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Nicola Cornick – The Last Daughter + Podcasts (Zen Cho, Rosanna Ley, Gill Paul)

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Solving the mystery.

Publisher: Harlequin (HarperCollins)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27852-6
First Published: 8th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2021
Rating: 5/5

Serena’s twin, Caitlin, disappeared in her late teens and Serena could not remember the last time she saw her. Now, years later, a body has been found in a centuries-old tomb that nevertheless matches Caitlin’s DNA. Serena needs to try again to remember what happened that last day she saw her sister and find out the solution to the mystery that doesn’t make any sense. As the story unfolds, we also hear the story of the Wars of the Roses from the experience of Anne, the wife of Francis Lovell, loyal ally of Richard III.

The Last Daughter is a dual-narrative timeslip that looks at a purely fictional mystery as well as an in-context reason for the mystery of the princes of the tower (the book is called The Last Daughter Of York in the US).

Cornick’s blending of history and the present day, with its splash of fantasy, is as strong as ever. The research and fictionalisation of the early life of a lesser-known person, Anne FitzHugh, is wonderful. (And for this, Anne’s narrative could certainly be said to be better than Serena’s.) The way the fantasy is brought in aligns with the sort of superstitions of the time.

The use of location is also strong. Bringing to life a house in ruins (Minster Lovell Hall) as well as a castle (Ravensworth), you get a greater sense of the day to day life of those living in the wars of the 1400s.

In this book it is the way in which the timeslip happens rather than the timeslip itself that is the most fascinating thing. Cornick uses a lodestone that has been revered for decades as the item that creates havoc, and with the science behind the well known object, it’s a convincing idea. Similarly to her other books, the author uses a few time periods to explore and examine her concept, which makes the story all the more fun, even if in this case it includes tragic circumstances.

The most compelling aspect of the book in terms of the present day is the way in which Cornick deals with the mystery of the Princes. Whilst it may not solve it quite as you might expect – this is a fantasy after all and we don’t know what happened – the author does do something that few people have; Cornick removes the ‘either, or’ factor from the equation. Certainly so doing means that the reader’s focus is on the story she has constructed, but it is and was always going to be inevitable that the reader is at least distracted by the idea Cornick sets forth. The question of ‘what if?…’ here allows the medieval-minded reader to look at the whole thing in an entirely different way and prod at possibilities that tend to get overlooked or just left out completely.

The Last Daughter offers a compelling story of historical mystery told with Cornick’s trademark uniqueness of narrative strength. The timeslip element is different, fresh, and the book a great addition to the author’s list.


Charlie and Zen Cho (Black Water Sister) discuss traditional Chinese beliefs, smashing up shrines, and Jane Austen.

Charlie and Rosanna Ley (The Orange Grove) discuss whether one of her main characters, Ella, made the right decision with the situational contexts at hand, the viability of a shop focused on orange-related products and set up in Dorset, the Seville producers of those products, and the secrets of the flour-free cake that starts the whole thing off.

Charlie and Gill Paul (The Second Marriage) discuss the lives and loves of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas from their early married years until later life, the womanising ways of the men in their lives, and the opera and celebrity that in Gill’s book links them all.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
Christina Courtenay – The Runes Of Destiny + Podcast

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Falling back in time for a journey.

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 352
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26824-2
First Published: 10th December 2020
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Mia and Haakon’s daughter, Linnea, is working on an archaeological dig when she finds a Viking-era brooch in the soil. Pricking herself on the pin, she suffers a fall and when she wakes up a bunch of re-enacters are shouting at her. Their use of Old Norse is particularly good, and the dig tents are all gone, but this has to be a joke, right? As the men take her captive and she joins a group of them in a journey across the seas towards Byzantine Istanbul she has to come to accept what has happened and find a way both to live with what’s going on and find her way back. The presence of the group’s handsome second in command, Hrafn, may make this more difficult.

The Runes Of Destiny is the continuation, the second innings, of a family saga that started with Echoes Of The Runes. Taking the series beyond slight time-slip and comparative lives towards complete time travel, the book successfully moves the story up a notch.

The narrative and general approach is far greater this time around. If we consider for the purposes of comparison that the first book featured a simple plot and was heavier on characterisation, then The Runes Of Destiny, as much as it is about characters too – it’s a romance after all – is all about the plot. Greater too is the world building, where the Viking period and, most particularly the ninth century Istanbul the story takes you to, is fully detailed and explored.

