Author Spotlight: Louise O’Neill

OK, today we’re doing something a bit different. I’m not sure how this will go, but I have so many feelings about this author I just had to go for it.

Louise O’Neill is an Irish writer of young adult fiction, whose work has been praised by Jeanette Winterson and compared to Margaret Atwood. She has two published books and contributed in 2016 to I Call Myself A Feminist, a collection of essays published by Virago from women under 30 explaining why they see themselves as feminists. Asking For It was a number 1 Bestseller in Ireland, named Book of the Month in September 2015 by the Irish Times, and awarded Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in the same years. O’Neill has also worked on a documentary of the same name about rape culture in Ireland. She writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner.

Her first novel, Only Ever Yours, was extolled by not just the YA community but across the literary world as an astonishing piece of feminist fiction. Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a world where girls are taught in school to fit into a set of female roles – wife, teacher, concubine. The girls compete with each other to be the prettiest, bitching and undercutting their peers through their own form of social media. I have heard some describe it as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls, which may be the most appropriate description. I powered through it in a single train journey; even though sometimes it hurt to read I couldn’t unglue myself from the pages until it was done. It is harrowing from start to finish, not least because it remains witty and insightful throughout.

However, it was with her second novel, Asking For It, that O’Neill started popping up everywhere. It seemed like every blogger, every reader, every BookTuber I followed was talking about this book. Only Ever Yours was an excellent book, but Asking For It was extraordinary. In this novel, O’Neill takes several steps closer to home. Based in modern day Ireland, Asking For It tells the story of an Irish teenager who is raped at a party, and the book follows the fallout. I knew this going in, but I was not prepared. Like Only Ever Yours, this novel does not shy away from the difficult and problematic facts of the events that unfold. It is unflinching and essential reading.

I had heard all this before I started reading, but I was still astounded by the quality of this book. It is a compelling and utterly gruelling treatise on rape culture, treatment of victims of sexual abuse, and the societal impulse to believe in innocence until guilt is proven, un-raped until proven raped. From the moment Emma, the main character in Asking For It, begins to uncover the pictures of herself and her assault on social media, and sees the jeering, awful responses from her classmates, it is hard to believe it is going to get worse – but it does. It is unbearable, but I could not and would not stop reading.

Louise O’Neill has proven herself, with these two books as well as her online presence and activism, to be one of the most important voices in Young Adult fiction right now, and possibly of all time. I urge you to follow her on Twitter, read her columns, and pick up her books. She will make you think, and feel, and make you desperate to change the way things are.

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Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

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I put off buying this for a long time. Almost a year. I kept hearing about it. The blogosphere, social media, booktube – it kept popping up. I was convinced by the hype, and the blurb, but every time I read the first page in a bookshop, I put it down again. I couldn’t understand it. Two baddass magical women having adventures? Why couldn’t I get myself to read it?

All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom. But with war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike to survive.

COME ON. Doesn’t that sound great?

So when it came out in paperback I bit the bullet and bought it. It still took me a little while to read it… I was so anxious I would be disappointed.

I was not.

It was great.

Let me tell you more about it.

Synopsis

Safi and Iseult are witches who have a habit of finding trouble. Iseult is a Threadwitch: she can see the threads that connect people. Safi is something rare, however – a Truthwitch, who can discern truth from lies, and some will stop at nothing to get their hands on her. When they clash with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, they must flee their home.

Adventures ensue.

Things I liked

To be honest I’m not sure what I’m going to put in the things I didn’t like section, but here we go with this one anyway.

