Ray McKenzie

RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

Lies Sleeping: The newly-promoted wizarding detective returns

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Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant, our favourite semi-competent detective cum wizard-in-training, returns in Lies Sleeping (2018), the seventh book in Ben Aaronovitch’s RIVERS OF LONDON series. The Faceless Man has been unmasked and is on the run, and it is now up to Peter and the inimitable Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale (slash last officially sanctioned English Melvin the Wizard) to apprehend him.

(Fair warning: some spoilers for preceding books will follow.)

London is once more under threat and there can only be one man behind it. Readers will remember that the Faceless Man was finally unmasked as Martin Chorley, who, in true Vader-style, managed ... Read More

La Belle Sauvage: Our different opinions

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I always find it a little nerve-wracking when an author returns to a successful series after a long time away. There's always the fear, for me at least, that one of two things is going to happen: either the author will be nostalgic about the original work to the extent that s/he makes the new book into a fawning tribute without substance, or the author will have changed enough in the time between installments that the magic is just gone. I'm happy to say, though, that Philip Pullman's new novel dispels both of those fears. La Belle Sauvage (2017) is, though not quite as much a game-changer as The Golden ... Read More

Bridge of Clay: The saga of five abandoned brothers, and a mule

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Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

In the beginning, there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn't the beginning...

Thus opens Markus Zusak's Bridge of Clay. Zusak has previously said that this novel has been two decades in the making and that, alongside being the follow-up to the wildly successful The Book Thief, meant that this story was always going to have its work cut out for it. It tells the tale of five feral brothers that have had to bring themselves up in a family saga of love and loss and tragedy that spans the lifetimes of multiple generations, and household pets.

The brothers themselves are self-named 'barbarians.' The story is narrated by Matthew, the eldest, the sole earner of the household inherited fr... Read More

The Book Thief: A tale of a girl told by Death

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

"Here is a small fact. You are going to die."

It is Death who speaks the novel’s opening lines. And Death himself, for the duration of Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel, will be our narrator. It is 1939 in Nazi Germany and whilst he takes away an increasing amount of souls, Death muses on the unravelling of humanity.

Upon taking the soul of a young boy on a train, Death notices a girl. Her name is Liesel Meminger and she has just watched her brother die. Her mother takes her to a town called Molching, specifically to a street named Himmel, which translates as heaven. Here she is taken into the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann, a German couple whose son has been lost in the war. With the death of her brother and abandonment of her mother, Liesel must come to terms with her new life under the watchful eye of Rosa, who swears at anything that moves (if she is ... Read More

Lethal White: Detective Strike makes a triumphant return

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Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

“Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity.”

So begins the latest addition to J. K. Rowling's CORMORAN STRIKE series, and one can't help feeling that the author would feel particularly empathetic towards her protagonist, the eponymous Cormoran Strike. Hot off the heels of his last case, Strike found himself unwanted fame that now, paradoxically, has cost him the anonymity needed to do his job in the first place.

Lethal White (2018) takes place in the middle of the summer 2012 London Olympics. Rowling's previous novels concerned themselves with the world of Read More

The Song of Achilles: An epic love story

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The story of Achilles has been passed down through the ages and adapted countless times, most recently in Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, but also in less successful interpretations of the tale (Brad Pitt in Troy, I'm looking at you). The Song of Achilles (2011) by Madeline Miller offers an entirely new perspective altogether. It is something of an origins story, but most unusually is that it is told through the eyes of Achilles' lover, Patroclus.

We first meet Patroclus as a young boy. His mother, he tells us, is simple and he l... Read More

The Silence of the Girls: Powerful retelling of The Iliad from the female perspective

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Toward the end of Pat Barker’s newest novel, her main character Briseis thinks to herself:

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy ... worthy of any number of laments — but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.

The eloquently powerful The Silence of the Girls (2018) is Barker’s attempt to create just that, and she just about nails it.