The beginning stages of Linnea’s time with the Vikings once the initial time travelling has occurred are dealt with well. With her academic background, Linnea’s acceptance of what has happened to her is no sure thing; it takes her a fair few pages before she comes to seriously consider time travel as a possibility. On paper, then, it seems a long time but in terms of the actual passage of days and weeks, it’s not so much. Certainly it’s easier for the reader to acknowledge the change in the location than it is Linnea.

Linnea herself can take a bit of getting used to; when her acceptance level is minimal she sees everything in a negative light and somewhat understandably views most people she comes across unfavorably. As an example she hates Hrafn’s aunt, and whilst the aunt certainly isn’t the most accepting person herself, Linnea lacks the capacity to see herself and the twenty-first century clothes she turned up in in the way they might be viewed in the ninth century, by people already inclined to treat her as a person they’ve captured. Once receptive to the situation, Linnea is far easier to get along with as a reader.

You also get to look at the question of whether a time traveller – should they exist – ought to be allowed to change history or not. Courtenay looks at the smaller elements of life – Linnea’s wish to introduce the faster and more efficient art of knitting to women who are nalbinding.

On the other women in the story, mostly three fellow thralls and the thrall/mistress of the Jarl, there is a good amount of time spent. Linnea doesn’t always think very much of them in terms of time – she is for the most part focused on getting back to the time of chocolate and hospitals – but the time she does spend, and Courtenay’s added information, makes for a decent overview of life for women in their situation. There is a person among them who teeters on the edge of villainy, whilst also being in a vulnerable position, who doesn’t get as much time in terms of time spent with the others, but her position is considered by the narrative as a whole. Hrafn, the Viking, is likeable and well set in his time, with Courtenay paying a nod both to the factual history we know and the difference in personalities that would afford him to be more willing to accept Linnea’s experiences (the author gives a fair amount of time to his disavowing of Linnea’s story of being from the future).

The best part of the book in terms of reader escapism and expectation is arguably the time travel aspect. This takes you both back to the past and forward to our modern day, with both main characters gaining insight into the other’s life. For all our own thoughts might be to do the travelling ourselves, it’s perhaps Hrafn’s glimpse of the future which is the most anticipated element of the story.

The Runes Of Destiny takes an established story and runs with it. It improves on its earlier foundations and then adds bells and whistles to it at least a couple of times over, building further and further on a solid idea.


Charlie and Christina Courtenay (Echoes Of The Runes; The Runes Of Destiny) discuss what the Vikings were really like, time travellers’ historical partners travelling back with them, and predictability and coincidence as plot devices.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode page can be found here.

 
Zen Cho – Black Water Sister

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Dark and muddy, but sometimes light and clear.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-509-80000-1
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Jess has moved ‘back’ to Malaysia from America with her parents; they are staying with relatives whilst they get on their feet. It’s difficult for Jess; not only does she not have the best grasp of Hokkien, she’s also got to manage to keep in touch with her girlfriend, Sharanya, back in America, without her parents knowing, and she’s got to decide where to find a job – in Singapore with Sharanya, who is moving for university, or in Penang where she, Jess, is now? It’s more than enough to deal with, but the voice of her dead maternal grandmother, who she never knew, has invaded her head, and Jess doesn’t know how to broach the subject with anyone, let alone get the lady out. And when it becomes clear that Ah Ma’s not going anywhere whilst Jess is there to help her with an old feud, and possibly to intercede with a goddess – or just let spirits take over her body so they can do it themselves – Jess has to face up to her unreal reality and go with it.

Black Water Sister is a low fantasy novel about ghosts and gods set in the reality of our present-day world. It is both incredibly funny and rather deep, issuing lighter moments and times of reflection and strength.

Let’s look at the comedy first because whilst it’s a mainstay of the book, it shouldn’t be the final thought where the topics are concerned. Black Water Sister is laugh-out-loud, the sort of humour I can only describe as very British, and this is because the best comparison is with the BBC series Ghosts. Ergo, if you like Ghosts, you’ll like Cho’s book. It’s got that same atmosphere of spirits and a person who doesn’t want to know they exist and would prefer they not exist, which as time goes on progresses to acceptance. The location is different, the situation is different, but the wit and sense of humour is incredibly similar. (And describing it as Very British, that does also mean that if you like British sitcoms in general you’ll most likely like it to.) It should be noted here that I’m aware the main character is Malaysian American and the book is set in Malaysia – the humour, to the best of my knowledge, fits those places too.

