June DNFs

Posted 29th June 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Where did June go? I can’t believe the month’s about over already.

Eight DNFs this month – pretty bad; that’s an average of two a week…

Her Majesty's Royal Coven (Her Majesty's Royal Coven, #1) by Juno Dawson
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Black sapphic MC, F/F, major trans character

A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this the first installment of this epic fantasy trilogy about a group of childhood friends who are also witches.

If you look hard enough at old photographs, we’re there in the background: healers in the trenches; Suffragettes; Bletchley Park oracles; land girls and resistance fighters. Why is it we help in times of crisis? We have a gift. We are stronger than Mundanes, plain and simple.

At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.

Juno Dawson explores gender and the corrupting nature of power in a delightful and provocative story of magic and matriarchy, friendship and feminism. Dealing with all the aspects of contemporary womanhood, as well as being phenomenally powerful witches, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle may have grown apart but they will always be bound by the sisterhood of the coven.

I see what this was trying to do, but I just could not enjoy Dawson’s prose. It’s so blunt and dry, and both the worldbuilding and the characters themselves bored me to tears. I’m sure that by the end of the book both the worldbuilding and the characters have been challenged – that’s clearly what Dawson set out to do with this story – but I had zero desire to read through the blegh in the hopes of it all getting better later.

Simplistic, too info-dump-y, with cringingly banal characters. No thanks.

Queen of Clouds by Neil Williamson
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC

Queen of Clouds is a sumptuous fantasy from the mind of Glasgow-based author and musician Neil Williamson. Neil's debut novel The Moon King was described by Jeff VanderMeer as "one of the best debuts of this or any other year" and went on to be shortlisted for both the BSFA Award and British Fantasy Award for best novel.

Billy Braid has been raised in an idyllic mountain backwater, aiding Master Kim to craft strangely sentient sylvans from carefully cultivated trees. Then the outside world impinges, and Billy is tasked with delivering a sylvan to the Sunshine City of Karpentine. Upon his arrival, Billy falls in with a young Weathermaker, Paraphernalia, who proves to be fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. But all is not well in the Sunshine City, and Billy is soon embroiled in Machiavellian intrigues he is ill-equipped to understand, as the city's ruling Guilds - the Constructors, Inksmiths, Weathermakers and more - jostle for status and power, seeing him as the key..

Queen of Clouds is a delight; a fast-paced tale set in a richly imagined world. Wooden automata, sentient weather, talking cats, compellant inks, a tower of hands built from the casts provided by the city's many visitors, and a host of vividly realised characters provide the backdrop as the drama rushes to its stunning climax.

I loved the first third or so of this book, but after that it became so…heavy-feeling…that I completely lost interest. The worldbuilding was fantastic, and I’ll probably come back to Queen of Clouds at some point – maybe I was just in the wrong headspace for it at the time – but for now I’m putting it aside.

Sistersong by Lucy Holland
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Trans MC

Inspired by the dark folk ballad “The Two Sisters”, interweaving the perspective of a third sibling that history forgot, Sistersong is a rich and lyrical tale in the tradition of Circe and The Bear and the Nightingale—the story of three daughters of a pagan king who each have their own magical gift, and their own price to pay, when war comes to their land.

In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, there is old magic to be found in the whisper of the wind, the roots of the trees, the curl of the grass. King Cador knew this once, but now the land has turned from him, calling instead to his three daughters. Riva can cure others, but can’t seem to heal her own deep scars. Keyne battles to be seen for who she truly is—the king’s son. And Sinne dreams of seeing the world, of finding love and adventure.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky. It brings with it Myrdhin, meddler and magician. And Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

Riva, Keyne and Sinne—three sisters entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, who must fight to forge their own paths. 

Their story will shape the destiny of Britain.

Sistersong was a book I wanted to read for myself, and also needed to try for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards…but it’s another one where I couldn’t stand the prose. And to be honest, I’m just tired of Christianity vs Paganism stories. I have a deep, deep hatred for the Church – I spent my formative years in Ireland in heavily Catholic schools, enough said – so there’s never any conflict for me in which side I support, and I always get worked up, and I’ve just had enough of seeing paganism and magic called sinful, even by characters who are clearly the villains. And that’s without even touching on the awfulness of poor Keyne’s situation – I don’t want to read about trans suffering, either!

But I could have handled all of that if Holland’s prose had been beautiful, and I just don’t think it is. It’s jerky and arrhythmic, and I’m not a fan of first-person narration in general: those two things combined? Make for a DNF.

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Published on: 20th September 2022

In this stunning debut novel, the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga will risk all to save her country and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and the dangerous gods who seek to drive the twisted hearts of men.