Barker’s novel is a re-telling of Homer’s The Iliad, told mostly from the point of view of Briseis, the young girl taken by Achilles as a spoil of war and then later taken from him by Agamemnon as compensation fo... Read More

Circe: A winningly feminist retelling/expansion

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Circe by Madeline Miller

“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Thus begins Circe’s self-told tale, and the yet-to-be-invented descriptor she references here is “witch,” though it could just as easily, and perhaps more significantly for this story, be “independent woman,” since both concepts, it turns out, are equally confounding to Titan, Olympian, and mortal alike, much to the reader’s satisfaction.

Beyond that bedeviling of the uber-powerful, there’s a lot that satisfies (and more) here: Madeline Miller’s lovely prose, how she stays faithful to the myths but fills the spaces between them with a rich originality, the manner in which the tale creates tension despite the fact we know how many of its parts end, the many times we dip into and out of storytelling as we hear ... Read More

The End of the Day: Before Death, meet Charlie

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The End of the Day by Claire North

“I am the Harbringer of Death,” Charlie explains countless times to airport security, friends of friends, nurses, doctors, strangers in bars, passengers on trains. Because before Death, comes Charlie: sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, but always before. Meeting people from every possible walk of life, Charlie discovers what it is to be human in The End of the Day, a genre-defying tale.

When we first meet Charlie he’s somewhere in Central America, trying to locate an old woman called Mama Sakinai. He explains to a mule driver that he is the Harbringer of Death. He is here to bring Mama Sakinai some whisky. Sometimes Charlie comes to mark the end of the world, or a world. In this case, he is marking the end of an era: Mama Sakinai is... Read More

The Heart Forger: A strong sequel

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The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco

The Heart Forger's (2018) prequel ended with the young bone witch, Tea, about to march upon the kingdom with an army of corpses and a bevy of monsters to boot. We pick up the story precisely where it was left off with Tea's shock lover (for those of you who remember the twist ending of The Bone Witch) in tow.

Sticking to the same formula used in The Bone Witch, the narrative jumps between past and present, once more in a style reminiscent of THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE series. The bard continues to narrate Tea's march upon the royals in the present day, presenting a very different version to the novice asha (that is, a ... Read More

The Lady of the Rivers: The protagonist lacks the magic of her ancestors

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The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers (2011) begins with the capture of a young French maiden. She wears a man's cap and breeches, and tells her captors that she is following the voices of angels. When our narrator, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, calls her Joan, it quickly becomes apparent that Gregory has opened her novel with the capture of the legendary Joan of Arc. Moments in history don't come much more momentous than this one, and it marks the first trial Jacquetta must overcome, in era full of intrigue, alchemy and political suspense.

Dramatic as the opening is, therein lies its problem: Jacquetta merely plays witness to the greater moments of history, and her role of passive observer continues throughout the novel. Whilst Joan of Arc awaits trial in a fifteen-year-old Jacquetta's household, she reads Joan's cards. Jacquetta is descen... Read More

All the Light We Cannot See: Science, magic and morality

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) opens in the basement of a hotel in the port city of Saint-Malo in occupied France, 1944. The city is being bombed. Eighteen-year-old Nazi soldier Werner Pfennig is trapped below tonnes of rubble, his chances of survival increasingly slim, whilst across town, a blind French girl Marie-Laure is hiding in her attic. The pair is bound by a curiosity in natural science, years of surreptitious radio broadcasts, and a diamond that may bestow immortality upon its holder. Neither of them knows it yet. What follows is the tale of a boy who joins the Nazi regime and a girl who tries to evade it, and the series of events that will set their paths hurtling towards one another.

After these opening scenes, the story rewinds to 1934: Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mini... Read More

Gilded Cage: The abuse of power by the super-powered

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Gilded Cage by Vic James

In the world of Gilded Cage (2017), there are those who are called Equals ― but there’s a deep divide between Equals, who have magical Skills, and the commoners, the Skilless, and they are decisively not equal. In England the Equals are both the aristocrats and the sole parliament, and they hold all the power, with the magical ability to enforce it.

One of the ways the Equals use their power is to require all commoners to spend ten years of their lives as slaves, known as slavedays. There are some interesting rules associated with this 10-year slavery law: there are advantages to doing it early in your life (such as the right to own a home, travel abroad, and hold certain jobs), you are required to begin them no later than age 55, and those under age 18 are to serve in the same place with their parents.

