Biblioshelf Musings – The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Hello Bibliofriends!

This week’s Biblioshelf Musings is about a fantastically rich, character and culture driven YA fantasy called The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. I first received this book as a physical ARC in June 2020’s FairyLoot box and it has taken me until now to finally get around to reading it – although what better time with its release date set for this week! With a premise of Children of Blood and Bone meets Black Panther, I definitely went in with high expectations and – there were definitely not disappointed!


Book: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
Genre: YA / Fantasy
Publication Date: February 4th 2021
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Pages: 432
Rating: 📚📚📚📚

Synopsis (from Goodreads)

The start of a bold and immersive West African-inspired, feminist fantasy series for fans of Children of Blood and Bone and Black Panther. In this world, girls are outcasts by blood and warriors by choice.

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

My Musings

One of the 2021 reading goals I wanted to set myself was a quest to read more diversely. Spending so much time with my head in the pages of authors such as Cassandra Clare, Sarah J Maas and Holly Black was lovely (and great for my ‘modern fantasy must-reads’ game), but with more prominent and widespread news coverage about issues surrounding race and diversity – now was as good a time as any to kickstart my goal with The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna.

There were so many things I enjoyed whilst reading this book, but the biggest one by far was the group of characters. These girls were pulled together from all across Forna’s fictional kingdom of Otera and were made up of all different heritages, classes and backgrounds. I loved the way their friendship knitted together as they showed each other their vulnerabilities and then supported and empowered each other to become fierce, strong warriors. You can’t help but have empathy for these girls, especially people like Deka and Belcalis whose sufferings are so brutally told – then admire the loyalty people like Britta, Asha and Adwapa show to Deka even at a time when they may be unsure of her motives.

The beginning of the novel is pretty much atypical of other YA fantasies – you can see what is coming and where it’s going, but when the group of alaki (the girls whose blood runs gold) get to their training camp, the author really kicks things into gear and the story begins to unfold in a riveting fashion. I loved learning about the mythology surrounding the alaki and it was on the deathshriek raids where I found the world-building to be particularly strong – there were a couple of particularly amazing scenes in temples which really appealed to the wanderlust in me! 

In her author’s letter at the end of the novel, Namina Forna explains to the reader that this book is an examination of patriarchy. She outlines the questions that she wanted to try and answer through her narrative and boy-oh-boy did she deliver on them. This story is all about the idea of the ‘Goddess’ and how women have been continually supressed by a male-dominated world, practically forcing themselves to become monsters and demons just to survive. Whilst the sad reality is that this is probably a more true-to-life reflection of what some girls and women may face in cultures and civilisations left in today’s world, the incredible storytelling of the author has managed to address this in a creative and magical plot which provides an intriguing and interesting story.

After the ending, I’m still left with so many questions about where this story goes now. Whilst I could predict parts of what happened and what was revealed at the final showdown, I’m definitely intrigued and curious to see how the next instalment plays out and what else lies in store for Deka and her fearsome group of friends!

Why Should I Read This?

For a well-paces, character-driven plot where you can really get inside the mind of Deka, the MC.
For an empowering group of women who support each to overcome the stigmas and suppression enforced on them by the patriarchy.
For a lavishly dark, rich fantasy stepped in West-African culture and magic!

Find out more about this book here:

Amazon | Waterstones | Goodreads | Author’s Twitter | Author’s Website

Connect with me here:

Twitter | Goodreads | Book Sloth: @thebiblioshelf |Email: thebiblioshelf@gmail.com

5 Biblioshelf Musings about… The Immortal City by Amy Kuivalainen

Series: The Magicians of Venice
Genre: Fantasy
Publication Date: 19th September 2019
Publisher: BHC Press
Pages: 324
Rating: 📚📚📚📚

