And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/11/2018

You could imagine the elevator pitch for Patrick Ness’s new novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky: “Think Moby Dick, but from the whale’s point of view”. But while Moby Dick is a touchstone, fantasy writer Ness, responsible for A Monster Calls, the Chaos Walking trilogy and the Doctor Who spinoff Class, takes this well known story into new territory. The book opens with “Call me Bathsheba” a riff on that famous opening line. Bathsheba is a whale who has been told that she has a destiny as a hunter of men. In Bathsheba’s world, whales hunt humans as much as humans hunt whales in a war that seems to never have an end. The whales carry harpoons and drag boats behind them underwater as a way of storing and transporting human bodies which they use as resources. These whales have developed an underwater civilization and have a breathing technology that enables them to only venture to the ocean’s surface, known as the Abyss, infrequently. Bathsheba’s story centres around a hunt for the great white ship of legendary whale killer Toby Wick. After picking up the lone survivor of a massacre of humans which hints at the work of Wick,…

Hive by AJ Betts

Australian YA author AJ Betts is best known for her TV-adapted book Zac and Mia. In Hive she dives into the world of speculative fiction but her focus is still very much on teens and their experience. Hayley’s whole world is a series of interconnected, hexagonal rooms and the rules her society lives by are the only rules she has ever known. Hayley is a Gardener, her specific job is to look after the bees and their hives. Bees are important for pollinating the plants that keep her enclosed society alive and for their honey. They also provide a handy metaphor for Hayley’s structured world and her place in it. Odd events make Hayley start to question this world. But questioning is seen as a form of madness so she has to hide or try and repress her curiosity, finding allies where she can. Hayley is an engaging and relatable protagonist and the trials she faces will be familiar ones to a YA readership. Challenges of growing up in a world where rules don’t quite make sense, dealing with the pressure to conform and longstanding friendships put to the test by life changes. Hive feels a bit like a rerun…

City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 08/08/2018

Sam Hawke’s assured debut fantasy novel City of Lies starts intriguingly. Jovan, the narrator has been trained from a young age in the family trade of poison taster for the Chancellor of Silasta. He has been exposed to multiple poisons by his uncle as part of his training and has become partially immune to them as he learnt to identify them. He has been trained in the place of his elder sister Kalina whose constitution was too weak to handle the small amounts of poisoning. Despite this they are close and are both also close to Tain, heir to the Chancellorship. Their world is thrown into stunning and sudden disarray when both the Chancellor and their Uncle Ethan are poisoned with something neither Ethan nor Jovan can identify and their city is besieged.  While City of Lies can be read by anyone it definitely has a young adult bent. While not teenagers, the main characters are all young adults, thrust into an adult world, learning quickly how to navigate treacherous political waters while dealing with a series of escalating crises. Their relative youth allows them to question the way things have been done traditionally (particularly as tradition has partially led to current events) and find new ways forward. But it also sometimes makes them easy prey for more experienced political operators.  The narrative of City of Lies alternates between Jovan and…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

Lifelike by Jay Kristoff

Hot off the success of the Illuminae trilogy, Jay Kristoff launches a new science fiction series that also mines deeply from and mashes elements of the science fiction pantheon. Just in case readers might be in any doubt, the cover described Lifel1k3 as “Romeo and Juliet meets Mad Max meets X-Men with a little bit of Blade Runner cheering from the sidelines”. The Romeo and Juliet reference refers to the romantic tropes that seem to drive every YA book that has been released this century. And there is more than a little bit of Blade Runner here given this is a post-apocalyptic tale focussing humanoid robots. But Lifel1k3 has deeper and older antecedents – Isaac Asimov’s robot books, particularly his famous three laws of robotics, and Pinocchio. Eve drives a robot fighter in a post-apocalyptic California. When a fight goes bad and she exhibits a mental power that fries electrical circuits she becomes a target of local religious nutters, street gangs, corporations and a group of murderous, super strong, self-healing humanoid robots called Lifelikes. She goes on the run with her best friend Lemon Fresh, a small snarky robot called Cricket, a robot dog and a Lifelike who claims he…

