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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
~~~~~
Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?

In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.

The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.

The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.

That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.

In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
~~~~~
Naomi Novik is most famous for her place in the fanfic community, as a cofounder of Archive Of Our Own, and for her Temeraire series of books, best described as Sharpe-with-dragons. Uprooted, at first glance, looks like a continuation of both traditions; a kind of fanfic of Polish fairy and folk tales, with added dragons. But that’s a very misleading glance; Uprooted is something very different, standing rather alone in its field like the tower that forms a key location in the narrative…

In many ways, Uprooted is exactly the kind of book fantasy readers are expected to look down on; a magic system that isn’t really explained, a strange evil force encroaching on the land, a Ruritanian social and political model, and a (late) teenage protagonist who it turns out is more than they seem. On the other hand, that’s also the recipe of an awful lot of successful fantasy novels, so perhaps it’s no surprise there’s so many entries in that tradition. Uprooted isn’t one of them, however; while at first blush using all those aspects, Novik averts, subverts, complicates or simply elevates them in her novel, as well as having a sense of joyousness, of humanity, of humaneness that was last seen in Goblin Emperor and had been missing from much of fantasy for some time before that.

Uprooted opens in a Ruritanian community that is threatened by a dark, mysterious forest that is evil in an infectious, magical way; the community is protected by a wizard named the Dragon, whose only condition of protection is that, once a decade, he will choose one young woman of seventeen to serve him for ten years. At the end of that decade, she will be released – but will not return to the valley, and won’t be part of the community from which she came. Agnieszka, the protagonist of Uprooted, knows she won’t be the one chosen, because her beautiful, elegant friend Kasia will be; she herself is clumsy, messy and perpetually slightly dishevelled. But when it comes time, it is Agnieszka who is chosen by the Dragon to begin a ten-year period of servitude for which she is completely unprepared.

Novik deals with this upheaval in the life of all her characters elegantly, and without the emotional dishonesty that much Chosen One fiction peddles in: Agnieszka does wish she hadn’t been chosen, but she also feels guilty for it, knowing that she is thereby wishing her friend had been, a rift in their relationship that can’t be addressed because they are unable to see each other. Uprooted handles the emotional complexity of the transfer to a new place and way of life, of dealing with the Dragon’s very open disapproval of her messiness, and of learning why he ended up – against his own judgement – choosing Agnieszka over Kasia. There’s a beautiful emotional core to the novel that wouldn’t be possible had Novik taken the obvious root of making this a coming of age story, rather than the story of someone who has already come of age; a sense of self-awareness to Agnieszka that is absolutely golden, and something we see all too rarely in a tale like this, allowing her to comment on it in a more (although obviously not fully) mature way than would otherwise be realistic.

This is a very character-driven novel, but that isn’t to say there’s no peril or plot; Uprooted may be gentle and generous, but that’s not to say bad things don’t happen. Bad things include terrible things happening to Kasia and to Agnieszka’s friends from her old life, and include a very well-written and sensitively handled attempted rape of Agnieszka (that she shuts down wonderfully); actions have consequences and magic has a price, but Novik also gives the story a soul of gentleness that is belied by how dark it get. In that sense it’s like the best fairy tales, a tradition Novik openly draws on; dark and scary at times but with an intensely humane core that is never buried under the horrors (scary trees! Is this the next trend?).

It’s also an intensely vibrant, beautiful novel. Uprooted is one of those books it’s impossible to talk about with talking about that nebulous concept, “style”; whereas Novik’s Temeraire series couldn’t really settle between modern and period language and narrative, Uprooted knows exactly what it’s doing, and proceeds to do it beautifully. This is a lush, gorgeous novel, full of neat turns of phrase that do far more work than their length suggests in creating a scene or the world; a novel that is openly interested in the aesthetics of language, of how words can create a sense of story. It’s almost like a song, appropriate given how magic functions in the novel, or like a river of words, flowing along, drawing (rather than dragging) the reader with it, through the slower and the faster passages into the rapids that form the final part of the book before crashing over the waterfall that is the ending of the novel.

Uprooted feels very like Goblin Emperor, despite being a very different book, because of its beautiful language and its core of humanity; if you’re wondering where that has gone in much modern fantasy, and even if you’re not, I cannot strongly enough urge you to read this!