Safi and Iseult: you might have seen in my review of Caraval that I wasn’t so convinced by the sisterly relationship at the centre of this – well, this relationship convinced me. It helps that it was mirrored in other sets of characters. Safi and Iseult are each other’s ‘Threadsisters’: connected by something more soul-felt than friendship. Individually, too I loved this pair. Besides the abundant cosplay potential, these are some of the most fun and well-developed characters in YA fantasy that I’ve read recently. Iseult is one of the Nomatsi and experiences a certain amount of racist abuse, but she remains kind and strong, merciful and fierce. Safi is sometimes rash, but warm and able to admit to her mistakes (able to make mistakes – hurrah for nuanced characters), stubborn and unforgiving, but loving, too. Throughout I kept switching between who I thought I preferred…and couldn’t choose.

The love stories: this is a small one because I don’t want to get into it much, but they are satisfying and while they have the YA trope of an inexplicable tug of the heart towards another character, they are also built on engagement between characters.

I also really enjoyed getting to grips with the magic system and the world here. The world-building is terrific and the magic system is inspired and plays on some traditional magic systems to make something that feels quite new.

Things I didn’t like

I realised one of the reasons I put off reading this for so long – it was the hardback cover design.

I know, I know, don’t judge yada yada… but it just didn’t convince me! It wasn’t bad or anything. I wasn’t drawn in by it. I actually liked it, which is the weird thing. But it felt…wrong somehow. This is what it looks like, anyway.

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Let me know if you figure out why I had an adverse reaction to it.

Should I read this?

Yes, of course you should. Was that not clear? Yes, please read it. I want more people I know to read it. And I just realised it has an endorsement from Robin Hobb on the cover, so you don’t have to just take my word for it.

“This book will delight you.”

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

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I’ve been reading some reviews of this over the past few weeks and found very few I could fully agree with, so I thought I’d throw my own review into the mix. I bought this book for many reasons – partly because Jay Kristoff recommended it on his twitter, partly because the blurb had me utterly hooked, and partly because I found a proof in an Oxfam bookshop (ssh). Here’s a quick recap of the plot:

Three sisters. Three queens. One crown. Rumours abound around each of them.

Katherine is a poisoner, skilled at mixing deadly concoctions and able to withstand even the strongest of poisons.

Arsinoe, the naturalist, can bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest lion.

Mirabella, the strongest elemental in generations, able to conjure up flames and storms on a whim.

Each sister must fight the others for the crown. Only one will survive.

If only it were that simple. Katherine is indeed a skilled poisoner but, despite years of training, cannot stomach even mild poison, let alone anything stronger. Arsinoe is unable to help even a weed to grow. They, and the people around them, have been keeping their vulnerabilities a secret. But as the time for battle draws closer, who will survive?

So I absolutely love the concept for this book, and overall, I think it is really well executed. Immediately, I loved the idea that two of the three sisters have no natural talent for their destined gifts at all. However, it didn’t play out at all as I expected.

Many other reviewers have noted the slow burning narrative, some longing for more action and less of the dramatic build up. For me, the slow storytelling was great. It allowed me to get to know the world of this absurd island, Fennbirn, with its insane traditions that sets sibling on sibling. It also allowed me to get to know the secondary characters, who were absolutely my favourite part of this book.

Each sister is placed in a different area of the island, surrounded by those who can aid the development of their gifts – Arsinoe is sent to naturalists, Katherine to poisoners, and Mirabella to the temple. Each sector is desperate for their queen to win the contest, but they are not merely ambitious. Arsinoe’s friends/adopted family are the most openly loving to their queen, and they were some of my favourite characters. The poisoners with which Katherine is placed are much colder and much sneakier, keeping secrets from her and teaching her how to seduce the suitors who come to the island for a chance to become a queen’s consort, but in their own way, they obviously care for her (one thing I enjoyed about the poisoners – they treat poison like spices, any dish is duller without a touch of poison). The temple, however, are much crueller and more controlling of Mirabella, the only one of the three sisters with any actual power.

The dramas, romances, heartbreaks and rumours that built up within each camp and between them were all enticing and believable.

None of the queens was what I was expecting from the blurb – I’d be interested to know how other people reacted to them. Arsinoe and her cohort were probably my favourites, or at least the ones I identified with the most.