The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 23/05/2018

Enter another conflicted, sparky girl onto the YA fantasy stage. Joining a recent slew of female fantasy heroes in books likes of The Last Namsara, Children of Blood and Bone and Caraval, Mary Watson brings another spin. Set in a modern day Ireland but referencing an ancient feud, The Wren Hunt is wholly original even when it treads some familiar story beats.  Wren Silke is an augur. Like many a YA protagonist before her she was not raised by her parents. Her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her as a baby. The augurs, one of a cast of magic users, are in an ongoing war with the judges. Wren has been recruited into that war, picked to be the augurs’ spy into the judge stronghold and to steal a map that will help tip the balance in their ongoing war.  But this is not quite the quest novel that it sounds. It reads more like a spy novel where the protagonist is a trainee spy and her handlers are using her to play much larger games.  Wren herself is a likeable, conflicted heroine who has to chart her own course when the world shifts around her and alliances and friendships turn out not to be what they at first seemed. Thrown into the mix, not surprisingly, is a love interest, who happens to also be the…

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 22/03/2018

Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most anticipated YA books of 2018. Movie rights have already been sold and YA blogger sites have been singing its praises. And there is a lot to like here. Tomi Adeyemi has constructed a fast paced, roller-coaster quest-based fantasy book set in a well realised West-African-inspired setting and delivers the kind of thrills and characters that her YA readership craves. Zélie, is a Diviner, part of a subgroup of people in the kingdom of Orisha subjugated and feared for their former ability to use magic. Magic was banished from the world by the moustache-twirlingly evil King Sanara thirteen years before. Those with white hair, who carry the mark of magic users, are reviled and repressed. But an encounter between Zélie and runaway princess Amari changes the equation. Amari has stolen a relic that can respark magic in individuals and, together with Zélie and her brother Tzain, embarks on a quest to unite three sacred artefacts and bring magic back to the world. While Children of Blood and Bone has a unique and fascinating African setting and mythology, the plot and characters owe as much to recent YA-fan favourite series like The…

Obsidio by Kaufman and Kristoff

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff bring their Illuminae trilogy to an action packed, emotionally charged, edge-of-your-seat conclusion in Obsidio. Of course these are, essentially, all of the ingredients that readers of this series have come to expect. As with the previous books in this series, Obsidio is told through a collection of found documents, graphics and text, and this style continues to work well to create a very visual, cinematic feel. In a nutshell – the survivors of the previous books have no choice but to retrace their steps to Kerenza IV. Meanwhile, on Kerenza, the Beitech invaders have become an occupying force, using the remaining population to mine the resources they need to repair their ships and leave. One of the occupying force is Rhys Lindstrom, ex-boyfriend of invasion survivor and insurgent Asha Grant, cousin of Kady, one of the heroes of Illuminae. Putting yet another, troubled romance at the centre of the action. But all of the surviving characters from previous books also have a part to play in Obsidio. This time, more than before, the young protagonists have to deal with a world where the adults just won’t take them seriously (but have to save the day…

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 21/02/2018

Debut author Kristen Ciccarelli credits the inspiration for her fantasy novel The Last Namsara on a bunch of kick-arse female fantasy characters. Mulan, Eowyn, Princess Mononoke and Xena. What set these princesses apart was their ability to wield a sword and Asha, the protagonist of The Last Namsara is no different. When the book opens she is on a dragon-hunting expedition, clad in fireproof hide of dragons she has killed in the past and armed with her handy throwing axe. But this is a modern fairy tale and it turns out that nothing is quite what it seems. In Asha’s world stories have power. In her case, the ability to summon dragons but also to give them power. But stories are also deadly. And Asha has always felt that her ability to tell those stories and survive where her mother died has set her apart as damaged. This feeling is compounded by the scars that she bears from her childhood encounter with the First Dragon, Kozu, and the burns that cover half of her body. Asha is determined to kill Kozu and bring his head to her father the king. But Asha has more trouble than that – she is…

Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

Nexus by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti

Nexus is the third and final instalment of the Zeroes trilogy which started with Zeroes and continued last year with Swarm. These books go boldly and with some originality into well explored territory – teens dealing with superpowers while also trying to make sense of their lives. At least, the first book did this. The second broadened out the world of the Zeroes, introduced a new menace and moved a little further away from a straight teens-with-powers scenario. Nexus expands this world even further and takes its protagonists out into the wider world. From its opening interrogation in, and rescue from, a supermax prison to a chase on the streets of Las Vegas, to its explosive finale on the streets of New Orleans. It is hard to talk about Nexus without some spoilers for the earlier two books. Suffice it to say that the six main Zeroes are back, in much more straightened circumstances due to the events of Swarm. But despite being on the run and fractured they still feel the need to use their powers for good as much as they can. And when they learn of “something big” going down in New Orleans involving a Zero called…

