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Pamela Hartshorne – House Of Shadows

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Cast your mind back 400 years…

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 466
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-24958-0
First Published: 3rd December 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Kate wakes up in hospital. She’s had a fall but can’t remember anything about it or even who she is. Everyone calls her ‘Kate’ but it doesn’t feel right… she finds ‘Isabel’ more fitting. She can work an Ipad and recognise things in the hospital but is surprised by people’s clothing and the absence of Tudor items. Her relatives don’t seem too nice and there’s that malicious voice she heard when semi-conscious that said she should have died…

House Of Shadows is a modern day/Elizabethan time-slip in which a woman recovers from amnesia with the wrong memories, memories that nonetheless match up somewhat to her present situation. Author Julie Cohen, quoted on the back cover, called it a cross between Vertigo and Rebecca and whilst I can’t comment on the first reference, there are definite parallels with the latter.

Hartshorne has created a fair premise and the book succeeds in whisking you into that delicious time-slip experience. Kate has memories rather than dreams or travels so it’s not quite as ‘involved’ as some, but Hartshorne includes the memories as scenes so that the effect is the same as any other. The history is luscious, the romance well set up and believable, and it’s got that same big old house thing going on as Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, only here the house isn’t a neutral element, instead it’s almost a character in its own right.

Hartshorne plays with the idea of ghosts, pitting the concept of spirits against possession but taking a less definitive route to most – Kate’s son can see there’s something not quite ‘Mummy’ about the woman presented as his mother, as can Kate’s devoted dog – but still it’s not quite your usual idea of possession; there’s just something unique about it that’s as difficult to put a finger on as the reader as it is difficult for Kate to put her finger on her memories. But it’s a lovely aspect.

One of the themes in the book is the treatment of people and the concept of privilege. Much like E Lockhart in We Were Liars, Hartshorne studies the way class divisions still rule in society, particularly in the upper echelons. Angie, Kate’s friend, helps out in every way she can, running errands for the family and helping out with the estate’s visitor system, without any real acknowledgement. She doesn’t have a defined role and isn’t considered important because she’s a commoner (she’s also of Polish decent), and Hartshorne spends various moments throughout the novel looking at the difference between the family needing her insomuch as there would be some chaos were she to leave, versus the family’s view of her which is completely coloured by her class status. Then there is the general hatred of anything other than complete heterosexuality and a major hatred for disability, interestingly also shared by said disliked Angie. The lord of the manor cannot be disabled and he can’t be gay. The lord cannot be a lady and the lord must uphold all the traditions that have never and must never be deviated from. (Whilst race isn’t commented on, one assumes the family keeps a draw full of smelling salts in case they happen to encounter any non-white tourists.)

There are a few problems with this book and one of them (two, it could be said) is major: Hartshorne gives away the mystery in the first couple of pages. First you understand that there’s hatred around Kate and then a few pages after that the major twist shines brightly and as the twists in both the modern storyline and Elizabethan storyline are exactly the same – you realise that straight away, too – you don’t have much in the way of a reveal to look forward to. It’s not clear whether Hartshorne meant for this to happen – it could easily be said that it’s a case of the author wanting to provide intrigue, a hint, and happening to go too far. Instead of hints you get answers.

This means that your interest in the book changes from wanting to know what’s happened to wanting to witness the journey Kate takes to get there, but, and likely mostly due to that fact of the answer being provided so early on, this does not work. Hartshorne’s use of amnesia is a good idea in theory and it means that you start to look forward to Kate uncovering what you, unfortunately, already know, but as the book goes on the amnesia becomes more of a plot device.

The amnesia becomes a device and then it turns into something akin to a deus ex machina move – by a quarter of the way through you know not just the major twists but have figured out everything that isn’t solely minor, but the amnesia remains a device. The answers are staring Kate and Isabel in the face, the answer is glaringly obvious, and you have to ask yourself could anyone be so, so stupid?

These plot and character problems are joined by poor proof reading and weird writing choices – made up verbs and words ending with -ly when there are perfectly useful words already in existence (‘studiedly’, for instance). Plot points and information are repeated in a way that’s either down to a disbelief in reader memory or a major editing error (it’s not to do with Kate’s memory). The book could’ve done with a heavier editing hand and a few more drafts.

You may well enjoy House Of Shadows if your interest in reading it is to experience a time-slip or to look at social division but if you want anything beyond that, you’re going to want to read something else. It’s fun enough as a story, and easy to go back to – it’s quite like the situation I found with Amy Snow, wherein it may not be great when looked at as a whole but it’s a very fun experience nonetheless.

