop to the litany of home-cooked meals.

Food recipes are, after all, better when you can adapt and experiment, and the hallmark of a good cookbook is recognising this. I particularly loved the addition of a plantain recipe, and the Jamaican ginger cake – two recipes I could easily follow and really get stuck into. I look forward to reading and making more from this book, and perhaps getting brave enough to really add those scotch bonnet chillies in certain meals!

Final verdict:

Rose’s Gold is a book that exudes passion and warmth, with every recipe selected with care and insight. It is a wonderful way to honour the memory of a woman who clearly put heart and soul into dishes like these, with each one easy enough to experiment with or follow to the letter. You can purchase it from the Ghost & Ribbon shop.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

I know that you should never judge a book by its cover, but when Orbit sent me this in the post and I opened it to see tiny cats in space suits, I already knew that this was going to be a space opera that I would enjoy. 

“Kidnappers. Alien emperors. Psychic cats. And she’s out of coffee.” 

Valdes’ debut novel is one that teems with depth, colour and (extra-terrestrial) life. But despite the sprawling universe she depicts, the heart and core of the book is very much grounded in human (well, humanoid) emotion, centred around its protagonist Captain Eva Innocente and her crew onboard La Sirena Negra. When word is received that Eva’s sister is kidnapped by an intergalactic mob boss named The Fridge (yes, you read that right), she must go on a series of dangerous missions to get her back. But, as you might imagine in such a complex galaxy such as this, all is not as it seems and the Captain slowly uncovers more than she was blackmailed for.

Much like the novel’s protagonist finds, once you get into the thick of Chilling Effect there are so many twists and turns to follow, it is sometimes hard to keep up, but no less entertaining. From psychic cats, aliens who hunt anything without a bracelet marking it not to, to brainwashing monks, early on in the novel, Valdes introduces us to a particularly grotesque example of this “twist”in the form of an amorous space Emperor (aptly named the Glorious Apotheosis). A fish-man who won’t take no for an answer, he meets Eva and tries to get her to join his harem, only to set a bounty on her head when she says no and hunts her across the galaxy (and throughout the entire novel) popping up at inopportune moments to wreck her ship, rather like a bull in a china shop.

“Between psychic cats, and kidnapped sisters, and her own booze addled temper, she was ready to unload on someone. […] “My name is Captain Eva Innocente” she slurred. “You can call me Captain, which is safe, or you can shut up, which is safer.” 

Eva Innocente is vivacious and gusty, a protagonist whose escapades and personality make for an engaging read. This book is one that effortlessly slides between hilarity and seriousness as the plot demands (and for all the humour, there are some well-realised serious, if heart-warming moments). There is much to be said for the diversity of the crew too alongside its Cuban-descended, foul-mouthed Captain, and how well Valdes makes you engage with each of Eva’s found family as well as the biological one she seeks (reminding me rather fondly of Mass Effect).

The budding, and at times incredibly awkward, alien romance between Vakar, the ship’s engineer, and Eva is adorable, and whose interactions are some of my favourite moments in the book. (It’s also beset with some hilarious scenes that had me hiding my face in my hands. I hope you like liquorice because it gets mentioned a lot…). 

However, whilst there is much to enjoy about this offbeat space opera, I felt that at times, the overarching storyline (Eva’s quest to locate her sister) and the ensuing twists that happen afterwards with The Fridge and “Proarkhe technology” – which is only loosely explained – were rushed. For a book that really puts its all into its vibrant world-building, and a heart-warming and funny main character, the pacing of the book especially towards the end was the main hindrance to me enjoying it as much as I could have.

Scenes that I felt should have had more emotional impact – like the ending with what it reveals and the (slight spoilers!) time-skip explanation – were rushed, whilst other parts which seemingly had little relevance to the overarching plot dragged on. Like a rollercoaster that speeds up and ends too quickly, I only wish that Valdes had made this novel longer or at least elaborated a bit more on some of the intriguing plot points and lore that she drops into conversation between characters or details in any exposition.

Overall view:
Chilling Effect is a quirky, fun-fuelled, space opera that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you like sci-fi wacky and offbeat, with alien romances, a human heart pumping away at its centre, and a protagonist with more charismatic gravitational pull than a black hole, you should definitely give this a try.

Chilling Effect can be bought all good book shops + online. 

*Thank you Orbit Books for posting me this copy in exchange for an honest review. 

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.