When 18-year-ol... Read More

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: Fascinating and fun

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Most people imagine the enchanting, scantily-clad beauties of fairytale when they think of mermaids, but Imogen Hermes Gowar offers an entirely different creature in her debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Readers will find no glittering scales or flowing hair here. Tipped as one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2018, the story promises to be one curiosity and obsession.

It is a cold September evening in 1785 when Mr Hancock finally gets the long-awaited knock on the door of his London home; he has been waiting for news of his ship, which he fears has sunk or disappeared. Yet the news he receives is far from expected: the ship’s captain has sold the vessel, and bought in its place a mermaid. When he pulls a gnarled, dead creature from his sack, Mr Hancock cannot believe he's lost his enti... Read More

The Hazel Wood: Not quite enough magic to enchant

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The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood (2018) is one of those novels whose reputation precedes it. Authors and critics alike are singing the book's praises, dubbing it mesmerising, creepy, captivating. It promises to be a dark and twisting fairytale in the vein of Caraval and The Bear and the Nightingale, but can Melissa Albert's debut live up to its own hype?

Alice and her mother have moved from place to place for as long as she can remember. Whenever they settle anywhere too long, sinister things begin to happen, so they've spent Alice's childhood trying to outrun the bad luck that constantly hounds them. But when Alice's grandmo... Read More

The City of Brass: A dream of djinni

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Nahri, a young woman living alone in 18th century Cairo, gets by doing minor cons, fake healing rituals and a little theft. She knows nothing about her parents or heritage but, in addition to being able to diagnose disease in others with a glance and occasionally truly heal them, her own body automatically heals of injuries almost instantly and she has the magical ability to understand ― and speak ― any language.

Nahri's life gets upended when she accidentally summons Darayavahoush, a fiery, handsome djinn warrior, to her side while performing a sham healing ceremony. After he gets over his murderous rage at being involuntarily summoned, Dara saves Nahri from murderous ifrit and ghouls who have become aware of Nahri and her abilities. Dara quickly enchants a magic carpet and, dragging... Read More

Stranger Things 2: The world is turning upside down

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Stranger Things 2 created by the Duffer Brothers

After its unexpected success last year, Stranger Things became an instant classic and fans have been clamouring for the release of the second series ever since. With its perfect combination of nostalgia, comedy and suspense, the show's creators, the Duffer Brothers, gave themselves a hell of a first series to follow up. So, did they manage to live up to the hype?

Sequels always present a conundrum: you want to give the fans more of what they want (and know), whilst simultaneously trying to create something new. Stranger Things 2 boldly begins with the unknown: our opening scenes start with a group of grungy misfits (eyeliner and mohawks galore) mid-robbery, that winds up in a police chase. It seems a far cry from the unnatural goings on at Hawkins, until one of the gro... Read More

Stranger Things: Scares and swoons, this show has it all

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Stranger Things created by the Duffer Brothers

Like The Hunger Games and Star Wars before it, Stranger Things is that rare breed of entertainment which becomes a franchise almost instantly upon release. What's more, it firmly established Netflix’s media strategy: The Binge. With the days of having to wait a week between episodes firmly over — and at a modest eight episodes long — some people managed to finish the first series in a day. So what winning formula managed to establish such a die-hard legion of fans?

On paper, Stranger Things shouldn’t really work. The show’s an indefinable blend of horror, humour, coming-of-age drama, science fiction, romance and mystery. When asked how they’d classify it, the Duffer Brothers themselves were unable to give a firm genre, and perhaps that is where the success of the show lies: there really is something for everyone... Read More

An Ember in the Ashes: A soldier and a slave. Neither is free.

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

The hype surrounding An Ember in the Ashes (2015) around its release was impressive, to say the least. Classed as Epic Fantasy, the book quickly became a bestseller on multiple lists and rights have been sold across thirty countries. Film rights were sold in a seven-figure deal (seven!) well before the book's publication. A sequel was bought almost immediately thereafter. With these kinds of stats, is a book ever going to be able to live up to itself?

