The Binding by Bridget Collins

The Binding

This was an extraordinary novel that I’ll review carefully so as to give a taste of the premise without spoiling what is a cracking plot. Basically, The Binding is set in a parallel Victorian-type England where books are either forbidden or a guilty pleasure. Certainly, they are treated as something to be feared. That’s because, in this world, they aren’t the kind of books we’re accustomed to enjoying. In this place, books are where people store their memories – mostly unpleasant, guilty secrets or recollections of tragic circumstances, but sometimes also wonderful ones. The way people’s memories get into books is through the process of ‘Binding’. Instrumental to this process is the Binder – the person who has the power to do the transfer and thus wipe the person’s memory. So, for example, if a woman is raped, she can have the memory erased when it’s transferred into a book; likewise powerful and cruel people can ensure their victims also forget what has happened to them; married women can ensure memories of their husband’s, say, infidelities, are also removed and so on.

Ethical Binders store the books of memories in vaults, but like anything so personal, binding as a craft and business is open to abuse and an illegal trade in binded books exists.

When the novel opens, the reader is introduced to young Emmett Farmer, a man who has been afflicted with a fever that indicates he has the ability to become a Binder. Against his will, he is apprenticed to an old, feisty woman to learn the craft only, she is reluctant to teach him. Dwelling in a remote house in the marshes, Emmett nonetheless meets clients who come to have bindings, but also experiences the fear and prejudice of those who loathe the craft and those who practice it. But it’s when young Lucian Darnley comes to the house that Emmett cannot strike his impression of the man or the feelings of anxiety and loathing he arouses. All this, however, becomes irrelevant when tragedy strikes and Emmett is forced to both leave the marshes and practice a skill he barely knows let alone understands. 

I won’t say too much more except that while I was initially a little confused reading part one and found myself struggling to make meaning, waiting for an explanation to be forthcoming. It’s only once I started part two that in a very clever and satisfying manner, part one becomes crystal clear and the story evolves in ways at once beautiful and yet, because you can see where it’s going, heart-breaking as well. 

The premise is so startlingly original, the characters and world so well drawn, that I found it hard to put the book down. A fantastic novel that explores the relationship between memory, identity, love and bigotry and the lengths people will go to in order to conceal their villainy but also protect their heart.

Brilliant.

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The Muse of Nightmares by Liani Taylor

My reading year commenced with this wonderful, heart-achingly lovely book. It took me so long to read and not only because I worked over Xmas New Year (see previous post) but because I wanted to savour every single word and delay the gratification of finishing the novel for as long as I possibly could. With good reason. Now it’s over, I am bereft.

The sequel to the evocative, poetic and enthralling (I know I am using hyperbole, but believe me, these books deserve it) Strange, the Dreamer, The Muse of Nightmares continues exactly where that novel reached its heart-in-throat conclusion.

I refuse to reveal any spoilers except to say that the tale of Lazlo Strange, Sarai and the other godspawn as well as the denizens of Weep is far from over. When Muse begins, turning what appeared to be tragedy into something more bearable, another terrible situation posing grave danger to all Sarai and Lazlo know and love surfaces.

Forced into actions that cause them and others consternation and pain, Lazlo, Sarai are forced to make deals with the enemy as they seek a solution that will not only save the city but themselves. Just when they think they have opened the lines of communication, another force arrives the threaten them. This is a force that has not only travelled across worlds to find them, but quite literally torn them apart and is bent on a bloody and terrible revenge. Nothing, not even the formidable powers of the godspawn or strength of the Tizerkane can stop it, not without making a terrible sacrifice.

Who or what will survive this latest threat hangs by the merest of threads as do the lives of those we’ve grown to know and love. Unable to prevent catastrophe or reason with a mind destroyed by pain and loss, Sarai and Lazlo have no choice but to risk everything, including each other. But even then, will it be enough to save those they love?

Just when you thought the world containing Weep, the godspawn, Seraphim, Tizerkane and the ugliness and cruelty of the gods as well as they gentle beauty of Sarai and Lazlo’s love could not be any more enchanting or action-packed, there’s this book. Page-turning, heart-churning and utterly captivating, Taylor brings her characters, their mystery and terrifying allure to life as only she can.

This story of gods, god-monsters, and the monstrous and wonderful humans who fear and loathe them, grabs the reader by both throat and heart and squeezes. With each page, you are pulled into their impossible reality and taken on a journey like no other. Taylor’s world building is sublime the way she develops her characters, explains their motivation, explores their thoughts and feelings is magnificent.

