AWW2015: The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

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The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.


 

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


I’m a longtime fan of Kate Forsyth (I vividly remember stalking the bookstore shelves waiting for each Witches of Eileanan book to be released), and particularly loved her last two books, The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens, and was thus extremely happy to be asked to read and review The Beast’s Garden.

I will admit up front, I went into this book with a small sense of trepidation.  I had very high hopes, based on how good The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens were, but I did wonder about the premise of The Beast’s Garden– namely, combining a version of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast (specifically, The Singing, Springing Lark) and Nazi Germany during World War II.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t sure that Forsyth could pull off such a story, I wondered if anyone could pull it off.

And now that I’ve read the book, the question: did Forsyth manage to pull it off?  The answer is a resounding hell yes.

It should be noted that this book isn’t going to be for every reader.  There are scenes set in a concentration camp, and while Forsyth doesn’t linger overlong on any of the atrocities, neither does she shield the reader from the true horrors of of WWII and the Holocaust.  If any of this is a trigger for you, this isn’t going to be the book for you.  But please, if you haven’t done so, go and read all of Forsyth’s other books.  They’re more than worth it.

In the role of “Beauty” we have Ava, a German girl who is training as a singer.  In looks, Ava takes after her dead Spanish mother, while her two sisters are blue-eyed and blonde-haired, fitting the Aryan ideal.  Ava and her family are not safe beneath Nazi rule.  Ava’s own darker colouring puts her at potential risk of being declaimed as having Romani blood, and one of her sisters has a daughter who is possibly learning disabled.  More, Ava’s family are close to a Jewish family, the Feidlers.  After Ava’s mother died, Ava was practically raised by Mrs Feidler, and regards Rudi Feidler (an out gay man) as a brother.  Ava and Rudi are both musicians, and both attend illicit jazz clubs together.  To protect all of her blood and found family, Ava marries a Nazi officer, Leo von Lowenstein.

Leo, naturally is the “Beast” of the tale, and it is the romance between Leo and Ava which drives much of the novel.  At first, Ava fears Leo, only knowing him as a Nazi officer.  As she gets to know him, and see beneath the public mask he wears, she discovers that he is a lot more than he first appeared.  Like her, he is fighting against Hitler’s rule, and is part of an underground resistance movement.

The story follows Leo and Ava as they both navigate Nazi Germany and the various plots to disrupt Nazi rule and attempt to assassinate Hitler.  We also get to follow Rudi after he is arrested for “subversive activities” and deported to the concentration camp, Buchenwald.  Yet another story thread is shown via Rudi’s sister Jutta, who evades arrest and lives in hiding from the Nazis.

On the surface, it is hard to see much hope in any story set in WWII Germany.  Forsyth doesn’t shy from any of the horrors: we get to see the Jewish people suffering both in the camps and in hiding, as well as the German people starving as their country begins to bend and break beneath the weight of Nazi rule and the war.  But in the darkness, there is light.  Even while deathly afraid, Ava finds ways to fight.  And in Buchenwald, Rudi plays illicit music, saves others where he can (and is saved in turn) and even finds love.

Forsyth skilfully weaves in many historical figures and events into the narrative, giving a real weight to a book that, in less talented hands, could easily have become little more than a fluffy romance between the Brave German Girl and Nazi With a Heart of Gold, or something extremely problematic.  If you’re worried about either of these issues, let me put your worries to rest right here.

With The Beast’s Garden, Forsyth cements herself as one of the most talented authors writing historical fiction (with a good dash of fairytale retelling) in Australia today.

AWW2015: Insert Title Here, edited by Tehani Wessley

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On the [date redacted] of the [year redacted], [names redacted] of the [organisation redacted] discovered a hidden text that documented realities other than our own.

Dark, weird realities.

Within these pages they discovered monuments to a dying alien race, sentient islands caught like fish, a tree that grows pencils, a baby transformed into a hummingbird, and a steampunk Maori whaling crew.

They were afraid, as you should be afraid. They saw life, death and the space between; metamorphosis, terrible choices and bitter regrets.

[Names redacted] looked into the abyss, and what they saw within was nameless and terrible.

This is that book.

Enter if you dare.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  I purchased this copy.


Insert Title Here is an unthemed anthology from Australian small press Fablecroft Publishing, said by editor Tehani Wessley to be their darkest offering yet.  Of note is the fact that the call for submissions for this anthology actually resulted in Fablecroft publishing two separate anthologies: Insert Title Here and Phantazein.

It is always a different experience reading an unthemed anthology.  I find it harder to read more than one story in a row, since there are no connecting threads between stories, and as such, it took me longer than usual to finish this book.  This is absolutely no comment on the quality of the book, of course, which is, as to be expected from Fablecroft, extremely high.

