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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn. Some people said that there was power in her blood, a gift from her ancestors that she could endure.”

Megan Giddings’s sophomore novel is highly evocative of those The Handmaid’s Tale inspired dystopias where readers are presented with a near-future where women—sometimes men—live in authoritarian societies where they have limited rights and freedoms and are under near-constant surveillance. When Women Could Fly does offer a more topical take on this genre, especially with what is going on with abortion laws in the States, and although the reality it presents us with is embedded with fantastical elements, reading this story still sent a chill up my spine. While this has been also compared to Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler, personally I don’t quite see it. If anything Giddings’ novel was highly reminiscent of those early 2010s YA, where the female protagonists are often forced into marriage (this is not meant as a ‘snub’ as i remember being quite into them). Expect that Giddings’ more mature tone allows for more in-depth conversations about gender and racial discrimination, female bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, surveillance and privacy, and the ye old fear of that which is deemed ‘other’. The imagery and aesthetics did make me think of several horror films produced by A24, and part of me believes that maybe this story would translate better to the screen. That is not to say that it was badly written, far from it. However, several lacunae in the world-building really took me out. Additionally, the pacing was a bit all over the place, particularly in the latter half of the novel.

In this America witch trials are still a thing. To prevent women from becoming witches, the government closely monitors them, watching for any signs of ‘witchy’ stuff. While false allegations are punishable by law, most girls and women live in fear of being accused. The government also requires women over 30 to either marry (a man) or lose almost all forms of autonomy (such as having a job). Some women do choose this option, and are registered as witches, and (if memory serves) under house arrest. Women of color, Black women in particular, are even more heavily scrutinized, especially those like Josephine Thomas, whose own mother is believed to have been a witch after she ‘vanished’ overnight. Josephine, now 28, is ready to accept that her mother will never come back. Josephine has come to resent her mother: for leaving, for leaving without her, and for making her ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the government. With her 30th birthday approaching Jo finds herself forced to consider her options. She doesn’t want to give up her job at the museum, where they are actually somehow allowed to have an exhibition by a verified witch. She is seeing this guy who she kind of likes but feels frustrated by the societal pressure to marry him. Her father, a white guy, is not particularly close to her and he offered little support when Jo was under investigation after the disappearance of his wife.
The narrative opens with Jo having decided to officialize her mother’s death. Her mother’s will includes some specific directions she is to follow in order to then access her inheritance. Jo follows said directions and finds herself coming into contact with a reality that is very different from her own one.

I really liked the writing style, and the ambivalence permeating much of Jo’s narration, in particular in moments when she thinks of her mother or of the way women are treated. I also liked some of the vaguer aspects of this ‘reality’, and I was briefly at times reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘what-ifs’, where he very much focuses on a group of people and is able to capture their experiences without delving into many details about their world and the society they live.
Alas, here the author is inconsistently vague. We will learn that other countries have possibly banned witch-hunts/the monitoring of women but that’s more or less it when it comes to the outside world (“I cry sometimes thinking about how we’re the only developed country to let this still happen.”). Why don’t more women leave the States? Are they banned from doing so? The story may mention this but so briefly that it didn’t really sink in. In addition, we have a registered witch being allowed to have her art in a gallery… which threw me off a little. Why would the government allow her to do that? Her installations and pieces are fairly unsettling and very ‘witchy’…wouldn’t they worry about this being some sort of witch propaganda? The author is also quite inconsistent when it comes to lgbtq+ visibility and rights. In this extremely authoritarian and deeply conformist country, people identify as lgbtq+…Jo included. She’s bi and ‘out’. Her father isn’t keen on it and she knows she will be unable to marry anyone other than a man but I still wasn’t sure of the kind of rights lgbtq+ ppl had. Jo refers to herself as cis and acknowledges that the whole “women=maybe witch” thing her country has going on excludes ppl who identify outside of the gender binary…but we don’t really go into much depth with that other than once Jo mentions that gay men are sometimes suspected of being witches…it also seemed weird that such an oppressive and reactionary government would ‘allow’ ppl to openly identify as lgbtq+. Still, we do get Angie’s perspective on this, who is using a matchmaker who specializes in arranging safe marriages for gay women (for example by choosing gay men as their spouses).
Also, how are YA books with dragons in them being allowed to be published in a country where magic is considered a real threat? Surely the fantasy genre would be banned?!

minor spoilers:
When we reach the halfway point, the story offers us insight into a community that is very different from the one Jo grew up in and once again I found myself having more questions, and the answers we do get didn’t entirely satisfy. The narrative suggests that they have been undetected due to ‘magic’ but I didn’t quite buy that. It also seemed weird that they would not reach out to more ppl. Jo’s motivations in the latter half of the novel were not entirely believable and the ending felt kind of rushed.