The Isle of Glass by Judith Tarr

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Alfred of St Ruan’s Abbey was content to live as a quiet monk among his brethren, who did not remark upon his impossibly youthful face, healing talents and uncanny ability to ‘see’ into the minds of others. None would even think to ask him if he were of the Elven-kind. Yet inevitably there came a time when events intruded on the tranquility of the cloisters, and Alfred had to face the harsh realities of the England of Richard the Lionheart. Thrust reluctantly into the temporal world – a world unwilling to accept one of the Fair Folk as a priest of God – Alfred confronts his unacknowledged self. Part man, part priest, part elf-kind, he must choose his own destiny.
~~~~~
I picked up Isle of Glass after Kari Sperring talked enthusiastically and passionately about Judith Tarr’s historical fantasy work at Dysprosium last week. In some ways, I’ll be rehashing what she said about the books; but since she spoke more generally, I’ll only be discussing things appearing in this volume, and will touch on some things she did not.

The best way to discuss Isle of Glass is by contrast with its first chapter. Tarr has written a sparkling, scintillating, multifaceted gem of a novel; unfortunately, the first facet one sees on approach is the marred, scarred, dull one, that is unfortunately necessary to overcome in order to get to the rest of this beautiful construction.

The deepest scarring of this facet, to continue the metaphor, is also what shines brightest in the rest of the novel: characterisation. In the first chapter we meet Alfred, a foundling monk, and his friend from childhood, the Abbot Morwin, and see them discussing Alfred’s strange inhumanity, his fey appearance, and his lack of aging, in a theological context. While full of information, this opening chapter is also incredibly dry, and the characters are relatively absent – Alfred’s frustration is there, but there’s minimal other character.

Compare this with the rest of the book; everyone in Isle of Glass, from the minor characters like Kilhwch and Joscelin to more central figures such as Thea, Jehan or Richard Couer de Lion, has been written in such a way as to be human and to have meaningful motivations; however much we might despise their actions, it is clear Tarr, and the reader, must have sympathy for them too. Every character is portrayed as having an internal life, and a believable one; they’re all characters we want to know more about and spend more time with, even the ones we dislike. This is especially important given the diversity Tarr includes in Isle of Glass; while there is a paucity of female characters, including in the background, one of the key characters is a Greek Orthodox woman, and a number of important characters are gay. They’re presented without it being ever explicitly stated in a modern way, and through the appropriate lens of the time; including a theological underpinning to all the characters. This is one of the most interesting, and subtle, features of the novel; Tarr avoids the modern attitude to religion of it being an add-on, and renders it as the totalising worldview that is in fact the case.

Another scar on that first facet is what actually happens in it. Although Morwin and Alfred have a conversation that gives us vital information and sets up the rest of the novel in some ways, nothing actually takes place in it; and the ways it sets up later events are simply establishing of the baseline of the novel and of Alfred’s character, rather than doing any serious foreshadowing. Indeed, when Isle of Glass applies a ring structure, it isn’t with anything in the first chapter, but in later early chapters, as if Tarr doesn’t want to recall this first chapter.

Otherwise, Isle of Glass is an incredibly compact novel; while there’s naturally changes of pace in the novel, and Tarr handles them very well and matches them to her plot excellently. This is, in some ways, a very typical fantasy bildungsroman; Alfred has to leave the monastery and go to court, and en route he discovers who he is and begins to come into himself. Furthermore, Tarr makes it an incomplete bildungsroman; there is a theme in the novel of continuous self-discovery and change, and the various bildungsroman plots in the novel (such as Jehan’s) allow for multiple explorations of that.

There is also a larger, less personal, more epic plot of international politics and diplomatic relations; Tarr humanises that, by centring nations into kings – a writing technique that also reflects ideas of the time: monarchs as embodiments of nations. Isle of Glass avoids the obvious cliches of a novel set in the reign of Richard I, not pretending he loved England or acting as a kind of Robin Hood fanfic valourising Richard as an ideal human being. It’s more subtle than that, and more historically honest; based on strong research and an interest in history, Tarr manages to create a plot in the edges of the historical record that remains accurate even with the addition of the fantastical and fictional elements that comprise Isle of Glass.

In the end then, that first facet the reader encounters in Isle of Glass is incredibly misleading as to what Tarr has lined up for after it. I absolutely second Kari Sperring’s recommendation of this book, and this series.

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

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A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian flavour.
~~~~~
I first knowingly ran across Zen Cho at some point during Nineworlds, and then again at LonCon, in part through discussion of how fast copies of this collection had sold in the dealers’ room. I feel a little guilty, therefore, that it has taken me this long to get around to reading it, having scored myself a copy after the cons…

