Boy Meets Ghoul – Birdie Milano (Minor Spoilers)

Boy Meets Ghoul

Boy Meets Ghoul is the hilarious sequel to Milano’s debut teen novel Boy Meets Hamster, which I absolutely loved when it came out last year. Dylan Kershaw is almost 15, absolutely football mad (and good at it), and gay. He’s hoping to spend half term with his long-distance boyfriend Leo, but instead finds himself at ‘Feet of the Future’, a Manchester-based football camp for teenage boys who may end up being selected for a football club’s youth team. Meanwhile, Dylan’s best friend Kayla is supposed to be at the cheerleaders camp, but besides finding it sexist, she has far more important things to do with her time – winning a competition to get a ticket for the Manchester concert of Deathsplash Nightmares, the death metal band to which she’s devoted.

Dylan’s not spending the October half term with his boyfriend because ‘a thing came up’ – an opportunity for dancer Leo which Dylan doesn’t find out the details of until the book’s climax. They’re supposed to be having phone dates during the course of the week, but the course of teen love never did run smooth, and the dates mostly don’t happen, though they do exchange text messages. To add to Dylan’s confusing situation, he’s burdened with a football coach, ex-player Jez Dutton, who has zero interest in actually training the boys into a proper team, and who took an instant dislike to Dylan on day one and proceeds to punish him for every ‘infraction’ with running laps around the football pitch, and his schoolmate, Freddie Alton, another boy who looks like a Greek god to Dylan, who’s had a crush on Freddie for ages, and who, Dylan discovers, has a crush on him.

Boy Meets Ghoul is very funny, albeit with some serious moments (mostly centring around dealing with the bullying coach, Jez), and Dylan remains a charming, likeable, and very engaging character. I urge you not to miss out on this m|m teen romance.

I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Green Man’s Foe – Juliet E McKenna (Spoilers)

The Green Mans Foe

Last year, Juliet E McKenna published The Green Man’s Heir (Review), which has sold over 10,000 copies in all formats and has twice been chosen for special promotion by Amazon. It is a finalist in the Best Fantasy Novel (Robert Holdstock Award) category of the 2019 British Fantasy Awards. I was not the only person who immediately clamoured for a sequel to this brilliant book, and fortunately its success meant that a second novel featuring Daniel Mackmain, son of a dryad, is out on August 15 (the first day of the 2019 World Science Fiction Convention, as it happens!). I was lucky enough to receive an e-ARC of the book from its publishers, Wizard’s Tower Press, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Daniel is busy at work at Blithehurst, anticipating the start of the season of the house and grounds being open to visitors, when he has a dream about a house where an old man is dying. The dream has been sent by the Green Man, who wants Daniel to go to Brightwell to deal with a particularly nasty individual who has joined forces with a nix, a shape-shifting water spirit that is poisoning the local lake. Aiden has some of the local teenagers in thrall to him, and thinks himself a ceremonial magician of the Aleister Crowley sort. He claims descent from one Mungo Peploe who was responsible for causing a great scandal at Brightwell in the past – Aiden wants some occult books, which the then-owner of Brightwell, Constance Sutton, purchased, and a Hand of Glory, which Aiden thinks will give him even greater powers.

Daniel is invited to become the project manager of Brightwell’s conversion into a hotel, his skills having been recommended by the brother of Eleanor Beauchen, who is a friend of the current owners of Brightwell. Daniel gets Eleanor’s approval before taking the job since it will require him to be absent from his job at  Blithehurst House for three months.

Once there, Daniel finds himself meeting a swan maiden, as well as a couple of locals who are attuned to the supernatural world. Between Finele (Fin) the swan maiden, Rufus Standlake (who is protected by The Hunter in a similar way to Daniel being protected by the Green Man), Daniel, and Sineya (one of the dryads from Blithehurst), they take on both the nix and its disciple, Aiden, and Daniel kills the nix, while Aiden winds up dead as a consequence of defying the Hunter and the Green Man. (Daniel doesn’t kill Aiden – the Hunter ensures he dies in a fire inside his caravan.)