Still, despite my issues with the world-building (one too many holes, inconsistent) and plot (which is slow, fast, slow, fast, and with a few situations that clearly just exist to further the plot, even when they are not entirely convincing) I loved the author’s writing style, the parallelism between Jo’s world and our world (“Sometimes, people say Isn’t it lucky to be a woman now?”…kid you not a male colleague of mine said something along these lines and followed with “it is men who have it hard nowadays”), the use of witchcraft as a metaphor for ‘otherness’, the soft magic, the aesthetics, and the friendship between Jo and Angie.
The author does pose some interesting questions about the ‘cost’ of personal freedom, and throughout the narrative she interrogates themes such as love, equality, guilt, and forgiveness. Additionally, I appreciated the nuanced mother-daughter relationship. Part of me was annoyed at the romance subplot, which in my opinion takes away from ‘page time’ from non-romantic relationships. The writing has this hypnotic, remote yet sharp, quality to it that brought to mind Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Giddings is certainly able to articulate thorny and ambiguous thoughts and feelings with clarity, however, she also allows Jo to retain a certain air of impenetrability. Jo’s introspections were compelling and I was thoroughly spellbound by her voice. Like I said, the world-building and plot did get in the way of my totally loving this but to be honest I can see myself re-reading this and not minding as much.

Some quotes:

“But there was always an objectiveness that insulated me, always allowed me to stay cool and defuse the situation. It was better for everyone if I remained at least six inches distant. A space far enough for me to evaluate, assess, and then fix things.”

“But all the magic in these museums is the magic of the dead—corpses and curses and in its own way reminding women that if there is anything inexplicable in the world, it is dangerous.”

“I had expected a tightening as I grew older; I would like what I liked and that was the essence of who I was. But my personality gets easily seeped now with new details. I read something new, I watch something new, I eat something new and the world feels again like a place where I want to stay.”

“Magic was everywhere. It felt like when you’re young and with your best friend in the world and you look at each other and feel as if you’re both the most attractive, interesting, fun people in the entire room. There’s nothing embarrassing about this confidence because it’s the truest thing and it lets you both be your best selves for hours.”

“For years, my mother had been a wound I could never fully stitch, one that when I was being honest with myself, I didn’t ever want to scab over, fade, disappear.”

“[My] mother’s absence had been—I was sure—the source of some of the biggest, ugliest parts of me. And because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.”

“What is it about love? Why does it make everything seem so important when most people give their love so carelessly to people, to pets, to objects that will never love them back?”

“What was it like to be loved in a way that felt immutable? To not be told I was loved, but to feel it, to see it most of the time?”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


The Dragon’s Promise by Elizabeth Lim

why are all my most anticipated 2022 releases so disappointing 😭

Please, let there be no love triangle

If you’ve read my review for Six Crimson Cranes you know just how much I loved that book. While I was concerned that the sequel would include a wholly unnecessary love triangle angle, I wasn’t at all preoccupied with the possibility of not liking it. And of course, 2022 being my underwhelming reading year, it turns out that plot twist I low-key disliked almost everything about this book. With a few modifications, Six Crimson Cranes could have easily been a stand-alone novel, and I actually think it would have resulted in an even stronger book. Alas, as this is a duology, we get The Dragon’s Promise, a lukewarm finale that came across as boring and repetitive. Characters I previously enjoyed reading came across as very one-dimensional, the villain was far less compelling than the (apparent) one from Six Crimson Cranes, and the meandering plot failed to grab my attention. One too many chapters end with Shiori falling and or possibly facing some other type of danger (being attacked etc.). While the story doesn’t include an actual love triangle it teases one, something that I almost found more annoying than having to put up with a proper love triangle.
If you, like me, loved Six Crimson Cranes I’d still recommend you check out this sequel as you might find it a more captivating read than I did.

