The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This month’s Waterstones Book of the Month is an absolute joy of a début novel from a bright new talent, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who has already made a name for herself through her work as a poet and playwright.

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The Girl of Ink & Stars is the tale of Isabella, the daughter of a cartographer forbidden to travel outside of the small island village Gromera, which she calls home. Through her father’s maps and stories, Isabella dreams of a world she’s never seen and yearns for a chance to follow in his footsteps; to map the island she lives on and to see the world across the sea. When her best friend, the Governor’s Daughter Lupe, goes missing into the forests that border the village, Isabella is determined that she is the only person equipped to find her – relying on her study of maps and stars to track Lupe accurately and swiftly. It’s outside of the safety of her home that she starts to understand why the rest of the island has always been out of bounds, and starts to realise that the stories and myths that she grew up with might be a lot closer to home than she first realised.

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Good lord do I love a good map in a book.

This book is traditional children’s storytelling at its very best. Isabella is shot through with powerful curiosity and courage, and Lupe is filled with confidence and determination, and the two of them are the perfect two sides of the coin to Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, and through them the story is given its sense of whimsy and wonder, as well as its pace and tension. The Governor is another highlight as a character too – his motives being shadowy and complex, morally grounded if muddier in their execution. The real main character of the book though, is the Isle of Joya itself – a beautifully tragic and richly imagined home filled with myth and folklore that pulls so much from ancient stories of warrior princesses, crazed demons and dizzying labyrinths. The way the island is described – its history, the lack of animals, the grey and ashen trees and strange empty villages – all create a real sense of age and melancholy that counteracts the story’s two main characters and creates a battle between hope and fate that weaves into words, underlying the narrative.

Kiran’s skill as a poet shines through the way the story is told too, filled with rich language and lyrical passages that make it seem as though the story and the setting are singing as your work through it, filling the whole plot with a sense of magic, wonder and beauty. Plus, the book is simply sublime as an object, with gorgeous pages dotted with golden illustration, a striking choice in font style & colour and an absolutely beautiful fold out map that serves as a jacket (which I actually squealed at upon first seeing) – it really reminded me of the first time I picked up a copy of The Hobbit, and the feeling of ancient, deep world building you get from looking at something so beautifully crafted.

The Girl of Ink & Stars is the magic of J.K. Rowling and Diana Wynne-Jones wearing the adventure pyjamas of Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell. It’s exactly the fun and feel a future classic Children’s novel should have, and I utterly adored it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. You can pick up a copy at your local Waterstones, or on the website HERE.

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The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

Melinda’s debut, The Sin Eater’s Daughter, was last year’s best selling UKYA debut – a tragic mix of dark fantasy and rich romance that I thoroughly enjoyed. Shot through with a twisted “princess in the tower” idea, but much more sinister, the book hinted at a larger, older and fully fleshed out universe that I was really eager to get more from, always bleeding into the edges of the story but not quiet showing itself. Yeah, well The Sleeping Prince steps it up a gear or five.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Following a new set of characters in a different part of the world, and shortly after the events of the first book, The Sleeping Prince is the story of impoverished apothecary Errin Vastel – the sister of the first book’s character Lief. She lives a meagre life, scraping together potions to sell on the black market to attempt to keep herself fed and with a roof over her head. With her father dead, and her brother away working to try and bring in some extra coin, Errin has to support not only herself, but also her mother, whose rapidly deteriorating mental health is starting to become more and more taxing – and dangerous. War in Lomere, with the mythical Sleeping Prince soon starts to spill across the border and threatens to shatter Errin’s already unstable world, and soon she finds she has no choice but to flee her home with her mother, relying on the help of one of her customers – the mysterious and enigmatic Silas, who she has been selling potions and poisons to. She’s never even seen his face, as he stays constantly cloaked and shrouded in darkness. But who else can she turn to? As the Sleeping Princes army starts to murder and burn its way across Tregellan she must flee, and if the officials found out about her mother’s conditions they’d lock her away in an asylum. Errin can’t lose the only member of family she has left.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

If I ever had one thing that I struggled with in TSED, it was a heavy romantic plotline – it’s not my usual thing. The Sleeping Prince moves in a very different direction though, examining the rapidly unravelling threads of a family in complete crisis. Errin is a brilliant lead, resourceful and smart, she’s filled with fear and doubt, but she constantly pushes through with the weary determination of someone who has nowhere else to turn. Her world, and the underhanded desperate measures she takes to survive make her feel a much rougher and more worldly main character than Twylla, filled with shades of grey and a ruthlessness that fills her decisions and actions with a manic sense of drive.

