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.

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

Her Fearful Symmetry: Needed more substance than the ghosts

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Two sets of twins, a disillusioned husband, a grieving boyfriend, one ghost. The lives of Her Fearful Symmetry’s characters are as tangled as they sound, in a drama that will play out amongst the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery. A sticker on the front reminds potential readers that Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yet let that be the first and last time Niffenegger’s debut novel is mentioned. Her Fearful Symmetry is described as a ‘delicious and deadly ghost story,’ and should be judged in and of itself.

We o... Read More

Survival Game: Played out across multiple universes

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Survival Game by Gary Gibson

Humankind has a weird fascination with its own demise. It's the reason apocalyptic fiction has been a staple for decades. You've read zombie apocalypse, imminent meteor, killer virus stories a million times, so the real challenge now is finding an interesting way to explore said demise. Gary Gibson's take on the genre is surprisingly refreshing in the second instalment of his APOCALYPSE DUOLOGY series, The Survival Game.

We first meet Katya Orlova as she is jumping off a train. She is a scientist working for the Russian Empire, but due to her knowledge of alternate worlds, she has been blackmailed into obtaining an item that will grant the Tsar new life. This item is the Hypersphere: an artefact which allows the user to move be... Read More

The Fate of the Tearling: An explosive ending to our feisty heroine’s story

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The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

With The Fate of the Tearling (2016), Erika Johansen concludes her QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, which began in 2014’s The Queen of the Tearling and continued in 2015’s The Invasion of the Tearling. Fans of this YA series have eagerly waited for answers to questions posed throughout the preceding books: What makes Queen Kelsea Glynn special, and why can she experience memories and lifetimes that aren’t her own? What is the significance of the magical blue sapphires she wears, and why does the Red Mort Que... Read More

The Rains: An original zombie novel where teenagers take centre stage

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The Rains by Gregg Hurwitz

The once-trusted adults of Creek's Cause have turned into zombies. Asteroid 9918 Darwinia has hit the small town, and in one terrifying night, no one under eighteen is safe any more. Chance Rain and his brother Patrick find themselves pitted against a town full of zombies after their aunt and uncle turn. And what's more, it's looking like the infection will spread further than Creek's Cause if they don't do something to warn the rest of the world.

Zombie novels are by no means a new concept, but Gregg Hurwitz adds an innovative and fresh spin to his addition to the genre. First off, The Rains reads more like a sci-fi novel than a horror, and the addition of YA elements makes for the perfect mix. The asteroid and the spores that infect adults are seemingly alien, and it seems the zombies — or Hosts, as our protagonist ... Read More

Foxglove Summer: You can take the constable outta London, but…

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Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

One of the definitive aspects of Ben Aaronovitch's PETER GRANT series is the fact that it's set in the big smoke (aka London, for all you non-Londoners). So it may come as a surprise to discover that Foxglove Summer (2014), the fifth instalment of the series, is actually set in the countryside. But don't be fooled into thinking this is story about sleepy village life and the occasional nosy neighbour. Far from it. Peter Grant is back along with a myriad of supernatural problems, and he's just as incompetent as he's always been...

Two eleven-year-old girls have gone missing in the rural town of Leominster, Herefordshire. Constable Peter Grant is sent on a routine assignment to check up on an old wizard living in the ar... Read More

Vicious: Beautifully exploits the concept of the ambiguous superhero

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Note: Find "Warm Up," a short-story introduction to Vicious, for free at Tor.com. You can also purchase it for 99c on Kindle.

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another offering in the ever-more popular folks-with-powers genre, and fits as well in the equally popular sub-genre where those folks-with-powers don’t’ fall neatly into the quaint “superhero” mode but have a bit more edge, a bit more (OK, a lot more in this case) grey to them.

Chronological... Read More

Storm Front: A series to live and grow with

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

It is hard to believe that Storm Front, the first book of the Dresden Files, came out more than a decade ago. Jim Butcher introduces his scrappy wizard-detective in this inaugural adventure. That was a more innocent time, and Harry was a more innocent character back then.