The Immortal City is an adult fantasy novel set in Venice from Amy Kuivalainen. The story revolves around Dr. Penelope Bryne who is on the trail of finding the Lost City of Atlantis. There are some pretty awesome magicians, stunning scenery and a captivating alchemical mystery rooted in the mythology and folklore of a lost city which has baffled generations of academics and history lovers alike. Huge thanks to BHC Press and Netgalley for providing me with a complimetary eARC in an exchange for this honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In the heart of Venice, a woman is sacrificed to a forgotten god, sparking a mystery lost for thousands of years.
Dr. Penelope Bryne is ridiculed by the academic community for her quest to find the remnants of Atlantis, but when an ancient and mysterious script is found at a murder site, she flies to Venice determined to help the police before the killer strikes again.
Penelope has spent her entire life trying to ignore the unexplainable and magical history of Atlantis, but when she meets the enigmatic Alexis Donato, everything she believes will be challenged. Little does she know, Alexis has spent the last three years doing his best to sabotage Penelope’s career so doesn’t learn the truth—Atlantis had seven magicians who survived, and who he has a duty to protect.
As Alexis draws her into the darkly, seductive world of magic and history, Penelope will have to use her heart as well as her head if she is to find the answers she seeks.
With the new MOSE system due to come online, and Carnivale exploding around them, Penelope and Alexis will have to work together to stop the killer and prevent dark magic from pulling Venice into the sea.


Viva Venezia – There were two words that made me hit that Request button as soon as I read the blurb of The Immortal City – one of them was ‘magicians’ and the other was Venice. Having been lucky enough to visit this stunning city, I’m always longing for a novel which is going to instantly transport me back to those canals and bring about the nostalgia of spending time there. Not many books have been able to do that for me, but The Immortal City definitely invoked my inner wanderlust and transported me back to that wondrous place. The detailed ways Amy describes the Magicians’ palazzo and local landmarks of Venice creates an absorbing setting which makes me want to hop right on plane and head back over to Italy. Incorporating the MOSE system (a design to try and protect Venice and the Lagoon from flooding) into the storyline adds a realistic and poignant edge to many of the topical news stories currently surrounding this famous city such as the rising water-levels and protection of the city and its heritage from mega cruise ships and mass tourism – preventing it from becoming our own modern-day Atlantis.

Lost civilisations – Atlantis has inspired countless stories and conspiracies across the generations. Don’t be duped, The Immortal City is not a quest to find the physical location of The Lost City of Atlantis – the author takes a different thread of this well-known myth by making it so that Penelope ends up finding the heart of what Atlantis left behind – the last guardians and magicians from a place lost to the sea. In my own opinion, I felt that one of the main messages here was trying to highlight that it is the stories and remnants of places which end up forming its heritage and keeping them alive, not necessarily physical places. The way the mythology of a lost civilization is tied together with a plot-line filled with forgotten languages, alchemical symbology and the one of the most amazing historical archives literature could ever imagine all makes for a fascinating plot which kept me turning page after page.

Move over Christian Grey…
…There’s a new hot guy in town and his name is Alexis Donato. This fantasy novel is definitely one for the adults out there. Alexis Donato, the dark and brooding magician at the centre of the story is HOT! The romance and relationship between him and Penelope tastefully fits into the story without bordering on seedy or distracting away from the plot and changing the tone of the novel to something more “chick-litty”. I definitely wouldn’t say no to being pulled out of a Venetian canal by him!

 The Atlantean microcosm – gimme more! – Amy Kuivalainen has created such an intriguing bunch of immortal characters. Packed with romance, banter, tension, tragedy and friendships, I quickly grew attached to each and every one of them. The events that happen towards the end of the story left me on a cliff edge waiting to see where this story goes next. Amy has created a little world of characters who I want to find out everything about. Having seen two listings for this book on Goodreads, I’m slightly unsure as to whether or not this is a standalone or part of a series as it’s listed as both but I would instantaneously be adding a sequel to my TBR should one be written… *hint hint* 🙏🙏 

More than just watery – There is a whole sunken city’s worth of different elements to like within this story that it could appeal to many readers. When I first requested it, I didn’t really know what to expect and at the start of reading it was clear this story didn’t really fit into just one bracket: there are murders and violence, but this doesn’t feel like a typical crime novel – the murders are filled with alchemical symbols and mystery which are used as plot devices throughout the story; there are magicians, but they are not your typical Dumbledores walking around in stuffy castles wearing cloaks – they are the last immortals left over from a lost civilization who are now living in our modern world; there is romance which varies from zero to all-consuming within mere pages but didn’t distract me from the main story; there is fantasy, history and magic that feels totally realistic, even though you know it’s just fiction.  Either way, there’s plenty to entertain!