In Jess, Cho has created a wonderful character who slowly comes to find herself and flourish whilst giving herself up to the requirements placed upon her by others, both alive and dead (though in general, mainly those dead). As much as there is a plot, it’d be hard not to say that Jess’ development is not the most important aspect of the book, the way she deals with her worries about coming out to her family, about her ongoing relationship with a woman, about her need for a job and a decision on where that job should be. Cho’s focus on everyday worries is one of the book’s strengths – where Jess needs to become stronger in herself and effectively does so in part by becoming inhumanly strong due to her time with Ah Ma and the goddess, you might be forgiven for forgetting the very real anxieties and coming-of-age struggles that the book is grounded in.

Jess is the main character here but hot on her heels – generally literally, albeit in wisps rather than real shoes – is Ah Ma, her grandmother, who she has only now met since the lady passed on. (Never say Ah Ma has passed on – she has very much not.) Cho has created the quintessential grandmother and granddaughter relationship where the two generations are so different and struggle to understand each other, using stereotypes both global and culture-specific to both humorous and poignant success.

And to go back to the inhuman strength Jess gains – sometimes (it becomes more about Jess as she becomes stronger and less prepared to give her physical self over to the ghostly) we move to look more at the three ‘main women’ in the book in a way that’s more of a study of female empowerment and agency both generally and down the ages, with the Black Water Sister – the goddess herself – focusing on the violence she suffered in life and at the moment of her death. There are moments of both literal and metaphorical poignancy.

Religion, and religious and cultural superstition, are strong in this book, and cover a few different countries and religions, with traditional Chinese beliefs mixed with Christianity to interesting and humorous effect. (Jess’ auntie’s focus on getting out a crucifix in the face of an angry Chinese goddess at her window is a highlight.) I note this to say that the book will interest people of faith (any) and none, Cho achieving a perfect balance between respect and humour.

Black Water Sister is a ride, a riot, and a pause. It’s incredibly unique whilst having echoes of other stories, and is a perfect candidate for any forum thread called ‘books you think about long after you’ve finished them’. Simple plot; tons going on.

I received this book for review. The book is out today.

 
Christina Courtenay – Echoes Of The Runes

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An heirloom with more significance than is usual.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 280
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26826-6
First Published: 17th September 2020
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2020
Rating: 3.5/5

Mia is utterly taken by the Viking-era ring in the museum in Sweden – it is exactly the same as hers, a ring she was given by her grandmother. When a fellow academic, Berger, sees what she’s wearing, she’s thought to be a thief, but as the truth of her ownership finds him, he suggests further studies. Living in London with her fiancé, it’ll be rather different travelling to Sweden and staying far longer at her grandmother’s small estate than she’s used to, even if Mia now owns it, but Berger’s suggestion to do an archaeological dig there is too intriguing. She leaves Charles in London and moves into Birch Thorpe, but on the first day, instead of Berger, a man called Haakon arrives in his stead. He’s not very polite, but something draws Mia to him. Meanwhile we hear about Ceri, a Celtic woman stolen from home by Vikings, strangely drawn to her Swedish captor, Haukr, as he is to her.

Echoes Of The Runes is a time-slip story – ever so slightly in literal terms but with a fair resonance – looking at an effective repeat of a relationship without reincarnation.

The set up, particularly in terms of historical information in both narrative threads, is wonderful. Courtney’s attention to getting things correct and her dedication to making it interesting and accessible, easy to learn and take away with you, is apparent from the moment the modern day fictional studies start and the historical Ceri starts getting to grips with her new situation. This information includes details of archaeology; the author strikes a good balance, giving a good amount of information but never too much and always nestling it amongst the threads of the story.

The characters are well drawn. Mia’s fiancé Charles doesn’t really fit in, but then that’s effectively the point. New man Haakon (because you know he will be – more on this in a couple of paragraphs’ time) is pretty abrasive at first, domineering in a way that doesn’t seem to gel with Mia’s own personality, but then given the premise of the story, this may well be a liberty taken by Courtney so that Haakon can be as much like Haukr as possible without breaching the realms of what is realistic for a historian when compared to a Viking invader. Mia herself is fair, as is her counterpart, Ceri, where in the first the needs of the story and in the second the literal abduction play their parts.

