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.

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 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 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.