“The yearning was back, that thing that lived inside her like a ravenous, puling child. How was she supposed to be happy while she had this feeling? This queasy, bored feeling, which attached itself to the weirdest objects as though they had the answer to all life’s problems: every morning for as long as she could remember she had woken up hoping that today she’d feel satisfied, contented, fulfilled. But then the feeling would start to seek her out. It hid in her favourite songs, or it lazed in the eyebrows of exotic boys, or, like now, it rolled in with the grey waves as she watched them.”

– The Resurrectionists, Kim Wilkins

I wasn’t sure about this book – was it horror or fantasy? I do not read horror books. Yet, I tried to have a little faith in one of my favourite authors, and I’m glad I did. Maisie is in her early 20s, daughter to famous musicians, girlfriend to an up and coming opera star. She is a cellist but feels no passion for it and feels trapped in the life her parents and boyfriend want for her, desperate for something else, something that can fulfil her, but not sure what it is. So she decides to take a trip to England to clear out her recently deceased grandmothers cottage there, as well as sort out her mind. She arrives in England to the tiny and very hostile village of Solgreve with its unusually large cemetry, a small, cluttered cottage filled with secrets and soon discovers many suspicious details surrounding her grandmothers death, as well as as the gorgeous, charming former gardener to her grandmother, Sacha and a gift of hers that promises her the fulfilment she seeks – but what can she do with it? Mirroring Maisie’s story is the dairies she finds of Georgette, a French aristocrat in the 18th century who falls in love with and elopes with a poet to Solgreve, both young and full of romantic notions, that are soon pulled to pieces.

I admit, at first the book is a little hard to get into – Maisie comes across as spoilt, selfish and bitchy. Her loneliness, whining, judgements and ridiculous pining over Sacha is annoying. The setting felt ridiculous – I live in a village in Northern England, so seeing Maisie’s romantic notions about England, and seeing the way the village was presented felt very much made for a book. But I stuck with it, again trusting in Kim Wilkins, and soon the layers were being peeled back, and I was hooked. The atmosphere of the village becomes very sinister once the supernatural bits start coming into force. The isolation and the cold weather starts to become very atmospheric once there is that edge to it. The reverend is a very well layered villain – you can see his underlying misgivings – which probably makes his crimes worse, but also gave them more impact. Maisie can come across as spoilt and selfish but she’s also a very sympathetic character. I loved that the author didn’t create some tragic back story for her- unhappiness doesn’t need a cause after all. She’s ordinary in every way, with a privileged upbringing and a lovely if not slightly controlling boyfriend and yet she feels trapped and dissatisfied. Its remarkably relatable and refreshingly low key. I felt for Maisie and her longing for something different, something more, something better. She wants so much for the perfect life, for passion and excitement that she’s setting herself up for failure- “but already her desperation to hold it and possess it was eroding the pleasure.”

At for Maisie and Sacha – it soon becomes clear that he’s another element in the fantasy she wants to build herself. I felt for Sacha who couldn’t help be drawn to Maisie, even though he knows their relationship is hopeless. Their conversation where Sacha tells her that he could never be enough for her, and that eventually she’d grow bored of him too, was so painful. What is lovely though it that Sacha is willing to be there for here but he doesn’t put up with her – he doesn’t change himself, and talks honestly to her even when she doesn’t want to hear it (he also calls her out for exoticizing his gypsy background, thankfully)

Georgette’s dairy entries were wonderful. I was confused as to how or why they were hidden all round the house, and the italics were difficult on the eyes, but oh the content. At first I wasn’t sure about Goergette- she seemed so young, naive and spoilt (like Maisie really, the parallels between them were quite well done) But although Georgette may have been spoilt and thought some fairly nasty things, it became obvious that her actions were anything but- she was trying incredibly hard to adjust to her new life, even when things began to go wrong. Her diary entries were tragic – how they started so optimistic, and how slowly but certainly her optimism became more and more forced, until everything fell apart. You really felt for her and her husband. They tried so hard and did not deserve any of what they got for it.