Where characterisation doesn’t work so much is in the relationships – whilst some elements are, again, dictated by the situation, both pairings could have done with more time prior to the getting together. It’s obvious very early on that the two characters from each time period will be together, which given the genre and general concept is a good thing, but the time between first meeting and getting together is pretty short – more so in the modern day thread – and thus it can be difficult to see the chemistry in terms of characterisation.

In regards to the predictability of the story, that the basic concepts are predictable is no bad thing. Knowing the rough trajectory you are on is very welcome; the book’s balance of information and escapism is perfect. However the main reason to mention predictability is due to the series of coincidences in the two stories, the predictable nature inherent in them once you get used to comparing them. Usually, coincidences can be a problem, however in Courtney’s book they are included as part of the point – the modern day characters note them, discuss them. The threads follow one another, a historic tale repeating itself in the future as much as it can given the realistic restrictions the author has created, and understandably, given the general idea of spirits and even, though it’s not mentioned as such, the concept of unfinished business, there are many counterparts. It could be called too much, but it’s more something to consider both for its use in the story and as a thought-out device.

The one thing that is difficult is the world building – with so much time spent on the couples and on the time-slip factor, there are fewer details about the landscape and locations themselves, meaning a more limited sense of place and time than you might have hoped for. There are plenty of small mentions but not quite enough to stitch it all together.

Two smaller elements of note: the majority of each narrative is set in a different season to the other which brings a nice balance to the book over all, and the look at attitudes to disability forms a good additional element that asks you to consider not only the historical context but the present day, too.

Echoes Of The Runes does have times where it loses its way, but over all it is a good read. Its strengths are particularly so, and the slight meta hint to it in the form of the question of coincidences is an interesting component. It will leave you with lessons learned but, more over, a good reading experience that will allow you to properly relax into the story.

 
Intisar Khanani – Thorn + Podcast

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Far from a silly goose.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 331
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40872-4
First Published: 20th May 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

Princess Alyrra of Adania is betrothed to Prince Kestrin of Menaiya via proxy, the king of Menaiya arriving in her kingdom to arrange it with her mother. When he first greets Alyrra he mentions her honesty, which is nice yet perhaps an odd thing for her to hear. As per her status in the family, she’s not invited to any of the meetings. Then comes an attack; Alyrra is visited in the night by a mage she has never met who talks to her about being careful going forward, but as she starts to make sense of what he means they are joined by a woman in white, dark, empty eyes, who attacks the mage. The King makes plans for Alyrra to leave home sooner so she can be protected in Menaiya early – everyone knows that members of the Menaiyan royal family go missing and no one wants to take any chances with Alyrra or the prince. But on the road, accompanied by Valka, a young woman who hates her, Alyrra is found by the woman in white who speaks of her wish to destroy the family; having been aided by Valka, the woman switches their bodies and casts a spell on Alyrra, stopping her from speaking the truth. Knowing the Menaiya family is at stake, Alyrra must warn them, but how can she? And does she want to when a simpler life, far from her brother’s abuse, is incredibly appealing?

Thorn is a retelling of the fairytale The Goose Girl, best known as told by the Brothers Grimm. It is an utterly fantastic story that greatly expands on the tale, adding details where there were few, interpreting concepts in new ways or taking them to conclusions that a study of them could reach, and modernising it just that little bit without losing any of the original ideas. It’s both very careful and completely daring.

On this ‘careful’ and ‘daring’, we might as well start with the switching of bodies. An almost Prince and the Pauper concept, had that story featured hatred in the two boys, Khanani’s choice to further the original concept of the princess and companion, taking the original switching of identities via clothes and general lies and manipulation, and making it a literal change, renders the story more believable, and more frustrating in that intriguing literary way that causes the message and point of the story to be more apparent and more satisfying when it comes to revealing it, the reader having waited a long time. You could say that Khanani’s change makes the story more fantastical than it needs to be, inching ever more towards the idea of a deus ex machina than the original, but then the original includes, just as Khanani’s story does, a talking Horse and a personified breeze, so ultimately it fits right in.

