Year One by Nora Roberts

This is such a difficult and, frankly, strange book to review. The principal reason for this is because from the blurb and the first hundred or so pages, the novel sets up the reader and one set of genre expectations that are, out of the blue, overturned. Depending on what you think of the genre that dominates the novel from thereon in, responses to the book overall will vary. You see, it started very much like Stephen King’s The Stand, a terrific post-apocalyptic/eschatological novel and one of my favourites in the genre (along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) before it suddenly morphs into an urban fantasy ala Karen Marie Moning’s Fever books, with a little bit of Harry Potter, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis thrown in along with a healthy dose of romance.

 

Basically, Year One by Nora Roberts, starts off as a dramatic apocalyptic story. The opening scenes take us to the Scottish Highlands where the McLeod family gather for their annual Christmas celebrations. Travelling from far and wide, they spend glorious days feasting, hunting, reminiscing and sharing. When the men shoot a pheasant and it lands in the middle of a cursed stone circle (as they do), it marks the beginning of the end as the men, somehow, become infected with a deadly sickness that, as they leave the Highlands and venture back to their homes in London, USA etc. (all via stopovers in other major centres) spreads and kills anyone infected. Fatalities rise and the sickness quickly becomes known as The Doom.

The story quickly shifts to New York and the United States generally and, as is usual with these types of tales, we bear witness to the destruction of society and civility as we know it. Events are observed mainly through the eyes of a few protagonists: journalist, Arylis, sous chef, Lana and her lover, the writer, Max, and a paramedic, Jonah, the man responsible for bringing patent zero – one of the McLeods – to his hospital in NYC, and the only suriving member of the McLeod family.

Mysteriously immune from The Doom, these main characters and the people around them form the core of the story as they seek to find other survivors and generally survive – no, more than survive, but rebuild a life. But while The Doom may have spared them the ravages of a deadly disease, it hasn’t saved them from the murderous intent of other survivors who take advantage of, not only the huge loss of life to grab power, but also wield the mysterious abilities some of them find themselves invested with.

This is the unexpected part of the book. From being quite sci-fi in nature as the disease spreads, touching on the collapse of government, media and general law and order, it suddenly (and I mean, suddenly) becomes populated with witches, fairies, elves and all manner of magical beings, all who seem to know exactly what they are even if their talents are still manifesting and growing. There are those who use their newfound abilities for “good” and those who do not. Then there are those who have survived and fear these gifted humans in their midst, calling them The Uncanny, blaming them for the demise of civilisation as we no longer know it and wanting to destroy them. Of course, there are those who appreciate their gifts and the gifted and seek to live with and within their communities.

Herein lies another problem. The good people are just so good and obviously good; the bad are horrendously and mindlessly wicked. There seems to be no good reason (pardon the pun) for their bad. They just are. The clichés and stereotypes are quite extraordinary. Some of the “baddies” give us insights in the form of diabolical rants before they kill the “goodies” – those with powers and without, but most do not. So, why are they doing it apart from bloodlust? I am assuming for power, but it’s not really explained. It just happens. There have been studies and examples that demonstrate that civility is a veneer many wear lightly and when it’s gone, the monster within emerges. But in many ways, these people are just so monstrous, they are caricatures.

But wait, there’s more… one of the intrepid main characters finds she is pregnant. Not only that, but she is bearing a child who has a role to play in the future of the world. As such, there are those on the Dark Side who wish to destroy both the unborn child and her mother. Why? Again, not sure. How do they know about the child and her apparent potential? Don’t know that either. Though there are the occasional characters who speak in riddles and prophesise, but it’s all very ad hoc and strange. I wanted to know how these people knew about this powerful child. I also wanted to know how, after a few weeks of millions of deaths, the shock of loss and crumbling of society, there were those who not only had powers we’ve only ever seen before in the Marvel universe or at Hogwarts, but could declare to any who asked (and were friendly) what “species” they were: elf, fairy, witch etc. It seemed more than uncanny. How do they KNOW this??? I don’t expect they were all Tolkien fans… but then again…