Where the first story is the slow burning tale of political subterfuge, book two is an out and out war novel, and it pulls absolutely no punches. Melinda uses the plot to examine the true horrors of war in a fantasy setting, but she never lets it be viewed through a rose-tinted lens. The horrifically brutal war crimes of the Sleeping Prince are told through hushed, terrified rumour, and the painfully close-to-home treatment of Lomere’s refugees that Errin sees on her travels is a stark echo of current events. The whole book is driven forward with the frantic pace of an invasion, with the swirling out of control sense of being just one person swept up in something so huge and impossible to fight against that the whole book is beautifully chaotic.

I stole this photo from Mel's website but it's okay. She thinks I'm all right.

I stole this photo from Mel’s website but it’s okay. She thinks I’m all right.

The Sleeping Prince was everything that I wanted the next step in this saga to take – it builds on the rich mythology that clearly Salisbury has been developing for years, and it ramps everything up to eleven – the drama is more dramatic, the violence more visceral and animated, and the characters are more ambiguous, cut-throat and determined. This is a world at war, with characters desperate for survival and success, and a story filled with so many twists and dead drops that it’s breathlessly compelling.

Well done, Melinda, you terrible, beautiful Queen.

All hail!

D

P.S. You can follow Melinda on Twitter here, and you should because she’s a wonderful human.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Last year I lamented my own woeful writing skills when compared to the glowing writing talents displayed in Rundell’s multi-award winning Rooftoppers, a sublime children’s tale filled with heart and drama. So when The Wolf Wilder, her latest offering, promised a snowy adventure in revolutionary Russia, driven by wolves and a fiercely strident heroine, plus illustrations to boot, I knew we were in for a Children’s Classic of the future.

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Tell me that isn’t gorgeous. I dare you.

Feodora (Feo to you) and her mother live in the snowy forests of Northern Russia, distant from the prying eyes of civilisation. They’re Wolf Wilders, a mysterious group of independent forest folk who dedicate their lives to taking spoiled wolves from bored aristocrats and training them to become wild again – showing them how to hunt, how to run and how to howl. Revolution is blowing on the sharp winter winds though, and the Russian military is slamming an iron fist down on the freedom of people like Feo and her mother, preferring an orderly public to control and subdue. When soldiers arrive in the night, and Feo’s mother is taken into the freezing storm for crimes against the Tsar, only Feo, a reluctant young soldier named Ilya, and a her pack of wild wolves can hope to rescue her – although it means fighting an army, breaking into a citadel-like prison and maybe even sparking a revolution. All Feo wants is to live with her mother free to do as they please, and she’s willing to fight until the bitter end for it.

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Sublime black and white illustrations reflect the powerful words too.

Wow. Just wow. Where Rooftoppers was a sweet, touching tale, The Wolf Wilder is a swirling storm of power and emotion. Rundell has knocked it out of the park. This is seriously breathtaking writing and a book that stands so far out of the crowd that it refuses to be ignored.

Feo takes after so many independent and tenaciously wilful heroines before her (Lyra from Pullman’s His Dark Materials echoed throughout her), and her morals and bright, burning sense of right and wrong as vibrant and weave through the entire story. Her mother’s quieter wisdom helps aim the young girl with the wild precision of a hunting wolf, and the two of them have a fierce, beautiful relationship that made my heart ache and swell to read. Ilya is a superb companion for Feo too, gentle and softer, but just as idealistic and driven, and as we watch him blossom and begin to understand the different kinds of bravery that you can see in the world, we can’t help but love his open heart. One of the beautiful things about all of the characters in The Wolf Wilder is how expertly they shun any need for gender stereotypes, and I loved that any nod towards them is met with scorn and aggression by the protagonists. Of all the characters in the story though, the wolves are the ones who shine so beautifully, each with perfectly crafted personalities and instantly recognisable behaviours, they’re the literal representation of Feo and her mother’s world – helping to fight because they choose to, not because they’re forced to.

