4 August 2020

Review - All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace

All the Stars and Teeth
Adalyn Grace
Titan Books, 4 August 2020
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781789094060

Snap verdict: Sure to be popular

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of All the Stars and Teeth. I don't think I've had an ARC before that came with its own stars, as this one did, and necklace - after reading the book I'm concerned though at what curses or other magic might lie on that necklace. I will be very careful with it...

Adalyn Grace's debut novel is, at one level, a fairly traditional coming-of-age story. At the age of eighteen, Princess Amora Montana, heir to the kingdom of Visidia, is about to undergo the testing that will prove her worth to take the throne as High Animancer - wielder of the magic of souls. But on the brink of success, she gets things terribly, terribly wrong and her life is placed in danger. To survive, and to stand a chance of coming into her own, she must flee and explore her future kingdom, working to prevent a catastrophe ass well as to save her own life. Starting as a rather spoiled and ignorant girl, she grows up and begins to questions her place in things and the direction of her life.

At another level, though, Grace seems to me to be casting a rather cool eye over a familiar template and introducing some challenges to it. Yes, Amora begins rather self-satisfied and knows little of the world around her but it soon becomes clear that's because her father kept her that way - and in part he wasn't being protective, given the kingdom is nowhere near the good and harmonious place he makes out. The spotlight is soon on his failings and on the things that have been omitted from Amora's education. 

Oh, and that education... well, it involved using her magic to execute prisoners. That's the essence of the test that she fails, creating a real sense of horror right at the start of this book which I felt was heightened by the contrast with the preceding party-and-food heavy scenes. 

Behind Amora's growing doubts about the kingdom and her place in it is a growing sense of struggle and injustice and a feeling that the system she expected to inherit may not be the wise and just edifice she'd assumed. There is a real moral complexity in the eventual encounter with the forces that threaten the kingdom, a mixing of the personal and the political that includes Amora, her father, the cryptic, swashbuckling, pirate Bastian and a feminist mermaid ('I've a collection of men who I intend to repay for how generous they were to me... Dismemberment for anyone who ever tried to touch me. The tongue flayed from those with wicked mouths. And the heart eaten from any man who's ever told me to smile.') This book recognises that it isn't all about finding the True King (or Queen) - there must be justice beyond that. It leaves Amara, after much loss, looking to establish that, based on what she's learned on her journeys and I'm sure that in future books we'll see the difficulty of carrying this through.

In style, this book is often direct, with things seen from Amara's point of view and reflecting her limited experience (so it's appropriate, for example, that the parts set at sea aren't salted with nautical terms she wouldn't know, or that in an episode where villagers are trying to repair their homes after a storm - without help from the King - we get her perspective mainly as people hammering at wood). Grace reveals the Kingdom gradually, giving us, one after another, encounters with the various islands that make it up, each occupied by people with a different magical bent. The differences between these settings and their people are well realised, supporting the complex picture that Amora is gradually putting together of her world and of her family's place in it.

With its blend of magic, fantasy, romance and  politics, I think this book is bound to be popular and to lead many readers to enjoy the world and peoples of Visidia.

For more information about the book, see the punisher's website here.

1 August 2020

Review - Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Art by Peter Greenwood 
Design by Elissa Flanigan
Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, 3)
Ashley Poston
Quirk Books, 4 August 
Available as: PB,283pp
Source: Advance reading copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683691938

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of Bookish and the Beast. 

I am loving the Once Upon a Con series. Drawing upon fairytales - but allowing the protagonists to be bothy conscious of the fact and, at times, critical of the tropes and outcomes possibly involved - they're creating their own universe, in which geeky teenagers get to have their say, to delineate their own world and celebrate their heroes. Each book adds richness and some critique of the previous books and characters. And it's all, of course, entwined with the hit SF TV series and film, Starfield. (Poston gives us tantalising little glimpses of Starfield. I need more!)

Bookish and the Beast is, of course, modelled on Beauty and the Beast though the author cheerfully admits that's she's chosen the elements she likes from that story (which is of course what you do with fairy stories). The Beast is Vance Reigns,  bad-boy (well, bad-17 year old) actor and star of the Starfield films (he plays villainous Ambrose Sond) who's become embroiled in a scandal and sent off to a no-name town where he will be out of the gossip columns. Beauty is Rosie Thorne, still mourning the death of her mother and keen to get out of the no-name town and hit the big city. Rosie's backed up by staunch friends Annie and Quinn. Quinn's running for Homecoming Overlod (not King or Quinn as they're non binary).

Poston gives us alternate chapters from Rosie's and vance points of view, allowing a rounded picture of the misunderstandings between them - Vance's brooding sulkiness and Rosie's defensive pain tend to produce sparks as they have to work together to catalogue a library of rare Starfield books. It's possibly a simpler, more straightforward romance than the first two books with some predictable barriers to happiness and it takes place in Rosie's home town and school rather than around a con. (I didn't find that lessened the atmosphere or geekiness of the story - Rosie, Quinn and Annie supply plenty of that and we also see appearances by some characters from the earlier books, with a hint that their lives continue to have ups and downs). 

There are some shrewdly drawn relationships - Rosie's with her dad, generally referred to as "Star Dad" for reasons that become clear is very touching, and he is also a man with some surprises for us. Tropes like "wicked stepparent" are avoided and it's all grounded in a solid presentation of the emotional stuff that the two teenagers are going through - Vance has been hurt by so-called "friends" who just want to sell him out to the tabloids, Rosie by the loss of her mother and the impact the cost of her treatment has had on the family finances (thank goodness for the UK's National Health service). She's, to a degree, stumped for what to do next, blocked in writing the essay she needs to apply to the university of her choice, and being targeted by the most popular boy in school - attentions she DOESN'T want but fear she may, out of politeness, accept.

It's a very enjoyable read and fleshes out what I hope will be a continuing wider universe.

For more information about Bookish and the Beast see the Quirk website here.