The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 06/11/2017

Heidi Heilig opens The Ship Beyond Time mere minutes after the cliffhanger end of its prequel The Girl from Everywhere. It is 1884 and sixteen-year-old Nix, her father and the crew of their ship, the Temptation are on the run from Hawaiian forces, unhappy about the robbery that they were involved in. What their pursuers do not know, but readers of this series do, is that Nix and her father are Navigators, they have the power to send their ship to any time and any place (including mythical places) so long as they have a map to guide them. After a bit of map hopping early in the piece, The Ship Beyond Time settles down for most of its length in one locale. In this case it is the mythical utopian island of Ker-Ys, somewhere off the coast of France. They have come there on the promise of another Navigator, Crowhurst, that he has the power to change time. For Nix, who spent the last novel trying to prevent her father going back in time to save her mother for fear that she would never be born, this is a temptation too great to turn up. Once again, there is…

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C Anderson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 29/09/2017

City of Saints and Thieves has an immediately engaging open. Sixteen year old Tina is a thief in the Kenyan city of Sangui. Together with her street-criminal backers she is embarking on an audacious robbery of the Greyhill mansion in an upmarket part of town. But Tina has more on her mind than just theft. Her mother was killed in that house while working there as a maid and Tina believes that Greyhill senior was responsible. So the theft is also about revenge. But the heist does not go as planned and from there the tale spins out with Tina only barely in some kind of control. Natalie C Anderson, the author of City of Saints and Thieves has a long history of working with refugees in Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and this experience shows. Anderson brings both the Kenyan and Congolese settings vivdly to life. The book is rich in detail about the lives of women and children in Africa’s conflict zones and the role of blood gold in fuelling the violence. As a young girl living on the streets of a fictional Kenyan city, Tina’s skills as a thief are the only thing keeping her from a life…

The Undercurrent by Paula Weston

Superpowered teens seem to be everywhere you look at the moment. From the third time lucky reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, to the YA book world with series like Zeroes. In the world of The Undercurrent there is only one superpowered teen – sixteen year-old Juliette DeMarchi. But as is “normal” in the superpowered teen world her ability to manage her powers quickly becomes a metaphor for growing up. The Undercurrent opens with a bang. An attack on the headquarters on mega corporation Pax Fed in Brisbane, where Juliette was going for an abortive job interview. When things go pear shaped, Juliette is rescued in a bit of a “meet-cute” by young soldier Ryan, part of a squad of soldiers sent to protect her. This is the set up for a tale of coming-of-age and corporate skullduggery. Juliette’s mother Angie is talked into going back into her old protest group, the Agitators who have become more extreme in her absence, to foil a plot to attack a nuclear power plant in South Australia. Meanwhile Juliette is sent into protection with Ryan on his family’s dying farm not far from the plant. Weston manages to ramp up the tension in both…

October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 17/08/2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Nordic crime writer best known for his crime series starring ex-cop Leo Junker. October is the Coldest Month is ostensibly his first Young Adult novel and has won a Swedish crime award for writing for young readers. But parents beware, when the Swedish Crime Writing Academy says “young readers” they are skewing well towards the more adult end of the young adult spectrum. That said, there are good reasons why this novel may have picked up that award. Vega Gillberg, the sixteen year-old narrator of October is the Coldest Month, is woken by a policeman looking for her brother Jacob. She does not know where Jacob he is but knows that he is in trouble and has an inkling why. That inkling drives her to go looking for her brother and to try and solve a mystery that no one wants solved. In the best tradition of noir detectives, Vega is not content with being kept in the dark and keeps pushing at people and pulling at loose ends of their stories until the truth emerges. October is the Coldest Month is a coming of age story of sorts. Vega deals with the depths of the…

Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
Fantasy , Recommended , Young Adult / 23/06/2017

