Review: ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente

Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t … then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

This book came out a few years ago, and many of you will have already read it. I had a few Audible credits to spend, and I added this one to my haul, mainly because the rather hefty title caught my eye. I didn’t regret it.

The Girl is a middle grade story about a girl, September, who runs off to fairyland at the drop of a hat because her life is a bit boring and lonely — her father has gone to war and her mother works long hours in a factory, making planes and similar. She doesn’t think twice about running off on her poor mother (whom I feel sorry for, not gonna lie), because, according to the author, “all children are heartless”. The main character growth of the story is September’s growing of a heart — learning to think more about others rather than acting on selfish impulse.

I liked September. She wants to be irascible, like storybook child heroes, but is instead incredibly polite and sweet (despite her alleged semi-heartlessness). She sometimes despairs, but she gets back up again. And she’s not afraid to act in the face of injustice.

The side characters are great — especially A-Through-L, the wyvern mentioned in the blurb (though he identifies as a wyverary — half wyvern and half library). But the real star of this book is the writing. I’ve never encountered Valente’s work before, but she is a master of the language. She doesn’t dumb down her style for the younger reader — in fact, there’s a quote from the book that is particularly apt in describing the style:

“September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

I could include dozens of other quotes that would make my point here, but it might be quicker if you went and read a few for yourself. You’ll know soon enough whether the writing is for you.

On the subject of the audiobook itself, it was read by the author. She wasn’t bad, but she also wasn’t to the usual standard of the actors I’m used to hearing. It took me a while to get used to her style, her vocal quirks, but eventually she became the voice of the story and I stopped noticing. (Which is, honestly, what you want from an audiobook.)

The Girl is the first book in a series, and I’ll definitely be going back for more — less because I’m invested in what happens next, honestly, and more because I want to continue my love affair with Valente’s prose! ❤

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Review: ‘Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow may have defeated her deadly curse, passed the dangerous trials and joined the mystical Wundrous Society, but her journey into Nevermoor and all its secrets has only just begun. And she is fast learning that not all magic is used for good.

Morrigan Crow has been invited to join the prestigious Wundrous Society, a place that promised her friendship, protection and belonging for life. She’s hoping for an education full of wunder, imagination and discovery — but all the Society want to teach her is how evil Wundersmiths are. And someone is blackmailing Morrigan’s unit, turning her last few loyal friends against her. Has Morrigan escaped from being the cursed child of Wintersea only to become the most hated figure in Nevermoor?

Worst of all, people have started to go missing. The fantastical city of Nevermoor, once a place of magic and safety, is now riddled with fear and suspicion…

If you threw Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland in a pot, added in some Wizard of Oz, and stirred vigorously, you might get something like the Nevermoor books. And, frankly, I think that’s all the recommendation you should need. 😉

If you need more than that, you can read my (gushing) review of the first book, Nevermoor, here. If you haven’t read it yet, then be aware that this review will be a little bit spoiler-y of the first book. It’s sort of unavoidable.

In Wundersmith, twelve-year-old Morrigan finally gets to study at the Wundrous Society, a secretive organisation that promises her the sense of belonging that she never had with her family. Of course, things are never that simple, and she finds that she is regarded with everything from disdain to outright hostility by her peers and even the teachers. Still, she has a steadfast friend in Hawthorne and a devoted (if rather overworked) mentor in Jupiter. She also has a sanctuary in Jupiter’s hotel and with the staff there, which means that she is never completely overwhelmed by the occasional awfulness at the society.

I loved both Morrigan and Jupiter. Morrigan is determined and insightful, often serious as a result of her strange upbringing and circumstances, but never boring. Jupiter is exuberant and fierce, and — as an adult reader — I have a crush on him and his wild ginger hair. ❤ Just a little bit. (As an aside, Dumbledore could stand to learn a few things from Jupiter in terms of how the mentor thing should really work!)

The story is enthralling and strange, well paced and delightful. The content is solidly middle grade, but with the same broader appeal to older readers that Harry Potter has. There are no romance and no swearing or real violence (unless you count bullying). There are some scary scenes at different points, but nothing too overwhelming.

I read that Townsend is planning nine books in this series, and I am so here for this!


Review: ‘Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds’ by Brandon Sanderson

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems … for a price.

His brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

Whenever I’m looking for an audiobook with some cool world-building to escape into, Brandon Sanderson is the first name I search up. He’s a prolific writer whose fantasy novels tend towards the weightier end of the spectrum (The Stormlight Archive paperbacks are released in two parts each).

