Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer


Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff VanderMeer

Science Fiction| Fantasy | 195 Pages | Published by Fourth Estate in 2014

| Rating |

Imagine, if you will, that you are lost within an alien landscape. You do not know whether you have left this earth or crossed through an alternative dimension, or whether you yet remain in a strange forgotten corner of the world. The only thing which connects you to the rest of humanity is a journal. A journal of a woman whose name you do not know, whose life is slowly unfolding as you turn the cracked and brittle pages, and whose fate will yet remain a mystery at its close.

Annihilation is a strange, disquieting and eerily beautiful novel which takes the reader on an expedition into Area X; where those who enter leave changed, if they leave at all. This is a tale of discovery and quiet observation, a preternatural mystery which should be slowly savoured until you are nothing but lost in the wilds of VanderMeer’s imagination.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

Annihilation follows the expedition of an unnamed protagonist, the biologist, as she journeys into Area X, a mysterious and extensive partition of land under an apparent imposed quarantine. Previous expeditions have entered but all have returned altered, if they returned at all.

Together with a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, the twelfth expedition makes its way into this strange and mystifying land only to find that danger is as likely to come from within as without; no one remains the same in Area X. With towers that spiral into the earth, strange cries in the night and creatures straight out of a fever dream, finding a way home might be the least of their problems.

Annihilation is a quiet flight of (science) fantasy across uncharted territory; a novel which slowly draws you into a world of sinister discovery.  Area X is a vast and mysterious zone which takes on an almost alien appearance; its utter unfamiliarity creating a heady and foreboding atmosphere which weighs heavily throughout. VanderMeer’s writing is effortlessly engaging, leading the reader one step at a time into this strange, hypnotic and almost hallucinogenic world which, whilst not overtly involved, rides a line of tension from beginning to end.

Throughout the novel Area X appears overwhelmingly large, but despite this impression the narrative remains confined to a comparatively small zone which the expedition is reticent to leave. Whilst the necessity for staging the narrative in this relatively small area is somewhat apparent, my own imagination was straining at these invisible borders, desperate to discover more of the land and its utterly strange inhabitants. But if it was a ploy to make me want to read book two, it worked! VanderMeer has set me on a voyage of discovery which I am determined to see through.

Our unnamed protagonist is a thoughtful, analytical woman whose perspective of quiet observation and discovery make her an engaging character. Whilst this works in the favour of the biologist, we gain little perspective on the supplementary characters beyond her observations. Her tendency to watch rather than communicate means we never establish any meaningful connection to the other members of the expedition and care little for them when events conspire against them. This does, however, add to the air of mystery and tension; anyone is capable of anything, everyone is disposable and no one is safe.

VanderMeer’s first foray into Area X is a beautiful, subtle and incredibly atmospheric read which resonates with a sense of the unknown and the unknowable. His lyrical writing is saturated with the strange, forming a sinister and other-worldly tale which becomes increasingly difficult to put down. Whilst I would have preferred a little more action throughout the narrative and a more climactic, defined conclusion, the story remained absorbing throughout and the beauty of VanderMeer’s writing more  than made up for it. This is a tale of quiet enjoyment. Of the strange. Of dreams and of nightmares.If you like your science fantasy subtle and eerie, and wish to venture into the unknown, then Annihilation might just be the book for you. This is a novel which diverted all of my expectations and still managed to impress. Jeff VandeerMeer may be a new addition to my bookshelves but I imagine he’ll be there to stay.

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Review: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Shattered Wings

Book One of the Dominion of the Fallen

by Aliette de Bodard

Fantasy | 402 Pages | Published by Gollancz in 2015

| Rating |

Aliette de Bodard is another author I unearthed at the Gollancz Book Festival last year, one who I have been eager to read ever since. The House of Shattered Wings, with its premise of warring angels on the battlefield of a scarred and ruined Paris, sounded far too intriguing to miss. Delaying time only enough to not actually get a signed edition, I made my purchase, opened it up and became instantly absorbed in this broken world of ruinous glory. This is a novel which, despite some minor flaws, is a beautiful and captivating read and promises great things to come from an author who isn’t afraid to turn the world on its head.

A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

The House of Shattered Wings follows the story of Paris following the fall of the angels and their subsequent war of dynasties; a clash of powerful houses which has already obliterated Paris and threatens to shake the city to its foundations once again. The Morningstar is gone, disappeared or dead – no one knows. His continued absence has left a void in House Silverspires and his apprentice and heir, Selene, must hold her House together. Something she is prepared to do at all costs.