Harry is a working wizard in Chicago. He has an office with the word “Wizard” on the door and he advertizes in the yellow pages. (“No Children’s Parties; No Love Potions.”) Harry is the real deal, a powerful magical practitioner, but lately most of his income comes from the Chicago PD, particularly their Special Investigations or SI unit—think “X Files.” Early in Storm Front, his police contact Karrin Murphy requests his help at a shocking murde... Read More

Wolf by Wolf: A thrilling motorcycle race through an alternate history

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Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

The year is 1956. A decade ago, Hitler and the Nazis won World War Two, and Germany is now gearing up for the annual Axis Tour: a motorbike race in which the Axis powers — the Third Reich and Imperial Japan — compete to commemorate their victory over Britain and Russia. The race takes riders across seas and continents, from its kick-start in Germany all the way to the finishing line in Japan. Eighteen-year-old Yael, holocaust survivor and death camp escapee, has one goal: to win the race and kill Hitler.

Sequel



Yael’s story begins on a train. Rewind ten years from the race’s start, and we find an eight-year-old Yael and her mother stuffed into a train like cattle, along with hundreds of other souls destined for a death camp. But before she enters, a scientist picks Yael from the crowd of Jews to become a g... Read More

The Invasion of the Tearling: A clash between past and future

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.



The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Warning: May contain mild spoilers for the previous book.

At first glance, a mash-up between epic fantasy and futuristic dystopia just shouldn’t work. It’s as though someone has cherry-picked a bunch of best-selling ingredients and bunged them all together in a weird genre-bending cake. Even more disconcerting is a comparison made to Panem, Hogwarts and Westeros on the cover. But Erika Johansen manages to weave genres together successfully. In this second instalment of the QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, Kelsea Glynn (a name that will soon be as familiar as Katniss Everdeen, with a major film franchise in the pipeline) faces the invasion of he... Read More

The Queen of the Tearling: An original and compulsive plot

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Before The Queen of the Tearling had even been published, movie rights had been sold and Emma Watson was set to take the lead role (which has now been confirmed, with David Heyman -- of Harry Potter fame -- as producer). The buzz around this book was hard to ignore, but I was surprised to discover that many of the early reviews had been pretty scathing. Loopholes in the plot was a common complaint, as well as a dislike for the book’s protagonist, Kelsea Glynn. Now, I’m all one for franchise-bashing, and this planned trilogy definitely looks set to become the next Twi-Games, Diver-light, Hunger-Whatever (and comparison to the other YA bestsellers will, no doubt, come) but I am here to put forward the case that it is in a league of its own.

Kelsea Glynn, ... Read More

And I Darken: A triumph

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

We first meet Lada Dragwyla at the tender age of two years old. She is brandishing a knife. At her father. No scene could more succinctly introduce the character of our heroine: she is brutal, fierce, bordering on sociopathic. Kiersten White explained that And I Darken tells the story as if Vlad the Impaler had been born female, and what she has created is one of the most exciting and original characters in fiction that’s been seen in a very long time.

Lada’s story starts at the very beginning, in Wallachia, where she desperately tries to win the affection and respect of her father. But Lada is a girl, which means she is virtually invisible in the time of the Ottoman Empire. She has a younger brother, Radu, who could not be more different to his sister. Where Lada is ruthless and daring, Radu is gentle, sensitiv... Read More

The Sin Eater’s Daughter: In which Sin Eating doesn’t feature

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The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

Twylla is an executioner. Though she's been taken from her lowly home to live in the palace, been engaged to the prince, and is wanting of nothing, she is haunted by the people she must kill and resents every moment of her life in the palace. For her skin is poisonous and any person she comes into contact with dies a gruesome and painful death; only the prince is immune to her touch. But everything is not as it seems in the palace and soon Twylla will find herself questioning not only her role but also her faith.