If you don’t mind reading minor spoilers here is my more in-depth(ish) review:

The Dragon’s Promise picks up right after the cliffhanger Six Crimson Cranes. Shiori and Seryu have gone to the kingdom of dragons so Shiori can give the dragon’s pearl to the king of dragons, Seryu’s grandfather. But, Shiori doesn’t really plan on handing him the pearl as she promised her stepmother on her deathbed that she would return the pearl to its true owner. How she planned on escaping the consequences of not doing what she said she would is a mystery to me. Of course, the king is not pleased with her refusal to hand the pearl over to him and this results in a lot of back-and-forths where Shiori repeatedly believes that her newfound allies may or may not have betrayed her. Shiori is imprisoned, freed, imprisoned, freed, and so on. She comes across a character that will quite clearly play a role later on in the story but I didn’t find him as amusing as the narrative tried to make him into. Seryu’s character becomes rather unlikable and his bond to Shiori didn’t feel particularly believable. He confesses to having feelings for her (or something to that effect) but Shiori loves Takkan so she turns him down. She does now and again seem to entertain the possibility of being with Seryu but not in any serious capacity. For plot reasons, the two are of course forced into an engagement. It would have been far more refreshing to have their relationship as strictly platonic as I am tired of these YA novels where we have these two hot guys falling in love with the spunky clumsy heroine who has only very superficial and off-page friendships (here there is a weak attempt at giving her a positive relationship with a girl her age but funnily enough this friendship is mostly relegated off-page because of plot reasons).
After what felt like forever Shiori returns home and reunites with her beloved and her own family. Her brothers, who felt like such a crucial element from 1, are given very few lines and the remainder of the book sees Shiori and Takkan travel from place to place in an attempt to defeat the Bad Guy and are later on aided by a witty side character we met earlier in the book. I didn’t feel the stakes, the Bad Guy was very cartoonish, and the plot was just repetitive. In no time Shiori’s act-now-think-never attitude started to irritate me and while the story seems intent on portraying her as extremely special or whatever I didn’t feel that she was a particularly memorable or unique character. I missed the atmosphere of the first book as here that spellbinding magic is lost to samey action sequences.
Additionally, the dialogue was distractingly anachronistic. I don’t understand why the author randomly dropped archaic words into the characters’ dialogues as they merely stood out and consequently took me out of the story.
This was a deeply disappointing sequel. Not only did it make me fall out of love with the characters and setting of its predecessor but it was just a painfully ‘meh’ read. The content struck me as boorishly vanilla and Disneyesque (not in a good way as, so far as i remember, there were no lgbtq+ characters…).
I wish I could have loved it but as things stand the only reason why I gave The Dragon’s Promise a 3-star rating is out of my love for Six Crimson Cranes.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa

The Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles makes for a quick and wholesome read that will definitely appeal to bibliophiles. Like other fantasy coming-of-age tales, this novel features a talking animal who enlists our human protagonists in an adventure and acts as a guide of sorts into the magical world. Rintaro Natsuki, our protagonist, is a particularly introverted boy who sees himself as a hikikomori. When his grandfather, who was his primary carer, dies, Rintaro inherits his secondhand bookstore. Rintaro struggles to articulate his grief and is unable to truly express how much this loss has affected him. Rintaro stops going to school, staying instead at the bookstore. Here he meets Tiger, a talking cat who makes him join in a quest of sorts. According to Tiger, there are books in need of rescuing and Rintaro is the only one who can save him. Together they travel to four different mazes where they come across bad book owners who have lost sight of what caring & loving books truly means. One owner no longer reads for pleasure but because he wants to read the most books possible in his lifetime. Another one thinks that because people no longer make time to read, the only way to keep these stories alive is to literally ‘cut’ them. The third one cares nothing for old books and is interested in books that sell well. While the last one will truly force Rintaro to question what literature and books in general truly mean. The nature of Rintaro’s quest definitely brought to mind the structure of fairy tales. The lessons Rintaro teaches the owners instead reminded me of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Like the ghosts in Dickens’ novel Rintaro shows them the error of their ways. While at first these bad book owners seem unbending in their ways, Rintaro is always able to make them reevaluate their attitude towards their books by challenging their behaviour (hoarding books, reading books simply for the sake of ‘reading’ them, without actually connecting to the story, trying to condense books to short summaries, or caring only about the books that sell, well, this is not how someone who professes they love books should act).