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I strongly recommend this beauty too…

One of the things that made The Wolf Wilder such a superbly delightful book to read is Rundell’s use of language, which is quite frankly, second to none. I remember being enthralled by Rooftoppers and how it wove words and sentences, and this book really takes her skills as a wordsmith and lets them explode and blossom. She uses words the way musicians use notes, the way artists use paint, like an extension of her. Metaphors and similes litter the narrative in a lilting, poetic style that creates a lyrical feel to the whole story which makes reading every page an orchestra experience of emotion. It’s this level of sophistication that really fights back against the idea that Children’s Books are simplistic, unsophisticated stepping stones. The Wolf Wilder is a work of literary beauty that tackles themes and ideas that are just as important to adults as they are to children – right and wrong, freedom, family, strength, bravery, sacrifice. It’s emotionally articulate and fiercely intelligent, refusing to simplify itself and remaining one of the best Children’s Books of the last few years because of it.

Combined with hauntingly beautiful ink illustrations, The Wolf Wilder is the full package. A book that is going to be read for generations, and in hardback it makes a gorgeous classic to keep and cherish.

Thanks for Reading.

D

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I’m not just saying all this nice stuff because she signed my book. BUT STILL ❤

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I’ve never read any Frances Hardinge before, which is odd – her books are huge critical successes and always seem to wrapped in a subtle darkness and a quiet, wry sense of humour that would be just my sort of thing. But I’ve just never got round to them, so I thought I’d start with The Lie Tree… and let’s just say that I’ll be picking up her backlist pretty soon.

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The Lie Tree tells the story of Faith Sunderly and her family, headed by the eminent natural scientist and eternally stoic Reverend Sunderly, who are heading to the remote island of Vane, chased from mainland England by a scandal that has accused her father of faking fossil discoveries. Faith idolises her father, in a society where woman are never able to study sciences or be taken seriously in academia. She longs to win his approval, but she will only ever be the disappointment of not being a son, despite her natural curiosity and fierce intelligence. The rumours from the mainland have reached the island town of Vane though, and the family are treated with distrust and outright hatred by the islanders. Faith is sure that the accusations are false, but how can she prove it if she can never be taken as anything more than a silly, emotional woman? Then she learns of The Lie Tree – a strange botanical curiosity that feeds on whispered lies, and bears fruit that gives hidden truths when eaten. The wider a lie is believed, the bigger the tree will grow, and the more potent the fruit it can bare. Faith may not be able to fight the rumbles of her Father’s fakery in the open, but she certainly can use her hidden position afforded by her gender to create a web of lies to feed the tree and uncover the truth.

Hardinge's début won awards and huge acclaim.

Hardinge’s début won awards and huge acclaim.

Layers and layers of The Lie Tree are beautifully woven, hinging off the complex plot and wonderfully diverse characters. Faith is beautiful in her flawed nature, so hopeful and positive, but as the plot develops, she becomes ruthlessly cunning, letting her natural intelligence burn through. I loved her absolutely, because of how often she made bad choices, or actively chose to do bad things because of her convictions. It was also absolutely heart breaking to see how quickly and easily she’s dismissed throughout the story because she’s a woman – reflecting the awful beliefs inherent in the society around her. The way her obsession builds and whirls chaotically is a reflection of her powerful nature, expertly hidden beneath a mask of demure ladylike composure. The characters around her are startlingly well rounded as well, The Reverend Sunderly being a stoic and composed man on the surface, but churning underneath with bitterness and obsession that rivals his daughter, and Faith’s mother being a phenomenally pragmatic, driven and cunning woman who has learned over years and years of being the invisible woman behind a well-respected man, how to use what society lets her have to her best advantage.