This isn’t one of those tomes, and it isn’t fantasy. But it was exactly what I was in the mood for — a set of three novellas about the same character that are, together, novel length. The stories are set on Earth, more or less, though the technology Sanderson uses (such as the camera in the blurb) is outlandish and Leeds’s … ability? condition? … isn’t something that exists in our world, at least as far as I am aware.

The stories have elements of the thriller genre about them. They have clever banter (between various aspects, primarily) and are fast-paced enough to keep anyone happy — I was utterly engrossed from start to finish. And, as well as the fantastical technology elements, Sanderson also highlights — with beautiful prose — strange and unusual things that exist in our own world (for example, did you know molten iron fireworks are a thing?). It was like being inside one of his fantasy worlds, but so much more familiar.

I loved Stephen and those of his aspects we got to know. I wanted to take them all home with me, especially when things start to unravel for them (the first two novellas are lighthearted enough, but the third, Lies of the Beholder, takes a darker turn). I’d make them lemonade and wrap them in snuggly blankets by a fire.

You might think that a genius would be a hard character to get close to, but Stephen outsources all of his genius to the aspects — he’s closer to a project planner than anything else, coordinating the aspects and keeping them on task. It’s fascinating. I loved it.

Read this book.


Mini-Review: ‘Iron Lights’ by Felicity Banks

Emmeline Muchamore was respectable once. Her sweetheart, Matilda Newry, certainly put a stop to that. But when Emmeline gains magical insight into a disastrous future battle, she weaponises her wild reputation in order to draw trouble and death away from her adopted home … risking everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Iron Lights is a steam-powered tale of honour, love, magic, adventure, and mechanical spiders.

This will be a short review, because it’s of the third book in the series, and I always feel like people would find the reviews of the first — or even the second — book more useful. Also, everything I said in those reviews is true of Iron Lights (except that the back matter isn’t a story in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure but a series of of letters from side characters in the main book).

I really enjoy Emmaline as a main character. She’s the sort of intellectually curious scientist and adventer that I can’t recall seeing much of in fiction (even if she does lean a little towards the “mad” variety of scientist, if I’m honest). She’s also unfailingly polite; devoted to her sweetie, Matilda; and capable of coming up with the most harebrained schemes I think I’ve ever seen! I wonder if it’s because she gets the science of things, but not necessarily the humanity of them. Seriously, some of her schemes in this book were never going to end well!

I love the world that Iron Lights is set in, with its magically activated metals, clockwork soldiers and cyborg-ish creatures. I also love Banks’s writing style. It’s beautiful, and is a large part of how Emmeline’s pure Britishness is conveyed. I’m always left wanting more, wishing the stories weren’t quite so fast-paced, because I don’t want them to end.

If you enjoy alternative worlds and steampunk, and would like to see both of those things in a colonial Australian setting, then check this series out.

 


Review: ‘I Am Princess X’ by Cherie Priest

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I originally discovered Cherie Priest’s books over at Audible in the form of her historical steampunk zombie series, the Clockwork Century. (You can read the review of the first book here if you’re curious.) Sadly for me, after the third book, the series wasn’t available for me to buy on audiobook — I don’t know why. So I went hunting to see what other book series she had, and found (and was intruiged by) I Am Princess X. However, because the book includes comic illustrations that tell the story, I decided this was a book better read than listened to, and here we are.

This story is a fun mystery/thriller read, and the comic sections give it an extra something. They are beautifully illustrated by Kali Ciesemier, who drew a gorgeous Princess X. The book is worth buying for those alone, honestly — I loved studying them for the clues before reading on to see what May thought of them. And the investigations that followed were fun to follow along with.

One thing that was refreshing to see in this book is that it’s a YA with no romance. There is a male counterpoint to May, a late teen named Trick who helps her with the IT side of things, and I kept waiting for there to be a spark between them — it’s so common in YA that it was my default expectation, I guess. But I don’t require my books to have a romance sub-plot so the book didn’t suffer for it, in my opinion. (YMMV.)

The only thing that I didn’t 100% love about this story was that some of the decisions the characters made in the final confrontation confused me. It’s hard to say what they were without spoilers, but I think they made the situation more perilous for themselves than it had to be, and the reasons for doing so either weren’t clearly articulated or I missed them. (I did stay up very late finishing this, so it could well be the latter!)