I loved The Green Man’s Heir, and while I expected to thoroughly enjoy The Green Man’s Foe, I did not expect it to be even more satisfying than its forerunner. Which was foolish of me, I admit – I should know by now that McKenna is more capable of outdoing her previous tales in a series.

I very much hope that we’ll see more of Daniel Mackmain in the future modern day urban-rural fantasy very much needs less grimdark and more hopefulness, and McKenna is more than capable of providing that hopefulness.

The Green Man’s Foe is forthcoming this month from Wizard’s Tower Press, and is available to purchase from Amazon and Kobo.

Cover art is by Ben Baldwin.

Thornbound – Stephanie Burgis (No Spoilers)

Thornbound - Stephanie Burgis

Do you like your heroines feisty, passionate, clever, strong-willed, a little flawed, and more than a little impatient of convention?

Do you like your history alternate, with a women-only government named after Boudicca because she threw out the Romans and went on to rule?

Do you like your fantasy magical, and featuring both elves and fey?

If you answered yes, then you need to be reading Stephanie Burgis’ Harwood Spellbook series. Thornbound, the second book (technically the third as Burgis has published a prequel novella Spellswept), is out in late February but I was fortunate enough to get hold of an ARC.

Cassandra Harwood, only 5 weeks married and yet to have a ‘wedding night’ with her brand new husband, Wrexham, thanks to the machinations of her opponents, is about to open Thornfell, her magic school for young women – to the horror of both the women of the Boudiccate (the governing body of Angland) and the magicians of the Great Library for in Angland (similar to Regency England) because only men do magic and only women are politicians. And if the first is overturned by Cassandra’s school, then the second could be overturned by men who want to rule. (In Angland men are considered ‘too emotional’ to be politicians, which I confess to finding highly amusing!)

Cassandra had already turned the idea that women can’t do magic on its head in Snowspelled, the previous book in this series, by gaining admittance, despite considerable opposition, to study magic at the Great Library. After seemingly destroying her own magic by trying to cast a spell that was too large and complicated for her to work alone, she’s now turning her formidable energies and talents to teaching other young women of Angland how to do magic.

But the Boudiccate is not going to accept this easily so they send four inspectors – three women from the Boudiccate and a magical officer (the supervisor of her own husband no less) – to carry out an inspection of the school and her curriculum.

Unfortunately for Cassandra, someone has entered into a blood pact with a fey living in the woods that border Thornfell’s grounds, and the fey begins sending tendrils of thorn-filled vines towards the house from the wood – vines which are perfectly capable of tearing down a building, or even stealing a person from inside the house.

What follows is a tense, tightly-written, engaging, and utterly gripping narrative featuring a race against time wherein Cassandra must figure out how to stop the fey from destroying her school and keep her brand-new students safe, yet she is one magician alone: her husband isn’t around because his supervisor, Lionel Westgate, suspects Wrexham will offer to teach at Cassandra’s school – which Westgate considers would be throwing away his career prospects since the magicians of the Great Library have decreed that any magician who teaches at Thornfell will be struck off their list of alumni. But Cassandra, as she is reminded, is not as alone as she thinks she is – and it’s just possible that she can save her school, her students, and her husband, after all.

Thornbound is as much thriller as it is fantasy or romance, and it should not be missed if you’re looking for an exciting and engaging read, or if you’re looking for a series featuring capable young women who are ready to overturn centuries of tradition, while supporting both each other and their peers. The sense of sisterhood between Cassandra and her older sister-in-law, Amy, is something I particularly value in the Harwood Spellbook series.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (Spoilers)

outlaw and upstart king

Every time I think Rod Duncan’s written his best book, he writes another one and proves me utterly wrong.

Elizabeth Barnabus, her newly-married best friend Julia, and the orphan boy Tinker, having escaped a battle between the Company (of the Gas-Lit Empire) and the women of Freedom Island in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, have washed up on the shores of what they think is north America, only to discover it’s Newfoundland, and they’re about to be made slaves, according to Newfoundland Law (such as it is).

