reviews
Justin

Justin

Justin was a professional writer and editor for 15 years before his debut novel, Carpet Diem, was published in 2015. He wrote restaurant and theatre reviews, edited magazines about football and trucks, published books about fishing and gold, wrote business articles and animation scripts, and spent four years as the writer editor, and photographer for an Edinburgh guide book.

Justin now writes full-time and is a partner in his own publishing company. He also writes scripts with his wife Juliet, who he met through the BBC Last Laugh scriptwriting competition.

His novel, The Lost War, won the sixth SPFBO.

Rise of the Tobian Princess (Sword of Cho Nisi Book 1) by D.L. Gardner - Book Review 19, Sep

I’m afraid I struggled with this one. While the characters are interesting enough and there is some nice worldbuilding - especially in the skoura (winged demon monsters) and mountain giants who materialise from fog - I found this first book in the Sword of Cho Nisi series very difficult to get into.

The premise is not unfamiliar: Erika, the youngest daughter of King Tobias is a fiery redhead who is more interested in fighting than courting. On a mission with her elder brother Barin, she accidentally kills the king of Cho Nisi - an allied island state. Determined to make things right, she sets off, against her father’s orders, for Cho Nisi, initially intent on making herself a prisoner but, somehow, then convincing herself it would be better to conquer the island for her father.

On the island, however, she encounters the hitherto unknown son of the dead king, the newly crowned King Arell. First impressions are not ideal, but then… well… things happen. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the overall arc is whether these two kingdoms, divided by the death of Cho Nisi’s king, can work together to fend off the impending attacks of legendary evil wizard Skotadi and his aforementioned monsters.

There are also a number of love-related tropes to be had - all things that the right audience will enjoy - and I would probably say it fits in the YA genre.

In terms of the story itself, there were some niggles. Erika’s killing of Cho Nisi’s king is the inciting incident for the tale, and yet it comes across as quite implausible. In short, while tracking a skoura overhead, she fires into a bush where she believed it to have dived, only to accidentally hit the king, who she did not know had arrived at the site. Now, I’m not against coincidence - most stories hang on some kind of coincidence - but I struggled to suspend my disbelief from the first chapter and that rather set the tone. Thereafter, there is a lot of agonising over how to explain it and whether it should be kept secret and so on - but the obvious answer always seems to be staring the reader in the face, while the characters remain oblivious: it was an accident in battle, just tell them the truth.

Other issues around the story involved characters seeming to swing wildly back and forth over their intentions and acting in ways which sometimes seemed so contrary as to be confusing. Sometimes it felt like character actions were being driven by the plot, as opposed to really making sense for their situation.

And there were unfortunately other problems that also got in the way.

While my own thoughts on some of the writing needing an editor are entirely subjective, a proofreader was undoubtedly missed. It would be harsh to say the book was ‘littered’ with errors, but there were enough in every chapter to pull me out of the story repeatedly. Typos, missing words, grammatical errors, changing from past tense to present (sometimes within a sentence) and missing paragraph breaks had me rereading sentences to work out what they were intended to say or, in some cases, to figure out who was speaking. All of this prevented me from being able to just immerse myself in the story and the characters.

The sad thing of it is, I genuinely think there’s an interesting story in here with some likeable, engaging characters and imaginative worldbuilding but the (subjective) need for a strong editor and (objective) proofreader made it impossible to really enjoy, for me.

Empire’s Daughter (Empire's Legacy Book 1) by Marian L Thorpe 13, Aug

I like a book that has something to say. That makes you think. One of the joys of fantasy stories is that they can take issues that are real and relevant and put them in a new context, giving the reader space to consider them outside their usual cultural environment, free from individual bias.

There is A LOT going on beneath the skin of Empire’s Daughter, and the more I think back on it, the more I find.

The story is set in ‘The Empire’ a country living under an extreme agreement called Partition, whereby all men serve in the military until retirement age, and all women live a peaceful, agrarian life in their villages, farming, fishing, smithing and raising children. Only during Festival, several times a year, do men come to the women’s villages for ‘liaisons’ intended to produce children. At 7, every boy is claimed by their father and taken away to be trained as a soldier. This agreement was reached several hundred years previously through an assembly designed to resolve the conflicting desires for peaceful or military life, which were apparently split along lines of sex.

The implications of this for the society of the Empire are fascinating. For a start, bisexuality is largely the norm, at least in the women’s villages. We don’t really see whether this is also true in the army, with the exception of meeting one soldier who is expressly gay.