I’m not going to discuss every story in this anthology, but I will point out some of my favourites.  I’ll note that I loved the darkness of this anthology (you can take the girl out of horror, but you can’t take the horror out of the girl), and all of the stories were worthwhile reading.

The book opens with a story from Jo Anderton, 2B.  And holy hell, what an opening this is.  I was drawn in immediately by the vivid imagery of this world: a place where things grow in strange ways, tyres growing from trees, pencils which can be planted to grow trees which fruit more pencils.  If you’ve never read any of Anderton’s work, this could be a good place to start, as this story highlights her grasp of imagery and strangeness, while still being able to wring deep emotion out of only a handful of words.  Dreamlike and haunting, this is one of my favourites in the anthology.

D.K. Mok’s Almost Days is another story which tends towards the dreamlike, this time taking the reader into a place called the Wings.  This is definitely a story where you want to go in without being spoiled, but suffice to say that this is an incredible story.  Read it, then read it again.  Then go and devour everything Mok had written.  You’ll thank me.

Her Face Like Lightning by David McDonald takes us deeper into human darkness: of ritual magic and sorcery and grasping for power.  I feel very much like this story only begins to skim the surface of a fascinating world, and I hope that McDonald will come back to it at some point in the future (I’d happily read a novel set in this world, hint, hint, David ;)).

Sara Larner’s Living in the Light begins with one of the best first lines I think I have ever read: “My child turned into a hummingbird.”.  How could you not read on after that?  There is something almost feverish about this story, but in the sheer strangeness of it, there is also heartbreaking emotion.  Highly recommended.

Reflections by Tamlyn Dreaver takes us to the terraformed (and failing) moon, where Hana lives with her mothers.  This is a gorgeous story, short but filled with sadness, but a sorrow tinged with hope.  I’ve found myself thinking of this story often since finishing it, which is always a sign of a good short story.

My last favourite, and the concluding story in the anthology, is Stephanie Burgis’ The Art of Deception.  I need to make note here that Burgis is a friend, and someone who I have beta read for, but this does not influence the fact that I would have loved this story, no matter who had written it.  Pure epic fantasy, which is extremely hard to make work well in the short form, with a fascinating world and characters, I kind of really hope that Burgis will expand upon this world more at some stage in the future.

Overall, this is an extremely strong collection.  The stories are varied, and I suspect that most readers will find at least one or two which speaks to them.  Highly recommended.

 

AWW2015: Cranky Ladies of History

crankyladies

Warriors, pirates, murderers and queens…

Throughout history, women from all walks of life have had good reason to be cranky. Some of our most memorable historical figures were outspoken, dramatic, brave, feisty, rebellious and downright ornery.

Cranky Ladies of History is a celebration of 22 women who challenged conventional wisdom about appropriate female behaviour, from the ancient world all the way through to the twentieth century. Some of our protagonists are infamous and iconic, while others have been all but forgotten under the heavy weight of history.

Sometimes you have to break the rules before the rules break you.

 


This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.   I was a contributor to the Pozible campaign that partially funded the production of this book.


Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessley, published by Fablecroft Publishing.  Publication of the anthology was supported by a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible and by a Tasmanian Arts Crowbar Grant.

When I first heard about the crowdfunding campaign for Cranky Ladies of History, I rushed to fund it.  Not only was I going to be on board with any anthology edited by Roberts and Wessley, but the theme had me at “cranky ladies”.  I opted to fund at the level which gave me the hardcover edition, which is a truly beautiful book.  Kathleen Jennings has created yet another utterly gorgeous cover, not to mention the internal illustrations in the book, which are all amazing.

I have to admit upfront that I am not the most thoroughly read in terms of history or historical fiction, and as such, many of the cranky ladies depicted in the stories were unknown to me.  As I started to read, I found myself wishing that each story had been prefaced by a small biography of the woman in question, but as I read more, I found myself glad that none had been provided.  There was a small thrill of recognition in seeing the women I recognised, and it was quite lovely to come to the ones I wasn’t familiar with without any prior assumptions.  Every one of the women was fascinating, and I suspect that there is going to be a lot of reading about their histories in my future.

I went into this anthology expecting a particular kind of woman to be represented: the woman who fought for good, and perhaps broke social norms in order to do so.  I was pleasantly surprised that there was, in fact, a wide range of “cranky ladies” presented (and honestly, I shouldn’t have been, given the editors and authors involved).  The fighter for good and breaker of social norms was there, as well as the warrior, but there were also darker levels of “crankiness” presented, for example, Countess Bathory, who can in no terms be described as good, but was certainly a cranky lady of her time.

I’m not going to talk about all of the stories in depth, but don’t take this to mean that they’re not all worthy of your time.  These are simply the stories that have particular resonance for me in terms of my reading taste.