Eventually Maisie and Sacha decided to work together to stop what is happening in the village, and the resolution to this problem was a little neat – I was surprised at how easily their plan worked out and felt a bit deflated, but then a sudden twist drew me back in and finally, the ending broke my heart – it was expected, realistic and yet still devastating. Oh, I cried. This is another powerful, dark book from Kim Wilkins. I don’t know why its marketed as horror though nor fantasy – there are definitely parts which are paranormal and its certainly unsettling but there also spiritual elements* and overall the focus seemed for me to be very much on Maisie’s emotional journey. It’s a hard book to define. And those looking for something thrilling would probably be put off by the unhurried pace and the introspectiveness of the book.

(By spiritual: there is a small exploration of the spiritual beliefs to do with death and souls, and the psychic arts feature heavily which aren’t technically magic; they are very real beliefs, so they can’t really count as fantasy?)

“Glokta was surprised to find the General had stepped up close beside him and was speaking softly and urgently, looking earnestly into his eyes. Like a man proposing marriage. Or treason. I wonder which we have here?

– Before They are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie (First Law #2)

Before They are Hanged picks up right where The Blade Itself left off. It’s a good instalment in the trilogy, although it does drag in parts and the ending was a bit of let down. Still, it was good to spend more time with these characters – getting to know them more, and seeing their characters develop. That was what mostly stood out to me about this book.

There were two things that bugged me about the last book that were thankfully resolved there- the first being a piece of information one character had that they seemed to have waltzed off into their quest without informing the necessary parties of it. Thankfully, the necessary parties were informed of it by other means fairly early on in the book. The second being that I found Ferro an awful, annoying character and she still is, but she’s slightly more sympathetic here. I wasn’t certain about her loveline, but it was OK.

In the case of Jezal it was great to see him finally realise what a repulsive person he was and to start to move past it- even if I still find him obnoxious at least he is trying. I couldn’t help but wonder though – was Jezal a reflection of what Glokta used to be? If so, you cannot help but think of how easily Jezal was able to grow up/realise his errors, in comparison to Glokta. The image of Glokta being dragged, screaming and crying from the bridge is one that will remain with me. Abercrombie has a way of writing painful things in a way that is starkly detached from it, which only makes it more horrifying. He doesn’t gloss over it but presents it as it is. I thought a lot about Glokta – he is my favourite character still and still by far the most interesting. Here we are handed more scraps of his past, as everyone seems to have been in Colonel Glokta’s regiment, as well as through his thoughts and of course, Jezal seems to represent who he was, even if Jezal was lucky enough to be given a different quest, and a different ending. You cannot help but feel for Glokta – if he was once so young, so full of himself, and so unprepared for what was to come. And completely without the support Jezal has. He shows his softer side here though, some facets of him that may have survived his horrific ideal, in his interactions with a couple of characters, and the way he resolves certain situations. It’s in stark contrast to the way he handles other situations. It’s these contrasts that make him so fascinating. West also turned out to be an interesting character – its quite horrifying to see him degrade, and begin to break. Like Glokta, he goes to war unprepared and without support, and ends up changed irreversibly. He seems to be paralleling Logen with his rage, and I wonder if he will be given an easier way to realize how damaging it is, compared to the years it took Logen to realise it. Another image that stood out to me, which I thought was brilliantly subtle, was when West went to sit by himself as he did when his father got angry. Just a throw away line, but it says so much. I continue to enjoy Abercrobmie’s minimalstic, to the point writing style. (And his sense of humour remains on point too.)

I was however disappointed with the characterization of Quai. I adore the apprentice – but we don’t really know him at all. Thus far all we know is he’s maybe a seer, he has some knowledge of the ancient stories of the world and he is handy with a frying pan*. I really want to know more. Where does he come from? How did he get into the service of Bayaz? Is he actually a magician? He never actually does any magic. Most of what he does in this book is sit and stare into space. It leaves me feeling nervous, praying he won’t be the quiet traitor in the end. I love his quirky character and would rather keep the mystery surrounding him than have him be a traitor. But more than that I want him not to be a traitor and to have a larger part of the story. (*I had to put the book down I was laughing so hard at the scene where it is revealed that Quai bashed in an enemies head with a frying pan. I recalled tangled and its wimpy hero with his pan and oh – I loved it.)