Spirits Abroad is a Fixi Novo book, and that means a few things. Primarily, it will use dialect and non-English terms, it will not translate them (though it does transliterate), and it will not italicise them; that leads to a smoother, more integrated reading experience in stories that are intentionally, in many cases, cross-cultural. It also won’t be apologetic about using Malaysian culture; Zen Cho is herself Malaysian, and the stories here all draw to a greater or lesser extent on that cultural heritage, without feeling a need to justify that. It’s a rather beautiful sight.

Of course, that’s the publishing house as much as the collection specifically; Spirits Abroad is more than simply unapologetic about being Malaysian. For a start, it’s a collection of damn good stories. There are ten stories collected in the volume in three loose categories; the first, Here, comprises about half the book and is three stories set in Malaysia while the second, There, is made up of four stories set amongst the Malaysian diaspora, largely in student communities in the UK, and the last, Elsewhere, is set in places that do not in fact exist. Each rough thematic grouping is consistent in that sense and in some of the themes that come through across the stories collected under those headings, but also has a variety in their actual content; Cho’s ten stories are so varied in what they’re doing, who they focus on, and what they are interested in, even while having shared characteristics, that to try to talk about the volume as a whole is almost pointless.

Instead, let’s briefly talk about each story. The three stories that open Spirits Abroad each deal with traditional Malaysian myths interacting with or living in the modern world; first the most familiar to Western readers, the idea of the witch, in a story that is as heartwarming and funny as it is emotionally moving and sad, packing a huge amount into only a brief space and discussing family, diaspora, the changes that happen in an individual when they leave their community and the strain of trying to assimilate to another country. The second story, ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’, is one that has elements familiar to any student radical – a group brought together to try to advocate for minority rights but instead devolving into a round of nostalgia for the past, and  dominated by a forceful personality; but Cho subverts expectations by introducing a mythical minority, the orang bunian, and drawing out of this a romance across worlds, that is beautiful and incredibly human in its emotional truth. The last story of Here, and the longest of the collection, is explicitly a vampire story and yet not, being about a family of pontianak; ‘The House of Aunts’ is a coming of age story, a feminist tale that really drives home the exploitation of women by men in their personal lives, and the myriad forms such abuse can take. It is also a teenage romance, and that combination works much better than it should; the lecturing of the Aunts to our protagonist on the theme “All men are bastards” contrasts with her teenage idealism and her own experience of the world beautifully.

There is a section that has a more uniform theme running through it; each of the protagonists of the stories is a Malaysian student in the UK studying, either at school for A-Levels or at university. Each of them is also straddling two worlds, having to deal with being in the UK while also being centred in the diaspora community; this is something a that is often discussed negatively in terms of tribalism, but Spirits Abroad excellently lays out some of the reasons for it – not least of which is not having to explain yourself if you associate with people coming from a shared cultural background, an automatic privilege to “domestic” students. The stories are wildly different in tone, from the brilliant humour and anti-romance of ‘Prudence and the Dragon’ (complete with scathing caricature of Boris Johnson) to the darker, creepier and yet still at times funny ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’; Cho’s control of voice and style is really strong, and going from story to story here is a joy as we see different parts of the Malaysian student experience in Britain dissected.

Spirits Abroad closes out on its most speculative section, Elsewhere. The three stories here are radically different from the previous works in that they don’t insert the supernatural into the everyday to create their analogies, but rather are wholly speculative; from the literally ancestral homes of ‘Liyana’ to the layering of alienness/alienation, cultural and physical, between diaspora generations in the science fiction of ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, Cho creates incredibly human worlds that seem perfectly natural in her nonhuman settings. The stories here are the warmest in the collection, in some ways, feeling almost cosy at times, and while ‘Chang E’ doesn’t quite connect for me, a white Westerner living in their nation of origin, nor is it really intended to.

Zen Cho, in Spirits Abroad, shows such a variety of different storytelling approaches, but two things are clear; she has something to say with her fiction, and she will not be stopped from saying it. And a third thing, too – you should listen to what she is saying, not only because it is important, but because she is an excellent author of fiction, too.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman illus Chris Riddell

The Sleeper And The Spindle by Chris Riddell

A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.

Lavishly produced, packed with glorious Chris Riddell illustrations enhanced with metallic ink, this is a spectacular and magical gift.
~~~~~
The Sleeper and the Spindle is a strange mash up of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, sold largely on a single image by Chris Riddell of Snow Whie, as an armoured knight, kissing Sleeping Beauty.

That’s not unreasonable; Riddell’s art is absolutely essential to the experience of this book, his characteristic, strong, clear illustrations telling the story themselves as well as illuminating the text. The integration of text and art is excellent, not going down the route of comic books but nor simply describing the text; The Sleeper and the Spindle is as much an art project as anything else, and splash pages such as the famous kiss emphasise that. The high production values – a beautiful translucent dust jacket, metallic inks providing detail highlights that really make the pages pop.

Of course, The Sleeper and the Spindle is as much Gaiman’s work as Riddell’s. The story itself is an interesting subversion of both the Snow White story and Sleeping Beauty; Snow White is, here, our protagonist, a queen engaged to marry the prince who woke her. Her kingdom is threatened by an encroaching plague of sleep, centred on the palace of Sleeping Beauty in the neighbouring kingdom, so with the help of some of the dwarves she met as a princess she infiltrates the country, expecting to have immunity to magical sleep from past experience. The Sleeper and the Spindle follows the small party through the country, and Gaiman raises the creepiness of the story throughout, making it eerie and unsettling even as the familiar elements of the children’s version of the fairy tale crop up, such as the whole kingdom having fallen into sleep except the spiders, the thorn-encrusted castle, and more.

It’s the climax of the story that really makes The Sleeper and the Spindle interesting; subverting not only what we know about the fairy tale from Disney and countless other modern retellings, it subverts expectations Gaiman and Riddell have themselves set up, turning the standard model of the fairytale on its head with some serious style and panache. It’s a wonderful twist and, while clear in hindsight, on first reading it’s actually very well concealed.

This is only a slim volume, but it is a beautiful one; Riddell and Gaiman have collaborated to, in The Sleeper and the Spindle, breathe a whole new kind of life into an old fairy tale. Lovely.

The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley & Kat Howard

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It begins with a letter from a prisoner…

As he attempts to rebuild his life in rural Oregon after a tragic accident, Malcolm Mays finds himself corresponding with Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, a mysterious entity who claims to be the owner of Malcolm’s house, jailed unjustly for 117 years. The prisoner demands that Malcolm perform a gory, bewildering task for him. As the clock ticks toward Dusha’s release, Malcolm must attempt to find out whether he’s assisting a murderer or an innocent. The End of the Sentence combines Kalapuya, Welsh, Scottish and Norse mythology, with a dark imagined history of the hidden corners of the American West.

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have forged a fairytale of ghosts and guilt, literary horror blended with the visuals of Jean Cocteau, failed executions, shapeshifting goblins, and magical blacksmithery. In Chuchonnyhoof, they’ve created a new kind of Beast, longing, centuries later, for Beauty.
~~~~~
The End of the Sentence is one of those quirky little works, perfect for Halloween; two writers working together to create a novella that employs the strengths of each of them to their best potential. But all collaborations are risky… the question is, do Headley and Howard make it pay off?

Not to spoil the end of the sentence before we start talking about The End of the Sentence, but the answer is a big fat yes when it comes to writing style. Howard and Headley manage to do what few collaborative partnerships achieve, in melding their styles seamlessly, to the point where there doesn’t in fact seem to be a primary writer in any section, or shifts between differen sections; the style is readable, consistent, and a perfect match to the story, somewhere between the creeping fear and monstrosity of horror and the unreality and cloudiness of fairytale. The different voices of the main text versus the letters that form a significant part of The End of the Sentence is amazing; all have the same kind of feel but all also have radically different feels and characters underlying them beautifully.

Those characters in The End of the Sentence are another strength. Each character is not only interestingly human, they’re also uniquely so; they have their personal tragedies and histories, their dark motives and lighter, loving sides. The End of the Sentence is as much about the personal, mundane – that is non-supernatural – tragedies of daily life as it is the horror and supernatural tragedy that hangs over the story; Howard and Headley manage to make a sort of tragedy and a kind of horror come together, and achieve the full ideal of tragedy: catharsis. It’s a beautifully elegant plot, shifting and changing its focus as it is read, never letting the reader feel comfortable with their feet on the ground or their understanding of events; repeatedly, Headley and Howard shift characters and character interactions around, changing the story and its nature, changing its effects on us as readers. It all adds up powerfully and effectively, combining the various facets of the fairytale, the horror and the tragedy together, beautifully emotionally well done.

For a very short piece, for a simple novella, The End of the Sentence packs a huge punch of pathos and catharsis; and the way Headley and Howard subvert our expectations repeatedly is truly exceptional. An amazing, wonderful book.

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

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Imagine a world… where cats can talk. Where fairies are snarling, bald beasts with needle-like teeth. Where a huge, dark library hides secrets in its shadows. And dangerous creatures prowl the pages of books. Dare you join Alice on her quest to find a happy ending?
~~~~~
The Forbidden Library is one of those old examples of an author who writes for adults – in Wexler’s case, full-on musketry-and-magic fantasy – turning to the market of children’s/YA literature. And there the story could have ended, in an ignoble attempt to straddle the river…

But The Forbidden Library doesn’t do that. The Forbidden Library, in fact, has a very similar attitude in many respects to The Shadow Campaign novels; that is, it’s honest, open, up front, doesn’t try to be cleverer than the readers (which doesn’t mean it isn’t clever, only that it isn’t trying to put one over on the reader), and doesn’t talk down to its readers. The Forbidden Library has an excellent narrative voice, and one that is only ever found in children’s and YA literature; confiding, curious, kindly and impish all at once – here without asides to the reader, but with a lot of engagement with them all the same. It works excellently, feeling a little antique, as it should (the novel is set in the late 1920s/early 1930s) but also beautifully relatable.

That also goes for the central character, Alice. The Forbidden Library has a huge secondary cast, but one primary character who we follow throughout the book; Alice, a brilliantly independent, intelligent girl who is still very much also a girl of the early twentieth century. It’s an interesting balance, as Wexler doesn’t wholesale adopt the attitudes of the period – but does note them; Alice’s father is remarked on as being unusual in his treatment of his daughter, for instance. Alice is a character the reader (whatever their gender!) can identify with, the competing impulses of curiosity and rule-following treated in a serious way utterly unlike almost all YA fiction (no rebellious teenager, Alice!).

The rest of the cast are a little flatter, but this is in part because they tend to have little screen time; The Forbidden Library isn’t interested in Geryon, Mr Black, Isaac, Ashes or the rest per se, particularly, only in Alice. That doesn’t mean they’re dull characters; each is interestingly written and unique, with a personality of their own, it’s just that for the most part those personalities are rather simpler than the complex one Alice has. Isaac comes closest, with his layered deceptions and ability to play on Alice’s sympathy, and Ashes is an unbelievably fun companion, even by the standards of talking cats, but on the whole they’re simply less interesting because Wexler is less interested in them.

Of course, a young adult book, and arguably a fantasy novel in general, is nothing without a rollicking plot; on that score, The Forbidden Library is perhaps a little weaker. While individual episodes are fantastic, engaging, interesting, and indeed suspenseful, and while the reader can really be caught up in them, there are also frustrating lacunae where one feels Wexler forgot that the intermediate stages have to grab the reader too; getting from episode to episode can at times be like fighting through a swamp, while the action itself is more like running a properly maintained track. This uneveness does detract from the book, but the track is definitely worth the swamp, even if it does all leave one feeling a little like one’s read a three-hundred page prologue, with a lot of set up and very little payoff.

The Forbidden Library is not flawless, and is very binarist and heteronormative compared with Wexler’s epic fantasy, but as far as YA fantasy goes, you could do worse – for readers young or old – than this rather fun work.