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.

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... Read More

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

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

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 ... 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

Flame in the Mist: In this forest, there is no place to hide…

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Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

We meet our protagonist, the rather precious Mariko, being carried roughly through the forest in her palanquin. Next thing she's the target of an attempted assassination. So begins our tale of magic, samurai and deception in Flame in the Mist's ancient, feudal Japan.

Mariko is on the way to the Imperial Palace to meet her betrothed when her convoy is attacked. At just seventeen years old, she has little say in such minor matters as her future husband. What's more, this is a political move set to cement her family's social standing. So when her convoy goes up in flames (along with everyone in it except Mariko), her first thought is for her family's honour. She reasons that if she can find out who exactly tried to murder her and why, she can save her family face and return home without having to marry the emperor's son. She murders... Read More

A Darker Shade of Magic: We like it

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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I was a big fan of V.E. Schwab’s 2013 novel Vicious, noting in my review how she had overcome the possible burden of overfamiliar concepts (it’s a folks-with-powers-who-have-some-gray-to-them kind of novel) with supremely polished execution. Well, she’s pretty much done the same with her newest novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, which takes many of the usual fantasy tropes and, again, just handles them all so smoothly that you simply don’t care much that you’ve seen them all before.

The basic concept is a nicely focused tweak of the multi-verse model, with a series of parallel Londons: Red London, a vibrant, colorful city where magic an... Read More

Seeker: Seek and you shall find

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Seeker by Veronica Rossi

Warning: Will contain some spoilers for the previous book, Riders.

Readers of the explosive finale to Veronica Rossi's Riders will remember the fate the four horsemen of the apocalypse came to: Daryn sealed War (our hero Gideon) in a dark dimension with Samrael, the last surviving demon of the Kindred. Now, plagued with guilt, it's up to her to rescue him in Seeker (2017).

Whilst Daryn's role in Riders was shady at best — she was unable to adequately explain why she was forcing Gideon to round up the other horsemen of the apocalypse — we find out that she is a Seeker: she gained Sight and the ability to see the future. But she has made a fatal mistake: Gid... Read More

Riders: Can you outrun destiny?

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Riders by Veronica Rossi

Eighteen year old Gideon Blake has waited his whole life to become a US Army ranger, but when his whole life comes to an abrupt end, those dreams can no longer become a reality. Instead, he finds himself wearing a mysterious metal bracelet he can't remove and most certainly not as dead as he should be. Gideon discovers that he is, in fact, living out (ahem) his true destiny: he has been reincarnated as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, War.

Gideon should have died. Waking up instead with a metal bracelet he can't remove, and the ability to affect the behaviour with his own rage (using said metal bracelet) he realises something is amiss. He does what would come naturally to all twenty-first century teens: he Googles it. When the results come up with nothing short of super hero websites, he laughs it off.

Enter Daryn. Daryn explains to our unwit... Read More

Royal Bastards: Being a bastard blows (apparently)

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Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

Royal Bastards
(2017) marks the newest addition to YA epic fantasy — a genre that seems to be having a bit of a moment. We meet Tilla, our plucky young heroine and bastard to the Lord Kent, and her half-brother Jax, swigging wine on the palace roof and watching the arrival of the visiting Princess Lyriana. Despite their royal blood, the bastards are worlds apart from the legitimate royals, though all that may be about to change…

A great feast marks the welcome for Princess Lyriana, but she shocks Tilla and her fellow bastards by sitting at their table, instead of with the highborns. That night, Tilla leads Lyriana and her fellow bastards on an evening escapade, but they find themselves witnessing a crime and a plan to start another Great War. Now Tilla and the ... Read More

The End of the Day: Before Death, meet Charlie

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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 the last person who knows the ancient language of her tribe — i... Read More

The Edge of Everything: For the perfect love, what would you be willing to lose?

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The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles

It's not been the best year for Zoe. What with her father’s death in a caving accident, her neighbour’s disappearance and then the fact that she is brutally attacked with her younger brother in a cabin in the woods, it's fair to say things have been better. But with the arrival of the mysterious paranormal bounty hunter “X”, everything is about to change.

On the surface, The Edge of Everything might look like your average contemporary YA novel, but it is far darker than many readers will expect. The tortured (and suitably broody) X has been tasked with hunting those that have done evil deeds in their life. He then plays them their life events before brutally murdering them and sending their soul to hell. He is not supposed to reveal himself to anyone other than his victims, and when he reveals himself to Zoe, it is un... Read More

Caraval: Remember, it’s only a game

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

I was so excited by the premise of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval (2017) that I listed it as one of my most anticipated books of 2017. Word has it that there are already plans to make Caraval into a film and I expect it is going to get a fair amount of hype. I can understand why and yet I find I cannot give it more than three stars. I will attempt to justify the reasons why.