Our main character is Lena, a 17-year-old fisherwoman who works a boat with her cousin and partner Maya. Their life is largely parochial. Lena has never left the village. She knows little of the outside world, beyond what she learns from visiting soldiers during Festival.

So, when a soldier, who was born in the village, arrives unexpectedly with news that the women are to be asked to train to fight, in order to protect their village, and the country, from a coming invasion, it proves a catalyst for huge conflict and change.

The village overwhelmingly votes to agree to the request, but at a cost. Several women dissent, one going so far as to accept expulsion rather than fight: Maya. Grieving for her departed lover, Lena is left to train for the coming invasion and adjust to her new reality. The first half of the book deals primarily with this, while the second follows the aftermath of the invasion and what it means for both Lena and the Empire. And it is a fascinating read.

Thorpe’s writing is by turns lean and beautiful. She tells the story efficiently, but also stops now and again to let us smell the flowers, painting their aromas vividly. I stopped numerous times to admire particularly lovely sentences. The worldbuilding is deep and extensive. You can feel how much research has gone into these ways of life, and thought to the implications of her society’s lifestyle.

At first, I felt the book was moving a bit too slowly, but I eventually realised that wasn’t it at all. What it does is earn the seismic changes that are coming. There is no instalove here, or epiphanic moments where a character suddenly changes. Lena’s evolution through the story is measured and so feels real. Her emotional development moves in increments, as it should, making her all the more real and relatable.

And then there are those underlying themes I mentioned. Where to begin? Off the top of my head, we cover things like: How does childhood trauma shape a personality? Can a divided country be brought back together, once split? Is individual freedom an acceptable sacrifice for collective safety? What happens when a country adheres slavishly to a tenet agreed hundreds of years ago? When does tradition become dogma? What effect can climate change have on a society? How does the degradation of education influence culture? What happens when we forget our own history, and how do we trust those who record it to do so impartially? Can a society functionally include those who refuse to accept democratic choices?

And there’s more. All questions as relevant today, here and now, as they are in Thorpe’s novel. So, while Empire’s Daughter is a deeply personal tale of Lena’s evolution, as she sees more of her world and grows with each new experience, it is also a tale of a country’s evolution, and a lens through which to consider our own present.

But.

There is an inevitable question.

Is it fantasy?

I hate that I’m having to ask this question after enjoying the book so thoroughly, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore it.

There is no magic. No supernatural creatures. The flora and fauna of the Empire are our own. There is nothing otherworldly or ‘fantastic’ in this story. So, what sets it apart?

Geography, largely. The country of the Empire is entirely fictitious. Thorpe relates having spent a great deal of time in England and Scotland researching the landscapes, and this certainly bears true for the hostile northerners beyond the wall who have red hair and use words like ‘lassies’. The world and the story are full of classic genre tropes, and I’m sure will be enjoyed by fantasy readers. There are swords and battles, assassins bearing knives in the dark and long journeys punctuated by inns.

I found myself, in considering this, wondering whether something like The Last Kingdom is fantasy. Or is it just alternative history? Is alternative history intrinsically fantasy? Does alternative geography plus alternative history add up to fantasy?

I read that this book was rejected from two other competitions, one because it wasn’t a fantasy book and one because the competition did not accept fantasy. That seems entirely believable to me, because I think it probably sits in a no man’s land, where some will consider it fantasy and some will not.

I realised in hindsight that I had actually been wary of reading this book, because of the cover. It didn’t work for me and, with some thought, I realised that’s because it reminds me more of an academic history book than a fantasy book - and I wonder how many others might have had the same experience. I’m delighted to have been wrong about my own enjoyment, but again wonder if perhaps this is a book that doesn’t quite know exactly where it fits in a genre.

And maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried about pigeonholing a book’s genre any more than we should about defining its characters’ sexuality. Indie publishing allows writers to mash up genres and subvert expectations, and that is certainly a good thing. But for the purposes of SPFBO, is it fantasy? I don’t know, is the answer.

What I do know is that it is an immersive, intelligent and resonant book that I recommend highly.

She's the One Who Thinks Too Much by. S.R. Cronin (The War Stories of the Seven Troublesome Sisters) - Book Review 06, Aug

The concept behind The War Stories of the Seven Troublesome Sisters series, of which this is the first, is a clever one. Essentially, it’s the same story from seven different perspectives. The realm of Ilari is under threat from an invading horde of Mongols and seven sisters play pivotal roles in its defence. Hence the ‘She’s the One…” part of each book’s title.