The plot of The Lie Tree is slow, but has an inevitable force that drives it forward. It spins and twists like a lazy autumn storm, dropping sudden plot falls and pulling the story around in all sorts of leaps and unexpected directions. It grows, much like the eponymous tree, with startlingly dark power creeping underneath every single sentence, and touches upon some dark and uncomfortable subjects based around the entrenched sexism and downright dismissal of woman as anything but inferior to men that were (and continue to be) so entrenched in Academia and Sciences (the idea that women have smaller skulls, and are therefore not as intelligent as men is sickening).

This was my first experience with Hardinge’s writing style, and it’s painfully brilliant and evocative and descriptive and ace. The way she describes the sea in particular is so wonderfully haunting and wild that I fell in love with her whole style of writing at once – I do have such a fondness for the sea. She uses metaphors in such a twistingly unique way that it makes the words crackle with potential and menace as the story unfolds.

I loved this line so very much.

I loved this line so very much.

The Lie Tree is a wonderfully dark tale of pain, anguish and revenge with a stunning tinge of magical realism that brings it into a historical-dream-like reality. I loved every second of it, as it whipped me into its tragic, powerful and desperate narrative.

Thanks for Reading, if you did.

D

The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

Melinda’s twisting gothic fantasy debut has been one of the most anticipated UKYA releases of the year for quite a while now. Promising passion, darkness and political intrigue, its set to be the first in a hotly received trilogy that should set hearts racing and minds turning.

The jacket is totally gorgeous.

The jacket is totally gorgeous.

Twylla is the embodiment of a goddess, Daunen, the daughter of the son and the moon. It’s her destiny to marry a prince, to become a queen of Lormere and to rule as one of the most powerful people in the world. What more could any young woman hope for? A life of wealth and tranquillity as a member of the last great royal family? But Twylla’s life isn’t that simple – or tranquil, because being Daunen embodied means she carries within her the poisonous ability to kill with a single touch. A single moment of skin to skin contact with anyone not of royal blood will end in an agonising death. It’s these horrific powers that give Twylla her other purpose in the court – as executioner. Anyone who commits high treason, or even displeases the current queen, is sentenced to death at the instantly lethal touch of the goddess embodied. Twylla is less a princess-in-waiting and more a toxic weapon of a powerful, authoritarian monarchy, and it’s a lonely, miserable existence – No-one wants to be within arm’s reach of the palace’s most potent weapon. Even the guards who are with her every moment of her life keep her at a distance, staying cold and unemotional towards the teenager prisoner. Until her new guard arrives. Lief comes from a neighbouring country, one without any dogmatic religion or all-powerful monarchy – and one where questioning the norms is embraced instead of a death sentence. He’s outspoken and brash, caring little for the tired old traditions of Lomere’s court, and he has the audacity to be drawn towards this mysterious and highly dangerous young woman he’s charged with protecting. Twylla is fascinated by her new companion, finally sharing her singular existence with someone who isn’t terrified of her, who’ll tell her stories of the world outside the palace. As the two of them grow closer, the snaking politics of the palace’s court start to pulse with unease, and the Queen begins to grow ever more forceful and brutal in her rule. Twylla can’t be with anyone but the prince, Dorian. But her heart yearns for freedom.

Well, one thing I will say about The Sin Eater’s Daughter is that Melinda has a real passion for her characters, and Twylla in particular is dark, moody and yet innocent and naïve all at once. She takes on her responsibility as court appointed executioner resolutely, but with a heavy heart, and her hatred of what she does stops her from losing her humanity. The whole story is told from her perspective, and that lends the reader her lonely melancholy and frustration as she describes a wider world that she’s only ever heard of. We want to see more of this fantastical, slightly old and antiquated country that seems to lurk just outside of the stories pages, teasing us with years of bloody, brutal history. Lief’s scepticism was an aspect of his character that I really enjoyed too, and hearing him champion reason and logic over the thoughts of Gods and magical poisons was especially refreshing in a Fantasy novel setting. His devil-may-care charm and recklessness make him a fun character too, although his unpredictability later in the book make him seem dangerous as opposed to simply mischievous, and he develops in unexpected ways.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is beautifully written, and Melinda has a serious talent for descriptive, rich and textured language use. The whole book is full of gorgeous analogies and short passages that describe the world around her characters absolutely brilliantly. I think the only thing I didn’t get on with in the story was the romance aspect – which anyone who knows me will not be surprised. I don’t get on well with strong romantic themes, and in this book, it’s probably the central driving point of the story. Whilst I couldn’t get on board with it, it isn’t badly written in the slightest, and the character’s passions are written with real energy and heat that I could absolutely appreciate. Melinda taps into the lust that comes with first loves really well, and as the relationship develops and begins to find new layers, it becomes darker, and that was something that I started to enjoy more. The end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter starts to bring in bigger supernatural themes, tapping into folklore and original aspects of fairy tales with an enchantingly dark twist, and it’s something that I really wanted to see more of. I suppose this is the first book in a trilogy, so she’s keeping her big reveal for the next book, but she tantalisingly teases out the implications and promises a horrible, dark and unrelenting change in pace for her second instalment. Much like Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, I’m fully expecting the next book to be a full on riot of powerful drama and breath taking fantasy that uses The Sin Eater’s Daughter as the building blocks to an epic series.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