Scarlett spent her childhood dreaming of the magical show called Caraval and its mysterious proprietor, Master Legend. Over the course of ten years she write him letters, begging him and his players to come to the small island where she lives with her sister, Tella, and her oppressive, violent father. Now grown-up and engaged to be married, Scarlett finally rece... Read More

The Hanging Tree: A return of “weird bollocks”

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The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

DCI Peter Grant returns in both literal and proverbial car crash style in The Hanging Tree, the latest addition to Ben Aaronovitchs RIVERS OF LONDON series. We left Peter and the gang still reeling from their adventures in Herefordshire in Foxglove Summer (adventures that included a magical rampaging unicorn), but we see a return to the concrete jungle that is London for Peter’s latest escapades.

The Hanging Tree opens in no-nonsense fashion with Lady Ty, goddess of the river Tyburn, asking Peter for a favour. She wants her daughter Olivia cleared of any involvement with a d... 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

Never Let Me Go: A quiet exploration of the human condition

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

[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.]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.

That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.

Ther... Read More

Wintersong: Fervour and fairytale

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Once upon a time fairytale retellings were a rare thing, but nowadays, everyone seems to be doing it. S. Jae-Jones' debut, Wintersong (2017), promises a tale of the Goblin King fused with Germanic folklore. So how does Jae-Jones' contribution to this over-saturated genre fare?

Wintersong centres around Elisabeth — or Liesl, as she's known — the unremarkable and “unlovely” eldest daughter of a musician. Like her father, music is the true love of her life, but it is her younger brother, the boy in the family, who gets to live out her dreams of becoming a musician, because of course, girls should be seen and not heard. Her sister, the beautiful Käthe, is too busy flouncing about town, flirting with anything that has a pulse, to see how much Liesl is suffering.
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Strange the Dreamer: Complex and compelling

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

On first look, it might seem that Laini Taylor was a little too ambitious with her latest offering, Strange the Dreamer (2017), kind of like an overenthusiastic cook that goes a bit overboard with their cake ingredients. The blurb doesn't help matters, citing a war between gods and men, a mysterious city, a mythical hero, a librarian, alchemy, nightmares and monsters as some of the components of the story — which will no doubt have raised an eyebrow or two. But just like its protagonist, Strange the Dreamer is far from what you first expect.

Our story opens with Lazlo Strange, a war orphan brought up by monks. He is, as the title suggests, a dreamer, and spends his days fighting mythical warriors in an orchard... Read More

The Bone Witch: Monsters and necromancy galore

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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Tea starts her story by accidentally raising her brother from the dead. This is surely a traumatic enough experience for a young girl, but it marks her with the dark magic of the bone witch, unlike her sisters who possess 'normal' magic. So on top of having to deal with her corpse brother, Tea is now spurned by the village she's grown up in. The Bone Witch (2017) explores Tea's journey of coming to terms with the darkness within her and finding her place in a world that fears her.

You'd think that raising your brother from the dead was a decent hook if there ever was one, but the story had some problems getting off the ground. Rin Chupeco frames her tale with a narrative told by an unknown narrator before jumping straight into Tea's recollection of her childhood. Perhaps it’s the leaping between time and character,... Read More

Swamplandia!: Wonderfully surreal

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

It's not often a book manages to maintain the balancing act between reality and fantasy, but Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) treads the line perfectly. The story opens with Hilola Bigtree, matriarch of the Bigtree family who own Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Ten Thousand Islands of the coast of Florida. She performs her nightly stunt of jumping into a lake full of alligators, but it is not this which kills her; she falls victim to the more mundane and arguably tragic battle with cancer. This leaves the Bigtree family — Hilola's three children and husband — to come to terms with their loss and the uncertain fate of Swamplandia!.

Narrating the family's story is our thirteen-year-old protagonist, Ava Bigtree, youngest of the Bigtree clan. At thirteen, Ava should have enough problems to... Read More

Nine of Stars: An intriguing start to a new trilogy

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Nine of Stars by Laura Bickle

Nine of Stars (2016), Laura Bickle's dark and fantastical tale of an alchemist's daughter in Wyoming, is attempting to cast a wide net as far as its readership goes. It is billed as both the third instalment of the DARK ALCHEMY trilogy, as well as the first book in the WILDLANDS series, which readers can jump straight into. What's more, it's a fantasy-cum-crime-cum-romance, so it should in theory be ticking a lot of boxes for a lot of readers. Jana and Ray have once again joined forces in this review, so in the interest of clarity, we've marked Jana's contributions in black whilst Ray's are in blue.

Jana: Petra Dee is a geologist living in the small town of Temperance, Wyoming; she spends her days taking ro... Read More

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