There were also a couple of things that didn’t 100% work for me which I will briefly detail here..:

  • occasionally a side character would say something about one of the queens, denote a specific quality as though it were obvious, which would then not necessarily play out in the action
  • the ending… I’m excited to see where this goes, definitely, but that was the only time I felt the pacing was a little off and there was something of a rush to the cliffhanger reveal
  • naturalist and elemental are a little bit too similar to be two different sets of powers…especially when poisoner is so far removed from either of them. In my opinion.

OVERALL I really enjoyed this. I’m very excited for the sequel and looking forward to re-entering this world when it comes out, although I am quietly worried that all of this excellent build up might lead to an unsatisfactory ending (don’t let me down, Blake!). Despite my reservations I gave this four stars on Goodreads (follow me here). It was so different from what I expected, much darker and richer in characters, history, world, and intrigue than I was anticipating. If you’re at all intrigued by this one, I say go ahead and try it.

Also, don’t you love that they made three different covers to represent the three queens? I always fall for stuff like that.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligible cover.jpgMy Masters is finished, guys. It’s done. I’ve been reading and reading for the last three weeks. It’s been such a relief to rediscover reading for fun. I went home for a couple of days shortly after handing in my dissertation, and after that went to Cornwall for a family weekend. Between getting home and going to Cornwall, I picked up my mum’s copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Let me start by saying overall, this is a great, fun read for any lovers of Pride and Prejudice. Considering it was over 500 pages and I read it in a couple of days (partly because I didn’t want to lug the giant hardback on my holiday…), obviously I had an excellent time reading this. I am a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, my comfort watching mostly consists of Austen adaptations, my mum and I spend a good amount of time exchanging Austen-isms. So believe me when I say, if you like Pride and Prejudice the way I do, you’ll love this. But you might have some reservations too.

I’m also going to break with my usual review format, just to warn you

(no! I hear you cry)

Brief synopsis

Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice takes place in Cincinnati. Liz and Jane Bennet have been summoned home from their lives in New York while their father recovers from heart surgery. Old patterns of behaviour return between the parents and the five sisters, the three youngest of whom live at home.

Also fresh to Cincinnati are Chip Bingley, star of the reality TV show Eligible, a charming and sensitive doctor who only has eyes for Jane, and his friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy. And we all know what happens from there.

Things I didn’t like so much

I don’t usually start with negatives, but these are mostly just personal reservations I had while reading, rather than universal criticisms I imagine everyone will have.

My first reservation is just that if you don’t love Pride and Prejudice, or even know the story, this book might not work. There are a lot of P&P in-jokes. A lot. And so much of my enjoyment came from seeing how each aspect of the story, each character and each plot development, was cleverly updated. Without knowing where all these things came from, would it be as much fun? Hard to say. Of course, the likelihood of someone picking this up who wasn’t already a Pride and Prejudice fan is very slim, so maybe this isn’t a valid criticism, but it nagged at me a bit while reading.

My second reservation – and this may be controversial – is that I didn’t like Liz. She didn’t ring true to me as Lizzy. I was still on her side, still winced for her at the slight from Darcy at the BBQ, still wanted her to have a happy ending. However, when I read it, I didn’t find her amicable, which Lizzy inherently is. I found her to be short-tempered, and while Lizzy is quick-witted and usually has something clever to say, Liz in Eligible seemed to snap rather than wittily retort.

Finally, before I get to the things I liked (which do, never fear, outweigh my reservations), my final criticism is that I thought it would have worked better in first person. If memory serves, Liz was in every single scene, and the biased third-person narration probably added to my dislike of Liz’s character, since it had all the notes of an un-self-conscious, unreliable narrator, without the intimacy of the first-person narration. If the voice we were hearing had been Liz’s rather than the semi-omniscient narrator, I might have liked her more.