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

What unfolds is an account of how Elizabeth desperately tries to find a way to get the three of them to freedom, sometimes aided, and sometimes obstructed, by Elias No Thumbs, formerly of the Blood, a son of the ruling class of Newfoundland, who was set up in rigged card game and accused of cheating in punishment for his previous cheating at cards. He loses both his thumbs before being Outlawed by the Blood. He manages to escape from Newfoundland to mainland America in a smugglers’ submarine and once in the Yukon finds work making ‘glycer-fortis’ (the equivalent of gelignite). He’s sent back to Newfoundland after 18 months to persuade one of the Patrons (heads of the different Blood clans) to join forces with the smugglers in Yukon so that they can open up a trade route between the two.

What follows is weeks of crawling tension (I was forcibly reminded of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the land of Mordor) as Elias tries to fulfil his task without being killed outright, and Elizabeth seeks to find a way to get herself, Julia, and Tinker, safely to the Americas. There’s a battle, and explosions, there’s pain and misery, there’s hope and friendship, and the whole is wrapped up in Duncan’s trademark character-driven, immersive narrative style. A truly excellent book.

Review and Interview: Forever Fantasy Online – Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach (Spoilers)

FFO

My thanks to authors Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach for answering my questions!

Interview

TMR: Did you decide to each write one PoV character, or did you write both throughout? If the former, who wrote which?

Travis: While it so looks like I’m James and Rachel is Tina, that’s not the case. The split POV was chosen for story reasons. Starting out, it was too hard for one character to show as many sides of the story as we desired. That’s why James starts alone, surrounded by NPCs, and gearless while Tina has max gear, no NPCs, and tons of players to deal with.

It was also a good chance for some fun gender stereotype reversals. The majority of raid leaders are usually alpha-male guys. But we didn’t want to write that kind of character (so boring!). Turn that guy around though and we get Tina. A female main tank guild leader is far far more interesting IMO. Bonus: Even though there are many kick-ass heroines out there, they are not often placed in leadership roles. This kind of uniqueness is cat-nip for us.

Rachel: We both wrote on both halves of the book, but I definitely identify more with Tina than I do with James. I played a Death Knight tank through three expansions, so I might have a lot to say about what it means to raid lead while female.

That said, I loved writing James too. He’s a good person who’s struggling with a lot, and it was fun to watch him grow into his own. He starts out way lower on the totem pole, so he has a much broader character arc than Tina does. Something we will be fixing in book 2! (Poor Tina’s in for a very rough ride in Last Bastion).

TMR: How easy was it to write FFO together? I know Travis has helped Rachel with her books before, but I imagine that’s not quite the same as writing a book together.

Travis: Pretty painless I’d say. Since we’ve done this for so long already, we have a lot of trust between us. This is hugely important when, say, Rachel has to inform me that the last 50,000 words I wrote are great story but so poorly written than I have to redo all of them. Some people would melt down at that, but because of our trust I could see that she was right (so so right). This let me accept her criticism and knuckle down to get it done. I’m a much better writer today for it.

But out trust flows two-ways! I’ve done some things which have hilariously scandalized her. For example: A lot of the first draft of FFO was me doing pure discovery writing. If you know anything about Rachel’s methods, then you can imagine how much this freaked her out. She rolled with it only because it was me doing this. Again, it comes back to trust between writing partners.

Rachel: Yeah, the first bit of FFO was terrifying. Travis would just write things. Without planning. I died. I’m a massive control freak who plans everything. Bulleted lists are legit my favorite things in the world. I make power points for myself for fun.

Suffice it to say, a discovery writer I am not, but as close as we are, Travis isn’t me. I’ve never met two writers who create in exactly the same way, and Trav and I are no different. The way he wrote freaked me out, but I’ve known Travis for almost 20 years. He always delivers something amazing, so I closed my eyes and trusted him, and wouldn’t you know it came out great!

TMR: How do your writing methods – and indeed writing times – vary? Does either one of you prefer to pull an all-nighter?

Travis: We’re actually pretty opposite people when it comes to actual writing. Turns out that I’m more of a discovery writer. She’s a planner through and through–famously so. I write best in the morning, Rachel is strongest in the afternoon. She hates writing short-stories, I love them, especially as a tool for learning about my characters or setting.