Overall thoughts –
For the past few years, the books I’ve read have tended to be the ones which have been hyped about all over Goodreads or Bookstagram. I took a chance in reading The Immortal City and it was a breath of fresh air to my reading pile – this is the adult fantasy novel I have been waiting for! If you’re a fan of some of the things mentioned above, then I definitely recommend you try this book. It’s a little whirlwind of a ride and like all stories there are some points which don’t always flow or which may make you roll your eyes internally, but this book has definitely left me wanting to find out more about the captivating world of the Magicians of Venice and I’m positive I’ll be rereading it at some point in the near future. There is magic, gore, lust, danger, passion and a whole load of Italian/Atlantean goodness packed into every page. Yes this is a work of fiction, but holy gods do I wish it were real! Get me to those Palazzo archives right away!

T xx

Everless – book review

  • Everless by Sara Holland
  • Published 4th January 2018 by Orchard Books
  • 368 pages
  • Rated: 5/5 Blood-irons

“Time is a prison. She is the key.”
This book felt like it bled me dry – pun definitely intended! I binge read it in a couple of days and am waiting on tenterhooks for book 2! I received this book in the December Oh So Regal box from FairyLoot.

94B0F55F-5939-41A6-9994-71EB00180A56

Everless is the debut novel by Sara Holland and is the first in a so far untitled series.
“In the land of Sempera, the rich control everything – even time. Ever since the age of alchemy and sorcery, hours, days and years have been extracted from blood and bound to iron coins. The rich live for centuries; the poor bleed themselves dry.
Jules and her father are behind on their rent and low on hours. To stop him from draining himself to clear their debts, Jules takes a job at Everless, the grand estate of the cruel Gerling family.
There, Jules encounters danger and temptation in the guise of the Gerling heir, Roan, who is soon to be married. But the web of secrets at Everless stretches beyond her desire, and the truths Jules must uncover will change her life for ever … and possibly the future of time itself.”

The concept of ‘time is money’ has been around since the Ancient Greek times and has slowly trickled its way through history when it was, albeit mistakenly attributed to Benjamin Franklin who’d used it in his 1748 essay Advice to a Young Tradesman. In the world of Everless, time literally is money; citizens go to have their blood bled, diminishing their life span, which gets melted down into blood-irons, the currency of Sempera. Those blood-irons are used for paying rent to the time collectors (read tax collectors) on behalf of the rich people who own all of the land and villages.
For me, Holland has struck gold (pun again intended, sorry not sorry) by weaving elements of our own realities into this fantasy environment. I’m not sure if she did this intentionally but Everless smacks of that old Robin Hood story of the rich stealing from the poor, something which can still be prevalent in many countries today. The idea of the elite and the 1% owning everything whilst we peasants have to ask permission or apply for licences just to be able to do simple things like drive, pay taxes on the wages and incomes we spent our own hours of life earning just to be able to afford a living, be registered at birth, have a National Insurance number, pay VAT on goods we buy in shops, who really does own the ground we actually walk upon…? The list is everless! I could go on forever with this! So as you can see, Holland really hit my nerve with her Semperean world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, purely for the parallels that I read in it of our own lives on planet Earth.

Jules in the opening scene reminded me so much of Katniss Everdeen and Feyre Archeron, the way she hunts through the woods trying in earnest to find food to trade or sell. She has no self pity and enough sass to make her a believable and strong lead character, although at times, just a few, I feel that I’m more invested in her story and what is happening to her, rather than being concerned with the person that is Jules herself…if that makes sense?! Mostly, everything she does, whether out of naivety or her own admitted selfishness is for her Papa and the good of her friends and family. She has a determination and grit which desires to see a little bit of justice in the world, someone who is not afraid to stand up and fight for what they believe in whilst still retaining humility and nervousness about how she can accomplish what she needs to. Her story throughout the novel really intrigued me as it begun to unravel and although I guessed or had my suspicions of some elements within the plot, others pulled the rug out from under my feet and were so unexpected that I would actually gasp aloud whilst reading and immediately Snapchat my friend who was reading the book at the same time as me! Some of those moments…that is what I live for in a book! Fair play Sara Holland, you kept me on my toes!

The Sorceress and the Alchemist were great plot devices and well laid out. I loved how they merged with the characters within the story and it gave the book that traditional fairy/folktale feeling. It’s got me wondering whether theirs is an old tale which inspired Holland to write Everless or whether she’s just taken two well known character tropes and devised their narratives from that. Either way, I really enjoyed the dynamic that it brought to the story.