Things I liked

Despite what I’ve said above, this could be a huge section, and I don’t want to spoil the joys of discovering Sittenfeld’s moments of hilarity and cleverness, so here are a few quick notes on what I liked:

  • The use of the show Eligible to reflect the gossip of Hertfordshire in Pride and Prejudice toward Bingley’s arrival
  • The development of Liz and Darcy’s relationship was a stroke of genius and I think I barked with laughter when… *SPOILER*. But if you’ve read it…you know which bit I mean
  • The mystery of Mary’s secret Tuesday night outings
  • The Wickham adaptation. Part out it had to be explained to me (I feel silly) but I particularly liked Jasper Wick
  • Jane as a yogi – this rang so very true with me
  • The re-aging of the characters, the nifty scenario in which all the Bennet sisters end up back at their childhood home
  • Mrs Bennet: the Hoarder

Should I read this?

If you like Pride and Prejudice, then yes, of course you should read this. Despite its size it is not a long read, and you’ll definitely have a lot of fun reading it. Even if, like me, you have a few minor reservations.

Hamilton Book Tag

I’m deep, deep in dissertation writing hell. I can’t do anything that’s going to stretch my brain too much, like putting down coherent thoughts about a book. So when I saw this tag over on Thrice Read I thought it’d be fun. Like the girls there I’m obsessed (obsessed) with Hamilton, but I’m sure you can enjoy this post without knowing the show.

Alexander Hamilton: Favourite Flawed Hero

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I have a few contenders for this, so here are a couple of honourable mentions (you can tell already I’m going to be bad at this tag shenanigans):

Mia Corvere from Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight: the only reason Mia didn’t win this was because I am in fear of gushing too much about this book. Not so much in fear that I won’t mention it whenever I get the chance. I have many feelings about Mia, but you can read my full review here.

Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series: I love Locke. I think he’s a great flawed hero, too smart and too stupid for his own good, the bravest coward out there. But part of what makes him great is his friendship with Jean, and it’s their relationship that makes him do all the things that make me love him. (Full review here)

Delilah Bard from V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series: cross-dressing thief with dreams to be a pirate and go adventuring. Awesome.

So finally, the winner is:

Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind is one of my all-time favourite books, and an enormous part of that is Kvothe. He is a legend of his own making, a musician, a genius and a wizard of sorts. He also screws up royally. He and Alexander Hamilton have a lot in common.

King George III: Favourite Villain

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Ozymandias from Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: sorry if this is a spoiler (you can read my review of this here). The smartest man in the world, who uses destruction to create peace.

John Laurens: Favourite Supporting Character

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Rhy from V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series: Prince Rhy seems like he should have been a hero in his own story, but his best friend/adopted brother Kell is the one with magical powers, off having adventures. The complexity of his relationship with Kell is great, but he is a well developed character on his own. Lots of fun and feelings to be had.

Hercules Mulligan: Character who snuck in and stole your heart

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Noah Czerny from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle (review to come): I know I’m not alone in this. Basically any of the Raven Boys fit this description, but Noah is perhaps the most tragic.

Marquis de Lafayette: Best Friend OTP

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Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen from The Gentlemen Bastard series: as mentioned above, these guys have the ultimate friendship. It gets them into a lot of trouble. A lot.

Elizabeth Schuyler: Doomed OTP

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Sonea and Akkarin from Trudia Canavan’s Black Magician’s Trilogy (review here): I still love Akkarin and Sonea. I miss them. I have to re-read these books. Their love story is secondary to the plot, which I like, and is built on both of them being trapped in a secret neither of them wanted, making them pariahs and alienating them from their friends, but which they know is necessary to save everyone. They’re heroes, they’re badass. I love them.

Angelica Schuyler: Baddest Bitch

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Lada from Kiersten White’s And I Darken (review here): Baddest. Bitch. Out there. Right now. Mia Corvere is a close second, for slightly different reasons.

George Washington: Favourite Parental Figure

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Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter books: NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!