That said, after I garden, I go back and plan like mad for the edits. I still demand that the book be a well-constructed machine of plot, theme, and characterization. You can’t really get that without being analytical about the manuscript.

Lastly, Rachel has much stronger writing muscles than I do. She can write all day! My brain goes soggy after about 4 hours, so I don’t know how she can routinely produce for eight. She’s incredible.

Rachel: *flexes writing muscles* Yeah, it’s funny how different we are, but that lets us shore up each other’s weaknesses. Since we’re so different, we ended up kicking the story back and forth like a football rather than trying to both work on it at once. This let each of us do things in our own way without interference.

I’m not sure if other collaborators work like that, but it did wonders for us. Also, it was super fun to get the book back and see what new surprises Trav had added while I was working on other things!

TMR: Did you have any disagreements over the plot’s details? For example, I recently listened to a podcast in which authors Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming discussed co-writing Empress of Timbra together, and one of them mentioned that the other was quite opposed to cutting the hair of their male protagonist.

Travis: Our disagreements weren’t over plot, but over prose. I consume a lot of manga, it’s my primary reading choice, so I don’t think about descriptions when writing prose-only content. This is a fancy way of saying that I describe nothing when writing. Rachel has accused me of setting chapters that happen in a 10×10 white windowless room. That was being nice IMO.

Because of this, our biggest battles have been about how much description to put in the book. I don’t just not use description as a writer, I also don’t like too much description when I read. The moment there’s more than two sentences of “what things look like”, my eyes glaze and I start skipping. Authors who have paragraph long descriptions–or worse, sequences of description–I skim so hard. It’s a bad habit and I know I’m missing a lot when I read, but I can’t help it. I think that’s why I like manga so much. The pictures are worth a thousand words that I don’t have to slow down for.

I understand that description is important, though, so a lot of my personal battles have been learning how to write good descriptions. Not too long, not too short, and always dramatic. Thankfully Rachel is great at description so this book isn’t suffering for my shortcomings on this score.

Rachel: I find this really funny in hindsight, because I am generally not a big description writer. I’ve had readers get grumpy at me because I don’t describe little details like character hair and eye color. This is because I also find huge blocks of description annoying as a reader, and so try my best to avoid them in my own books.

THAT SAID, compared to Travis, I am a Romantic poet. Dude describes NOTHING. Saying he put his characters in a 10 x 10 windowless white room is an insult to white rooms because at least they tell you they’re white and windowless right there in the name. Travis didn’t even give me that! His original draft was like reading a screenplay it was so terse (except for his battle scenes, those were highly technical and very well described).

So yeah, there was a lot of smacking hands with rulers and making him redo things, because like hell was I writing all of that description alone. Thankfully, he more than made up for this when it came to the plot. He has always been the master plotter of the two of us. Many of “my” plots in my other books were actually his. He’s the guy who always figures out the most interesting thing to happen next, which more than makes up for putting his characters on a blank stage.

TMR: What were the practicalities of writing FFO together? Did you just have one document with two different coloured fonts, or something else?

Travis: We passed the Scrivener project back and forth. Only one of us worked on the book at a time. This is because Scrivener doesn’t support author collaboration or version reconciliation in any way, so there’s not a lot of options here (other than not using Scrivener…which isn’t an option.)

Rachel: NOT an option. Scrivener 4 life.

Travis: I had the book the longest simply because this was my first novel and I had to learn to write, so I’m much slower than Rachel. I think she did as much in two months as I did in the first entire year.

Rachel: I do have a bit of experience on you! It also helped that I’ve always been good at the prose part of writing. I just instinctively know how things should sound, so the actual “write something and make it sound good” part was a breeze for me. Getting the plot and characters right was always where I spent the most time, but Trav had that down pat most of the time, which meant all I had to do was go through and make things pretty, which is the easiest writing ever. No wonder I got done fast!

TMR: How long did it take the two of you to write FFO together? Because the final Heartstrikers book only came out 3 months ago, so did you start writing it before ‘Last Dragon Standing’ was complete/out? Or did you really just turn out around 120k words of a brand new book in just 3 months?