This first book follows eldest sister Ryalgar, whose failure to marry has been a source of consternation for some of her younger sisters. While Ilarian society is very sex positive and liberal towards women in some ways, openly endorsing sexual exploration in particular around their eight annual holidays, it still requires elder sisters to marry before their siblings.

In general, this book is about empowered women shaping their country. Having said that, Ilaria is made up of a number of principalities (nichnas), each ruled by its own prince. Prince, not princess. Pilk, the most powerul nichna, has a rule of succession that gives the throne to the eldest male, so long as he produces a male heir who survives to the age of three before one of his brothers produces one. So, women have some freedoms here, but nothing like equality.

Ryalgar discovers a connection to a group of elder, forest-dwelling, mystic women called the Velka, joins them and finds herself planning the defence of the realm against a coming invasion. Mixed in with this is her sort-of-secret relationship with Prince Nevik of Pilk and a hatful of family drama. Ryalgar’s parents and sisters drop in and out of the tale, hinting at larger stories to be told in their own books.

A great deal of worldbuilding has gone into this series, creating entirely new vocabulary and measures of time for this culture. Weeks are replaced with 9-day long ‘anks’. Months are replaced with ‘eighths’. In the best fantasy tradition, we even get unique swear words: ‘pruck’ and ‘scump’. There is no question this is a different world.

Or is it?

This is where one of my niggles comes in - we have a well-built alternate world, threatened by Mongols. I couldn’t see why Cronin didn’t simply give her invading horsemen a different name, as she’d done so much to establish her otherworld. But I was prepared to overlook it until we got to discussion of Greek mythology, at which point I felt a great dissonance as to where our story was set. The answer seems to be a completely new culture placed into otherwise established history. To be fair, it is billed as historical fantasy / alternate history, and maybe I just haven’t read enough of that subgenre for this to be expected. It might work fine for many, but I personally found it jarring, when it would have been easy to set it in an entirely new world.

The vast majority of the book is Ryalgar preparing to defend the kingdom, while also dealing with her personal dramas. The prose is smooth and easy to read. However, there is an oft-quoted bit of advice in writing: ‘Show don’t tell’. While it’s advice that is often taken too literally and applied too strictly, in this instance I felt the story fell too far over the ‘telling’ line and, as such, I found it difficult to become immersed in the world. One could argue that it is told in what is almost akin to an oral storytelling style, which would most likely have been used at this point in ‘history’, and I have some sympathy for that viewpoint. Read from that perspective, perhaps it works fine, and many readers, I’m sure, will enjoy it.

The other issue that came up for me was that there was something of a lack of tension. Each time a problem presented itself for Ryalgar, the solution followed not long after. Her relationship with Nevik borders on becoming a problem, and suddenly it’s not because of an unrelated decision. She thinks of something she needs for the defence of the realm, and one of her sisters reveals a hitherto unknown talent that offers a solution. Everything goes a bit too smoothly, and things happen a bit too conveniently, I think, to really create the sense of tension, drama and threat required.

I suppose, though, that when the book blurb literally says:

“While these historical fantasy/alternate history books can be enjoyed as stand-alone novels, together they tell the full story of how Ilari survived.

Which sister do you think saved the realm? That will depend on whose story you read.”

You go in already knowing Ilari will be saved. The drama is in the ‘how’. In truth, then, this series is more of a family drama played out in seven parts, against the backdrop of a failed invasion. And in that, it probably succeeds, on the evidence of this first book. It’s not long for fantasy (236 pages) and perhaps the interest lies in seeing the story played out through the eyes of the other six sisters, particularly the one who is enigmatically missing for most of this book. The whole story from each perspective will likely create a rich, deep story of the two years culminating in the Mongol invasion.

But again, here at the end, there is an issue. As a standalone book, we don’t get to know the end. I mean, we already know, courtesy of the blurb, but She’s the One Who Thinks Too Much ends ostensibly on a cliffhanger. There are unsolved mysteries and questions still to be answered. And there, I think, is the crux of the thing. This series is very much designed to be read as a series, and I suspect only from completing all seven books will a rounded, satisfactory ending come. But there is enough here to pique interest in the rest of the stories, for those with the inclination to commit to all seven books.