If you love a good ending which leaves you dangling off the precipice of the White Cliffs of Dover then Everless should satisfy that need. Towards the ending, the story increasingly quickens in pace, just as the world around Jules starts to unravel yet knit together at the same time! And then…bam! In the space of a few pages, again drop-jaw moment, something happens from out of the blue and you end up shouting, “I knew it!” out loud in front of your family and doing 😱 face multiple times as the book finishes in front of your very eyes! Ok, there are unanswered questions to do with minor characters which I’m not sure will be revealed in the second book as I don’t know how they would link to the main plot. Shoving that aside, if I had enough blood-irons I could spend eons raving about what I love in this story and I only hope that I’m not waiting lightyears for the next instalment!

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress Book 1)
Author: Julie C. Dao
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retelling
Release Date: 10th October 2017
Pages: 363

Wow! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns truly swept me up into an intriguing East Asian wonderland of politics, romance, betrayal and bloodshed. An exhilarating ride of the tussle between being true to yourself and following your destiny whether for good or for evil, ‘For that is the way of the world, Guma’s voice echoed. Some are given a rope to the moon, and others claw up the sky.’

IMG_6885

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the debut novel from Julie C. Dao which follows the story of beautiful village peasant Xifeng (pronounced SHE-fung) on her journey through the empire of Feng Lu. Her majestic quest consists of fulfilling her regal destiny to become the Empress of Feng Lu, bestowed upon her by a set of mysterious card readings performed by her cruel aunt Guma; there’s just one problem – the current Empress of Feng Lu is not only still alive, but she is also the descendent of an ancient line of Dragon Lords who have ruled over the empire for many years. To add to this, the Emperor has numerous concubines including the formidable Lady Sun who has already provided the Emperor with a male heir. As Xifeng traverses from village peasant to member of Empress Lihua’s Court, she must wrestle not only with her life’s prophecy as told by Guma’s cards, but the very own desires of her heart, asking herself of the lengths she will go to and the sacrifices she will make in order to achieve her destiny.

 

From the Great Forest with its Tengaru inhabitants and hidden glades, to the Imperial Palace with its opulent elegance, to the hidden caves and tunnels buried beneath the Palace’s compound, Dao’s fantasy empire is magically brought to life through her exquisite world building and description. The presence of mythology and destiny is intricately woven throughout the narrative and heightens the aspects of magic within the story. The characters within the novel are equally well developed. A helpful glossary at the beginning of the book gives helpful pronunciation tips and provides a useful reference to all of the roles within the story.

‘“I am the moon and the darkness around it,” Xiifeng hissed in that ancient, ageless voice. “I am the Wind and rain and the ceaseless sea. I am time itself, and yours is running out.”’
Xifeng is a strong female character who has almost two separate halves; the ambitious yet familial village girl compared to the ruthless evil spirit which lingers deep down in her soul. Whether Xifeng is an anti-hero or an anti-villain depends entirely upon the reader’s depiction of her as a character. Her thought processes and actions are well-mapped by Dao and I found myself both supporting her and then vilifying her within a matter of paragraphs! Likewise, her relationship with Wey equally has you championing their union and then backing her whenever she decides that she needs to go it alone. At the Imperial Palace, the initial relationship between Xifeng and Empress Lihua appears at odds to the relationship between Xifeng and the formidable Lady Sun. Dao strikes the balance between Xifeng’s need to make alliances simply because she wants to make friends, as well as those unions which will enable her to further her own quest to make herself the Empress.

 

‘“I believe our lives have already been decided, and it is our purpose to make the choices that lead us to that fate.”’ Fate and the idea of Good vs Evil are two of the main themes which are prevalent through the contrasting elements and relationships within this story. Each aspect or event has its own flipside which keeps you on your toes and turning page after page to uncover the truths of the narrative. The tenderness and nobility of the Tengaru and their Forest deeply contrasts with Guma’s prophecies, the evil spirits and the disconcerting voices within Xifeng’s head. Dao also spins a web of political plots and subplots which leave you questioning who the real villains are and whether they are hiding in plain sight or disguised from view.

‘There are no coincidences, Guma always said. Everything that happens is meant to.’ And this book was definitely meant to fall into my lap. This Evil Queen retelling certainly keeps you on your toes and for me Dao has written a superb Yin and Yang type of book. For every good thing which happens, there’s almost always something else which happens to tip the scale and flip it onto its head, and it’s usually to do with Xifeng and the decisions she makes within the story. Just like in the story, I devoured the heart and lifeblood of this superb novel! A fabulous protagonist, beautiful East Asian setting, magic, evil, destiny all lyrically spun into a rich narrative; I cannot wait for Rise of the Empress #2!