Travis: I wrote the first draft in early 2016, then spent all of 2016 and part of 2017 working with Rachel to turn it into a good book. I had to rewrite the whole thing twice. It was basically an apprenticeship project. Once we’d gotten the manuscript as good as my skills-plus-her-advice could get it, Rachel sat down and personally rewrote it yet again. So that’s why it came out so close to HS, because Rachel wasn’t having to do a lot of the time-intensive writing work until the end when Last Dragon Standing was at the editor.

Make no mistake though, she was integral to the finished story, not just the prose. She’s put in months of effort for FFO1 and on mentoring me. It’s her book too.

Rachel: Aww, thank you! Originally, this was Travis’s book and I was just helping him out, but as we worked more and more, I sort of muscled my way in and it became our book. Thankfully, he was happy to have me and it turned into a really wonderful project! Trav came up with the initial idea and characters, but both our fingerprints are on every part of the end product. I’m very proud to put my name on it!

TMR: I understand FFO will have a sequel. Is there any hint you can give as to the how/why of the FFO game suddenly becoming real and trapping gamers inside its world? Or are you saving that reveal for book 2? Additionally, are you planning more than two books, or is this going to be a duology alone?

Travis: It’s a three-book series for sure. I’d love to speak as to the “why” of the inciting event, but that’d just be spoilers. Book 2, Last Bastion, brings in some serious hints about how all of these people got stuck in FFO, but Book 3 is where the really big questions will be addressed.

Rachel: Classic trilogy format! Book 1 establishes the conceit and initial problem. Book 2 takes it to its logical conclusion (and makes everything worse). Book 3 brings it all back around, giving us answers and (hopefully) resolving the crisis.

Needless to say, the actual story won’t be that clean or predictable! Tina and James have some major problems ahead of them. We’re editing the second book, Last Bastion right now, and man, things get rough. I love it!

TMR: Final question, just for Travis, has writing this book given you a desire to write your own epic fantasy/SF/other genre series?

Travis: Oh yeah! Being able to write feels like a super-power haha. I’m running around left and right these days trying to use it. I’ve already done some unrelated script and game writing (which I can’t talk about sadly) and various short stories of ideas I’ve long wanted to explore. I’ve brought a lot of our writing tools over to my pen-and-paper role-playing as well. AND, since FFO is already planned to the end, I’ve been planning my next series in my free time.

The next series I want to write is called The Lightning Empire. It’s a wuxia (Ancient China) inspired fantasy set in a world where ranked martial artists draw power from their soul spring–which has a color-aspect called a hue as well as a shape determined by one of the twelve mystic beasts. The main character, Li Teoka, starts the series as the Black Phoenix Emperor, but the timeline he’s in is already doomed. To save it and bring back his best friend, whose death he blames himself for, Li throws away his powers and title as Hue Emperor in order to jump backwards into another timeline and take over his eight-year-old self of the past. He’ll have to climb all the way back to Hue Emperor for a second time, only faster, if he’s to have a hope of saving his friend and preventing the horrible future from happening.

A much better blurb is to come, of course. This novel isn’t more than some short stories, a sample chapter, and a pile of notes at the moment. I hope that I’m a good enough writer by the end of Forever Fantasy Online to write this on my own with just editorial help from Rachel. I’ll feel like a real writer if I can do that!

Review

Forever Fantasy Online is in the genre of LitRPG – not something I’d normally read since I don’t play computer games beyond Solitaire and Mahjong, but one of its two authors is Rachel Aaron/Bach, with whose books I’ve been in love since I discovered a second hand copy of the Eli Monpress series on a bookstore shelf a few years ago. I whizzed through them and her Paradox Trilogy (which I’ll review here at a later date), and then discovered she was writing the Heartstrikers series, featuring Julius, the Nice Dragon (review of the series here). I beta-read books 2 – 5 of the Heartstrikers series after I contacted Rachel via Twitter and told her I’d found some mistakes in the very first book and was she interested in knowing about them. (I always make this offer as respectfully as I can – I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’m trying to help authors produce better books, insofar as I can do my small part to do so.) So when she contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be up for beta-reading a new Super Sekrit Project – a book which she’d co-authored with her husband (who’d helped her a great deal with the writing of the Heartstrikers books), I jumped at the chance out of sheer curiosity, even though I was aware I might not like the book (I’m not always lucky enough to love every single thing an author writes, though thankfully I usually do).