Partway through reading, I tweeted that Kirstyn McDermott’s “Mary, Mary” had instantly become one of my favourite short stories of all time.  Now, having finished reading the anthology, I stand by this.  Mary Woolstonecroft, feminist, writer, and mother of Mary Shelley (she died ten days after giving birth to the second Mary) is the focus of this story.  McDermott’s prose is gorgeous and lush as always, and there is a clear empathy for both Marys and for the plight of all women of the time.  I loved the inclusion of the possibly-supernatural Grey Lady in this, too.  I think this is possibly one of McDermott’s strongest short stories to date.

Deborah Biancotti’s “Look How Cold My Hands Are” concerns the aforementioned Countess Bathory.  Bathory is said to have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history, who tortured and abused hundreds of young women.  Her punishment was being immured in her castle, and she remained walled up for the last four years of her life.  Biancotti, as to be expected from her body of work, does not shy away from any of the horror of Bathory’s actions, and renders the Countess a very believeable and truly horrible figure.  There is no redemption for Bathory, and yet Biancotti manages to convey a sense of the Countess’ belief that her actions were just.

The third story I’m going to mention is Amanda Pillar’s “Neter, Nefer”.  A brief caveat: I’ve worked with Pillar as my editor, a role at which she is brilliant.  Here, we get to see that she’s also a brilliant writer.  I’ve always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt, so it’s little surprise that I was drawn to this story on that basis alone, but I utterly loved the way Pillar approached the story of the female pharaoh Hatshephut.  The story is told from the perspective of Hatshephut’s daughter Neferure, and reveals so much about women in Ancient Egypt, and describes a fascinating mother-daughter relationship at the same time.  I would throw great wads of money at Pillar to have this expanded into a full novel.

It would have been very easy for editors to fall into the trap of choosing stories and protagonists who came only from a Eurocentric background in developing an anthology like this.  Wessley and Roberts–as I would expect from them–do not fall into this trap.  The collection is cleverly bookmarked by stories that reference Anne Boleyn, but we travel much of the world in between these two.  We have stories about cranky women from Central Asia (Foz Meadows writing about Khutulan, warrior who challenged any man who wished to marry her to defeat her in wrestling; loss meant forfeiting horses to her.  She is said to have won 10,000 horses in this fashion), China (Joyce Chng writing about Leizu, the Chinese empress who discovered silk), Australia (Sylvia Kelso, writing about Lilian Cooper, first female doctor registered in Queensland) and Iceland (Lisa L. Hannett, writing about Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir, Viking woman who suffers from terrible luck), as well as many more, including a great many awesome female pirates (and I would also pay money for a Cranky Lady Pirates sequel!).

It bears repeating that all of the stories in this book are excellent, not just the ones I’ve singled out above.  Reading this anthology, it made me realise just how many of the female stories are left out of traditional history as its taught, women most often relegated to the margins as daughters and wives, their own stories forgotten.  I’d like to think that somewhere in the past, these women are looking up and thanking the authors and editors for shining a light on them in all of their glorious crankiness.

Highly recommended, even if you don’t usually enjoy historical fiction.

 

AWW2015: Stormbringer by Alis Franklin

Stormbringer

Ragnarok—aka the end of the world—was supposed to doom the gods as well. Instead, it was a cosmic rebooting. Now low-level IT tech and comic-book geek Sigmund Sussman finds himself an avatar of a Norse goddess. His boyfriend, the wealthy entrepreneur Lain Laufeyjarson, is channeling none other than Loki, the trickster god. His best friends, Em and Wayne, harbor the spirits of slain Valkyries. Cool, right?

The problem is, the gods who survived the apocalypse are still around—and they don’t exactly make a great welcoming committee. The children of Thor are hellbent on reclaiming their scattered birthright: the gloves, belt, and hammer of the Thunder God. Meanwhile, the dwarves are scheming, the giants are pissed, and the goddess of the dead is demanding sanctuary for herself and her entire realm.

Caught in the coils of the Wyrd, the ancient force that governs gods and mortals alike, Sigmund and his crew are suddenly facing a second Ragnarok that threatens to finish what the first one started. And all that stands in the way are four nerds bound by courage, love, divine powers, and an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming lore.


 

An eARC of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.

 


Stormbringer is the sequel to Alis Franklin’s debut novel, Liesmith (which I reviewed here), and the second book in the urban fantasy series The Wyrd.

Liesmith focused very much as an introduction to the world of The Wyrd, seen through Sigmund’s eyes as a newcomer (of sorts) and human (of sorts) as well as those of Loki/Lain.  I loved this book.  I loved the relationship between Sigmund and Lain, I loved Franklin’s spin on the Norse sagas.  I actually went back and reread Liesmith before reading Stormbringer for review, and loved it just as damn much.