Laia is a slave under the Martial Empire. She comes from a group known as the scholars — a class of oppressed people who are enslaved by the Martials. Elias is a Martial, the group that makes up the brutal ruling class of the Empire. He is about to graduate as one of its elite soldiers, referred to as 'Masks' due to the metallic mask that will eventually infuse to his skin. The... Read More

A Monster Calls: The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

At seven minutes past midnight, Conor O'Malley is visited by a monster. But it's not the monster he's expecting. This monster is wild and ancient. This monster comes in the form of a yew tree that usually stands atop the hill Conor can see from his bedroom window, in the middle of the graveyard. Except that now it is here, outside his bedroom window, and it wants something from Conor.

Conor O'Malley started getting nightmares after his mother got sick. In them he has terrible visions, visions which not even the monstrous yew can compare too, and it is perhaps for this reason that Conor is able to have a relatively nonplussed conversation with the tree outside his window. The mass of leaves and branches takes the shape of a man, and it seems to think Conor summoned him. The tree tells Conor he will tell him three true stories, after which Conor will have to ... Read More

Tinder: A twisted, terrifying fairy tale

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Tinder by Sally Gardner

Death first comes to Otto Hundebiss on the battlefield. Surrounded by Otto's friends and comrades, he offers to take Otto with him as well. Otto declines, and Death and his ghostly army vanish. So begins Sally Gardner's twisted take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the tinderbox. And it doesn't get any more light-hearted after that...

Otto staggers through the woods in which the battle took place, a bullet in his side and a sword wound in his shoulder, and eventually passes out. When he comes round, he isn't sure whether or not he's dreaming: all around him hang boots and shoes. A beast is stoking a fire next to him, and Otto realises it is not a beast at all, but a horned animal mask on the head of a man. Otto asks about the shoes, and the half-man (as Otto calls him) explains they are the shoes of the dead.

Between the haze o... Read More

The Changeling: A rich dark fairy tale for the Information Age

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The Changeling by Victor LaValle

“How do we protect our children?" Cal said quietly.
Apollo watched the soft little shape in his hand. "Obviously I don’t know."


Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling (2017) is a five-star book, one of the year’s best. I predict this thoughtful modern dark fantasy novel — or it might be horror — will be shortlisted on several awards and Best Of lists.

LaValle takes the tropes of traditional middle European fairy tales and blends them perfectly with a view of modern living, specifically modern living in New York City. He uses this blend to explore the terrifying state of parenthood, when a person’s life, and heart, become inextricably yoked to another human being.

Apollo Kagwa’s ... Read More

The Golem and the Jinni: A magical mural of the immigrant experience

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

A Genie. A golem. Nineteenth-century New York City. Boy, did I want to love this book. Drawn by its come-hither characters, its promise of poetry, and by its dark side in the form of a truly nasty character, I really, really wanted to love it. And truth is, I liked The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. But in the well-trod words of middle school, I didn’t “like like” it. Oh, it was fun, it made me smile sometimes and think sometimes and feel a bit sad at other times. I enjoyed hanging out with i... Read More

Now I Rise: Demand the crown

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

And I Darken bought us some of the best characters YA has seen in a long time: Lada Dracul, the fearsome terror of a little girl, and her gentle brother Radu. Defying stereotypes of gender, race and religion, as well as the predictable tropes of the genre itself, And I Darken was a FanLit fave of last year. Lada and Radu make their return in the follow-up, Now I Rise (2017), but can the sequel live up to its dazzling predecessor?

Lada ended And I Darken forging out towards Wallachia with her loyal Janissaries, having rejected the new sultan Mehmed's offer to stay with him, whilst Radu chose to remain. The messy love triangle — Radu's unrequited love for Mehmed, and Lada and Mehmed's impos... Read More

Lost Stars: Lost interest

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Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars (2015) is not in want of a good premise. The story takes place over the course of events in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the struggles of two star-crossed individuals as they try to find their place within the changing political environment of the galaxy. The aristocratic Thane Kyrell and lowly labourer Ciena Ree both reside on the Outer Rim of planet Jelucan. Whilst their backgrounds couldn't be more different, the childhood friends both have one thing in common: they love to fly. As teenagers they are both accepted into the Imperial Academy and train as TIE fighter pilots and are both (unsurprisingly) star flyers. But thei... Read More

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