If you love beautiful stories told with the delicate and dreamy touch of a master story-teller, then this is a tale for you. My only regret, as I knew it would be, is that I have now finished. I hope Liani Taylor writes another one very soon.

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The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (#2 in The Fitz and The Fool)

Where do I begin with this second instalment in The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy, Fool’s Quest? It is simply astonishing in its scope (and by that I mean in its ability to draw together, not only the events that occurred in the first novel of this particular series, Fool’s Assassin, but in all the books Hobb has written and through which she builds this incredible, rich and diverse world, with its warring cultures, diversity of faith, magic, dragons, Skill, Wit and three-dimensional, emotionally deep characters and the mayhem that follows in their wake), the quality of the writing, and the way in which the tale itself unfolds, building to heart-stopping, truly riveting and gut-wrenching scenes. Though it’s a very long book – almost 800 pages, I didn’t want to leave this world and felt quite bereft when I finished – and not only because the climax is phenomenal and the cliff-hanger beyond marvellous.

23157777Yes, I am waxing lyrical about this book – about the entire series (including the Rain Wild Chronicles and the Liveship Traders’ books, never mind all the Assassin/Farseer novels) – and deservedly so. This is world-building and writing at its absolute finest and it’s such a treat and privilege to lose yourself in this complex, wonderful and dangerous universe Hobb has painstakingly and lovingly created.

If you haven’t read the first book, read no further because here be spoilers… The first book finished with Fitz being reunited with the Fool who he mistakenly stabs – almost to death – Bee’s kidnapping and the slaughter of innocents at Withywoods – leaving the reader reeling and anxious about Fitz’s daughter’s fate and his ignorance about what has befallen her. When this book opens, we’re at Buckkeep where Fitz, having brought the Fool to the castle in an attempt to get him urgent medical attention, remains unaware of what’s befallen his beloved daughter and staff back at home. Thus, from the moment we begin reading, though we tread the familiar corridors of the castle, learn with horror of what befell the Fool in his absence and enjoy seeing Fitz being recognised for the good and capable man he is (and one seriously flawed, which makes him all the more relatable, special and believable), any pleasure is constantly undermined by our knowledge of what has happened to Bee – knowledge that Fitz does not yet possess. Anxious as to what will happen when he finds out, the heartache and guilt we know will consume him, our awareness and trepidation forms a wonderful yet uncomfortable counterpoint to events at Buckkeep. This is such clever plotting and means Hobb holds not only the emotions of the characters in her hands, but the readers’ as well – and does she pluck at them or what?

Needlesstosay, when Fitz learns of Bee’s fate, he wants to tear the world apart to find her. Only, he doesn’t know who has taken her or why (again, knowledge to which the reader is privy). Forced to wait, gather intelligence and prepare, Fitz is consumed with rage, remorse and so many other negative and conflicting emotions. We live every single one with him and understand why he wavers between stasis and action. We also understand why he resists many of the opportunities to form Wit-bonds offered to him, or even other relationships. If he can’t protect his daughter, he feels he deserves no attachment; he cannot be relied upon – he is a failure of the worst kind – only he’s not, and we know that.

As usual, the person hardest upon Fitz is himself.

And then, of course, he has the Fool to contend with, and all his complex problems and the reawakenings his presence let alone the demands he places on Fitz and promises he extracts demand. Their shared history (and the other bond they share and of which we learn) means they both compliment and distract from each other in fascinating ways.

I don’t want to spoil this book any further expect to say I have barely touched upon what happens. Readers of the series have fallen in love with the principal characters (Fitzchivalry, the Fool, Chade, Kettricken, Verity, Tintaglia etc. etc.) long ago, and this book will only deepen that relationship as our understanding of what makes them tick, insights into their histories are expanded upon and shared with other characters and we see broken fences mended, torn hearts repaired and, of course, new and painful wounds opened and a deadly quest embarked upon.

Segueing between Fitz’s frustration and triumphs, as well as Bee’s journey with the White Folk and Chalcedean mercenaries, the novel is nail-biting, heart-wringing, and page-turning. I cried, laughed, called out a few times (sending my dogs and cats fleeing in fear!) and could barely tear myself away from its pages. I read one review where the reader declared they felt as though they’d been ripped through a Skill-Pillar. I thought what an apt and quite magnificent description.

That I have to wait until 2017 to read the next book is almost unbearable, though I am seriously thinking of reading all Hobb’s books again to assuage my longing – only I’m uncertain I could stand repeating the emotional roller-coaster that forms the heart and soul of these rollicking and amazing tales.

Fool’s Quest is a sublime addition to what’s going to be remembered as one of the finest fantasy collections/worlds/story/characters ever created.

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