D

You can buy The Sin Eater’s Daughter here.

You can follow Melinda Salisbury on Twitter here.

One Wish by Michelle Harrison

Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for June was one that I’d been looking forward to for a while. I read Michelle’s Thirteen Treasures trilogy in my first year as a bookseller (The misty mists of 2010), and absolutely adored them for their degree of Spiderwick Chronicles charm, dark, unsettling fantasy, and celebration of English folklore and the countryside that spawned it. Then I read Unrest, her first book aimed at an older age bracket (it’s in your local Teen section, hopefully), and was once again wrapped in mystery, history and chills in a Woman in Black inspired horror novel (perfect for fans of James Dawson’s Say Her Name). So when I found out she was releasing a new book, after quite a long break away from writing (something about having a baby… What an excuse!), and that it was going to be a prequel to her original trilogy, I was so very excited…

The jacket belies some of the darker twists in this book!

The jacket belies some of the darker twists in this book!

Tanya Fairchild has always been able to see fairies. All her life, she’s seen them, but it isn’t the perfect childhood dream that most little girls might dream of. Fairies are mean spirited, full of tricks and pranks that have hampered her whole life, and without her parents being able to see them, or anyone else she knows for that matter, she can’t talk to anyone without looking completely crazy. The fairies seem to leave her alone if she doesn’t try to talk about them to others, so for so many years, she gets by not mentioning them, trying to cover up the tricks they play before she gets accused of anything. After her parents divorced, Tanya and her mother decide to take a trip to the countryside to try and forget things for a few weeks, and whilst they’re holidaying in the sleepy seaside town of Spinney Wicket, Tanya discovers a whole new world of the Fae, fairies and their kin, and she meets Ratty. Henry Hanratty is a boy around her age, who travels up and down the country with his father, living a nomad life in their camper – and he can see fairies. Meeting someone else who has the Second Sight is a huge revelation to Tanya, and he seems to know everything about the Fae world. He even has a friendly fairy (though only friendly to him), a one-winged guardian called Turpin. The two of them become fast friends, until Ratty’s father fails to return home one night. And then some strange creatures whisk Ratty away before Tanya’s very eyes, leaving her and the difficult, magicless Turpin to solve a mystery that stretches back in time, and through the Fey world and our own – a mystery of missing memories, imagination and life and death itself.

The new jackets for the Treasures Trilogy are lovely - I'm a fan of the fox costume.

The new jackets for the Treasures Trilogy are lovely – I’m a fan of the fox costume.

One Wish picks up the tone of the Thirteen Treasures trilogy and continues it perfectly, as if there’d never been a break in them at all. Tanya is a brilliantly bright protagonist, intelligent and curious, with a good sense of adventure, but balanced by a level head, and through her uncover of the Fey world, the reader gets to learn things along with her. She’s tenacious and determined, and her dedication to her friends makes her so much fun as a main character. Turpin is brilliant, probably my favourite character in the book, with her sullen, child-like ways, and her glee in petty mischief and the misfortune of others – but she has heart, amongst it all. She’s slow to trust, but those she does trust are protected by her with her life, and she can be incredibly selfless when she chooses to be. Solomon makes a great villain, an equal balance of determined drive with a genuinely noble (if misguided) cause that makes him sympathetic instead of a standard bad-guy caricature. It’s Morghul who gives the story its real malevolence, emerging from Ratty’s subconscious like some kind of childhood nightmare brought into the flesh. His faceless, unstoppable form makes him genuinely terrifying…

It’s good to see that Michelle hasn’t lost her ability to create worlds with humour, horror and adventure, and the chase across the river is a particularly stand out moment for me, with page-gripping action, and a relentless horror on their heels. I couldn’t read fast enough.