As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

So first off, this is not actually a book featuring Baba Yaga. This is a book about a half-mortal child of a Slavic goddess, a woman who is physically frozen in her thirties and works as a magical healer, especially of women. Her name is Yaga, but she is not Baba Yaga. The myths and folklore we know are false, lies spread by hateful Christians, particularly hateful Christian men.

That was immediately disappointing to me. I was looking forward to a novel about the real, complex, often frightening figure of Russian and Slavic folklore, the one who rewards intelligence and cunning and eats idiot heroes for breakfast. Because that is an interesting character. Not necessarily a nice one, and certainly not an easy figure to write about if you’re looking to make her likable to your readers, but definitely interesting. I wanted to see that Baba Yaga going up against Ivan the Terrible and kicking his ass.

The Witch and the Tsar is not that book. And I’ve gotta be honest, I think what Gilmore’s done is unbelievably boring and lazy. You wanted the cachet of a big, powerful mythological name, but didn’t want to or didn’t know how to take on the complexity that comes with that name. Gilmore stripped away Baba Yaga’s age, her trickster-esqueess, the terror she inspires and wields, her power and her wildness – and left us with a younger, sweet, naive twit whose life has been hard Because Men.

How is that not insulting? That’s not a feminist power-move, it’s the exact opposite, making her younger and prettier and more palatable to the pearl-clutchers. Making her tamer in the name of making her likable.

It’s extra frustrating because it would have taken so little effort to separate this story from any connection with Baba Yaga. Gilmore’s Yaga just needs a different name and a different house, and this could have been the exact same novel without turning an epically monstrous and powerful witch into a milquetoast.

You didn’t need to co-opt Baba Yaga for this book. And I wish Gilmore hadn’t.

However, even if she’d left Baba Yaga alone and named her witch something else, this would likely still be a DNF. Gilmore packs the first few chapters with telling-telling-telling that doesn’t flow especially well, while hand-waving the interesting bits (for example, the famous chicken-legged house ‘just came’ to Yaga after her mother’s death – no explanation as to where it came from, how it was made, etc). Her main character is incredibly bland and over-familiar – we’ve seen this exact character template so many, many times – and there’s so many moments of just jaw-dropping stupidity that I felt insulted as a reader.

Case in point: one of Yaga’s companions, Dyen, is an immortal wolf who can speak to her telepathically. When Yaga goes to Moscow, Dyen accompanies her. Yaga then wonders why people are staring at her when she’s done her best to fit in – despite the massive wolf walking next to her. A wolf which is allowed into the royal palace without protest. A wolf which, once Yaga’s audience with the king is over, runs off into the palace alone and everyone is fine with that.

I’m pretty sure 16th-century Russians were not that cavalier about wolves. Because, you know. Wolves.

So, I quit. This isn’t the book I wanted it to be, and the book that it is is also pretty terrible. No thanks.

Into the Broken Lands by Tanya Huff
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 2nd August 2022

From sci-fi and fantasy master Tanya Huff comes a new epic fantasy saga set in a land of dangers and mysteries

Shattered by mage wars, the Broken Lands will test the bonds of family and friendship, strength and sanity. To save their people, the Heirs of Marsan have no choice but to enter, trusting their lives and the lives of everyone they Protect, to someone who shouldn't exist, who can't be controlled, and who will challenge everything they believe about themselves.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I just found this to be a very boring book revolving around some fairly unlikable characters. Nothing at all happens for the whole first quarter of the novel, except for the reader being introduced to the cast, almost all of whom are some flavour of awful as they wait around for permission to enter the Broken Lands. Several of the minor characters absolutely shone – I loved the inhabitants of Gateway, the last vestige of humanity before entering the Broken Lands – and I get that this is almost certainly going to be a Personal Growth story, where the awful and/or annoying characters are Better by the end… But I see no reason to force myself to read a book whose cast I mostly can’t stand, just to see them sort themselves out later.

There was just zero incentive to keep reading – the Broken Lands weren’t made out to be very interesting, I didn’t feel the urgency the characters were supposed to be driven by, and it was clear within a few chapters that the story the main cast know of their history and the history of the Broken Lands is completely wrong and hey, maybe you should listen to these people who live right next door to it all? Just an idea.

I’ve loved many of Huff’s other books, but alas, not this one.

Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary MC, M/M/F
Published on: 13th September 2022
ISBN: 1982195738

Full of court intrigue, queer romance, and terrifying monsters—this gothic epic fantasy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.