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Holly Black – The Darkest Part Of The Forest

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Down in the wood where nobody… everybody goes…

Publisher: Indigo (Hachette)
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-780-62174-6
First Published: 13th January 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2016
Rating: 3/5

Hazel and her brother, Ben, have spent their childhoods visiting the glass casket in the forest that holds the sleeping boy with the horns – everyone has: he’s been there for generations. The teenagers love him with a passion, even whilst knowing he could be as dark as the rest of the faeries residing in Fairfold. One day the casket is found broken, the boy gone, and Hazel thinks she had something to do with it.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is a young adult fantasy gathering together various bits and pieces from western folklore.

Unlike many books of its age range and genre, the book is set neither in our real world or faerie-land, instead straddling both. All the humans who live in Fairfold know about the fey and respect them – in order to remain at peace – and whilst there are some newcomers who don’t believe (how this can be so I’m not sure) there are plenty of tourists. Tourists who are found dead in ditches because they didn’t know the rules. It’s an interesting set-up and whilst the world-building isn’t too great it’s good enough.

Black favours the same approach to equality in faerie contexts as Malinda Lo did in 2012’s Ash. Her commentary on LGBT relationships stops on the first note that Ben likes boys. In this book, aided perhaps by faerie, love is love and needs no questioning.

It must be said the writing isn’t very good. In fact it’s quite substandard but for the most part that doesn’t matter and Black does ensure the characters sound different.

It’s the plot that matters most, and the only problem with that is that it’s a vague one. Black favours teasing out the story but goes a bit too far, neglecting to provide information when necessary for the reader to appreciate her point. I’m personally still not sure what the ending was about, who exactly Hazel was, and I haven’t a clue about the history she mentions in regards to changeling Jack. And it’s not that it’s an ambiguous ending, it’s that information just isn’t included.

This said, The Darkest Part Of The Forest has enough going for it for me to recommend you try it if it intrigues you. It’s a quick read and a good original idea, it’s just lacking in execution. A retelling of the concept of the faerie tale itself, a mash-up of ideas, and certainly not a bad way to spend an evening, there’s just nothing new in it and others have done it a lot better.

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Nicola Cornick – House Of Shadows

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What goes around comes around.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 468
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45416-3
First Published: 5th November 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th November 2015
Rating: 5/5

Holly is woken in the early hours of the morning by her young niece. The girl can’t find her father, it seems he’s left their house and she hasn’t seen him for a couple of hours; Holly leaves her uncaring boyfriend and travels to Oxfordshire to be with her. Ben is gone and the police can’t find him but as Holly begins to search the house and move into it herself she finds items from her brother’s family research, and in time she discovers that the beautiful old house she sees through the trees has never actually been there.

It’s difficult summing up the plot without giving too much away; House Of Shadows is part contemporary, part 1600s Europe and part 1800s England – the narrative includes Elizabeth Stuart and her possible relationship with a squire as well as the tale of a Georgian courtesan.

This book is magnificent. It’s a historical fantasy mystery romance about a curse that uses tropes to good effect. It’s brilliantly written, well plotted. The mystery is drawn out by way of many factors rather than just to keep the story going – this is to say Cornick doesn’t make you wait, she’s always revealing aspects so you feel rewarded but she reveals things in drips and drabs to keep you coming back. She knows what to reveal and when.

Needless to say it’s lengthy but never boring. There’s always something going on and quite frankly you wouldn’t want it any shorter because it’s just so good. The character development is bar none. Cornick has done a wonderful job, most especially with Holly whose story us modern readers are most likely to relate to. There is romance in each of the eras, defined by a pushing back of affection. It’s sad in the case of the 1600s but understandable – a queen desperately in love with a squire, both knowing they could destroy her life if they made anything of it. It’s sad but understandable in the case of the 1800s, the poor Georgian courtesan who cannot leave her abusive patron for her poor lover. In Holly’s case it’s understandable but in an entirely different way. Holly is constantly pushing back her one night stand, a man she felt an instant connection with for reasons she can’t explain. It’s the sort of setup that annoys many readers but what Cornick does is fully develop Holly’s character and show the reader why Holly does this, really delveing into it but without any naval-gazing or other things that can bring plots down. Cornick lets you into Holly’s mind, into her psyche, she almost wills you to become the character herself (and sometimes you’ll certainly wish you were with the amazing experiences Holly has!) The author has written a fantastic character who, whilst she may be silly every now and then – who wouldn’t be in the situation? – is someone you want to keep reading about.

Holly stays realistic. She leaves her home but brings her work with her; she doesn’t neglect her business. She leaves her boring arrogant boyfriend and the few pages Cornick gives to the scene between them is more than enough to understand it. She goes to her friend’s coffee shop for lunch and to chat but doesn’t forget to walk her dog. And all these things drive the plot forward. The dog is an important character. There’s even a paragraph or two devoted to the career/children debate.