Twylla has a cohort of guards, but when her personal guard falls ill, she falls into the sole care of Lief, a foreigner who is apparently immune to the fear the rest of the kingdom feels for Twylla. He's at ease where others are frightened, and keeps coming dangerously close to touching her where others stay away. Bu... Read More

The God Wave: Pushing the limits of human ability

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The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreet

It’s said we only use 10 percent of our brains. What does that mean all our untapped brainpower is capable of? Could human ability surpass everything we’ve thought possible until now? This is exactly what Patrick Hemstreet explores in his debut, The God Wave.

Neuroscientist Chuck Brenton has been exploring the ability of brainwaves. He figures it’s possible to harness the power of the brain to perform actual tasks. But it’s not until mathematician Matt Streegman offers Chuck a business proposition that he realises the true extent of his research. With data that Matt has collected, the pair soon have test subjects using their brainwaves to interact with computer software. They quickly progress from being able to move a mouse across a screen, to being able to move physical objects.

The breakt... Read More

Shadow and Bone: Same tropes, new story

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.

Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to the common army, where Al... Read More

Red Queen: Reads like a YA lucky dip

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Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen reads a little like a YA lucky dip. You get the feeling that Victoria Aveyard just chucked a list of YA clichés into a bag and picked them out blindfolded. Katniss, sorry, Mare Barrow is a “Red”, which makes her a lower class of citizen compared to the “Silvers” who govern the world. But... isn’t that exactly the concept behind the “Reds” in Red Rising? And wasn’t the protagonist of that YA mega-franchise called Darrow? Sort-of-almost-exactly-the-same-as Barrow? Hmm, there is something fishy going on here...

So Mare Barrow is seventeen and about to be sent off to war, because that’s what usually happens in these dystopias. The Silvers are needlessly wasting thousands of Red lives — ... Read More

The Ship: A sinister, watery utopia

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The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Lalla has never had a real apple before. She’s eaten tinned apple and dried apple and apple preserve, but never a real apple. This is because sixteen-year-old Lalla is born at the end of the world, in a London where Big Ben is underwater and Regents Park is nothing but a tent city of homeless people and the British Museum is shelter to the starving masses of a dying civilisation. But Lalla’s father has a solution to the destitution her family face. The prospect of The Ship has taken on a mythical quality in Lalla’s life, as she’s heard her parents planning and arguing over it for most of her childhood, and as society teeters on the brink of collapse, the time has finally come to board the legendary vessel.

The Ship consists of 500 hundred lucky souls that her father has personally selected for his new society, though his selection process is not initi... Read More

The Lie Tree: In which curiosity and intellect are definitely not ladylike

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Women, as demonstrated by their smaller skull size, are less intelligent than men. This is the bitter lesson Faith, our plucky protagonist in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, must learn. In Victorian England, girls must be seen and not heard, as too much intelligence would spoil the female mind "like a rock in a soufflé." But Faith has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a secret desire of one day becoming a scientist. This dark and twisting tale sees how far she'll pursue that knowledge and the lies she'll tell to obtain it.

The novel opens with Faith's family being uprooted to the craggy island of Vale. Her father is a reverend and an avid natural scientist, and Faith is relegated to follow her family in the rain on foot whil... Read More

Career of Evil: J. K. Rowling casts a different kind of spell

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Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Though they are a far cry from the HARRY POTTER series, J. K. Rowling’s CORMORAN STRIKE novels still possess the same storytelling magic. Rowling’s ability to capture an audience, to evoke a character so vivid they become real, triumphs in her crime series.

Sending a leg to the office of Coromoran Strike is surely the most conspicuous way to get the detective’s attention. Strike is famously an amputee himself, and when he realises the leg is accompanied by a note bearing the lyrics tattooed on his mother’s body, there can be no doubt that this is a personal attack. And the fact that the leg is addressed to his assistant Robin? The attack was meant to hit the detective where it hurts.

This is St... Read More

The Silkworm: Writing about writing

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The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

The second novel in Robert Galbraith’s crime series is, in large part, a musing on the nature of writing itself. This is all the more poignant when you consider the Galbraith is none other than the (far less obscure) J.K. Rowling herself. The eponymous silkworm was said to be boiled alive to extract its precious silk threads in tact; a metaphor for the writer, it seems, who has to “go through the agonies to get at the good stuff.” Sound gruesome? That’s not even the half of it.