By now you’re probably thinking I am going to say this is a terrible book. But, if you can get beyond the shift in narrative and expectations, it really isn’t. Yes, there are leaps of logic and lack of explanation that, as you can tell, had me grinding my teeth in frustration and rolling my eyes a few times, but there’s a reason Nora Roberts (and this is the first book of hers I have read) is such a bestseller. She can tell a yarn. So, despite my reservations and the plethora of fairy wings (yes, really), I decided to go with the flow, embrace the urban fantasy and enjoy the ride. It was exciting, wild, sentimental in parts, shocking in others, slightly long-winded in some sections and jumpy and lacking in logic in others, but I actually liked it.

The ending sets up the next book very well (even if it does involve a Dumbledore… I mean, Gandalf, no, I mean wizened mentor dude with prescient knowledge offering hope and horror in equal measure) and a tad too conveniently, but hell, by now I just let the story carry me.

So, if you’re looking for something different that’s not a McCarthy, Atwood or Kingesque kind of post-apocalyptic tale, and enjoy urban fantasy, then you may like this. I know I did, despite thinking I was going to be reading one type of book and then finding myself immersed in a completely different one. And yes, I will be reading the sequel. J

Overall 3.5 stars.

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While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

This sumptuous, beautifully written and conceived novel is fundamentally a retelling of the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty – only it’s so much more as well. Forget what you think you know of the Disneyfied myth of the beautiful princess who, cursed at birth is rescued from certain death by an errant (fairy) godmother only to fall asleep when her finger is pricked by a spindle on her sixteenth birthday before she’s rescued by true love’s kiss decades later. This version, told by an elite servant, Elise, in the castle in which Princess Rose (also called Beauty) is born and raised, places the kernel of this story (the lovely but tragic princess) in a much larger context.

18079665Told as a story within a story, the frame narrative introduces us to the elderly Elise, who listening to her grand-daughter recount the tale of Sleeping beauty, finds herself flung back into her own past and a story she’s kept locked away for decades. Compelled to tell her granddaughter the truth behind the legend and her role within it, Elise’s tale begins…

Commencing when Elise is a child, the reader follows the hardship, loss, dedication, hard work and some good fortune this bastard child from a poor farm experiences, all of which lead to her becoming lady-in-waiting to the queen of a small kingdom that could be anywhere in Europe around the time of the Renaissance.

The castle in which Elise works is filled with personalities and internal politics. Despite her efforts to remain remote and simply do her duty, she becomes caught up and draws positive and negative attention. From the vengeful but loving king, to the deeply sad queen whose desperation to have a child leads her to make poor choices, Elise finds herself front and centre of an unfolding personal and greater drama of desire, ambition, need, love and fear. Overseeing all of this is the king’s Aunt Millicent, a cruel, controlling woman whose greatest ambition, to rule the land, was thwarted a long time ago and which she’s never come to terms with. There’s also her sister, the love-lorn and quite fey Flora, who remains in a tower built especially for the two sisters when they were young.

Then there’s the other servants and various confidantes, knights, diplomats etc who either barely tolerate Elise or embrace her for the qualities they recognise in the fine woman she’s becoming.

Amidst war, revenge, sickness, love, lust, great joy and heartache, Elise’s story and that of the rulers of this land and the child finally born to them unfolds. Ever with an eye to detail, Blackwell constructs the castle and its surrounds, as well as the people who populate the building and lands so simply yet poetically and realistically they’re brought to life – and all through the eyes of Elise, one of the strongest and most loyal of the queen’s subjects, but who has her own secrets to bear.

A friend recommended this book to me and I do love a good fairytale retelling. This book exceeded my already high expectations by being so original in its approach and, indeed, what it does with a well-known and beloved narrative. Gone is the hocus-pocus to be replaced by an eerie sensibility, a place and time where chthonic magic, wild and untamed exists but is wielded with dangerous consequences. Replacing wands and wings with will and determination, the novel overturns not only the fairytale, but stereotypes and clichés to present a marvellous story about strong women, loving women, weak and wicked women and the men who either support or suborn them – often for their own purposes.