Which is to say, if you haven’t read Liesmith, you should.  And then you should make haste to pick up Stormbringer.

Liesmith was a book fairly tightly focused on the Sigmund/Lain relationship, as well as Sigmund coming to grips with the strange new world he finds himself part of (finding out that you’re basically the reincarnation of a Norse goddess will do that to you).  Stormbringer expands out from this focus – Sigmund and Lain spend much of the book apart, and each takes the reader into new parts of the world.

Major kudos are due to Franklin for how she deals with the whole reincarnated goddess bit, too.  Other writers would have chosen to go down a path of fate/instalove with Loki/Sigyn, but she always makes Sigmund and Lain their own people, much more than anything fate could manipulate.  It’s always clear that both of them are with the other because they choose to be, and their love for each other admirably never falters.  No fear of love triangles here (and thank the Gods, because that trope has been so, so overdone).  It’s very clear that the relationship between Sigmund and Lain is a new and unsteady thing, and all the more compelling because of that.  Seriously, I think I may have actually cheered when Lain and Sigmund met again near the end of the book.

The female characters that Franklin writes continue to be awesome.  Wayne and Em, both once-Valkyries, are unfortunately sidelined by events a little (but are, nonetheless, extremely important to how the events of this book unravel).  To make up for this, we have three (!) new female characters: the goddess Nanna, Hel (Loki’s daughter, ruled of Helheim, and oh, I am in love with how Franklin writes her) and more prominently, Thor’s daughter, Þrúðr.  All of these women are amazing, and even when they are squashed into more traditional female roles (such as being married off by others for their gain) they find a strength and power in it.  Each of the characters, male and female both, are complex and all are fascinating and unique enough to carry off a book on their own.  Which is to say, this is an awesome cast.

The nerd/geek/gaming humour and references continue through this book (as befitting the characters, especially Sigmund, Wayne and Em, who are all gamers and general awesome geeks).  There is also some fantastic interrogation over what it means to be monstrous (and just what defines being monstrous).

And here’s a little personal confession: rereading Liesmith and reading Stormbringer got me through a particularly awful week.  I am so, so glad that there is at least another book in this series coming.

If you’re burned out on urban fantasy, I can highly recommend Stormbringer (as I can also recommend Liesmith).  And even if you’re not, go and read these books now.  Franklin has pretty much cemented herself in my virtual buy-everything-they-release headspace.

AWW2015: The Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok

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When Prince Valamon is impossibly taken from the heart of Algaris Castle, the only clue as to motive or culprit is the use of unknown sorcery.

Reclusive cleric Seris is happily tending to his book-infested temple when he finds himself recruited to the politically compromised rescue mission. His sole companion on the journey is Elhan, a cheerfully disturbed vagrant girl with terrifying combat skills and her own enigmatic reasons for seeking the prince.

Venturing into the wild, unconquered lands, Seris has no fighting prowess, no survival skills, and no charisma, as Elhan keeps pointing out. Armed only with a stubborn streak and creative diplomacy, he must find a way to survive outlaw towns, enchanted tropical isles, and incendiary masquerades, all without breaking his vow to do no harm.

Chasing rumours of rising warlords and the return of the vanished sorcerers, Seris and Elhan soon discover a web of treachery and long-buried secrets that go far beyond a kidnapped prince.

As enemies rise from beyond the empire and within it, Seris and Elhan realise that the key to saving Valamon and averting a war may lie in their own bloody pasts, and the fate of their fragile friendship.


 

I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.


The Hunt for Valamon is Australian author D.K. Mok’s second novel (Her first novel, The Other Tree, I also reviewed.)  The Hunt for Valamon is high/epic fantasy, a departure from The Other Tree’s urban fantasy.

First of all, I have to comment on that incredible cover art.  Mok’s books (both published by Spence City) have had the most gorgeous covers.  Huge kudos to the cover artist.

Let me tell you a story of teenage and young adult me.  I loved epic fantasy.  In high school, I would walk through the aisle looking for the distinctive fat paperbacks (preferably a series, since it lasted longer) that would give me an escape from the world.  I devoured Raymond E. Feist’s books, and waited impatiently through university for each Wheel of Time book to be released.  I loved fantasy, and for a while read fairly indiscriminately.  Wizards and magic and dragons?  I was there.

And then I read a lot more, and started seeing the same old tired tropes being trotted out again and again.  Farmboy who goes on a journey and saves the kingdom and becomes a prince?  Princess who is little more than a pretty trophy to be won?  There were always exceptions, of course, but the old tropes were still there far too often, and I drifted away from the genre.

Now, I’m slowly coming back to reading epic fantasy, mostly because of some of the incredible authors who are breaking those old tropes and breathing life back into fantasy.  Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is pretty much a must-read, especially if, like me, you were burned out on a lot of the same-old same-old.