The other characters – Elizabeth Stuart and Lavinia – get their fair number of pages and are well thought-out, it’s just the limitations of their eras’ views of women that make them less memorable than Holly. This said, Lavinia is winsome and Cornick’s use of Elizabeth and William Craven, semi-fictional or not, will make you want to learn more about them. You’re going to want to help bring these Stuarts to the foreground.

The world building, then, is equally as good. You’re drawn in and you stay there. You might prefer one time period to the other but all have that same atmosphere, that pull on your mind. It’s that magical feeling you get when you’re reading an exceptionally good book. Cornick uses the basic history we have about the people and locations and then moulds them until they fit her idea, for example the Ashdown House of the book no longer stands – in reality it’s still around but access is limited. It’s all done respectfully.

The fantasy is there from the beginning and it’s the sort that straddles magical realism and full-on mystical. It’s the sort you wilfully suspend reality for whilst knowing there are patches of realism in it anyway. All genre elements in this book fit well together; they’re equally important.

It’s clear that Cornick has spent much time and effort getting it right; it comes together in one big successful stack of pages. Even the length is perfect. Informative sections have been kept to a minimum – you can almost see where a line was drawn for no more description. There are some errors – proofreading – but whilst noticeable they don’t detract from the reading experience.

House Of Shadows is epic and glorious and a history lover’s dream. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review from the publisher on behalf of the author.

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Intisar Khanani – Sunbolt

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Battling the enemy, magicking them away.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 120
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-985-66583-8
First Published: 13th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 6th May 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hitomi is an outsider in Karolene, which hasn’t stopped her joining those looking to bring peace to the island but does make her stand out to those she least wants to see. The League need to get a council member’s family to safety and whilst Hitomi is told to stay away from danger she wants to help as much as she can, even if it means getting caught.

Sunbolt is a non-quasi-European fantasy that heralds Khanani’s new fictional venture. Short and packed with subplots, it’s a little crowded but at the same time it’s a work of art.

Khanani has a way with words. Her prose is so simple it’s effortless. And it’s absolutely stunning. The text by itself has the ability to lure you into reading the book; it’s a feast for the literary senses and goes a long way to dull the effects of the less successful elements.

The novella is extremely diverse and bucks the usual trend. The story is set in a quasi-Middle Eastern land in an undefined time; there is enough detail for you to come to a decision as to the look, period-wise, that fits what you’re reading. The characters run the gambit from East Asian to Middle Eastern to Western to African – or at least those are the terms we would use (Khanani’s characters describe themselves by physical characteristics) – and magic and the supernatural is randomised. No one type of person is good or bad; the world of Sunbolt is very ‘anything goes’. This is not to say that the world itself is peaceful.

As for the story, it straddles the line between good and not so, and this is all down to the length. Action follows action and the story moves from one subplot to the next without returning to the previous as a book generally would. Because of all the running Hitomi does it can get a little wearing, especially as the story requires failed escapes to help it get to where it wants to be. Whilst, for example, the likelihood of Khanani returning in other books to the League is very high, for this particular book to feel finished one particular plot was needed. Had Sunbolt been a novel rather than a novella there is every reason to believe the story would have been excellent.

On the whole the characters are developed enough to sustain a novella, however Hitomi is lacking. It’s a difficult one. Khanani throws you straight into the action without any info-dumping, which is very welcome. She doesn’t mull over extraneous detailing – she gives you enough to form an image and then moves on. However this does mean that Hitomi’s reasoning isn’t particularly compelling. It’s believeable and understandable on a literal level, but you don’t get to see enough to care as much as you probably should. You will care somewhat because of Khanani’s attention to what’s important – it’s just this length issue again. On the subject of Hitomi, she’s easy-going which is generally brilliant but can make the text a little hard to read on occasion. There is a scene which is particularly violent and nasty for what it does – Hitomi’s mood change back to sunny indifference and slight humour is understandable when you consider that she needs to push past what’s happened, but hard to read from the reader’s point of view.

Khanani favours showing. You get a good picture of what’s around and who people are just from the dialogues and incidental sentences. There are no long rambling paragraphs. But the world building is strictly limited to Hitomi’s immediate surroundings. There are references to the Eleven Kingdoms and a political situation you only see from the chases and imprisoning. It’s third-hand info without the experience and, again, the length of the book is the likely issue. You will care about what’s going on in the scene but not the wider world.

Sunbolt extracts various elements from different eras, places, cultures, and myths, and binds them together in a not unsuccessful way. It really should have been longer but it’s a nice escape as it is. The prose is great enough that you can acknowledge the flaws whilst enjoying the ride – it’s all too easy to get lost, enveloped, in this book. The whole is very promising – it may not be a winner but it’s good enough and Khanani is one to watch.

I received this book for review from the author (Netgalley).

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