Rintaro is the classic guileless male protagonist. More than once we are reminded that he is a nobody, no one of interest. And yet for some reason, Tiger chose him as his companion in his book-saving adventures. There is also the classic female character who is a bit of a busybody and for some bizarre reason kind of likes our male mc. There is also a popular guy whose function in this story is somewhat bizarre. He really served no purpose other than to remind us that Rintaro is not one of the cool guys. Tiger, the most interesting character of the lot, is largely underused.
The moralistic nature of the mazes also struck me as fairly simplistic. Still, the author does ask some thought-provoking questions about what books/reading mean, whether one should prioritize discovering new voices or deepening their relationship to books they love by re-reading them. Also, in one of the “baddies” says that now-days books don’t stand a chance as a source of ‘entertainment’ as one can’t read and multitask. Clearly this guy has never heard of audiobooks (i know it technically isn’t ‘reading’ but you nevertheless can ‘absorb’ a book). I also didn’t like that the final villain, who is portrayed as cold and slightly ‘off’ (in a not-human kind of way), is a woman.
I can see this book appealing to fans of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura and Colorful by Eto Mori. Similarly to those novels The Cat Who Saved Books focuses on a Japanese teen who doesn’t really fit in at school but over the course of the narrative, and thanks to the aid of some fantastical elements, begins to connect with other people his age. Overall this was a fairly engaging read even if it was a bit too vanilla for my taste.

my rating: ★★★½

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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The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

My review for No Gods, No Monsters will not make a lot of sense. The main reason for this is that, to be quite frank, I did not ‘get’ this novel. I did try, I persevered in spite of my mounting confusion, hoping that at some point I would be able to understand the what/why/who/hows of this story…but, having now finished, I can safely (and sadly) say that I’m not sure what was the point of it all.
I’m fine with authors keeping their cards close to their chests. Two of my all fave novels, The Fifth Season and American Gods, do require the reader to have patience in order to understand their narratives. But here, I was never able to catch up with the story. The author seems intent on being as mysterious as possible, which results in a narrative that is confusing for the sake of being confusing. While I liked some of the aesthetics and ideas that were at play, however, I struggled to make sense of far too many scenes, so much so that it hindered my overall reading experience.

We meet Laina, whose brother was shot by a cop. What seems yet another horrific case of racialized police brutality turns out to be something far more bizarre. Not only is Laina’s brother revealed to be a werewolf but turns out that there are many other types of monsters living alongside humans. After a viral video reveals this, lots of people ‘lose’ it.

Many of the storylines weren’t particularly developed or easy to understand: we have a section follow a cult of sorts, a few bits on a pack of werewolves, another on a ‘dragon’ boy, and a few about Laina and her partner(s). A lot of the time I just struggled to understand how certain subplots fitted in the overarching storyline, as, more often than not, the supernatural element is only hinted at and we don’t always witness it first hand. This just made it harder for me to believe in this particular ‘world’, which, from my perspective, suffered from having a far too-vague world-building. Not only we aren’t given detailed descriptions of these ‘monsters’ but it seemed weird that one viral video would result in people going on to marches against monster ‘hate’.

The characters were just as vague as their story, their personalities sidelined in favour of creating a confusing atmosphere. I often got them confused with each other, and some, such as that guy who joins the cult, felt very…unnecessary.

I will say that I appreciated how intersectional this was. The majority of the characters are QPOC, and we get some refreshingly casual lgbtq+ rep (so that we have trans, ace, & queer characters) as well as a (fairly) positive depiction of a polyamorous couple. The monsters are very much a metaphor for minority groups who have been historically persecuted and are still being discriminated against.

But, as much I liked the author’s message (or what i perceived to be their message) I had a hard time reading this novel. Not only was the pacing uneven but scenes that could have been easy to follow were not. The characters play obscure roles in their own stories, and I wish they’d been more fleshed out. Additionally, we have this sort-of-omniscient narrator who occasionally makes an interjection breaking the flow the narration…and it just didn’t work for me. Who was this person? I’m still not 100% sure. Why were they recounting what was happening to these characters? Hell if I know…
All in all, I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. I usually love storylines that aren’t afraid to be, shall we say, ambiguous, but Turnbull takes it to a whole new level. Confusing and surprisingly wearisome No Gods, No Monsters wasn’t quite the urban fantasy read I’d hoped it would be.

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”

Part cute/steamy romance, part historical fantasy romp, A Marvellous Light is a delightful debut novel.

