Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

Huge thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review.

Release Date: 13th January 2015

Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband's murder --and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

When anything tries to compare itself to ‘The Night Circus’ I am hesitant. ‘The Night Circus’ is such a hauntingly beautiful novel that holds such a special place in my heart that nothing ever seems to come close to touching it. ‘The Magician’s Lie’ comes incredibly close though.

The novel is split, between the night when Arden’s husband is found dead and she goes on the run, only to be caught by Virgil, a police officer, and her retelling of her life story whilst in custody. One night and one incredible story later, Virgil must try and untangle what has really happened.

It’s an intriguing premise – a female magician in a period when Arden is the only one, a touring magic show, a desperate and breathless backstory with true love tangled up in it all. The novel is beautifully written and brilliantly executed. The only places where it stumbles are when we are brought back to reality and Arden trying to persuade Virgil of her innocence. The pace slows and I found myself desperate for them to stop talking and for Arden to get back to re-telling her own story.

The novel has been thoroughly researched and it shows, the characters and setting peel off the page and immerse the reader in the tale. It is brilliantly constructed and stitched together and I found myself coming to care about Arden and her story very quickly. She is a wonderful heroine with a fascinating life and I loved her from the start.

The secondary characters are all wonderfully written and the novel is held together by their relationships and interactions. It is startling evocative and beautifully descriptive and I found myself falling in love the further into Arden’s story we delved.

Whilst lovers of ‘The Night Circus’ will be drawn by the comparison, be aware that the emphasis is much heavier on the circus and the illusions and is based in reality with less magic, but that makes it no less magical to read. It is an utterly spellbinding book that explores magic, illusions and the desperate struggle for Arden as a woman to carve out her own place and identity in a male dominated society. I loved this book and it stayed with me long after I read the last page.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

It was on her nineteenth birthday that the soldiers came for Kelsea Glynn. They’d come to escort her back to the place of her birth – and to ensure she survives long enough to be able to take possession of what is rightfully hers.
But like many nineteen-year-olds, Kelsea is unruly, has high principles and believes she knows better than her elders. Unlike many nineteen-year-olds, she is about to inherit a kingdom that is on its knees – corrupt, debauched and dangerous.

Kelsea will either become the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known . . . or be dead within the week.

This book appears to be quite the marmite book with people swearing up and down either that this is an awesome new fantasy, or it’s a big pile of garbage. Luckily I’d managed to steer clear of any reviews prior to reading, so I went in knowing only that there was a lot of buzz surrounding it, and that Emma Watson is attached to a film version currently in the works.

Let’s start by talking about the cover. I love it. It’s one of the best covers I’ve seen this year. Incredibly simple, powerful and effective. And whilst the plot contained within isn’t exactly simple, it certainly gives you a good indication of what you’re going to find.

This is a novel on quite a fantastic scope. It’s a mixture of so many different things – dystopian, fantasy, both young adult and adult, with a fantastic set of characters led by Kelsea.

It took me a little while to warm up to Kelsea, she comes across as a little arrogant, a little bit spiky to start with, but the longer I read the more I loved her. She’s bright and intelligent and determined and so overwhelmed by everything. She’s human, but she’s desperate to try and protect her people, to fix the wrongs that have been going on in her kingdom and be a good leader. However despite all her good intentions she is hampered because no one will talk to her, she has no real knowledge of the kingdom as it is now or during her mother’s reign, which leaves her blind and hobbled and trying to plug all the gaps in a sinking ship. I loved her fierce and wonderful she was, and I loved how insecure and unsure of everything she was as well. She is fiercely human, and you can ask no more from a character than that.

She is surrounded by a cast of brilliant characters. Fetch, the Mace, Pen, all of them help to guide her (and hinder her) and they are so brilliantly constructed. They treat her as their Queen, but also don’t truly respect her, and see her as nothing more than a little girl. It’s brilliantly realistic and wonderfully rendered and I loved watching Kelsea try to win them over, to gain that trust and respect that she desperately needs to try and rule her kingdom.

The world building was, on the whole, very good. I think what will be problematic for some readers is that because Kelsea knows so little, we the readers end up very much in the dark as well. There are lots of little hints at small parcels of knowledge that I’m hoping will be expanded upon over the series. It’s an intriguing world and I loved finding out more about it. It has beautifully woven together elements of a dystopian society as well as a more medieval feudal system. There could be issues further down the line if instead of more explanation the entire history of the Tear is just glossed over and we never learn any more about it as that would prove to be incredibly frustrating. However so far so good, and it provides enough detail to give you a grounding and idea of the world whilst leaving plenty of patches to fill in.

The plot itself is the third piece in the trio that make this brilliant novel work. It is fast paced and exciting, a tense work of art that had me racing through the book. It is also incredibly refreshing to have a plot unhampered by a tag along romance, and I think the book would be weighed down with that tagged on as well. There is so much going on, so much for everyone – fantasy, magic, assassin guilds, politics and scandals and a strong heroine at its heart. I absolutely adored this book. It’s the sort of novel I enjoy getting lost in and I cannot wait for the next book.

Read this if you enjoyed: “The Song of the Lioness Quartet” by Tamora Pierce. “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” by Rae Carson, and “The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy” by Kristin Cashore.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

When Varvara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen. 
Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress' heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, (the future Catherine the Great) a few months ago, I remembered that I had on my shelves another telling of that story, this one recommended by an author I adore, so I decided to give the tale another go.

‘The Winter Palace’ is an intense and gripping story told by Varvara, a Polish orphan who is taken in by the Empress and set to work in the royal wardrobe. She is hungry, exhausted, constantly belittled, and feels she should be destined for greater things if only the Empress knew that she was there living in the palace. By sheer luck and her curiosity she comes to the attention of Count Bestuzhev who trains her and presents her to the Empress as a new spy.

Varvara is a fascinating protagonist. She has a disappointing tendency to become as flat and invisible to the reader as Bestuzhev demands her to be to the occupants of the palace, but on the whole she is an intriguing view point to watch history unfold from. She sees so much, is privy to so much and it is engrossing to watch her become embroiled in the very heart of everything, privy to the Empress herself. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of Russian history will know how the events of the book will play out, but Stachniak manages on the whole to still make it fresh and new and engrossing for the reader as you are enmeshed further along with Varvara.

Stachniak has re-created the Winter Palace with an eye for detail and an ability to convey the sheer grandeur and over indulgence of the period. It is stunning in its complexity and the vibrancy that fairly oozes from the pages as you are drawn into this world with its intrigues and politics and scandals. It is a lush and opulent depiction of life in Russia that Varvara hovers on the edges of, flitting in and out of the main tale and drawing the reader ever deeper into the web of secrets and lies that make up life in the Palace.

There is a distinct lack of urgency in places that really should be steeped in it. Varvara becomes caught up in redecorations of the palace, orders of new gowns and the mundane and the urgency is lost where it should be rampant. Whilst this is a story that details the rise of power and lead up to Catherine’s coup, it does feel that the story ends just as it gets interesting. There should be more of a thrill, an urgency as the pieces are put in place and Catherine takes control of the country. Instead it is a slow and sedate promenade that never fully forms and takes flight, which is disappointing when it could be so much more.

Stachniak has since written a sequel of sorts – a second novel this time from the perspective of Catherine (Sophie) herself, reflecting on her life. Following on from this breath taking foray into Russia and the world of the Winter Palace, I am looking forward to taking myself back there. Lovers of historical fiction will love this look at a crucial turning point in Russian history, and whilst it can drag in a few places, the writing on the whole is brilliant in its execution and will provide a fascinating fresh insight.