There was also a huge twist at the ending which I wasn’t sure to feel rage at, or be utterly delighted that Abercrombie had the gall to go there. I think sadly I mostly feel frustrated by it. I admit the whole ending of this book kinda petered out. For some reason, I don’t feel quite so excited for the third book, just a little worried. I’m going to keep going for Glokta though.

Hundreds of thousands. Logen struggled to understand it. Hundreds . . . of thousands. Could there be so many people in the world? He stared at the city, all around him, wondering, rubbing his aching eyes. What might a hundred thousand people look like?

– The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (First Law #1)

I did not go into this book with high expectations, but to my surprise reading this book reminded me of why I love fantasy – it can be so exciting and utterly riveting when done right. This book turned out to be great fun. I devoured it in days – completely immersed and thoroughly entertained. There is a lot in this book that is fairly typical to the genre – this is a classic fantastical country at war story, with some classic characters – a great mage, a strong but weary warrior, a twisted cripple, a dashing swordsman, some fairly corrupt politicians etc. Yet there’s enough different here, and the writing is strong enough that it hardly matters by the end.

The pacing of this book was just right – its a fairly compact book, and a lot happens, so there’s no time to get bored, but you never feel overwhelmed by whats happening either. The writing pulls you along when neccesary, and slows down likewise. The world building was detailed enough to get a sense of place and culture but not indulgent: the writing is minimalistic but conveys everything it needs to. I really liked the world he created – it was nice and gritty. There was plenty of violence and gore, but not to the point where it felt gratuitous. And he does a good job of showing what comes after violence – the effect is has on a person in particular. There was magic, but too much of it – the focus was on human politics which I liked. I also really liked how you get a sense of different cultures in the book and of different languages.

What really drew me to this book though, and held me to it, were the characters. The intelligent, weary warrior Logen, the spoilt, repulsive Jezal who I wanted to slap sometimes (and literally laughed out loud when his lady interest gave him a much deserved dressing down) but provides a…different perspective. I could appreciate that twist on the classic dashing swordsman – this is not a righteous man, he’s vain and arrogant and only letting himself being dragged into things because he wants the prestige. And my favourite character – Inspector Glokta. A very cynical and nasty man – but his thought processes are fascinating in how they contrast with his actions and the way he portrays himself. He is a lot more vulnerable than he shows, but also sharper and more aware. He also provides the book with a lot of its humour, a lot of very dark humour. Which is my favourite kind. They each give a different perspective on the major aspects of what’s going on. I thought the author did an amazing job of giving his characters unique voices, and portraying their personalities consistently in words and action – they were not just whatever the plot wanted, and they weren’t always successful or heroic. They were flawed, imperfect and not just in the angsty ways. I in particular loved the scene quoted above – where Logen come to the city for the first time- after a lifetime of living a in a much more remote, more sparsely populated region, and this confident warrior is now overwhelmed, gawking at everything, feeling lost, and anxious. I thought that so imaginative – how the author could think of that – what it would be like for that character in that situation and how he conveyed it. I also loved that he wasn’t afraid to take his strong warrior and give him aspects where he is weak. He’s not gruff or particularly macho – he’s just trying to stay alive which in his world, required him to become a brutal fighter. Again, it’s these little twists on the classic setups – well, the classic characters mostly – that stop the book from becoming too typical. There are a lot of great side characters too – everyone, no matter how small their part, feels like they have a personality and a life within this world.

This book immerses you in its world and its way of thinking. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with great writing and great characters. It’s just so very intelligent, and imaginative. And funny. I immediately bought the second and third in the series and am looking forward to them.

“I know you hate it, Daniel. I know that fear is strangling you and all I can promise you is more uncertainty,” Em said. “Whatever happens, just breathe and keep breathing. As long as you’re breathing you’re alive. As long as you’re alive there’s nothing to worry about.”