Forever Fantasy Online stars Tina, Guildmaster of Roxxy’s Roughnecks, a raiding crew who’re very highly ranked for their ability to successfully complete quests and take down the Bosses (bad guys within the game), and her older brother James, who plays a jubatus (humanoid cat person) who’s a Naturalist (ie does Nature magic) – he’s not that fond of raiding so rarely plays with Tina/Roxxy within the game. The two are online one evening, and get into a fight, right before the game goes weird on them and they suddenly discover that they’re no longer playing a game but have been transported to the world of the game’s setting, which is real in and of itself. Tina finds herself stuck in the Deadlands, a nightmare landscape of nothing but grey – no trees, no grass, just like the name implies. She also finds herself teamed up with roughly 40 people, most of whom she’s never met before as she was having a try-out night, wherein a number of other players were trying out for a place in her guild. She nevertheless has to lead the group on a forced march through the Deadlands to the sanctuary of the Order of the Golden Sun’s fortress, chased all the way by Grel’Darm, the Boss of the Deadlands, who wants nothing more than to kill everyone.

James, meanwhile, is on the savannah that’s home to the jubatus, where he discovers that the NPC, non-player characters, who make up the background people within the game’s quests, have been wholly aware of being caught up in the FFO game, forced to stick to the game’s scripts and forced to die/be tortured over and over, every time a Player fails to successfully complete a quest on the savannah. The NPCs call the experience the Nightmare and, completely understandably, they hate Players, so James’ reception is less than welcoming when he makes it into the jubatus’ town square where he finds them about to celebrate being freed from their 80 years of enslavement to the game.

Unfortunately the game ‘went real’ just after the successful ambush of Scout Lilac (which made up one of the major quests in the savannah zone of the game) – meaning she’s been poisoned and has only 24 hours to live. James has successfully completed this quest many times as the savannah is his favourite zone within FFO, so he’s completely confident he can easily save Lilac as he confidently declares when Lilac’s brother and grandmother take him prisoner on realising that there’s a Player in their midst. What James doesn’t know, however, is that his equipment bag is now, within the confines of the ‘real world’, an ordinary backpack, rather than a ‘bigger on the inside’ pack as it was within the game – so when he goes to collect his armour, weapons, and other gear, he finds himself coming up empty. This doesn’t please Lilac’s brother, the Ar’Bati (head warrior), who is already angry about being sent with James to destroy the orb that’s got Lilac in its thrall. The head warrior has vowed vengeance on all Players for the Nightmare of being repeatedly captured and tortured, often to death, so he automatically hates James, and discovering he’s less capable than he’d boasted of saving Lilac makes him angrier. Nevertheless the pair set out to the Red Canyon, home to the gnolls (hyena-like humanoid NPCs) who are working in concert with this zone’s Boss, the lich – an undead elf.

Both James’ and Tina’s new ‘quests’ proceed with the sort of setbacks, and unexpected triumphs, that readers familiar with these kinds of games or quest style books would expect. Unfortunately for the siblings, however, once they’ve succeeded in killing off the bosses in their zones, and made it to Bastion, the city that houses the bank where the Players keep their loot, gear, and equipment, they discover that Bastion is under attack – and burning. So it’s not over yet…

Forever Fantasy Online is the first in a trilogy, and the second book, Last Bastion, will be out in the Autumn.

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik (Spoilers)

Spinning Silver

Oh I absolutely love this book!

Three young women: Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter; Irina, the unwanted daughter of a Duke; and Wanda, a peasant girl – stand up to three different men (the Staryk (Winter) King, the demon-possessed Tsar, and her own father, respectively), and in doing so, gain power and discover their own strength, courage, and self-respect. Miryem first takes up her father’s work, hardening her heart to demand of his debtors the money or goods that are due to pay off their debts, so that she can earn the money to help her sick mother grow well again.