Now, I’m a fan of Mok’s work in general, but I will admit to some trepidation in reading The Hunt for Valamon.  And honestly, I shouldn’t have had any.  Mok brings a particular uniqueness to the genre with this book: there’s a good dose of modernity and originality in this book, and honestly, it’s just plain fun.  There are no trophy princesses, not a farmboy-turned-prince in sight.

The book begins when Prince Valamon, heir to the throne, vanishes mysteriously from his room in the castle.  A tournament is held to find a champion to be sent on the titular hunt.  Elhan, a mysterious warrior who is followed by a curse, enters and wins.  She sets out on her quest with Seris, a cleric with healing abilities.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  There’s a quest, someone to be rescued.  But in every aspect of this book, Mok brings something new.  It’s a prince who needs to be rescued, for one.  Said prince, Valamon, is seen by others as being vague, and quite frankly, not a suitable heir to the throne.  As the book progresses, we have chapters from Valamon’s point of view in captivity, and we learn more and more about him (also, there are scenes where he attempts to break out of his cell using straw and hessian, which are kind of awesome).

The female characters in this book are incredible.  There are women in positions of power – Elhan is an accomplished warrior, despite being cursed to bring death and destruction everywhere she goes, and rightly feared because of it.  We also have Qara, childhood friend of the princes who has grown up to become a royal adviser, and Haska, who had a hand in Valamon’s kidnapping.  The reader sees chapters from all of their points of view, allowing Mok to flesh out all of the characters fully.  There are no cackling two-dimensional villains here, just real people, all of whom believe that their actions are right.

And Seris also needs to be noted.  He’s a cleric who has the power of healing granted to him by the goddess he serves, and could easily have become a passive or weak character, especially when juxtaposed against so many other physically strong characters.  Mok draws him finely, and gives him strength of a different fashion – he has the strength of conviction, of belief, and he always stays good and true to his beliefs.

If you’re tired of grimdark fantasy, I’d suggest that The Hunt for Valamon is a good place to start.  There are serious issues at stake here, but there’s always a lightness there, too, with just enough humour to balance the darker aspects of the book.

I did feel at times that some of the modern language that Mok uses in this book jarred, but then I took a step back and thought about it.  The language that we’re used to seeing with so much epic fantasy goes along with so many of the old tropes, and why shouldn’t a different kind of fantasy also use a different kind of language?

Highly recommended to anyone who loves fantasy, or, like me, has burned out on all the same old fantasy tropes.

 

 

 

AWW2015: Rupetta by Nike Sulway

Rupetta

Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. The closeness between women is mirrored in the relationship between Henri and Miri, a woman at the college with whom she fall in love, and also between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters – a heritage of affection that loops down over the centuries.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  I purchased this book.


In 2013, Nike Sulway won the Tiptree Award for her novel Rupetta, becoming the first Australian to win the award.  Rupetta was also shortlisted for the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award in 2014.

I purchased an ebook of Rupetta soon after the Tiptree win, and it was left lingering in my virtual to-be-read pile for too long (along with way too many books).  This year, I’m trying to make inroads into reading through my to-be-read mountains, and Rupetta was a good place to start.

And I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner.  I actually almost wasn’t going to write a full review of this book, simply because I wasn’t certain that anything I could write would truly reflect how achingly beautiful this book is.  I fell deep in love with Sulway’s extraordinary prose from the first page, and deeper still with Rupetta, Henri and their world.  As soon as I finished the ebook, I hunted down a physical copy as well, just so I can have this gorgeous book on my shelf.

This book isn’t going to be for every reader.  The prose is dense, oftentimes reading more like poetry than anything else, and the storyline isn’t linear.  Each chapter feels very much as though it is a cog in part of a grand machine, like Rupetta herself.  I feel very much that this is a book that will benefit from much reading and rereading in order to see the full pattern of that machine.

Women are the central focus of this book.  Rupetta was created by a woman, and requires a psychic bond with a female Wynder in order to run.  Generation through generation we follow the Wynders, each of their stories unique and compelling.  Their bond to Rupetta, and Rupetta’s very existence, shapes the society around them.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one from Rupetta’s point of view following her history, and the next from Henri’s point of view.  Henri longs to be an Obanite Historian like her mother, to be Transformed by having her heart replaced with a clockwork version.  We follow with her as she rebels against her father’s wishes and enrols.  As she delves deeper into history, she discovers more about the truth of Rupetta and the Obanites, as well as of her mother’s life.

None of the magic in this world is explained – not how Rupetta came to be, not how Rupetta bonds with her Wynders.  I suspect this will frustrate some readers, but for me, the mystery of it only added to the enchantment of the book.  My only real issue is that the ending didn’t quite draw together completely, but I feel that the sheer beauty of Sulway’s writing and the strength of the world and main characters more than makes up for this.