Singing My Sister Down could have been subtitled Margo Lanagan’s Greatest Hits. The title story, which also opens this collection, won a bunch of national and international fantasy awards and was short listed for a number of others. This and nine of the others stories come from earlier collections of Lanagan’s work, the multihued – White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake – many of which were also shortlisted for or won their own awards. So these hand picked stories might be considered the best of Lanagan’s best, clearly putting her in an international league of great fantasy short story writers. Singing My Sister Down, the story of a family come to watch the ritual killing of one of their members – consigned to sink into a tar pit – is starkly effective. Many of the other stories are built around ideas that can only lead to trouble – a man who kills clowns, the person who ferries the dead, a magician spurned. Some of the others, particularly two new stories written for this collection are off-kilter retellings of well known fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty in Not Quite Ogre and The Princess and the Frog in The Wood-Queen’s…

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/03/2017

Stephanie Garber’s debut novel is a finely wrought Young Adult Italianate fantasy. It has elements of gameplay, cautious romance and danger but is always keen to assure characters and readers that it is ‘only a game’. The book opens with seven years of letters from Scarlett Dragna to the mysterious ‘Legend’. Legend runs an annual event called Caraval. Not much is known about Caraval except that it involves players and magic and possibly a little adventure. But all Scarlett can do is dream, stuck on an island with an abusive father, engaged to marry a nobleman who she has never met and sworn to protect her impetuous younger sister. When tickets arrive for Caraval a week before her wedding, Scarlett baulks at the chance but her sister has other ideas. Caraval, it turns out is a giant game. For five days, competitors try to solve a mystery in a magic city that is a little reminiscent of Venice. Gameplay can only take place at night and it turns out very quickly that the object of this year’s quest is Scarlett’s missing sister Tella. Scarlett is helped by the mysterious, good looking sailor who helped them travel to the island and…

Swarm by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 28/11/2016

The misfit powered teens from last year’s Zeroes, co-written by YA powerhouse team Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti, are back for another go round in Swarm. And like all good sequels, Swarm finds their world expanding considerably and, with that expansion the dangers they face. The book opens six months after the somewhat catastrophic events of Zeroes. The six teens have opened an illegal nightclub called the Petri Dish as a way of testing and refining their powers. But while the club provides them with a safe haven, their activities have attracted some unwelcome attention. They soon realise something that should have been obvious to them – they are not the only Zeroes in the world. While the Zeroes have been trying to use their powers responsibly (or at least not destructively), it turns out that others are not so conscientious. When their club is crashed by two teens with new abilities the Zeroes find themselves in the crosshairs of a deadly Zero known only as Swarm who (it seems) enjoys killing other Zeroes (shades of the early seasons of powered-people TV series Heroes here). Once again, the issues of just being a young adult are front and centre…

Gemina by Kaufman and Kristoff

The elevator pitch for Gemina goes something like this: imagine a cross between Aliens, Die Hard, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Romeo and Juliet. Not surprising given this is the sequel to the Aurealis-award winning Illuminae (reviewed here), a book that managed to mash up elements from Battlestar Galactica, 2001, 28 Days Later and possibly something by Nicholas Sparks. Gemina, a geek’s delight, has all of these elements and plenty more (even Firefly gets a shoutout). It advances the corporate conspiracy plot of Illuminae while focussing once again a few incredibly resourceful teens. At the end of Illuminae (spoiler alert) the survivors on the Hypatia are heading towards a wormhole that will jump them to a space station called Heimdall. Gemina opens on Heimdall on the eve on an invasion organised by the Beitech Corporation trying to clean up its mess by destroying the Hypatia. Hanna, the daughter of the station commander, Nik, a member of the House of Knives crime gang, and his cousin Ella end up being the only ones standing between the twenty-four armed to the teeth mercenaries and destruction of the Hypatia. Well, them an a bunch of hungry, slimy, four-headed aliens loose on the…

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 27/09/2016

Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere is a heady mix of time travel, fantasy, romance and historical fiction for young adults. Nix Song, a sixteen year old lives on a tall ship called the Temptation, captained by her father Slate. Slate has the power to navigate the ship anywhere in time and space so long as he has a written map to guide him. But there is only one thing Slate wants – to return to Honolulu in 1865 and prevent his partner from dying just after she gave birth to Nix. The question that troubles Nix is what might happen to her and her life if he succeeds. Nix is probably the least interesting character in the book. A plucky teenager with father issues and a burgeoning but fairly chaste love life, caught between her roguish shipmate Kashmir and the more straightlaced, shore-bound Blake. But this blandness also makes Nix the perfect guide to this world for the intended audience of the novel, which would be teenage girls at the younger end of the young adult spectrum. As if the time travel element is not enough, there is more than a smattering of fantasy in The Girl from Everywhere…