The Silkworm sees the return of Detective Cormoran Strike and his secretary-cum-sidekick, Robin Ellacot. They are investigating the disappearance of author Owen Quine, a once-successful novelist whose most recent manuscript, Read More

Passenger: A perilous voyage through time

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Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Whilst the concept of time travel itself is nothing groundbreaking, a time-travelling violin virtuoso and a swashbuckling sailor from different centuries is. Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger opens in present-day New York where our protagonist, young violinist Etta Spencer, is on the verge of making her solo debut. But mid-performance she is dragged through a ‘passage’ and finds herself in the midst of a battle between two ships in the Atlantic... in 1776.

Enter Nicholas Carter, an 18th century privateer born as the result of a white man’s rape of an African slave, who is tasked with delivering Etta to his employer. Said employer is the formidable Cyrus Ironwood, head of a powerful time-travelling family who intends to make sure tha... Read More

The Illusionists: An intriguing premise lacks magic

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The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

There is something rather bold about naming your Victorian protagonist Devil, and that sets the tone for the premise of Rosie Thomas’s novel, The Illusionists. Add to the mix a bad-tempered dwarf called Carlo Bonomi, a Swiss inventor named Heinrich who becomes obsessed with his creations of automata — mechanical women with rubber skin — and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of quite a tale. But The Illusionists falls short of the magic it promises and readers may struggle to sit through Devil’s performance.

We first meet Devil roaming the streets in want of a drink and a job. Instead, he finds a dwarf, dressed as a child and picking pockets with more skill than Devil has ever seen. The dwarf is Carlo Bonomi, a fellow illusionist and showman. Devil persuades Carlo to embark on ... Read More

Rebel of the Sands: Gun-slinging Wild West meets Arabian Nights

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

You’ll find no meek or modest brides, no princesses in distress in this Arabian tale. Amani Al’Hiza is our gun-toting, liquor-swigging heroine in this debut from Alwyn Hamilton, who needs to escape from her deadbeat hometown of Dustwalk, or end up wed or dead.

We first meet our sixteen-year-old heroine Amani dressed as a boy, entering a shoot-out to try and win the prize money that’ll get her out of Dustwalk. She is an ace shot, maybe the best in her town, so the competition should be in the bag. That is, until she meets a dark-eyed foreigner called Jin that seems to have as much to hide as she does. When the shoot-out goes awry, Amani and Jin only just manage to escape, but Amani winds up having to return home, a little poorer and a little more bruised than she set out.

Things go from bad to worse. Not only does h... Read More

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Unexpected and enjoyable

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Reposting to include Rachael's new review:

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I’m not sure what’s been in the air lately, but it seems I’ve been reading a lot of books this past year dealing with reincarnation/being reborn. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is yet another of those, and while it isn’t my favorite of the ones I’ve read with similar ideas (that would be either Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell), I thoroughly enjoyed Claire North’s novel, though the first half was better than its second half.

In the world of Harry August, a small group ... Read More

Cinder: A robotic twist on a classic fairy tale

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Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Once upon a time, a cyborg in New Beijing was trying to reattach her mechanical foot. It’s not quite the way the conventional fairytale begins, but that’s the best thing about Marissa Meyer’s Cinder: it’s a completely new take on the Cinderella theme and a breath of fresh air in the YA genre.

Cinder is a mechanic working in New Beijing, though she is not just any old mechanic. She is the best in the city. One morning she is trying to attach a new foot with the help of her android Iko, when a young man in a hooded jumper approaches her stall. Cinder realises it’s Prince Kai, son of the Emperor of New Beijing and general heartthrob of the city. But don’t let me lose you there — it doesn’t all descend into romantic pulp. On the contrary, Cinder does everything she can to get rid of Kai; being a cyborg, she’... Read More

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