Says it all, really.

Thomas Jefferson: Character with all the best lines

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Johannes Cabal from Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer (and all subsequent books) by Jonathan L. Howard: The first two and a half pages were enough to make me fall in love with Cabal. He’s witty and sarcastic and dry and so, so clever.

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And that’s it. My first ever tag! Hope you enjoyed. Back to normal reviews soon. Maybe before September. Maybe after the dissertation. Sob.

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Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

nevernightcover.jpgThis.

Book.

Though.

Stop what you’re reading – are you reading right now? Put it down. Go pre-order this book. Then go finish your book ASAP so you can be ready for the first installment of Jay Kristoff’s new fantasy trilogy. It’s gonna be a good one, guys. Oh boy. I can’t believe I have to wait for the next one.

Considering it is now a week before the release date for this book, and I spent all weekend ranting to my friends about how good it is to the extent that they all bought it for themselves at the HarperVoyager stand at YALC and could recite the release date themselves, unprompted, I felt it was finally time for a full review.

Synopsis

Mia Corvere is ten years old when she experiences death for the first time. When her father is executed as a traitor, Mia barely escapes his failed rebellion with her life. Swearing vengeance on those who destroyed her family, she fights to survive and makes her way to the Red Church, the school for assassins. In order to become a Blade, Mia must best her classmates in the arts of steel, poison, thievery, and the subtle arts (seduction, steeeamy). But there is a killer on the loose at the Red Church, and Mia must be extra vigilant if she wants to fight to the top of her classes, become a Blade, and ultimately, just stay alive.

Things I liked

We’ll start with the basics.

The setting: The Red Church is a twist on the classic magical school, the ruthless anti-Hogwarts for the post-Potter generation. The world itself is a collision between Ancient Rome and Merchant Prince Venice (as described by the author), an imagined world as if the Republic had never been overthrown. Religious fervor dominates the republic, and its leaders are determined to destroy the Red Church and its Blades once and for all. Coincidentally, it is these same leaders upon whom Mia has sworn vengeance for executing her father and destroying her family. She certainly does not lack ambition.

The freaking front cover: Am I allowed to include this? What a stunning work of art. Designed by the incredible Kerby Rosanes (whose Instagram you should follow, here). What I haven’t mentioned so far is that the world of this book is lit by three suns, meaning that true night rarely falls – unless you’re at the Red Church, of course. The three suns begin on the front page and wrap around the back. I hear they’ll be moving around as the next books in the series come out, like orbit and stuff (thank God there will be more books in this series).

Moving on to the characters.

Mia Corvere: what a protagonist. Never flinch, never fear, never forget. It is not just Mia’s determination and ruthlessness that make her an incredible character to ride along with. It is also her companion, Mr Kindly, the cat-who-is-not-a-cat, who makes her fearless but not to the point of stupidity, and the way she forms relationships with other characters. This is not the story of a friendless, brave hero, the outcast. Mia and her classmates all have their own tragedies, their own reasons for joining the Red Church. They all had to fight to get there and they all have to fight every day to stay. Mia lives her life in the shadows because the shadow answers her when she calls, but she is also funny, bright, clever, sometimes warm and, surprisingly often, kind. She also smokes cigarillos like a bleedin chimney.

The tutors at the Red Church: but I won’t talk too much about them. You should meet them for yourself.

The potential Blades, a.k.a Mia’s classmates: Tric, Hush, Ash. Their stories. Their tragedies. Their triumphs.

I could go on and on here, so I’ll just talk about one more thing.