She also employs Wanda to help her on her rounds to her father’s debtors, as well as to help about the house, doing the heavy work to spare her mother. Wanda also earns money (as well as helping to pay off her drunken, loutish father’s debt to Miryem’s father), and when her brother Sergey is also taken on by Miryem’s family, the pair decide not to give their wages to their father who will only spend it on drink. The self-respect they both gain from being paid for their work gives them the courage to stand up to their father when he later tries to marry Wanda off against her wishes. He drunkenly lashes out at them both, and their younger brother Stepon, and is accidentally killed when he falls over one of the boys, whom he’d beaten to the ground, then falls into the fire, pulling a pot of hot soup down onto his face, burning it hideously. He dies almost immediately from his injuries.

Miryem mistakenly boasts to her mother than she can change silver into gold while the pair are driving back from a visit to her grandfather, on a road that runs near to the Staryk King’s road. He learns of her boast and gives her some silver coins which she takes to a jeweller in the Jewish Quarter of the town where her grandfather lives. The jeweller melts the coins down and turns them into a silver ring, for which Irina’s father pays him handsomely in gold. The jeweller pays Miryem for the silver coins with some of the gold coins, and she gives them to the Staryk King. He leaves considerably more coins with her the next time, and they are turned into a silver necklace, which the Duke buys for Irina, deciding to marry her to the Tsar, if he can. A third purse of silver coins become a crown, which Irina wears to her wedding.

The Staryk King then captures Miryem and takes her back to his Kingdom, where it’s perpetually winter and tells her she must turn 3 storerooms full of silver coins into gold – but by doing so she will create a perpetual winter in her homeland, where the winters have already been growing consistently longer and harder, with crop and food shortages that afflict everyone.

Meanwhile, Irina marries the Tsar, who’s possessed by a fire demon called Chernobog, with whom his mother made a deal to give him gifts, including beauty, before he was born. Irina has no desire to lie with such a man, and she discovers that when she’s wearing the ring, necklace and crown made from Staryk silver she can pass through any reflective surface into a frozen world which she later discovers is the Staryk Kingdom (she has Staryk blood in her from her mother, which doubtless helps). She flees there at night to avoid sharing a bed with Mirnatius, the Tsar, and eventually takes through her serving woman, Magreta, where she encounters Miryem. The two young women, both wedded to men who are deadly to their people, conspire to bring the Staryk King and the Tsar to Vysnia in the hope that both will be rid of their unwanted husbands when the fire demon consumes the Winter King.

Because the Staryk can make people forget them, Miryem’s parents, who’ve taken in Stepon after Wanda and Sergey flea for fear of being hung for causing the death of their father,  forget about her existence for a while, until her mother suddenly remembers and the pair, along with Stepon, immediately set out to Vysnia, thinking Miryem is there, staying with her maternal grandparents. En route, they encounter Wanda and Sergey, who are staying in a house that exists on the border between the Staryk kingdom and their own country, Lithvas.

The five of them travel on to Vysnia where Miryem’s cousin is to be married to the jeweller who turned the Staryk silver into jeweller for Irina’s father, and Miryem gets the Staryk king to bring her to the wedding, while Irina brings Mirnatius there also. The demon-possessed Tsar and the Winter king fight, and eventually Miryem and Irina, together with Miryem’s parents, and Wanda and her brothers, managed to bind the Staryk king with a silver chain and he is taken down a secret tunnel and left bound in a ruined tower at the edge of the town. Chernobog feeds from the Staryk king, but doesn’t outright kill him, and Miryem decides that she cannot destroy all of the Staryk kingdom, not after three of the King’s servants risked helping her when she had to change 3 storerooms’ worth of silver coins into gold ones in only 3 days, and she had named the daughter of one of the servants who had helped her. So she sets the King free again, but because nothing can be given freely by a Staryk, Miryem gives him her help in return for a promise that the King will no longer attempt to destroy Lithvas with an eternal winter.