A wonderful novel that I found difficult to put down and which is still resonating days after I completed it.

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Book Review: Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins

This is an extraordinary novel that once I started reading it, found it hard to tear myself away from. Actually, I didn’t read this book – I devoured it – greedily. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins, a masterfulDaughters of the Storm storyteller, presents us with a rich and detailed historical fantasy featuring a poisoned king, his five very different daughters, and a land in existential and leadership crisis.

Drawing on her vast knowledge and love of Anglo-Saxon England, Wilkins gives us a vivid and diverse world where faith, magic and individuals collide and geographical borders are only as strong as the leader enforcing them. When the King of Thyrsland lapses into a magic-induced sleep, suspicion turns not so much outwards as one would expect, but inwards towards his family. His eldest daughter, the formidable warrior, the wonderfully named Bluebell, determines to rescue her father from this grave enchantment – not only because she loves him dearly and blindly, but also for the sake of the kingdom she will one day inherit. Recognising the power that keeps him comatose is the wild “undermagic” and the only one who can help them is someone of their own blood, Bluebell employs her sisters’ help. Along with her mostly unwilling siblings, she embarks on a journey to find a cure and in doing so bring the kingdom back from the brink of war. Tall, scarred, strong, capable and tattooed, Bluebell inspires loyalty and loathing in equal measure, and not just from her men or the enemies she encounters but, as she’s to learn, from those closest to her as well.

What Bluebell doesn’t bargain on is her sisters and the terrible secrets they hide, secrets that have the potential to not only undo her intentions, but tear the family apart as well.

While this is at one level a quest novel, the journey the main characters undertake is not simply physical, but psychological and emotional. So it is with Bluebell and her sisters who are also forced to examine the past and their own choices, in relation to the present and, indeed, the future. Mostly estranged from each other, they’re presented to the reader as three-dimensional characters with their flaws, foibles and strengths on display. Whether it’s the unhappily married mother, Rose, the mystic Ash, or the twins, the sanctimonious Willow and hormone-charged Ivy (both of whom you often want to slap in the face), they feel real and whole and thus you can appreciate the choices they make, even when you wince or wonder why. Complicated, and passionate, the shifting viewpoint in the novel allows us to get to know each of them over the course of the story and you find yourself allying with one then another, or despairing at what you know the outcome will be… only, in typical Wilkins’ fashion, you don’t know. They are not always likeable either, and I love that Wilkins has taken such a risk as making her major characters unattractive at times – just like real life. You may not always like them, but you do understand them – this is clever writing that doesn’t condescend to readers.

This is also where Wilkins excels as a novelist, in her ability to present readers not only with a terrific tale, but with complex, fascinating characters with their own rationale for action, gently exposing the deep motivations that drive them, even if they take a little while to be revealed. But it’s not only the women who are represented this way either. Daughters of the Storm also has some wonderful and imperfect male characters as well – from the slumbering king, to the bitter Wylm, the brutish Raven King, Hakon, the lonely undermagician, and the love-lorn Heath.

With a kicker-twist at the end, this is a marvellous book and my only disappointment is that I have to wait for part two of what is a simply brilliant addition to one of my favourite genres and from one of my favourite writers.

 

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Book Review: Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

I have to say upfront, not only do I simply adore all Juliet Marillier’s books, and her lyrical writing style, but when the opportunity came to read an ARC of her latest, Dreamer’s Pool, anDreamer's Pool (Blackthorn and Grim, #1)d review it, I quickly threw my hat in the ring, or keyboard into cyberspace, knowing I wouldn’t regret it. I was right.

Dreamer’s Pool is the first in a new series, Blackthorn and Grim, set in Ancient Ireland. While it tells the story of the terribly bitter and deeply tragic healer, Blackthorn (who is as prickly as her name), and her silent, stoic and loyal companion Grim, who due to the interference of a fey lord are released from what appears to be unjust imprisonment on terms Blackthorn at least rails against, the novel is told by three distinct voices: Blackthorn’s, Grim’s and the young Prince, Oran, who is to be wed to the woman of his dreams.

