Legacy by Michelle Lowe: Book Review

LegacyVeteran indie author Michelle Lowe gave me a free eBook copy of her seventh book Legacy — the first in a seven-part Steampunk series — in exchange for an honest review. Not wanting to let the author down (and I must apologise to Michelle for taking so long to get around to reading it as well; I generally don’t do well reading books off of computer screens), I was really delighted when Legacy turned out to be a well-written, fast-paced adventure that takes place across both sides of the English Channel. It features a whole host of well-illustrated characters that I couldn’t help but love.

Archie Norwich, son of the nobleman Tarquin Norwich, is sent out by his father to find the notorious Pierce Landcross — a wanted fugitive and a thief. Tarquin wishes to interrogate Landcross on the location of the mysterious toymaker Indigo Peachtree and his even more mysterious journal which contains the key to world domination. Accompanying Archie, Pierce and Tarquin in their race for the journal are Archie’s plucky and resourceful sister Clover, his troubled alcoholic brother Ivor, Pierce’s possessed brother Joaquin, an airship manned by Apache slave-liberators, gypsy travellers, vampires and more.

Without a doubt, Michelle’s beloved anti-hero steals the show. Pierce Landcross is the absolute highlight of this book with his debonair wit, glittering cleverness and inconvenient moral compass that gets him both into and out of scrapes with reckless abandon. He played well off of the staunchly uptight, feckless Archie, whom I wanted to strangle several times, and both he and Archie had a really endearing relationship with Archie’s little sister Clover. Michelle is really good at “show don’t tell” when it comes to her writing, and she isn’t afraid to knock her characters about a bit either. Characterisation is definitely her greatest strength.

Michelle LoweFor me personally the plot was a little bit all over the place. Whilst being fun and really quite complex with a lot of twists and turns to keep me guessing, we did end up travelling great distances across the country from one place to another without any major inconveniences. Everyone seemed to know straight away where their targets were (this is discounting Mother of Craft’s supernatural hints to Tarquin) and were able to find each other just a little too easily despite being miles apart. There were also a couple of points that threw me out of the story completely, such as the baffling Prologue (we never hear from Jack Pack and Thooranu again) and the mysterious Mother Of Craft, although her role will most likely play out in later books. World-building was also regrettably thin on the ground, the Steampunk elements in particular being quite downplayed; the Apache airship was the only real tell that I was able to pick up on and I think Michelle can definitely afford to up the ante in later books.

Overall I really enjoyed Legacy and feel it sets up the series very well. I really loved all the characters and thought Michelle’s writing was tight and nicely paced, completely devoid of purple prose and overly long sentences that notoriously bog down the fantasy genre. I recommend it for anyone looking for well-written, fast and rollicking adventure. I am really looking forward to Book 2, and I hope to actually buy a copy this time!

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Michelle Lowe and the world of Legacy, please visit the below links:

http://www.michellelowe.net/
http://www.nordlandpublishing.com/titles/legacy/

Michelle also has a really lovely little .PDF where you can meet all of her characters! Totally stealing this idea for my own website at some point. Watch this space…

 

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Book Review

The Miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist is the much-hyped debut novel of the very talented Jessie Burton. Subject to a publishing bidding war before it was even released to near-universal acclaim in 2014, it eventually went on to be crowned Waterstone’s Book of the Year just in time for Christmas. As a result, the book was reprinted in a simply gorgeous cloth-bound cover with a pretty gold ribbon-bookmark. To be entirely honest, I didn’t think a story about a dollhouse set in 17th century Amsterdam sounded terribly exciting. I feared that the writing would be stuffy and dull. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for pretty collectible books, so I bought it anyway and just left it on my shelves until I ran out of other things to read.

I was right about one thing. A story about a dollhouse in 17th century Amsterdam probably wouldn’t have been terribly exciting. It’s therefore a very good thing that The Miniaturist is not really about a dollhouse. It’s not even about the elusive titular Miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror the protagonist’s life in disconcertingly prophetic ways. It is about the dollhouse’s owner, eighteen-year-old Petranella Oortman who, after having grown up in the quiet countryside, must now adapt to vibrant city-living following her marriage to the wealthy, charismatic merchant, Johannes Brandt. Upon arriving in Amsterdam however, with no one but her pet parakeet Peeboo for company, Nella is greeted not by Brandt, but by his sharp-tongued deliberately cagey sister, Marin. It isn’t long before Nella deduces that the Brandts are keeping one or two very big, very dark, dangerous secrets from her. When Nella discovers precisely what those secrets are… well. Soon the canals of Amsterdam – a city as morally backward as it is commercially vibrant and progressive – begin to flow with blood instead of water.

The Miniaturist
Jessie Burton

Simply put this book is absolutely gripping and beautifully executed, from its gorgeous clothbound cover to its sharp, concise and evocative writing. Jessie Burton does not fall into the trap of telling her story in an outdated, laboured fashion, as many other historical-fiction writers are prone to do. The descriptions of Amsterdam are stunning, inserted subtly into the most unexpected places to achieve great effect. For example, one of the book’s very first lines is, ‘Words flow like water in Amsterdam’, which not only conjures images of the canals but also cleverly foreshadows the spilling of secrets and the foreboding nature of water. The plot is tight and surprisingly violent, completely subverting my expectations; I was not able to guess at a single revelation. The times when I actually knew what was going to happen, I was filled with such dread that I willed myself to be wrong. Every single character, from the naïve newly-wed Nella to the quiet, anguished servant Otto, are crafted as meticulously and realistically as the Miniaturist’s dolls. Johannes Brandt’s sister Marin in particular – so stoic and fierce in her religious fervour and hypocrisy – was an absolute tour-de-force of a character, completely unpredictable, and I loved her.

Petranella Oortman's dollhouse
Petranella Oortman’s Cabinet House, on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

It’s interesting to note whilst we’re on the subject of characters that although Jessie Burton was inspired by the magnificent cabinet house owned by a real person called Petranella Oortman (who really was married to a merchant called Johannes Brandt in 17th century Amsterdam), everything she writes about their their lives – including their familial relations – is completely and utterly made-up. I found this very odd, and I’m not sure it was a very ethical thing to do (particularly where Johannes Brandt is concerned). I do not think the story would have suffered from a few simple name changes.

Any issues I had with this however, along with the ambiguous abilities of the Miniaturist, paled in comparison to everything else I enjoyed about this book. I didn’t want it to end, but at the same time couldn’t stop myself from reading, so emotionally invested was I in the fates of the characters. By the time I had turned the final page, I was at a complete loss, not only in terms of what I’d just read but also in terms of what on earth I was going to read next. The fact that this is a debut novel makes Jessie Burton’s achievement all the more impressive. I loved this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Verdict: 5/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist, please visit her official website:

http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/

The Whispers In The Walls by Sophie Cleverly: Book Review

Sophie Cleverly | The Whispers In The WallsThe Whispers in the Walls is the second instalment of Sophie Cleverly’s Scarlet & Ivy series, set in 1935 within the forbidding walls of Rookwood; a boarding school for girls. Clever but reserved Ivy Grey – protagonist of The Lost Twin – is back and I couldn’t be happier to read her voice again, but this time her more vociferous twin Scarlet is firmly in tow, with her own point of view chapters and distinctive presence on the page.

For those of you who have not read The Lost Twin and are in the mood for a tightly-written, good old fashioned boarding-school gothic mystery (I rated it 5 stars out of 5 on Goodreads), I highly recommend that you do so before you a) pick up The Whispers in the Walls and b) continue reading this review. The book is middle-grade reading-level and aimed at children aged 8-12.