One Wish is a brilliant summer read, a brilliantly fun, engaging story full of classic English folklore, tension and friendship. I strongly recommend reading it whilst sat under a tree.

Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

Last year, Sarah J. Maas’ debut fantasy novel, Throne of Glass, made a massive impression on the Teen literature circuit. Her follow up to this unique blend of fantasy, mystery & romance is due on the 15th of August, but I was lucky enough to snatch a proof from the publishers…

Obviously, spoilers for book one will follow from here.

The UK Jacket, showing Celaena in all her glory.

The UK Jacket, showing Celaena in all her glory.

Picking up some months after Celaena Sardothien, the famed ruthless assassin, is appointed the King’s Champion, after a brutal, supernatural contest, Crown of Midnight sees the heroine out doing her duty for the king she despises so much. Doing all she can to make targets “disappear”, without actually having to kill for the sadistic ruler’s pleasure, Celaena walks a fine line between upholding her morals & risking not only her own death, but also the execution of her closest friend & captain of the royal guard, Chaol Westfall. When the King orders her investigation of an underground rebel group, led by an old friend, Celaena sees an opportunity to investigate what they know about the King’s shadowy actions, especially after her midnight contacting from the ghostly first Queen, Elena, to warn her that something dark & powerful is rising in the great glass castle. Having flashbacks of the previous year’s demonic struggle with her rival Cain, Celaena struggles to keep her own secrets, protect her friends & do what’s right… But as her blossoming relationship with Captain Westfall becomes more of a distraction, she finds her focus slipping, & Prince Dorian & Princess Nehemia are keeping things from her. How can she solve the mystery of a powerful tyrant, without losing the person she’s managed to become? Can she become the ruthless assassin, trusting no-one & doing anything to get what she wants?

So, how does Crown of Midnight fair as a sequel? Better than book one, that’s for sure! Where the first book was a Hunger Games-esque series of contests with a dark subplot, book two is a much more open, free plot that flits from different locations & weaves a really dark, textural mystery that reminds of a court-based thriller, with a magical twist. All the brilliant characters return from book one, including my favourite, the elusive Princess Nehemia, who continues as a mysterious presence in the court knowing more than she ever lets on. Dorian really grows as a character too, struggling with his conflicting feelings towards his father’s rule & his own moral growth, & some of his revelations throughout the book are the most gripping passages in the plot. In the first book, my major bugbear was the heavy focus on the romantic element, which I felt undermined some of Celaena’s back story as a merciless assassin. I have to say, the romance is still present in Crown of Midnight, but it’s handled in way that is much more in-keeping with her character. In fact, in this book, some of her fight scenes are downright awesome, whirring, blending action that keeps the reader glued to the page in short, succinct sections of explosive violence.

Outside of the character development, the plot in Crown of Midnight is full of dark twists & also one pretty devastating revelation (I gasped out loud). The demonic undertones lend the book an uneasy sense of tension, & the investigation into the world’s history was something I had really hoped for after book one. The use of parallel worlds also creates an expansive universe beyond the original setting. The shadowy work of the King & his council is also tantalisingly teased out to the reader in mysterious slivers, implying the next book to have a massive revelation which I personally can’t wait to get to read!

Book 1 was an unstoppable success!

Book 1 was an unstoppable success!

A great sequel, an action packed Fantasy & a twisting mystery, with a sweeping, star-crossed romance thrown in, Crown of Midnight takes what its predecessor offered & times it by ten, giving readers a rollercoaster of emotions & action. It should be a big hit for Autumn!

D