Sulway writes in an elaborate filigree which is not quite like anything else I’ve read.  The closest I can come is comparing her to authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Sophia Samatar.  Rupetta is fully deserving of the awards it has won, and I look forward to Sulway’s future books.

 

AWW2015: Liesmith by Alis Franklin

liesmith

Working in low-level IT support for a company that’s the toast of the tech world, Sigmund Sussman finds himself content, if not particularly inspired. As compensation for telling people to restart their computer a few times a day, Sigmund earns enough disposable income to gorge on comics and has plenty of free time to devote to his gaming group.

Then in walks the new guy with the unpronounceable last name who immediately becomes IT’s most popular team member. Lain Laufeyjarson is charming and good-looking, with a story for any occasion; shy, awkward Sigmund is none of those things, which is why he finds it odd when Lain flirts with him. But Lain seems cool, even if he’s a little different—though Sigmund never suspects just how different he could be. After all, who would expect a Norse god to be doing server reboots?

As Sigmund gets to know his mysterious new boyfriend, fate—in the form of an ancient force known as the Wyrd—begins to reveal the threads that weave their lives together. Sigmund doesn’t have the first clue where this adventure will take him, but as Lain says, only fools mess with the Wyrd. Why? Because the Wyrd messes back.


 

Note: An eARC of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I have since purchased my own copy.

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.


Liesmith is Australian author Alis Franklin’s debut novel.  It is the first book in the urban fantasy series, The Wyrd.  Two more books in the series are forthcoming.

Let’s get one thing up front: I make no secret of the fact that I am really, really burned out on a lot of what passes for urban fantasy these days.  I am tired of love triangles and of seeing characters doing dumb things to perpetuate love triangles.  I am tired of seeing mythology thinned, turned into yet another cookie-cutter book filled with the same old tropes.

And so I approached Liesmith with some trepidation.  Worried that this would be yet another same-old same-old.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Because seriously, Franklin has knocked this one out of the park.

Sigmund Sussman is a geek.  He works in IT – and worse, the brand of “Have you tried turning it off then on again?” IT – he’s chubby, somewhat awkward with non-geeks, and he plays DnD.  Refreshingly, though he’s unashamedly geeky, he’s not portrayed as a loner – his two best friends, both female gamers, Wayne and Em, are always there for him.  Sigmund can also always sense when someone is lying, an ability that he keeps to himself.

Enter Lain Laufeyjarson, hipsterish new addition to the IT department.  Sigmund brushes Lain off originally (at which point I was pretty much cheering because no love at first sight trope!), but Lain is immediately interested in Sigmund.  He slowly takes his time getting to know him (double hooray!) and the two of them are drawn together.

You make think this is a standard romance, but beneath Lain’s skin lies someone – and something – else, and Sigmund and his friends are thrown into a world of monsters where gods can be reincarnated and not everything is as it seems.

First of all, the romance in this is wonderful.  There’s no love at first sight, just a believable growing together of two people.  Without spoiling anything specific, Franklin could very easily have thrust these Lain and Sigmund together, but she chooses not to, instead creating a very gradual relationship (including the awkward moments that happen in any nascent relationship).  This is no stereotypical Powerful Character falls in love with Squishy Mortal story, but something that feels very, very real.  The fluid treatment of sexuality is also to be commended.

The fantasy elements in this are also amazing.  Franklin has taken the Norse myths and created something pretty damn amazing.  What lies beneath Lain’s skin is monstrous, but there’s a deep humanity to him, even in his most inhuman moments.

I seriously do not have enough words for how much I love this book and want to thrust it at everyone I know who reads urban fantasy (and those who don’t).  The romance is wonderful, all of the characters are well-rounded (including Wayne and Em, who could have easily been just so much window dressing in a lesser writer’s hands), and the fantastical elements are original and solid. On top of everything, the writing is brilliant, and there’s fun and humour and darkness in just the right balance.

Franklin is most definitely a writer to watch.  She brings something truly fresh to urban fantasy in Liesmith and I hope we get to see many more books by her.  Based on Liesmith alone, she’s on my instant buy list for life.

 

 

 

AWW2015: Graced by Amanda Pillar

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City Guard Elle Brown has one goal in life: to protect her kid sister, Emmie. Falling in love–and with a werewolf at that–was never part of the deal.

Life, however, doesn’t always go to plan, and when Elle meets Clay, everything she thought about her world is thrown into turmoil. Everything, that is, but protecting Emmie, who is Graced with teal-colored eyes and an unknown power that could change their very existence. But being different is dangerous in their home city of Pinton, and it’s Elle’s very own differences that capture the attention of the Honorable Dante Kipling, a vampire with a bone-deep fascination for a special type of human.