The basic premise of The Whispers In The Walls is that in spite of events that occurred in The Lost Twin, Scarlet and Ivy Grey are forced by their gutless father and manipulative stepmother to return to Rookwood, only to discover that Miss Fox’s reign of terror is not yet over. Instead it is to continue – and worse – under the iron rod of Headmaster Bartholomew, whose eyes are fixed firmly on troublemaking Scarlet following a spate of thefts. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following her stint in the asylum and determined to regain Ivy’s trust, Scarlet sets out to prove her innocence, which leads to a startling and sinister discovery hidden deep within Rookwood’s walls.

The major development between the first book and this one is that the story is no longer narrated solely by Ivy. The twins alternate first-person point of view chapters with their names at the top of each one, which I must confess I didn’t like as much. Even via the diary entries in The Lost Twin, one got a sense of Scarlet’s domineering, obstinate nature. Now that she has been given free reign in The Whispers In The Walls, she rather overshadows Ivy. I thought that this was a shame, especially since Ivy coming into her own was such an important theme in The Lost Twin. Also, because the twins are often occupying the same space, talking with the same people and doing similar things, I sometimes got confused as to which twin’s point of view I was actually reading at the time, and often had to go back and check. I couldn’t help but wonder if the story could not have been told just as well, if not better, had the author just stuck with one twin’s point of view. That being said, Scarlet is a great character; her selfish bullheadedness, particularly where poor Ivy is concerned, is in equal parts endearing as it is frustrating. A part of me really does wish that we had learned more about what she endured at the asylum via some form of exposition scene with Ivy, but then I suppose Sophie Cleverly is limited to what she can include in a children’s book. In terms of other ‘new’ characters we are not introduced to many  (Vile Violet indirectly featured in The Lost Twin via Scarlet’s diary entries). I was very fond of the distractible librarian Catastrophe Jones however, and hope she crops up again in the next book.

Like The Lost Twin, mystery fogs the pages, and I found myself not being able to entirely predict for a moment what was going to happen next. Here I think is where Sophie Cleverly excels. She’s very good at throwing out red herrings and directing your suspicions elsewhere, and even if you do kind of half-guess the outcome, there’s always something else waiting in the wings to take you by surprise. The ending in particular was a bit of a curveball and promises further intrigue in the next book, however it was a bit of a shame that The Whispers In The Walls story felt unresolved as a result of this cliffhanger.

There were also a couple of moments in here that stretched the realms of believability beyond what I was prepared to accept – such as a teacher beating a student enough to break her arm without incurring some form of formal investigation, or students wandering around the school in the middle of the night amidst a draconian crackdown without bumping into a single patrol. The fact that Headmaster Bartholomew was also able to continue Miss Fox’s deception successfully – that Scarlet never left Rookwood – was a bit much. Miss Fox’s deception was contained between only herself and Ivy, whilst Headmaster Bartholomew’s deception relies not only upon several members of staff but also several of the students to play along. I feel like everyone went along with this a little too quietly, especially Scarlet and Ivy themselves, who did not even have the motivation to remain at Rookwood. There were a few incidents like this throughout the book that took me out of the story a little bit, meaning that I did not immerse myself in it quite as much as I would have liked to.

All in all, as is probably evident by my constant comparisons, I did not enjoy The Whispers In The Walls anywhere near as much as I did The Lost Twin. I suspect this might be because nothing much has really changed aside from the introduction of Scarlet’s narrative voice, which, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure really worked. I don’t think anything new was tried here, and some of the things that I really love about the Scarlet & Ivy series – such as the resourceful, intelligent characters, playground politics, the ballet studio, untrustworthy and inept adults and the nostalgic boarding-school atmosphere – were executed better in the The Lost Twin than they were here. However, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the third book in the series, The Dance In The Dark, and I still like Scarlet, Ivy and Sophie Cleverly’s crisp, pacy writing style very much indeed.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information about Sophie Cleverly and the Scarlet & Ivy series, please visit her official website here:

http://www.hapfairy.co.uk/

Sophie also runs a music blog centred around my favourite genre, Symphonic Metal:

http://hapfairy.blogspot.co.uk/