The narrative voice: the worldbuilding takes its time, it lets you in little by little, as you need to know – but there was no sense of deus ex machina here, no convenient get-outs. The narration is nuanced, gentle when it needs to be gentle, rich when it is rich (steamy when it is steeeamy), and sharp in the midst of action. There are some extremely dark moments in this story but the humour when it comes (which it does, frequently), is excellently judged. The story and worldbuilding are aided by Pratchett-esque footnotes, which sometimes fill in histories you didn’t know you wanted with amusing anecdotes – usually ending up with someone getting themselves killed through a disaster of their own making – and sometimes simply revel in the occasional absurdity of what is happening to our protagonist. I thought these footnotes might be intrusive and break up the flow, but I was happily mistaken.

Things I didn’t like

Um.

Yeah. Um.

I’m sure it’s going to be a very long time until there is another book and I don’t know what I’ll do until then? That’s kind of a thing I don’t like?

Should I read this book?

Please, please, please do. I’m pretty sure this is the best fantasy book I’ve read since The Lies of Locke Lamora, which is no mean feat. Make this the next fantasy you read.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

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Last week I was on holiday and I read four books – so stay tuned for more reviewing!

Contrary to my usual format, I don’t know if there’s going to be a ‘what I didn’t like’ section for this book. I blasted through this in a day, even though it is 400…500? pages long (I don’t have it with me, awks). This book was released the day before I went on holiday, and I stayed in all day (partly doing dissertation work and packing…partly in anticipation) to wait for my pre-order to arrive. I’m so glad it did, this was a highlight of my reading month. Let’s get into the review.

Synopsis

And I Darken is a retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler – but in this case, Vlad is a girl, Lada. The blurb markets her as a princess the likes of whom you have never experienced. And while I was initially doubtful this book would deliver on that promise, I can safely say it did. Lada is fierce and fiercesome, determined, proud, loyal but not blindly, and entirely self-centred. Against the rich backdrop of the Ottoman Empire, Lada and her exact opposite brother, Radu the Handsome, must navigate the complicated political terrain, wrestle with their own constantly warring feelings toward each other, and figure out once and for all where their own loyalties lie. Initially, they are unwilling to trust Mehmed, who is after all the son of the sultan who holds them hostage against their father, but soon the three of them come to love and rely on each other in an environment where they can trust little else.

What I liked

Let’s start with the obvious: Lada. She was just great. Flawed in unexpected but un-irritating ways. Quite human, and yet utterly inhuman as well. I related to her more than I thought I would. Radu and Mehmed too, are wonderfully crafted characters. Radu and Lada hold the main third-person narration, and while I connected with each of them in different ways I didn’t find myself placing my own character on them – I liked them, as if they were people I knew and I was invested in what they were trying to achieve. Brilliant characterisation.

The setting. This is a period in history (and geography) I know very little about. Fascinating reading – can’t comment on the accuracy of the research but it was flawlessly utilised in the storytelling, not imposing or overwhelming but (certainly from the perspective of a know-nothing Ottoman-ignorant like me) felt real. Well-composed, narratively astute and complementary to the story.

The length. This is an odd one to choose, probably. But as much as I love a chunky book, this one was on the short side of an epic and the long side of a YA novel. It was just the right length for a day of sofa-bound reading when I got sick on holiday. It didn’t drag, and it didn’t rush.

What I didn’t like

Had to put this section in here just for standard formatting sake but do I have anything I didn’t like?

Not really. I felt pretty good about most aspects of this.

I guess, could have had a bit more of the Dad? Prince Vlad of Wallachia The whole conflict on his side of things sounded quite fun, with forces amassed against him, and him an uncaring, spineless and selfish leader. BUT I reckon we’re going to get more of the conflict in Wallachia in the next book, and through a more interesting lens too (but here there be spoilers, so I shan’t elaborate).

Should I read this?

If you’re in the market for some historical epic, without conventional romances or history itself quite as you know it, or if you want to complex, engaging, and morally dubious characters, or if you have been hearing about this and weren’t sure whether to pick it up, then YES. Do read it. Then let me know what you think. Can’t wait for book two.

The Book Depository

You can buy the book here.

I am officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, so I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.

http://www.bookdepository.com/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary