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The Hero And The Crown by Robin McKinley

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Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it. It was the story of her mother, the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, to get an heir that would rule Damar; and it was told that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a daughter instead of a son.

Aerin was that daughter.

But there was more of the story yet to be told; Aerin’s destiny was greater than even she had dreamed – for she was to be the true hero who would yield the power of the Blue Sword…
~~~~~
In the same conversation that brought The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to my attention, The Hero and the Crown was mentioned and recommended, in this case by the amazing Amal El-Mohtar; she rarely steers me wrong, so I picked up a copy of this classic Newbery Medal winner…

The Hero and the Crown has a slightly odd structure, for a fundamentally simple book: it starts in media res, before a poorly signposted jump back, and catching itself up again after almost half the book. The plot covered by this jump back is the childhood of Aerin and the way she has prepared herself for the moment that the book starts at, while the second half of the book is rather more climactic: it covers the grand epic fantasy quest we’re all used to in this kind of novel. McKinley combines both well, but there’s a lot more drive and heart in the book before Aerin discovers her destiny; up until that point, there’s humour, there’s darkness and light on recognisable scales, there’s humanity. After that point, all that becomes eclipsed by the grand destiny Aerin has to deal with; once she’s discovered that she has a destiny, The Hero and the Crown stops having a plot that feels like messy elements in a life that work together, and becomes much more single-focused.

The other thing we lose a lot of is personality, at that point. Until then, The Hero and the Crown follows a hero with a very strong personality; not necessarily a strong person, but a self-willed, driven one, who is curious, demanding to know things or discover them, who is willing to perservere until she can find a way to get what she wants. Afterwards, she becomes rather more simply a puppet of her destiny; McKinley doesn’t make her stupid from this point, but she does lose her stubbornness, her determination, and also her individual grit and courage. The rest of the cast was, on the whole, never as well fleshed out, tending towards archetypes like the good king, or the slightly awkward older relative (with inevitable end results); thankfully, the exception to this, Teka, retains her brilliant humour and sharpness through to the very end of the novel.

As a book for children, The Hero and the Crown doesn’t have a simplistic morality; although the Northerners are evil and strange (they’re also physically deformed), the Damarians themselves aren’t paragons of purity. McKinley’s novel has a strong strand of looking at bullies and the response to bullies, as well as looking at people as shades of grey, to it; the Damarian courtiers may be cruel to Aerin, and shallow, but they also have characters of their own, and motivations, and they respond to their own sorrows and griefs.

In the end, McKinley’s classic isn’t quite as classic as I was hoping; while Aerin is fantastic for half the book, The Hero and the Crown could have done without the lashings of Destiny and Fate that it has.

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

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All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

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The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.
~~~~~
As a former student of the Classics and someone fascinated by the genre of academia known as Reception Studies, a book that is at least Orpheus-adjacent is always going to fascinate me; as part of a series whose title is explicitly Ovidian, McCarry was always going to get my attention. But what does All Our Pretty Songs do with that attention…?

All Our Pretty Songs is beautifully written, that’s definitely true. The language is on its face very plain, simple, and blunt; McCarry doesn’t use the lyrical approach much fantasy applies to create its beauty, and isn’t a poetic writer. However, she is a fantastic prose artist; using a simpler language and a plainer prose style to realise some really fantastic visuals and settings, and to set a mood of euphoria, despair, drunkenness etc. There’s a very well controlled approach to voice on display, and some of the best passages of the book are where McCarry in using run-on sentences and chaotic grammar to create a psychedelic sense of the world.

However, this is where my appreciation for All Our Pretty Songs starts to break down a bit. The characters are a little flat, in part because our protagonist never really cares about anyone else’s wants or desires much; instead, she imprints her belief about what they want onto them, assumes their motives and minds. That would work better if we were shown at any time other than the twist that she was wrong; and might work better if the protagonist was a little more interesting herself, rather than so bent on defining herself against the people around her, and by comparison to them, so we never really get a good sense of anyone, and no emotional relationship feels particularly impactful. It also doesn’t help that McCarry flirts a lot with queerness without ever coming out and making it explicit; Aurora and our narrator share a lot of kisses for people who are apparently completely straight, and there’s a lot of queer-coding without ever once having queer desire among the protagonists a reality.

The plot is pretty simple; romance followed by katabasis, as one might expect from an Orphic retelling. All Our Pretty Songs leans pretty hard on the romance aspect, and the impending tragedy of the (double-)katabasis, for its emotional impact; everything is built up with a sense of inevitable tragedy built very explicitly into the story and writing, so that everything is tinged with doom, but that doesn’t make it powerful and portentous, only far too drawn out. It might work better if the romance felt a little more real, but it all feels a little too storybook; McCarry’s failure to create characters, through the narrative lens, who feel like people really shows here.

In the end, this is about 150 pages of set up for a 60 page pay off; intending to be a meditation on love, on ambition, on competing desires and drives, it ends up without the heft to make that work, and without the audience connection to really successfully drive it, at least for this audience. All Our Pretty Songs has great potential; it’s intensely frustrating that it doesn’t live up to it.

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

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Queering The Genre: Laura Lam (With Giveaway!)

Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!

SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy

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The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.

Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.

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False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!

Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!

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But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link  below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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A powerful and brave YA novel about what prejudice looks like in the 21st century. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.
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Some books, I’m not sure I’m the right person to review. Some books are written from so far outside my experience, I don’t know if it’s my place to speak on them, or whether I should just boost the voices of others. This is one of those books; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, speaks to a black, female, poor, American experience I just cannot claim to have anything similar to. But it needs to be talked about, because this is one of the most important YA books to come out this year, if not the most important.

The Hate U Give is, as above, a novel about the Black Lives Matter movement, without ever explicitly being about the Black Lives Matter movement in the text, or about any specific police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Instead, it takes a fictional scenario, and plays it out – from the point of view of the only witness to the shooting, Starr. The whole thing is set up within the first couple of chapters; very rapidly, Thomas drops us into Starr’s world, the two parts she works to keep separate (Garden Heights, the poor, black neighbourhood she lives in) and Williamson (the majority-white private school she attends), the personal and political conflicts raging around her, and the struggles of her life. Those are both ordinary adolescent struggles – boys, friendship groups, school – and larger ones: gang struggles, police racism, complicated family politics.

The Hate U Give ties these all together through the person of Starr; what could be a messy novel with too many threads not really tying together works well in Thomas’ hands as she controls each and every one carefully, bringing them to the fore and pushing them into the background in turn and bringing them together in parallel or running right into each other with a very well controlled hand. At times it doesn’t work quite so well – there are a few rocky patches where transitions between Starr’s self-presentation are hammered home a little too hard, and a few plotlines are just dropped into oblivion without ever going anywhere. There are also moments when it grinds screeching to a halt for Thomas to talk to the reader; while these sections convey important information, they feel clunky and unnatural, as Starr recites information she knows without it really adding anything to the book beyond educating the reader.

The biggest strength of The Hate U Give, though, is also its biggest weakness; the characters. Starr herself, as noted above, is brilliantly written in the centre of all kinds of complicated knots and relationships, and working her way through them is what the book is about; but that requires the other characters be well drawn too. Certainly her family members, especially her Daddy, her Momma, and her Uncle Carlos are all brilliantly drawn, complicated and interesting people, with individual mannerisms, understandings of blackness, and approaches to life, all smart and well-written; but some of the other characters fall flat. The flattest of all is Ms. Ofrah, the community organiser and activist who helps Starr; she is two-dimensional and uninteresting as a character in her own right, serving only to further the plot. Both Chris and Hailey suffer from this too, although that’s not unexpected; Chris, Starr’s boyfriend, is essentially “white ally learning how to be a better ally”, while Hailey is a portrait of white privilege; there’s no reason either needs to be more than that, really. However, that DeVante isn’t very rounded out is disappointing; his role in the book could have been rather more interesting and shown some interesting ideas and parallels, but he’s much more a case study than really allows for that.

It’s also worth noting how strongly this book is connected to generations of African-American culture. The Hate U Give takes its title from a Tupac line, and there’s an implicit struggle in Starr’s parents’ generation over modelling one’s activism on Malcolm X and Huey Newton or Martin Luther King Jr; “Black Jesus” is a constant in life, in houses and art; the soundtrack of the novel is generations of African-American music, from Tupac and NWA to Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube, with the occasional dips into white superstars of the moment like Taylor Swift. This really does set the atmosphere and tone of the book powerfully.

The Hate U Give can be a tad preachy, with Thomas at times talking at the reader rather than telling the story, and it can at times fall a little flat, but overall, this is a powerful, brutal condemnation of the racist status quo in America, powerfully, brilliantly told from the point of view of one girl.

DECLARATION: This review based on an ARC received from Walker Books, the UK publisher, on request.

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

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Way Down Dark by J. P. Smythe

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There’s one truth on Australia: you fight or you die. Usually both.

Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to escape the living hell that is Australia, and to return Earth.

But first Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
~~~~~
Smythe has described Way Down Dark as “Mad Max on a generation ship”, and that’s a surprisingly useful shorthand description – it certainly explains the Australian motif of the series (although a reveal towards the end of the first book puts yet another spin on the naming of the ship Australia). But how close can a YA novel get to an 18-rated series…?

The answer is disturbingly close. Smythe recently said that he decided how far was too far by going right up to the line where he could imagine doing those things himself, and stopping there; given that Way Down Dark is a brutal, violent tale of survival, that line is pretty far. Mind you, Smythe does show some restraint – he chose to exclude sexual violence from a novel whose protagonist is a seventeen year old woman, which is a relief and an excellent choice. That still leaves a wide range of disturbing, horrific scenes available to him, and Way Down Dark uses that range freely; bloody violence is a frequent reality of the novel, not necessarily in form of combat but also in characters being beaten to death or murdered over minor infractions. Outside violence, Smythe has a number of viscerally awful descriptions of the Pit at the base of the cylinder that forms the bulk of the Australia; that Pit is where all waste – shit, piss, bodies, et cetera – has been dumped. For generations. Smythe lingers disturbingly, almost lovingly, on the Pit when it’s encountered; Way Down Dark builds it up into a hugely grim thing, and eventually puts Chan right into it.

Of course, this isn’t simply a horror story trying to gross the reader out; Way Down Dark has an awful lot more than simple grossness to it, notably (of course) character and plot.

Those two facets of Smythe’s novel are incredibly strongly intertwined; Way Down Dark is about a character deciding to do the right thing not because of a prophecy, or a sign, or even any indication that she should, but just because that’s the choice she makes. As Chan says, “I’m not special… I’m really not. Anybody could have done what I’m doing, but they didn’t. So I am going to. Maybe that’s enough.” (p202-3) That final sentence is the fundamental question of Way Down Dark: is it enough to simply stand up, as no one special, and interpose yourself between victims and attackers? Is it enough to try and do the right thing, while not knowing exactly what that is, what you’re up against, and even why you’re doing it? Smythe doesn’t want to answer the question, but Chan is a fascinating lens through which to ask it; we first meet her killing her already-dying mother, a combination mercy-killing and totemic protection for Chan with her mother’s ghost (or at least the perception thereof). Every moment after that ties into the moments before, building up a picture of who this girl who killed her mother is, why she did so – and what that means; while also developing her from that moment, changing her, rebuilding and refiguring her into a different person but with the same core, an admirable combination of strategies.

In following Chan’s in her battle against the Lows, a Reaver-like gang who are slowly taking over the ship, and her attempts to save the rest of the non-Low population of Australia, we see any number of chaotic events take place, as well as learning an awful lot about the society of a generation ship that has fallen into anarchy; barter and exchange of goods, the power of gangs, the diminishing resources (and what kind of resources people become willing to use) – Smythe has clearly thought about all of these, and behind Way Down Dark squats a whole huge universe of worldbuilding and thought that didn’t make the final cut. That creates a really lean novel; not a moment isn’t vital, simultaneously building Chan’s character (or someone else’s, or both), advancing the plot, and telling us about the world these characters live in; there’s an efficient economy here that science fiction and fantasy writers often lack, instead opting for sprawling grandiosity or extended passages that add little, things Smythe clearly has no interest in as form follows content.

Way Down Dark is one of those novels that simply stands head and shoulders above their competitors, in this case generation-ship novels and teenage dystopias; Smythe has brought the best from both genres and smashed it together, and then twisted, into a dark, grim future with a fantastic protagonist. If you don’t want to know what happens to Chan after the end of Way Down Dark, you’re on your own, because I’m really looking forward to Long Dark Dusk!

Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

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Jade is a young mixed martial arts fighter. When she’s in the cage she dominates her opponents—but in real life she’s out of control. After she has a confrontation with a Hollywood martial arts star that threatens her gym’s reputation, Jade’s coach sends her to a training camp in Thailand for an attitude adjustment. Hoping to discover herself, she instead uncovers a shocking conspiracy. In a world just beyond our own, a man is stealing the souls of children to try and live forever.
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Not many young adult novels feature graphic mixed martial arts fights. Of course, not many have a black female heroine costarring with a trafficked preteen refugee from Myanmar… Shadowboxer, in quite a bold statement of intent, does exactly that.

Those characters are one of the best things about this novel. Shadowboxer has an incredibly diverse racially diverse cast and doesn’t comment on this; it’s just a fact that Sullivan has integrated into her narrative neatly, the way diversity is integrated in real life: largely without explicit comment. Indeed, the races of various characters, notably our protagonist Jade, are not spelled out until partway through the novel, although hints are dropped; and racial prejudices are commented on more, not endorsed. There is also depiction of multiple cultures; significant research has clearly been put into learning about specific aspects of both Thai and American fight scenes, and Sullivan isn’t interested in trying to give a full picture of Thai culture – that’s not what Jade is interacting with – but this specific element of it, and that depiction seems a brilliant one.

Shadowboxer does, however, struggle with the representation of spoken language; Sullivan writes dialogue neither phonetically nor using dialect, but simply using broken English, such as the Myanma Mya when speaking English. This can come across problematically, with Shadowboxer at times falling into the trap of representing poor English as related to education or intelligence, and otherwise as simply unbelievable as even our bilingual characters are presented as essentially monolingual.

These issues aren’t, of course, what define the characters; rather, they are defined by their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Hence Jade is defined by her martial arts and fight training, and her rage (which is given a very unfortunate backstory around an abusive father); Mya is defined by her seeming calm and her extraordinary abilities; and so on. Shadowboxer is very interested in self-definition, self-invention and the possibility to break out of one’s seeming destiny; hence, perhaps, the idea that Jade’s anger and violence is a direct result of her father’s actions, and her attempts to break out of that pattern are her own agency struggling against “destiny”. This makes it slightly frustrating that the villain is so paper-thin and straightforwardly villainous, of course…

The plot of Shadowboxer is interesting in an intricate-but-perhaps-weak way. That is, the attempts to bring the martial arts side of the plot into line with the side of the plot around Mya and Mr Richards feels clunky and disconnected; Sullivan is trying to marry not only two different plots that don’t really fit together (Jade feels to the reader, as well as to herself, as if she has no real role in events), but also multiple sets of issues together, that simply don’t fit into this narrative. It’s an ambitious attempt to address an awful lot, but the plot simply cannot support the intentions; it ends up more of a mess, albeit an interesting one.

The book does have one huge strength, though, and that is in having some of the best fight scenes I have ever read. Sullivan is herself a martial artist – in the sense of the term that means “fighter”, rather than “practitioner of a specific system with little combat application” – and it shows, in Shadowboxer; her understanding of the dynamics of a fight, of the way rules work and don’t work, of the pure physicality of combat, comes across incredibly strongly in the novel, as each fight scene is a visceral, brutal, but also clear thing, something the reader can visualise, understand, and indeed mentally construct and watch for themselves. That is actually something that spills over into the rest of the writing style; Shadowboxer is compulsively readable, dragging the reader through the novel, with a prose style that, even where the plot is tangled or frustrating, won’t let go of the reader. It’s not all high-adrenaline but it is continuously fast-paced, and that really works with the rather stripped-down straightforward style on display here that engages all the senses and keeps the reader trapped in the narrative.

From the biggest strength to the biggest weakness. Shadowboxer has, I am reliably informed, been accused of transphobia; and that’s not entirely unfair as an accusation. Sullivan, in writing about mixed martial arts and the Thai fight scene, discusses issues of gender and talks about ladyboys a little; the problem is largely, however, not about the ladyboys per se, but the tiny time given to the issues. Because of the way their presentation is minimalised, we end up with a very odd image of ladyboys, a stereotypical one, and one that at the end of the novel dives straight into some of the worst images of trans* individuals; this is clearly not the intent of the novel, but the presentation in Shadowboxer does end up subconciously drawing rather too heavily on transphobic imagery.

Shadowboxer, then, is not the most englightened work, despite Sullivan’s clearly good intent and research; but it is a strong, readable and diverse novel all the same.

DoI: Review based on a final copy provided on request by the publisher. Shadowboxer is out today, 9th October, from Ravenstone Books.

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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?
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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.