A Marvellous Light is likely one of the best romances to come out in 2021. I really had a blast with this novel! While Freya Marske’s historical setting and the magical system is not quite as detailed & complex as Susanna Clarke’s in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series, its setting is vibrantly rendered and the fantasy aspect was a lot of fun and gave me some serious Diana Wynne Jones/Ghibli vibes. The main characters make the novel, and I found them incredibly endearing. The plot itself is fairly conventional, and it is Marske’s engaging style and her compelling protagonists that steal the show.

“You woke me up. You’re incredibly brave. You’re not kind, but you care deeply. And I think you know how much I want you, in whatever way I can have you.”

Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey. Recently orphaned Robin is in his late twenties and despite his newly inherited title, he’s in urgent need of an income. A clerical mishap lands him in the position of ‘Assistant in the office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’, his predecessor, a certain Reginald Gatling having gone suddenly MIA. On his first day on the job, Robin meets Edwin Courcey, who is the special liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly. Robin, baffled by the discovery that magic is indeed real, is sure that someone more suitable should be taking his place. While Robin and Edwin are not keen on working together, after a certain altercation with some dubious individuals, the two decide to join forces in their effort to find out what happened to Reginald. Much of the narrative takes place in Edwin’s family home, where we learn more about how magic works and we see the bond between the two men solidify in something resembling a friendship.

The narrative’s scope remains rather narrow, and the story is very much focused on the blossoming romance between Edwin and Robin. The growing sexual tension between them complicates their ‘mission’, as the two men will be forced to confront the magnitude of their feelings for each other.
The dynamic between Edwin and Robin is truly charming. By switching between their perspectives we learn more about their personal histories, their relationship with their family members, and their previous romantic ‘exploits’. Edwin is a brilliant scholar, and he possesses vast magical knowledge. However, he does not possess much magic, and this has made his family treat him with open contempt. His older brother, who has a lot of magic, is a horrid bully, and his sister and parents have always turned a blind eye to his relentless tormenting of Edwin. Because of this Edwin is slow to trust, guarded to the point of rudeness. While Robin was never particularly close to his parents, who were not nearly as charitable and selfless as they liked to pretend, he is far more open and carefree. Of course, after a certain ‘event’, Robin too begins to have a lot on his mind. At Edwin’s family home the two grow closer, and as they attempt to find the truth behind Reginald’s disappearance they find themselves growing attached to one another.

While we don’t learn much about the Magical Assembly or of the history of magic in England (other than a snippet here and there), the author does a fairly decent job when it comes to world-building, avoiding info-dumps and overly complicated explanations. The mystery storyline is perhaps the novel’s weakest element. There is an attempt at a twist villain but I’m afraid that it was fairly obvious that that person was indeed a ‘baddie’. The last 30% is slightly repetitive, and maybe I would have found it more gripping if the villains had been more fleshed out (we also get the uber cliched line: “Come on board, you’ll have the power you’ve always wanted”). Speaking of secondary characters, they are somewhat one-dimensional. I kept confusing the people at Edwin’s house, as they all have ridiculously posh sounding nicknames and behaved in varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
I did however like Miss Morrisey and her sister, I mean: “And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrisey. “Woe.” They were a fun addition and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story (hopefully we will see more of them in the sequel!).

The romance between Edwin and Robin is the cherry on the cake. Their chemistry, banter, and flirting make for some thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly sweet passages. I wasn’t really expecting the story to be quite this smutty and I have to say that the sex scenes did feel a bit overlong. I don’t mind sex scenes but smut…eeh, it does nothing for me. I either find it unintentionally funny or boring. But this is clearly a ‘me thing’ so I’m sure other readers out there will be ahem more appreciative of these scenes.

While the plotline is somewhat predictable (we have those fairly obvious twists, the usual misunderstanding that occurs around the 70% mark in romances) Marske does have a few tricks up her sleeves and she leaves quite a few questions unanswered (hopefully the sequel will resolve some of these).

Overall this was a very entertaining read. It has humour, mystery, plenty of magical hijinks, and a lively Edwardian backdrop. Robin and Edwin are guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’, and I really liked their character arcs. And, last but not least, their romance. While I could have done with fewer sex scenes and more plot, Robin and Edwin’s relationship was great. The author doesn’t rush it, so we have quite a decent amount of longing/yearning….which I have always been a sucker for (especially in historical fiction). I am super excited to read the sequel and I thoroughly recommend this, especially to those who are looking for a sweet-turned-sexy queer romance + the perfect blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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