Forced to abide in a part of the country previously unknown to them and which is Prince Oran’s demesne, and hauntingly lovely, Blackthorn must heal and help any who ask. A brilliant is somewhat unwilling healer, what Blackthorn does not expect is to be called to the aid of the prince’s bride-to-be, the beautiful Flidais, when calamity strikes her party while enroute to meet the groom. Death is never a great omen for forthcoming nuptials, but when Prince Oran cannot reconcile the reality of his soon-to-be wife with the darling, sweet and learned Flidais who exchanged letters with him for months prior to her arrival, he calls upon Blackthorn and Grim to help him uncover the truth.

But Blackthorn and Grim have their own pasts and ways of dealing with those they encounter in the present and Blackthorn especially, while she always knows what to do to heal others, believes vengeance is the only panacea for what ails her. Until she recognises the truth in her purpose, and those who believe in her, she is doomed to repeat history’s mistakes and bring more disaster in her wake.

This is a simply gorgeous story with wonderful, intriguing and complex characters, some with dark, wretched pasts, who carry emotional baggage like a hair shirt and find relationships difficult. It also contains a range of naïve, wise and trusting people and those who would betray and abuse this trust. Written in exquisite and addictive prose, each voice rings emotionally true and you find yourself championing and understanding them, even when their choices don’t seem shrewd. This is a tale that will tug at your heart and, like the fable that it draws upon, linger in your head and soul for days afterwards. I cannot wait for the next instalment in this series.

Below is a fabulous sample from Chapter One of the audio book from Audible Studios – just click, listen and enjoy!

Sample of audio book Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

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Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is a booThe Ocean at the End of the Lanek like no other I have read in that it taps into something wonderful, dark and primal and managed to transport me back to both the magic and terror of childhood, a time of possibilities and when dreams and nightmares really did come true.

Finding himself back at his childhood home after attending a funeral, a middle-aged man (who is never named) recalls events that happened during his childhood – how the peace and joy of his life on the farmstead was shattered when a visitor to his house commits suicide in the family car. This act releases a darkness that threatens the young boy and his family, a darkness that his mother, father and sister seem unable or unwilling to see let alone confront. Only the bravery and chthonic magic of the girl down the road, the amazing Lettie Hempstock, who has a pond that is an ocean in her backyard and all sorts of other wondrous things, and her mother and grandmother understand and have the wherewithal to aid the boy in what becomes a life and death struggle to defeat the all-consuming and seductive powers of the darkness

Like the man remembering his childhood, the reader is transported back to ours. As the boy battles his own and some very real demons, so too we revisit and vanquish (if we’re lucky!) those that haunted our youth. What I loved about this book (and Gaiman’s work overall) is that nothing is cliched or expected. Furthermore, it’s what’s not described, but in the spaces between the words, the absences on the page and into which the reader’s imagination slips (or tumbles), that so much happens. Gaiman respects the power of our imaginations to take the story into places other writers would not dare. Thus, we fill in the gaps and the powerful but ofttimes partial descriptions with our own menacing ones. This makes the book at once eerie, wild and disturbing. Sometimes, the words and scenes howled through my mind, making we shiver and look over my shoulder. Other times, I felt warmed by its magical embrace and found great comfort – as if a warm blanket had been flung over my shoulders and a cup of something warm, sweet and strong had been placed in my hands.

There is something restorative and meaningful in peeling back the layers, in being reminded of the power of stories, of imagination, of being anchored once more to a time that while a part of us all, rarely gets dusted off and re-examined, though our childhood is what shapes us. We tend to relegate it to the attic of our minds. Stories like Gaiman’s reinstate childhood and the terrifying and wondrous interpretations children use to negotiate reality in all its great and scary glory.

Finishing the book is like awakening from a dream and I couldn’t help but grieve as I felt that the funeral the man was attending wasn’t only for a lost beloved, but a lost self. That we outgrow (or choose to ignore) the capacity to see and relate to the world through the eyes of our childhood selves is surely something that deserves mourning.

Astonishing modern fable that vividly recaptures the beauty and dread of dreams and childhood imaginings.

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