Beauty of the Wildfire

Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović
Published: August 2017 by Katherine Tegen Books
Pages: 405IMG_6790

‘Wicked Like a Wildfire’ was beautiful both inside and out. From the moment it revealed itself from my black Fairyloot bag as part of the Otherworlds box, my hopes and expectations were sky high and for me – it did not disappoint!

The story follows two sisters, Iris and Malina, who have to hide their ancestral, ‘gleaming’ magical abilities from the other residents of their coastal Montenegrin village, Cattaro. Iris has the ability to fractalise (I think I made that word up!) flowers and turn them into intricate glassworks whereas Lina is able to read or create moods and emotions through music, epitomising the idea of mood music. When their mother is mysteriously attacked and disappears, the two sisters must work together to discover the truth behind their powers and heritage along with the strange curse which haunts their family line.

Familial relationships are at the heart and soul of this book. Whilst I don’t have any sisters to relate Iris and Lina’s bond to, Popović did a brilliant job of conveying the deep meaning of sisterhood between different generations of characters within the book. This makes the lengths and sacrifices characters must face all the more believable. One relationship which did resonate with me was the one between Iris and her mother. Now whilst I wasn’t quite following the traits of Iris in my teenage years, the friction between the pair definitely brought about a sense of nostalgia for my own relationship with my mother. The battle between trying to be yourself yet match up to another’s expectation brought back quite a lot of feelings from my own childhood and instantly allowed me to connect with Iris.

Other relationships in the book are equally well developed and explored. The romance is not overdone or overshadowing of the main plot whilst still allowing the characters to move forward within the story. The diverse sexualities of characters are written with a subtle innocence which enables the sisters to be honest and true to themselves as well as giving them the courage to stand up for what they believe in and desire most.
One warning – keep a track of the names of the characters. Without giving any spoilers away, the character names are used as a brilliant plot device within the novel and I did have to make a conscious effort to try and keep up with which one was which!

To say this book is a feast for all the senses is a bit of an understatement. Now Wicked Like a Wildfire does have a kind of marmite feeling about it; if you absolutely devour description and world building then you should be enchanted by what Popović has written. The themes of magic and beauty which run throughout this whole narrative are enriched by the pure levels of sensory description which leap off every page. From every sight, to every taste, to every smell, Lana’s world really does come alive in your mind and completely encompassed me, so much so that I felt like I was there with them on their journey. Although set in the modern day, I imagine Iris and Malina’s world as something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. The symbolism and descriptions from when they ‘eat the moon’ or gleam their magic is so kaleidoscopic and detailed that it becomes emblazoned in the back of your mind and the lightness of it drastically balances out the evil and darkness coming from the curse and villainous elements of the story.

I was thrilled when I found out that Cattaro is actually a real-life place and is known as Kotor in Montenegro. When reading books set in actual places I often Google some of the main landmarks and the setting, just to get a better picture of the character’s world. Appealing to my love of history and architecture, Popović has given stunning representations of locations such as the old town of Kotor as well as the religious buildings Our Lady of the Rocks and the Abbey of St. George on islets near Perast. Before reading Wicked Like a Wildfire, Montenegro was not really a place where I felt compelled to visit, however after Popović has so expertly brought the place to life on the page it has definitely been added to my travel bucket list.

Yes, the pace and detailed, descriptive nature of this book may not suit every reader, but there are many many things which I love about this story and the way it all comes together. I enjoyed the pace and the length of time spent building this magical world and the deep relationships between the characters; I enjoyed that I could explore the historical Montenegrin settings through the experiences of Malina and Iris, and writing which made it pop right off the page; I enjoyed the aspects of magic and the way it was intrinsically linked with beauty and nature; I enjoyed the fairytale-like qualities of the story and the elements of Balkan folklore which become prevalent towards the end; I enjoy that I have questions which are left unanswered at the end, but moreover, above anything else, I adored the sense of escape and wonder that this book allowed me to feel.

Roll on Fierce Like a Firestorm. If it’s anywhere near as good as Wicked Like a Wildfire, then I’m sure it will be one compelling ride!