Regardless, if you love a mystery that builds to a thriller-style climax, one with gorgeous art to go with it, then definitely check out I Am Princess X.


Review: ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually right on the beat – but real life is a little harder to manage. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends she’s bisexual, not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high and it’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting – especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended …

This book is the sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and if you haven’t read that or at least seen the movie (Love, Simon), Leah contains some major spoilers for it. So, you know, get onto that. (My review of that is here if you need further prompting.)

Leah on the Offbeat was a quick read. Albertalli is an absolute star at writing dialogue. A lot of of this story is told that way, with less of a focus on the text surrounding it, and it really works in this context. (Especially with the nerdy banter — all the Harry Potter jokes! Aah!) But dialogue does make for a faster read than pretty much any other type of writing.

Leah, the point of view character, is such a contradiction of a character. She’s anxious and closed off, and it makes her sarcastic and moody. She can be downright nasty at times — I especially felt bad for her poor mother. And at the same time, Leah is a totally relatable teen who struggles when she’s presented with awkward moments and socially tricky situations. I’m not saying I endorse some of her behaviour by any stretch — and her apparent inability to apologise when she screws up is a thing she doesn’t really grow out of during the course of this story — but I can understand it. I can relate to it. I know I had moments like that as a teen, though I was never as cool as Leah is.

There is one scene in Leah that a lot of people find problematic, and I can totally see why. It’ll be no surprise from the blurb that Leah falls for/has fallen for one of the females in her friendship group. (I won’t say who, because spoilers, but it becomes clear pretty early in the story.) That friend is questioning her own sexulaity, and goes from “hetero experimenting” to “lowkey bi” to “bi” over the course of the book. When the friend tells Leah she’s lowkey bi, Leah lashes out at her — which a lot of people see as policing the friend’s sexuality, and as totally uncool. Which it is.

But here’s the thing. I found that scene a bit of a revelation, as someone who has thought of herself as “lowkey bi” for a few years now (though not in those words). Because Leah’s reaction articulated perfectly for me why I’d be concerned about getting into a relationship with a woman. What if I wasn’t bi enough? Would it be fair to her? I felt seen. And the fact that Leah’s friend actually comes through the other side in this story to find acceptance was really heartwarming for me. (Also, if any of my family are reading this, uh, hi?)

Anyway. More broadly, the rep in Leah is everything you could hope for. Leah is fat and generally not ashamed of it, but has moments — like when she’s chosing a prom dress — where it is rubbed in her face. Those felt super-real to me. There is also a black character who deals with racism, as well as Simon and “Blue” (real name withheld due to spoilers), the gay pair from the first book, and minor characters from other minorities. You can tell that Albertalli did her homework. (I don’t know what her background is, but no way is she writing Own Voices for all those different groups at once!)

As far as the non-romance part of the story goes, Leah is a fairly traditional “last year of high school in Amerca” story: chosing colleges, changing friendship group dynamics, prom. I think that works, though, as a backdrop to Leah’s story more broadly.

Overall, I’d rate Leah as 4.5 stars — not quite as brilliant as Simon, but still definitely worth the read.


Mini-Review: ‘A Hand of Knaves’ short short anthology

Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

So why do we love them? Because they’re imperfect, fallible, and even vulnerable under that carefully-maintained, world-weary exterior.

Rogues represent something we rarely see in our daily lives: ordinary people prepared to take on the “powers that be” by way of guile and subterfuge. But are they only in it for the loot, or are they–deep down–romantic at heart?

I have a policy of not rating or reviewing my own books (even over at Goodreads, where author reviews are a thing), but in this case I will, partly because I’m just one contributor, and partly because there are lots of awesome Aussie writers in here and I love to support Aussie fiction (especially by Aussie women, given I do the Australian Women Writers challenge every year). Also, in case you were wondering, I can’t profit any further from sales of this book — so there’s no financial incentive for me to lie. 😉

I’m honestly a little blown away by the talent on display in AHOK (especially because I apparently duped the editors into letting my story sit alongside the others!). There are rollicking space pirate adventures; beautiful stories full of slow magic and whimsy; time-travel and psychic tales that twisted my brain in knots; and vignettes that were gorgeously atmospheric and left me wanting more. There are LGBTQ+ and POC stories, too, which I always love reading. Oh, and one story that is told entirely in quotes from witnesses. (Literally just extracts of dialogue, but you still can see the tale emerge!)

If you can track down a copy of this anthology, please do. I strongly recommend it!