– Rosa and the Veil of Gold, Kim Wilkins

Autumn’s Castle by Kim Wilkins is one of my favourite books of all times – its a rich, romantic fairytale, that is also very dark and tragic. This book is a similar sort of fairytale – the dark sort, but this book is much more sinister than I remember Autumn’s Castle being. I admit that although I went into this book knowing it would be grim, I had not expected it to be so creepy, for the unsettled feeling it inspires, for how certain parts are difficult to read for they are so unflinchingly cruel, and often violent. (Never gratuitous though) Its easy to get caught up in this tale, but its difficult. It’s a sinister, unhappy book. Yet, its also interesting and thoroughly captivating. I liked the way the book was laid out – switching from narrator to characters, teasing, leading your thoughts in one direction, then another and another. I loved that it was set in Russia, and I loved the other world the author created – such a beautiful but harsh place. The mythology was fascinating. I found the characters difficult but realistic. I liked that the author moulded these kind of characters – a selfish, vain woman, a cold and practical woman, a frightened, anxious man. They are not the sort you usually see. Woman do not always have to be nice, after all, neither do men have to be strong, and I admire authors who write away from these stereotypes. They are written in a layered enough way you can still sympathize for them and enjoy reading about them despite their flaws and with the circumstance in the book you can hardly blame any of the characters for their thoughts or actions. The author doesn’t flinch away from the horrors of landing up in fairytale world, and its deeply unsettling watching that world wear down at Em and Daniel, yet its also more believable – there are no happy coincidences in this book, no kind strangers.

I devoured this book in days – stayed up late, even though its a very unsettling book for bed time reading. I liked it, however it did falter towards the end, and the ending was just a little too open, too mysterious. I admit I was also slightly shocked at the choice that one of the characters made, and I wasn’t sure how they could justify it. I think the ending killed my enthusiasm for the book so ultimately although I liked this book, I did not love it like the book I’d previously read from this author.

“The firebird drops a feather,’ was his summary, ‘and if you’re fool enough to pick it up and chase the bird itself, you’re in for trouble.’ ‘And adventure.’ ‘Aye.’ He nodded. ‘True enough. But what you bring back with you in the end,’ he said, ‘might not be what you started out in search of to begin with.”

– The Firebird, Susanna Kearsley

This was my first Susanna Kearsley. I always hear good things about this author, but never quite got round to reading. But this book was £1.99 and I admit, the beautiful cover drew me to it, and then the setting – Russia and Scotland – sealed the deal. This book slips between past and present effortlessly, telling the story of Anna in the past and in the present, of Nichola, who has a gift that allows her to see flashes of the past when she touches an object, a power she feels uncomfortable having and struggles to accept. Nichola touches a small wooden carving of a firebird, and sees her first glimpse of Anna, as she receives the statue from Russia’s Empress Catherine, and the rest of the book is spent following Nichola as she joins up with her ex lover Rob, a far more powerful psychic, and chases after the back story behind that one, fleeting vision.

Anna’s story was riveting and I laughed and I cried and bit my lip in nervous anticipation at every twist. What would happen to her? I always wanted to know. Where this book let me down was in its present storyline, with Nic and Rob. Rob was so powerful in his abilities, seemingly limitless in his capability to read people, and present and past. There was one scene, one point in the book that I had to stop reading as I was so overwhelmed by…an indescribable feelings, perhaps something akin to sadness, for him. Just how was he so collected? So functional? When he seemed to be constantly slipping into the past, or future. Did he even see the present? And when he saw his visions of the future, surely it would distract him? Did he sometimes slip into peoples mind accidentally, when tired or unaware and see things he did not wish to? And maybe he could control what he saw of the past, but how could he control what he saw of the future? I admit I stopped to ponder Rob, and his abilities and found myself lost. Also I could get behind Rob pushing Nic to accept her gift and embrace it in her personal life, but I was disgusted when he pushed Nic in a corner in order for her to admit to her abilities in her professional life. That could have gone so wrong, and it felt too convenient that it did not. And to go back to Rob and his powers it was revealed a couple of times he had seen before what would happen in the future, the events in the book, so what would have stopped him from knowing all of it, right from the start? I could not help but feel that it was all a bit manipulative of him, if he knew, and did not let Nic know the extent that he did. That’s the problem with giving a character too much power, without clearly setting their limits, you cannot help but doubt them. Though it shows how invested I was in this book that I pondered it so. The author writes exquisitely, and the book just comes alive in your mind, the places and people so vivid. Its a beautiful book really, and an engrossing read, but not without its flaws.

(Also: it really, really bugged me how the author insists on writing out the Scottish accent. It was distracting.)