But further than this, Khanani’s choice to switch Alyrra and Valka’s bodies, and to change the original concept of oath taking to an enforced lack of ability to speak the truth, focuses our attention on Alyrra’s character progression. Alyrra must show who she is, a showing rather than a telling that is far stronger than the popular literary advice. She must also find a way to explain her truth without explaining her truth, and in so doing spend more time on herself and in thinking of those around her than she was able to do previously. On this point it’s interesting how relatively passive Alyrra is for a lot of the book, but again, that’s part of the point.

For a fair amount of the book, then, you have this passive heroine – she is unable to take advice, both due to fear and due to her wish to have a different life, which effectively shows itself as a lack of strength. Khanani spends a great deal of time showing you why Alyrra is as she is – though it’s true the author does show it from the first, Khanani, subtextually acknowledges that what Alyrra has gone through needs explaining so that every reader understands. Alyrra has been treated as a nobody by her family – stupid, weak, easy to give up to a family who may just want a body to shield the rest of them – and has had a life of emotional and physical abuse. It’s one of the things she tips Valka off to after the switch – Valka, as princess, will have to live with the physical reminders of Alyrra’s past. And Alyrra must work through this to come to the realisations she must make in order to save the family she is betrothed into.

This means that the narrative is slow. Out of context, it could be called frustrating – there is a lot of back and forth, with Alyrra as Valka – let’s just call Alyrra Thorn, as that’s the name she chooses after the switch – summoned to the palace time and time again by various royals and court members, most often the prince. The reader is privvy very early on to the notion that the prince has guessed what has happened, but rest assured, if this sounds like a spoiler, the ‘why’ takes a long time to become fully apparent. (‘Fully apparent’ because in fact part of it is easy to predict which, given the rest of the book, was most likely by design.) And the ending is worth the wait. Khanani knows you’ve been waiting patiently and she doesn’t disappoint.

Through these back and forths, and the conversations with Falada, the talking Horse (different to a non-talking lowercase bog-standard horse), as well as Thorn’s continued peace in her new job as a goose girl, understanding and purpose develops.

To go back to the idea I noted, of Khanani’s daring, beyond the literal switch of bodies, there are other elements. Given that this is an adaptation and given that by not saying what happens we can discuss this without any actual spoilers, one of the most daring things is perhaps the conclusion to Falada’s story thread. Through her narrative, Khanani seems to waiver on what she is going to do – you get a sense that she’s exploring what would happen if she took the route of the original story and what would happen if she didn’t – and her decision may surprise you. It could well surprise you no matter which one you were expecting. Further to this is the conclusion of Valka’s thread, which is handled in a similar manner. Again you may be surprised but it provides a lot to think about. What is Khanani saying by her choice? It’s a point to ponder.

As well as trauma suffered, Thorn is informed by her increasing knowledge of the social issues that abound her new home. Showing why she is a good choice for Menaiya, even if they didn’t know this bit about their kingdom, Khanani allows ample time for Thorn to immerse herself in the Land and gain knowledge that would set her up to be a wonderful ruler. These are big issues and as with everything else, Khanani considers everything with care, does not shy away from spoiling happy moments to further the plot and message, and if things have changed drastically in terms of people by the end of the book it simply reflects reality.

The prince, Kestrin, has his role greatly expanded. Rather than your stereotypical handsome love interest, he plays an active part from early on, and in fact informs Thorn’s character greatly. His role is one of protection without the swords and shields – his offers are literal but nevertheless he leaves it to Thorn to decide. Leaving that there and moving on to the relationship, there is a subtle romantic atmosphere that runs throughout the book but the narrative stays true to the characters – the ending of the book fits the content.

Lastly, briefly, looking at the role of men in the book, furthering Kestrin’s role as non-invasive support, as it were, the men in Menaiya – well, those in the good guy and human camp – are there when needed but otherwise remain secondary to the plot. The women take centre stage, the men generally out of the important aspects unless the plot requires it.

I’ve aimed to write about this book without spoilers but in order to do it justice, being quiet about everything is extremely difficult; the book is far greater than any premise could say and there is so much that needs to be considered. Thorn is one of the very best fairytale retellings to be published in recent years, during this time when there have been tons of them, and one can only hope that Khanani feels this strongly about another one and does this all again. It’s also simply one of the best fantasies, period.


Today’s podcast episode is with Midge Raymond (Forgetting English; My Last Continent). We discuss the current situation in Antarctica and the balance of keeping it clean whilst allowing research and tourism, environmental and climate changes in the same location, and being followed to the toilet by a penguin. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player above.

To see all the details including links to apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 

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