Remy Pendergast is many things: the only son of the Duke of Valenbonne (though his father might wish otherwise), an elite bounty hunter of rogue vampires, and an outcast among his fellow Reapers. His mother was the subject of gossip even before she eloped with a vampire, giving rise to the rumors that Remy is half-vampire himself. Though the kingdom of Aluria barely tolerates him, Remy’s father has been shaping him into a weapon to fight for the kingdom at any cost.

When a terrifying new breed of vampire is sighted outside of the city, Remy prepares to investigate alone. But then he encounters the shockingly warmhearted vampire heiress Xiaodan Song and her infuriatingly arrogant fiancé, vampire lord Zidan Malekh, who may hold the key to defeating the creatures—though he knows associating with them won’t do his reputation any favors. When he’s offered a spot alongside them to find the truth about the mutating virus Rot that’s plaguing the kingdom, Remy faces a choice.

It’s one he’s certain he’ll regret.

But as the three face dangerous hardships during their journey, Remy develops fond and complicated feelings for the couple. He begins to question what he holds true about vampires, as well as the story behind his own family legacy. As the Rot continues to spread across the kingdom, Remy must decide where his loyalties lie: with his father and the kingdom he’s been trained all his life to defend or the vampires who might just be the death of him.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

To be fair, I think I’m the wrong audience for this book, but also: I hated it.

Everyone around Remy is unremittingly awful, the setting and set-up are beyond over the top, everything is handwaved, the prose is clunky and graceless (what happened??? Chupeco’s prose has always been gorgeous until now!) and I couldn’t make myself feel the slightest bit invested in the polyamory – after being so ridiculously excited for it.

I think this will vibe with the right reader – if you’re into over the top, Extremely Extra anime vampires, well, this is basically that in book form – but I couldn’t stand it. I made it to 20% and had absolutely zero interest in continuing on.

This was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, but no part of it lived up to the premise.

Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
Published on: 23rd August 2022

For fans of Mexican Gothic, from three-time Bram Stoker Award–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a novel inspired by the untold stories of forgotten women in classic literature--from Lucy Westenra, a victim of Stoker’s Dracula, and Bertha Mason, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre--as they band together to combat the toxic men bent on destroying their lives, set against the backdrop of the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, 1967.

Reluctant Immortals is a historical horror novel that looks at two men of classic literature, Dracula and Mr. Rochester, and the two women who survived them, Bertha and Lucy, who are now undead immortals residing in Los Angeles in 1967 when Dracula and Rochester make a shocking return in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Combining elements of historical and gothic fiction with a modern perspective, in a tale of love and betrayal and coercion, Reluctant Immortals is the lyrical and harrowing journey of two women from classic literature as they bravely claim their own destiny in a man’s world.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I think this is a case of being the wrong reader for an objectively pretty cool book. Although I love the premise – two of classic lit’s most screwed-over women taking their agency back – and although I think it’s super readable, I’m just not very interested. I made it to 26%, and that’s further than I wanted to go.

But it does feel like an it’s-not-you-it’s-me. Kiste’s writing is great and her take is clever, but I like my reads with purpler prose and much more magic-heavy. This is a book I shouldn’t have tried to read, and I wouldn’t want my DNF to discourage anyone else from picking it up and giving it a go if it sounds like your thing.

The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 28th June 2022

Alone in the world, Asher Todd travels to the remote estate of Morwood Grange to become governess to three small children. Her sole possessions comprise a sea chest and a large carpet bag she hangs onto for dear life. She finds a fine old home, its inhabitants proud of their lineage and impeccable reputation, and a small village nearby. It seems an untroubled existence, yet there are portraits missing from the walls, locked rooms, and names excised from the family tree inscribed in the bible. In short order, the children adore her, she becomes indispensible to their father Luther in his laboratory, and her potions are able to restore the sight of granddame Leonora. Soon Asher fits in as if she’s always been there, but there are creatures that stalk the woods at night, spectres haunt the halls, and Asher is not as much a stranger to the Morwoods as it might at first appear.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I really don’t know what happened here – I loved Slatter’s All the Murmuring Bones, and I finally read her collection Sourdough this year and adored that too. But I struggled with Bitterwood and Tallow-Wife, and now it seems that The Path of Thorns didn’t work for me either. It struck me as incredibly dry and blunt, with a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm to the prose. Even the cover’s promise of werewolves couldn’t convince me to keep reading.

I might give it another go at some point – I don’t really understand how I could enjoy Slatter’s writing in two of her books but not the rest, so maybe it’s just a wrong-book-wrong-time thing? – but for now I’m putting it aside.

Here’s hoping for fewer DNFs in July!

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