Unfortunately, when Irina realises what Miryem has done, she takes Chernobog through the looking glass in her mirror into the Staryk kingdom, and he sets about destroying it – a relatively easy task for a fire demon to accomplish in a kingdom that is made up entirely of ice and snow. Miryem gets the Staryk King back to his kingdom, and at his request, agrees to help him and his people against Chernobog. She is able to use her ability (which only exists in the Staryk kingdom) to turn silver coins into gold ones with a touch against Chernobog, reducing him to a mere ‘coal’ inside Mirnatius, and when he goes storming back to the Palace, Irina puts her Staryk silver ring on Mirnatius’ finger so the demon leaps out of him, landing on the carpet, which begins smouldering. A quick-thinking scullery-maid immediately up-ends a bucket of ash and sand on top of the coal, intending to stop it from causing a fire, and effectively putting out the demon, leaving Mirnatius free of it for the first time since before he was born.

After 6 months labouring to repair the damage done by Chernobog in the Staryk kingdom, the king takes Miryem to see her parents on the first day of snow, and he formally asks for her hand in marriage, having already stolen her away and forced her into the Staryk version of marriage without her consent. She agrees, so long as he will agree to be married according to Jewish custom, and so long as he will bring her to visit her family whenever she wishes during the winter months (since he cannot bring her back to Lithvas except via the Staryk road, which can only come to Lithvas during the winter) and two weeks later, they’re married.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

New Boy – Tracy Chevalier (Spoilers)

New Boy Tracy Chevalier

Part of the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Retellings series, Chevalier’s New Boy is a re-telling of Othello, featuring a class of grade 6 children at a school in Washington in the 1970s. Othello’s counter-part in Chevalier’s short tale is 11 year old Osei Kokote, son of a diplomat, born in Accra, Ghana, and attending his fourth school in 6 years owing to his father’s ever changing postings.

His Desdemona is 11 year old ‘Dee’ Benedetti, while his Iago is 11 year old Ian, the school bully who rules over almost everyone with an iron will, if not an iron fist (he prefers psychological and emotional threats to physical ones). Rod is Ian’s hanger-on, not a right hand man as Ian despises him, while Mimi is Dee’s best friend and suffers from undiagnosed migraines that result in her suffering from déjà-vu and occasional clairvoyance.

The tale is set over the course of Osei’s first day at his new school – a month before the school year finishes. His arrival draws the attention of everyone since he’s the only black child at the school, and while Dee is immediately fascinated by Osei and instantly befriends him, almost everyone else is appalled by his presence – most of the teachers, but especially his class teacher Mr Brabant, are as hostile as the children, and do as little to hide their hostility. The principal insists on him standing up and reciting something about himself and his native Ghana – a not-unusual approach to him that Osei’s taught himself to deal with, if not accept – in front of the entire class.

It’s Ian and Rod who most resent Osei’s appearance, however – Ian because Osei threatens to upset the balance of power that Ian’s established during his career at the school, and Rod because he wants to ‘go with’ Dee, and she has never given the slightest sign of being interested in him.

I’ll admit that Othello’s not one of my favourite of the Bard’s plays, but I wanted to read this to see how Chevalier translated it into the modern-ish world, particularly since Othello is a tragedy that sees him murdering Desdemona. Knowing of the existence of the child killers of toddler Jamie Bulger, I didn’t rule out the possibility of murder being done, but Chevalier’s ending is rather more ambiguous than that. It’s not explicitly stated, because the scene’s related by an injured Mimi who is almost certainly concussed (and paralysed) by Ian dragging her off the jungle gym in the closing chapter of the story, and she blacks out immediately afterwards, but it appears that Osei commits suicide by allowing himself to fall off the very top of the jungle gym. It’s not made clear whether Mimi simply blacks out, then wakes up paralysed, of if she’ll die. Similarly, Osei had pushed over Dee earlier in the day, causing her to also bang her head* and there’s no indication of what lasting effects this could have on Dee, though she’s certainly recovered enough to run home from school before the final scene plays out in the playground after school.

* I do feel Chevalier’s editor ought to have picked up on this repetition of injuries to the two girls. I found it discordant. My other complaint about a lack of editorial interference is in that I found it highly unrealistic that the son of a diplomat, even in the 1970s, would be going to a regular day school. It surely would make more sense for him to be going to boarding school – of which, I gather, Ghana isn’t in short supply!

For all that, however, I found this short tale to be darkly compelling – as darkly compelling as Othello itself – and I whizzed through it one day despite other time commitments.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.