Dante is convinced that humans with eye colors other than brown are unique, but he has no proof. The answers may exist in the enigmatic hazel eyes of Elle Brown, and he’s determined to uncover their secrets no matter the cost…or the lives lost.


 

An eARC of this book was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  I also subsequently purchased a copy of this book myself.

NOTE: I was an beta reader for this book and have worked with Amanda Pillar as an editor, and consider her a friend.  Neither of these things have influenced my review.

This review is presented as part of my commitment towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.


Graced is writer and editor Amanda Pillar’s debut novel, and is published by Momentum Books.

At first. the world of Graced looks much like many other urban fantasy/paranormal romance worlds.  There are vampires who live in an aristocratic society, there are werewolves, and there are humans.  But here is where Pillar brings something new to the genre: within the humans are a subset of magically talented people known as the Graced, identifiable by their coloured eyes (Non-Graced humans have brown eyes).  The Graced believe that their powers are secret, and want to keep it that way.

Elle Brown is a City Guard working in the primarily vampire-occupied Pinton.  Her primary concern in life, other than keeping the peace, is the wellbeing and happiness of her much younger sister, Emmie.  Their Grandmother, Olive, a strong Green (a Graced with green eyes, and strong powers), believes both of her granddaughters to be useless.  Elle has hazel eyes and no powers, and Emmie has unusual Teal eyes, but appears to only have latent powers.  Olive has far-reaching schemes for the Graced, and invites the werewolf Clay Lovett to Pinton.  Elle and Clay meet, and there is instant chemistry between them.

Meanwhile, the vampire Dante Kipling is growing curious about humans with coloured eyes – he suspects that the colours must mean something, but he doesn’t know what.  His experiments result in the deaths of two Graced, and Olive sends Elle to spy on the Kipling family in disguise as a servant.

And, quite simply, all hell breaks loose.

At first, I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of the Graced – special eye colours are a well-worn trope, and I feared that I would be seeing the same-old same-old here.  I shouldn’t have feared, because Pillar adds so much originality and meaning to an old trope – and there are hints that there are deeper threads again to the Graced (and I hope very much that Pillar revisits this world to explore them).

All of the characters are amazing.  Elle is a fabulous strong (in the literal meaning of strong) female character, and her love and protective instincts for Emmie make her very relatable.  Clay is charming from the moment he steps onto the page, and the chemistry between he and Elle is palpable.

There has to be a mention about the diversity of sexualities in this book.  There is little shame in sexuality, and we see characters who are bisexual (and use the word to describe themselves, which happens far too little) as well as asexual.

The setting of this world feels a little nebulous at first – very much like any alternate earth.  But as the story progresses, there are hints and clues that this is not just an alternate earth, but in fact something else.

There is much that could easily have become problematic in this book.  The implication that a young girl could possibly be bred with an older character is there, but strongly objected to by many characters (so many that you know as a reader that it’s never going to happen).  There’s also a good portrayal of a character with a physical disability, who is never maligned for it (except by himself).

This is a fast-paced, fun read that will likely appeal to fans of work such as Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books (without their problematic issues).  Pillar brings a new voice to urban fantasy and has introduced readers to a fabulous new world that I truly hope she returns to.  Highly recommended.

 

AWW2015: In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

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There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage hood, there develops a conspiratorial relationship between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, trying to keep his wife’s problems a family secret. This was a time when the insane were committed and locked up in Dickensian institutions; whatever his problems her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. But also to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother.

In My Mother’s Hands is a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I purchased this book.


 

When the Stella Prize longlist for 2015 was announced, I went through and downloaded samples of the books that interested me.  This is the first book for which I read the sample and had to keep on reading.

Biff Ward grew up in a house that was unlike the houses of the people she knew.  There was the shadow of her sister Alison, said to have drowned in her bath as a baby when her mother fainted.  And there was Biff’s mother, a woman who always seemed distracted, apart from her family.  At times this distraction broke and became something else: a paranoia that they were being watched, that people were coming to get them.

As Ward grows up, her mother becomes more and more detached, more unstable.  She begins to gouge at her hands, pare back her nails with a razor, trying to rid herself of a “rash”.  She wears gloves all the time that she is not gouging.  Ward’s father copes as best as he can, though at times this “coping” seems to veer very close to abuse.  He has a string of affairs, but he always returns to his wife, this woman who seems empty, who seems so incredibly sad.

It is as an adult, living apart from her mother, that Ward sets off on a journey to discover what really happened to Alison, what really is wrong with her mother.  As she uncovers the truth, there is an indescribable sorrow that flows beneath the words of the book.  Sorrow for Ward and her brother, essentially growing up without a mother.  Sorrow for Ward’s father, who sought to protect his wife from a state asylum, the only treatment for mental illness at the time.  And sorrow most of all for Ward’s mother, suffering most likely from postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia.

