The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Look, if you are reading a book blog, the chances are high that you’ve either heard of this and it’s on your TBR pile or you’ve discounted it as not your thing (or, some have said, too intimidating in size), so you don’t need me banging on about it. But I’m going to anyway. Cause I loved it and I want to talk about it!
Fantasy can sometimes be a struggle to get into, particularly if it’s done well – you’re learning a whole new world of names, geography and systems as well as new characters and it can seem bamboozling until you get into it. On top of that it is often loooooooong. Game of Thrones is 5 books long and came into existence in 1996 and still isn’t finished. Priory itself is an 800 page behemoth which my friend brought up from Glasgow for me and joked (Maybe not so much a joke) that it put her over her weight allowance. However the secret which lovers of fantasy are privy too is that no matter how long a fantasy book is it’s never enough. These books are so densely packed with rich detail and complex characters that the immersion is like nothing else.
Priory comes with handy maps (which I used a lot) as well as a character list and glossary which are tucked at the back and I didn’t find until the end so I can’t speak to how useful they are as I didn’t use them. But more than that it comes as a beautiful, fantasy balm, like a warm hug and a cosy blanket.
That’s not to say that there’s not tragedy and violence and genuine stakes – there is. But these things are not included just for the sake of brutality. This is a character driven story which follows Ead Duryan, an undercover mage, in the West and Tane, an ambitious Dragonrider, in the East as the end of a thousand year rule by the House of Berethnet threatens to awaken Draconian rule. It is complex and deep, part mystery thriller, part high level adventure, and infused throughout with genuine warmth and consideration for the characters and their choices. I can’t fault it. It’s a beautiful book, and a gorgeous story.
Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers
Any book I read after The Priory of the Orange Tree was going to have a very hard act to follow, so when I picked this up directly after it I thought it didn’t stand a chance. And then Sonny opened his mouth and I burst out laughing and Sonny and Billy had won me over.
This is the story of Sonny and Billy Daughter, two Stirlingshire lads who go to Battlefield High; A made up secondary school in a very real and tangible location. Written in broad Scots, Sonny and Daughter are real, identifiable and typical teenage boys (though perhaps a little more woke and tolerant than the ones I went to school with). The book is chocful of good Scottish Humour, and a little teenage idiocy as Sonny and Daughter stumble on a potential murder while trying to clear the name of Billy’s favourite teacher and pass National 5 Maths. And yet, despite the insane plot, every choice, every scenario is logical and entirely believable. In fact I can’t believe more teenage boys don’t find themselves in this situation!
Another young adult book that’s for everyone.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Told from two points of view, this is the tale of a widower and his two young sons facing the sudden and tragic death of their wife and mother. During the days following her death, they are visited by Crow, a tricky character who challenges and provides comfort in equal measure, and insists on staying until they no longer make them. Tragic and darkly funny, this book captures the immediacy of grief and the challenge of the healing process and a family re-finding each other in the wake of tragedy. It’s a strange and engaging parable which anyone who has lost someone will relate to deeply.
The Dry by Jane Harper
After the untimely death of his friend and first love, Aaron Falk fled his hometown of Kiewarra with his father, a pick up truck of their most valuable possessions and a dark cloud of suspicion. 20 years later he is pulled back when Luke, another of his childhood friends, committs a horrific act of murder/suicide against his own family. But in a run down town suffering from the Australian drought, Aaron’s attendance at the funeral brings up historical suspicions and questions about what really happened to Ellie 20 years previously and Luke and the Hadler family today.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a typical whodunnit thriller, and on one hand it definitely fits my “popcorn for the brain” criteria, but it’s also smarter and more engaging than the normal crime thriller. Written with a typical eye on potential cinematic adaptations (the Flashbacks reek of cinematic structure) the story is genuinely intriguing and unpredictable. I was kept guessing as to what had happened with both crimes right until the end, and on occasion even doubted the protagonist. The end was satisfying, logical and yet hadn’t been telegraphed too early. Really enjoyed this.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
A prequel novel set in the “Lady Astronaut” series, The Calculating Stars covers a period in an alternate 1950s which follows the impact of a catastrophic meteorite. Mathematician, Dr Elma York and her husband, manage to escape the immediate repercussions of the impact only to discover that it is a slow burn extinction level event which will lead to unsurvivable temperatures on Earth, and demands international co-operation to colonise the stars in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Battling misogyny at every term and facing her own privilege while witnessing her friends’ battle with racism, The Calculating Stars takes a high concept scenario and uses it to explore historical and contemporary issues from our own world. Elma York is an intriguing protagonist, battling to earn her due, and insisting on rocking the boat while simultaneously trying to work for the greater good. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series and seeing where it goes.
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera Translated by Lisa Dillman
A dense and tightly woven narrative focused on Lobo, a musician whose talent earns him entry to the court of the charming and magnetic King, a local drug baron. Once there, Lobo finds himself getting got up in the power and egos of the “court” while also falling in love with the King’s Step-daughter, a girl desperate to escape the corruption that surrounds them.
The Carer by Deborah Moggach
The author of The Best Marigold Hotel returns this July with The Carer, the story of Phoebe and Robert, a brother and sister who are trying so hard to maintain the lives they’ve constructed to seek their parent’s approval that they have to hand the care of their elderly father, James, over to an in house carer. When Mandy turns up it feels like the answer to all their prayers, but slowly family secrets start to unravel and Phoebe and Robert begin to question all their choices.
This feels like two different stories, the first a sinister and creeping thriller where Mandy has questionable motives. I felt like I was heading for a prescient tale of elderly abuse. And then the reveal comes, which I admit I didn’t spot, and it became a very different story about questioning my own motives, privilege and choices. An interesting tale about priorities and being true to yourself as you get older.
Octavio’s Journey by Miguel Bonnefoy
Don Octavio is an illiterate gentle giant living in the slums of Venezuela. After a chance encounter with a vibrant woman named after the country itself, Octavio finds himself learning how to read and being split between his life with the Brotherhood gang and a woman he loves. Events conspire to mean that he has to leave both behind and journey across the Venezulan jungle on a journey which blends myth and reality and allows Octavio to find a true sense of peace and purpose.
This was a grand novel which managed to pack a life into a mere 95 pages and never felt like it was skimping. Jam packed with nature, the prose is poetical and hypnotic – a melodic ode to one man’s sense of self discovery. However the occasional flurries of myth sometimes jarred as they were woven abruptly into such a short narrative. Worth a read but not for everyone.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
After reading Priory (yes it entirely dominated my reading direction and thoughts this month) I raced out to get Shannon’s first ever book. The Bone Season is the first in a proposed seven book series about clairvoyants and general super powered people who gain their powers from either manipulating or communicating with the Aether (spirit world) around them. As with her later work it displays a commitment to world building and complexity that is astounding, but this is a clumsier affair altogether.
Paige is a rare and coveted Dreamwalker who works for a criminal underground syndicate. Her role? To hack into the dreamscapes of other unnaturals. After an unfortunate incident where her power surges forward in self-defence she is captured and handed to an alien race which has set up base in what used to be Oxford. There she and other unnaturals are used as slaves, and the ruthless alien in charge has their eye on Paige and her unusual powers, while the royal consort, Warden, is interested in her as a potential rebel leader. It’s an interesting concept, but the love stories feel convoluted and unnecessary, while it takes a while to really comprehend what’s going on and the tale is, by necessity, very exposition heavy. It was intriguing, but not enough that I’m running out to get the sequels, although there are plenty of people who swear by this so it might just be me.
Pick of the Month: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Dud of the Month: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannan