Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.

If you’ve read my review for A Little Life you know how much that novel means to me. Just looking at my hardback copy makes me feel all sorts of intense feelings. So, naturally, my expectations were high for To Paradise. At first, the Cloud Atlas-esque premise did intrigue me. ​​To Paradise is a door-stopper of a book that is divided into three ‘books’. These ‘books’ are united by their shared setting (New York) and themes (freedom, illness, identity, privilege, familial and romantic love, notions of utopia, familial duty vs self, betrayal, desire). On paper, this sounded amazing, and I was looking forward to being once again swept away by Yanagihara’s storytelling…except that it never quite happened.

“Each of them wanted the other to exist only as he was currently experiencing him as if they were both too unimaginative to contemplate each other in a different way.”

The first two books did hold my attention and I even felt emotionally invested in the characters (even if they did pale in comparison to the characters populating A Little Life).
Book I takes place in an alternate America in 1893 where New York is part of the Free States where same-sex couples can marry unlike in the Colonies (ie other US states) and gender equality prevails. The story follows David Bingham who lives with his grandfather on Washington Square. The Binghams are a distinguished and wealthy family and David is accustomed to a life of privilege. While his siblings have married and gone on to have families of their own and/or successful careers, David leads a quiet and sedentary life, keeping himself to himself and mostly interacting with his grandfather. One day a week David teaches art in an orphanage/school and it is here that he comes across the new music teacher, Edward Bishop. David falls fast and hard for Edward in spite of his possible arranged union to Charles Griffith, an older gentleman who his grandfather approves of. David knows that his family would never approve of penniless Edward who has little to no social standing. The two nevertheless become romantically involved and David struggles to keep his dalliance a secret. While he does become more aware of the limitations many citizens of the so-called Free States experience, his naive nature remains relatively unchanged. Readers are made aware that this alternate New York is far from idyllic as class and race play a major role in one’s quality of life. David himself, who is white, expresses prejudiced opinions about POC, and, until Edward, was quite unaware of the realities of having to work for one’s living. Over the course of this section characters or the narrative itself will allude to David’s illness, but Yanagihara refrains from delving into specifics. We see what others think of David’s fragility and solitary lifestyle, and the shame that David himself feels because of his illness. The story, like the following ones, has a very slow pacing. Here it kind of works as we are able to grow accustomed to this alternate America and to the various characters, David in particular. The tension of this story is very much created by David’s hidden relationship with Edward. Various events force David to question whether Edward is genuinely in love with him or whether he’s being played like Millie in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. The melancholic setting is well-rendered and perfectly complemented Yanagihara’s formal yet piercing prose. Nevertheless, overall I was able to appreciate this section, even if the ending is somewhat abrupt and left me longing for a clearer resolution/conclusion. For some reason, I thought that the later sections would fill in the gaps left by this 1st tale but I’m afraid they did not. Also, I wish that the author could have envisioned an alternate past without racial discrimination, or at least, that she could have then dedicated more than a throwaway lines on the issue.

The second section is set in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. David Bingham, a young Hawaiian man, is a paralegal who becomes involved with one of his firm’s senior partners, Charles. Charles is much older and wealthier than David and this often creates friction in their relationship. Charles’ friends, who, like him are white and older than David, do little to include David, often making jabs at his expenses or insinuating that he’s only after Charles’ money. The power dynamic between Charles and David is decidedly skewed. We also learn of David’s parentage and of the weight he carries because of it. There is quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding his difficult relationship with his father who suffers from an undisclosed illness. The AIDS epidemic also forces David to reconcile himself with his own mortality and the failings of the human body. The drama unfolding between David and Charles was compelling. They have led drastically different lives and move in very different circles. David struggles to adapt to Charles’ lifestyle and no matter how hard he tries he feels alienated from Charles’ set. Throughout the course of book II there are some beautiful meditations on life, death, and love that certainly struck a chord with me. Alas, book II is divided into two parts and only the first one follows David (who is the most likeable David of the lot). Part II is structured as a letter/confession of sorts penned by David’s father. Here we move to Hawaii and we learn more about David’s complicated family history and the eventual dissolution of his family.

Book III, which begins around the 50% mark, is what ruined this book for me. It was a mess. It’s 2093 and the world is apparently beset with plagues. We switch to a 1st person narration and our protagonist is living in this generically dystopian New York that is divided into various Zones, some of which have more access to water and food resources. In a move that screams YA dystopia, our female narrator comes across a mysterious man who is dangerously critical of the government. Interspersed throughout her chapters are letters written by her grandfather to one of his closest friends. They provide a blow-by-blow account of the years leading to this dystopian and totalitarian New York and the crucial role he played in it. This part was boring to the extreme. I found that the author’s old-fashioned prose, which really suited Book I & even Book II to be at odds with her dystopian setting. There is also an attempt at mystery by not using the characters’ names (the narrator refers to her grandfather as grandfather and her husband as my husband and this mysterious man as ‘you’). I had no interest in anything that was being said. There were a lot of pandemics, illnesses, plagues, some science lite and I could not bring myself to care for any of it. I kept reading hoping that this Book III would be the bow that ties all of these books together but it never did. We once again have characters sharing the same names but once again the dynamics are slightly different. They do not share the same personality traits as their earlier ‘incarnations’ which left me wondering why did they even have to have the same names to begin with. At one point in Book II David goes on about ‘what ifs’ and parallel universes when thinking about his relationship with Charles.
But that was more or less it. Why do we get the same characters but not really? The many Davids (spoiler: there is more than 3) populating these stories have little in common. They are all male and feel things (to different degrees i might add). Other than that, I didn’t really believe that they were reincarnations of the same David (a la Cloud Atlas). While I was at least able to appreciate the author’s storytelling and themes in the first two books, the last one spoiled things big time. I had to skim read it (something i am not fond of doing). It was a lifeless and unconvincing story narrated by a one-dimensional narrator who sounds like the classic dystopian heroine who has been indoctrinated by whatever evil government. The dystopian setting is stagy, characterised by tired tropes and severely lacking in depth.

I’ll be honest, I did not get the point of this book. Even if I did find book I & II compelling enough, those stories feel ultimately unresolved and lack direction. Book III was a flop.
A Little Life was a tour de force that left me equal parts awestruck and heartbroken. The characters felt real and so did their individual stories. To Paradise instead never fully convinced me. Even the first two books at times came across as affected. And while the themes the author explores in To Paradise have potential, well, she did a much better job with them in A Little Life. Here, both the characters and the relationships they have to one another, well, they are miles behind the ones from A Little Life. Even the ‘earlier’ Davids struck me as relatively bland and forgettable. The supposed love they feel for their families or partners, it didn’t always ring true to life.

If you are interested in this novel I encourage you check out more positive reviews. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this type of supposedly interconnected narratives…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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edit: it appears that my opening line has been quoted in an article on the new yorker. i would have not minded if the writer of that article had not proceeded to imply that i did not give Yanighara the ‘benefit of the doubt’. mate, maybe next time don’t just quote the first line of my review, especially given that it was a meme, and take time to read my review. i mean, aren’t you supposed to be a ‘professional’? 1) i went quite in depth in regards to the reasons why this book did not ‘work’ for me, i didn’t just write: tHis SUckS, iT iSN’t LiKE A liTtLe LiFE, 2) i did not dnf this, i may have skim-read the last hundred pages i did read it, so to say that i did not give her the benefit of the doubt is, if you’ll excuse my language, fucking bullshit.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”

Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters.
While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Binding by Bridget Collins — book review

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“Bindings are for desperate people. People who can’t go anywhere else.”

Surprising, occasionally frustrating, and relentlessly sad, The Binding never seemed to reach its full potential. I was genuinely intrigued by the premise (an alternative history in which book binders get rid of people’s ‘bad’ memories?) even if I know that the whole ‘memory-erasing’ idea isn’t wholly original (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, More Happy Than Not).

Throughout the first section of The Binding Bridget Collins’ keeps her cards close to her chest. We gather that the setting is in an alternative 19th-century England and that our narrator, Emmett Farmer, has just recovered from a mysterious illness. When Seredith, an old and secluded binder, requests that he become her apprentice, Emmett is left no choice and has to leave his parents’ farm. While working under Seredith’s roof Emmett briefly meets a young man whose appearance and behaviour stick to his mind.
When Seredith finally reveals Emmett what ‘book binding’ truly is, he’s uneasy about the whole thing.
The second and third section of the book take us down slightly different paths, although I must admit that the final part of the novel felt like a rehash of the first part.
I liked the ambiguity created by Emmett’s not knowing what happened to him or why Lucian Darnay’s face haunts him so. The book binding itself raises some thought-provoking questions about consent, and the characters do discuss the ethics of erasing someone’s memory. Sadly it seemed that it was mostly older men using binders to ‘erase’ their crimes (making binders wipe the memories of their victims/witnesses who were often women, quelle surprise).
The setting is rudimentary: vaguely historical, with little about this England’s history, and the narrative mostly focus on the class divide between those like Emmett and those like Lucian, without really expanding on other aspects of this ‘alternative’ English society. A few characters mention terms such as the ‘Crusades’ or ‘deportation’ but other than that we have little information about this country. I would also have liked at one point or another to have more details about the book binding itself (when did it start? how many binders are there? etc…).
The romance was a bit disappointing too. One of them always seemed to hate the other, and I couldn’t really see why all of a sudden they were in love. The whole plot involving their horrible families was frustrating. Emmett and his love interest are manipulated time and again (Emmett’s sister was a HORRIBLE little monster, and I should feel sorry for her? As if!). The story seems to fall into a pattern where Emmett and Lucian are made to suffer. They are sad, and sad, and some sad some more.
Towards the end they both do some questionable and out-of-character things, seemingly disregarding the safety and lives of other people…which okay.
The story didn’t feel all that ‘solid’, there were some rather shaky aspects that made sense for ‘plot reason’, too much time was spent on the two leads mistrusting one another, the few secondary characters were pretty one-dimensional, and the final part went all over the place, and eventually lead to a rushed ending that left so many things unresolved.
Still, Collins’ does create an intriguing atmosphere and the changes in tone and pace in the story kept things interesting.
All in all, I liked it more than not and I would definitely read something else by Collins.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley — book review

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is a somewhat disappointing followup to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.512LpSa-J5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Having really enjoyed The Watchmaker of Filigree Street I was really looking forward to be reunited with Thaniel and Mori.

Within the first chapters I had a slight sense of deja vu. The main difference between this sequel and its predecessor is the setting: whereas The Watchmaker of Filigree Street took place in London, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow whisks us to an alternate-history Japan. Backdrop aside, these two novels have almost identical storylines. Mori is up to something and he won’t share the details of what he is up to with Thaniel. There is a woman who is ‘ahead of her times’ and she doesn’t trust Mori. Thaniel is confused, we are confused, everyone is pretty much confused. Suprise, suprise, Mori was acting out of love.
The narrative struck me as confusing for the sole purpose of being confusing (in this aspect it frustrated me as much as The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle). Much of what occurs could have been avoided if Thaniel and Mori had an actual conversation but their few interactions were brief and superficial. Pepperharrow was just as unlikable as Grace. Much is made of her (she is different from other women) but to me she was merely aggravating (in her insisting that Mori is evil, in blaming him for everything, in her alliance with an actual murderer).
The story drags on and on, following a growingly desperate Thaniel as he tries to navigate Japanese customs and politics.
While I understand that Pulley wanted to distinguish formal from informal Japanese, part of me found the use of swearwords to be an ill suited stylistic choice.
Most of the female characters are annoying, the men are either hapless or arrogant…and the suspense felt forced.
Although the plotline unfolded in predictable manner there were so many confounding elements that I sort of lost interest in the story. Thaniel and Mori, characters I loved in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, were rather shadows of themselves.
The longer I’m making this review and the more I realise how much I actually did not like this book.
The only aspect I liked was the portrayal of a cultural divide between the united kingdom and Japan (their different traditions, languages, social norms etc.). Other than that…there wasn’t much I liked.

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley — book review

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“Under the gas lamps, mist pawed at the windows of the closed shops, which became steadily shabbier nearer home. It was such a smooth ruination that he could have been walking forward through time, watching the same buildings age five years with every step, all still as a museum”.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street mostly takes place during the 1880s in London. One of the main characters is twenty-five year old Thaniel Steepleton who works as a telegraph clerk at the Home Office. His mundane and solitary existence is thrown into upheaval after a mysterious pocket watch saves him from a terrorist time bomb. Believing that the maker of his watch is somehow connected to this attack, under false pretences Thaniel moves into the watchmaker’s residence on Filigree Street. The watchmaker, who goes by his surname, Mori, hails from Japan. Mori, who seems to have a polite and quiet disposition, is more than happy to have Thaniel around. Thaniel too finds himself warming up to Mori and his customs. While Thaniel soon realises that his new landlord is indeed hiding things from him, he questions whether his involvement in the terrorist attack.
Alongside Thaniel’s story we also read of Grace Carrow who studies physics at Oxford. Grace wants to pursue her studies and experiments but thanks to her parents she will only be able to do so as a married woman. Given that no one seems interested in marrying such an ‘uncompromising’ and ‘eccentric’ woman, Grace has few options left…
While Thaniel and Grace’s paths do eventually converge, readers might be surprised by the consequences of their acquaintanceship.

Thaiel and Mori were easily my favourite characters. There is a faltering quality to their friendship. In spite of their age, class, and cultural differences they soon became used to one another.
For the most part Grace struck me as the usual protagonist of certain contemporary historical novels, which often star heroines who are unfeminine and uninterested in marrying or adhering to the social norms of their time. Her main characteristic is her ambition, which does make her somewhat admirable. Later on however she makes some increasingly maddening choices that were not clearly explained.

Natasha Pulley does an excellent job in giving her story a Victorian atmosphere. Whether she was writing about London or Japan I found her historicism to be accurate and evocative. Her novel’s storyline could be best described as being part period mystery, part gentle adventure. One of the main ideas the story plays around with is as clever as it is fascinating…so much so that part of me wants to reread this book in order to pick up on what I’d initially glossed over.

The narrative also has a lot of steampunk elements—which range from gaslights to clockwork automatons—as well aspects that struck me as belonging to the magical realism genre.
I particularly appreciated the realistic depiction of being a Japanese expatriate in Victorian London. Mori, alongside other Japanese characters, is routinely exposed to racist behaviour and attitudes. Grace’s story instead emphasises the way in which gender discrimination oppressed, repressed, or constrained women lives.
A portion of the narrative is also dedicated to Japan. Here we read of the divide and conflict between conservatism and Westernisation, which made for some engaging reading material.

The budding friendship between Thaniel and Mori was extremely sweet and filled with a quiet sort of yearning, for above all companionship. Part of me wishes that instead of having sections dedicated to Grace we could have had some more insight into Mori’s character as he was a lot more interesting. Grace’s later behaviour made her particularly unlikable…yet the narrative seems to imply that we should condone her actions.

Grace aside, I really loved this novel. It is a slow-burn mystery and not for those who are looking for anything too ostentatiously fantastic. Pulley’s writing is a pure pleasure to read: from her vivid descriptions to her humour. What began as a seemingly unassuming story soon conveyed brilliant depths.
I thoroughly recommend this one, especially to fans of Victorian settings or steampunk.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 stars)

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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