Ward draws parallels between her life and Jane Eyre, with the mad wife Bertha locked in the attic.  Reading this book, I wonder how many Berthas there have been, essentially locked away for lack of real treatment for mental illness.  Ward’s mother lived in a time before antidepressants and antipsychotics, a time when mental illness was hushed up, swept beneath the rug, hidden by gloves.

This is an incredibly important memoir, and I can only begin to imagine how painful it must have been for Ward to write.  Without real help, her whole family suffered because of her mother’s mental illness.   There is no blame in this memoir on Ward’s part, just that deep sorrow for the woman her mother might have been, if there had been real help for her at the time.  Ward is to be thanked for her honesty and strength.  This is not an easy read, by any means, but it is a book that is very much worth reading.

 

 

AWW15: Avery by Charlotte McConaghy

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The people of Kaya die in pairs. When one lover dies, the other does too. So it has been for thousands of years – until Ava.

For although her bondmate, Avery, has been murdered and Ava’s soul has been torn in two, she is the only one who has ever been strong enough to cling to life. Vowing revenge upon the barbarian queen of Pirenti, Ava’s plan is interrupted when she is instead captured by the deadly prince of her enemies.

Prince Ambrose has been brought up to kill and hate. But when he takes charge of a strangely captivating Kayan prisoner and is forced to survive with her on a dangerous island, he must reconsider all he holds true . . .

In a violent country like Pirenti, where emotion is scorned as a weakness, can he find the strength to fight for the person he loves . . . even when she’s his vengeful enemy?

Avery is a sweeping, romantic fantasy novel about loss and identity, and finding the courage to love against all odds.


 

NOTE: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This review is presented both as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 and as part of the Avery blog tour.  You can find the previous blog tour stop at Words Read and Written and the next blog tour stop at A Word Shaker.


 

Avery is the first book in a new Young Adult series by Australian author Charlotte McConaghy, The Chronicles of Kaya.

When Ava’s bond-mate Avery is killed, Ava naturally expects to die as well.  But Ava does not die.  She fades, grows numb, loses her sense of taste, but she does not die.  Rejected by her family and friends, she sets on the only course she can: revenge against the Queen of Pirenti, murderer of Avery.  Pirenti is a barbaric country where travelling as a woman is too dangerous, and so she disguises herself as a boy and takes her dead lover’s name, Avery.

In Pirenti, love is seen as weakness and power comes from violence.  The princes of Pirenti are Ambrose and Thorne.  Thorne is married to the fragile and strange Roselyn, a woman for whom he can express his love for only as violence.  When Ava’s path crosses Ambrose’s, and eventually Thorne and Roselyn, everything must change for them all.

This is a book that I would have adored as a teenager.  The hook–lovers bonded for life–would have grabbed me and not let go.  I can easily see this book and series being a gateway for many younger readers into fantasy, especially those who have mostly read only mainstream YA.

As an adult, and especially as one who has read a lot of fantasy (aimed both at YA and adult audiences), I was initially wary of many of the tropes McConaghy uses in the book.  The bonding between lovers veers very close to love at first sight, and the fact that Kayans have colour changing eyes seemed yet another recycling of old tropes.

However, as I read on, I found that McConaghy was pushing past many of these tropes.  The colour-changing eyes was used to good effect, and the bonding was shown to be something that didn’t necessarily have to be instantaneous.  More refreshing is that Ava herself is never a weak character–she doubts herself at times, but she’s never a damsel in distress.

Some readers will likely find the parts of the story which focus on violence against women (especially Roselyn) confronting, and may wish to avoid the book on that basis.  However, as with the other plot threads, I felt that McConaghy explored this with respect (and with an actual cultural reason for the said violence in Pirenti).  I actually found Roselyn to be one of the most fascinating characters in the book, and I hope that her story is further explored in the future.

All in all, this was a satisfying read for myself as an adult reader who has consumed a great deal of fantasy, and I could see it easily being an almost obsessive read for many a younger reader.  Highly recommended.


Celebrity_photographers_sydney_glamour_nudes_art_photography_SeductiveCharlotte McConaghy grew up with her nose in a book. Her first novel, Arrival, was published at age seventeen, followed by Descentwhen she was twenty.
She soon started her first adult fantasy novel, Avery, the prologue of which came to her in a very vivid dream. Avery launched The Chronicles of Kaya series, and is followed by Thorne – Book Two and Isadora, the third and final in the trilogy. She then published Fury, and Melancholy, the first and second books in a dystopian sci-fi series called The Cure.
Charlotte currently lives in Sydney, and has a Masters in Screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School.