But when a young angel falls to earth and is rescued from being brutally harvested for her magic, or Angel Essence, House Silverspires is turned on its head. A darkness is stalking its halls, killing its people and will stop at nothing but the complete destruction of the House. As we follow the story of Selene as she fights to retain power, along with Isabelle, the young fallen angel; Philippe, her would be murderer; and Madeleine, House Silverspires’ addict Alchemist, one thing remains uncertain – can House Silverspires survive those who conspire against her? Or will the darkness consume them all?

The true strength of this novel is de Bodard’s skill at descriptive worldbuilding. A ruined Paris is described in sumptuous detail – landmarks stand proud in their ruinous glory and its poisoned artery, the Seine, which has turned black with the corruption of magic, continues to flow through the heart of the city bringing with it death and ruin. de Bodard delights in taking the city apart, pulling down its stonework, shattering its stained glass, and creating a stunning backdrop to this new world of angels intent on underhanded and duplicitous warfare.

This is a novel with incredible vision and scope. Each dynasty, each House, is bound tightly in a web of intrigue, House politics and power struggles. Every character is tied just as tightly to their House, whether through free will or imprisonment, their very lives are linked to the House’s beating heart. And at the heart of House Silverspires is a distinct absence, a void left by the disappearance of the Morningstar. Without his power and influence, and with the other Houses vying for Silverspires’ destruction, it can only be a matter of time before it falls.

Characterisation in this novel is a much harder subject to tackle. Whilst each character is, in their own right, intriguing with the promise of a rich and detailed back-story, there was something about their depiction which failed to inspire an emotional connection in me that they otherwise might have. Madeleine was perhaps the exception to this trait. A flawed essence addict, she stumbles through the novel finding darkness and trouble at every opportunity with the inability to either confront or counter it. She remains a troubled but endearing character throughout whose singular emotional connection served to make her something of a heroine in this novel.

The majority of characters, however, read more like historical figures from a textbook; figures which tend to keep the reader at an arms length, are firmly separated by time, yet remain compelling enough to mitigate any negative impact their characterisation may have on the storyline. These characters remain fascinating to read but a further emotional connection would have served to win me over fully and add yet another dimension to the narrative.

The House of Shattered Wings is a vast and richly imagined novel which perhaps came to a head too soon. Although the storyline wraps up relatively neatly at its conclusion, I felt the absence of Morningstar and would have preferred the main antagonist to have featured more throughout the narrative and particularly towards the end of the novel. Despite these minor quibbles, this is a novel which also exhibits a lot of skill and strength in its writing – I defy anyone to not find any beauty in de Bodard’s descriptions – and, whilst I might not have connected with the majority of the cast, their promise of a rich and detailed history left me anxious to know more.

The House of Shattered Wings is a beautiful book with an impressive list of attributes to its name. Whilst there were some elements of the story which I wish were elaborated upon or explored further, it remains a distinctive, imaginative and exciting novel which takes its time to see you through to the end. I am definitely looking forward to spending more time in the Dominion of the Fallen.

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Review: Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna

The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience

Falling Sky

Book One of the Ben Gold Series

by Rajan Khanna

Science Fiction | 252 Pages | Published by Pyr in 2014

| Rating |

This book was received from the publisher in return for an honest review

Falling Sky first came to my attention after reading the synopsis for its sequel, Rising Tide. With its backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Earth teaming with terrifying Ferals, glorious airships and cities in the sky, this is a novel which had me hooked with anticipation alone. And it didn’t disappoint. Falling Sky is a new and exciting interpretation of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre which, though short, remains a fast-paced and action filled debut whose climactic conclusion left me reaching for the next book.

Ben Gold lives in dangerous times. Two generations ago, a virulent disease turned the population of most of North America into little more than beasts called Ferals. Some of those who survived took to the air, scratching out a living on airships and dirigibles soaring over the dangerous ground.

Ben, a lone wolf, has reluctantly agreed to use his skills and his airship to help an idealist scientist, Miranda, on her search for a cure. Protecting her from Ferals is dangerous enough but when power-mad raiders run rampant, Ben finds himself in the most dangerous place of all—the ground. 

Ben’s journey leads him to Gastown, a city in the air recently conquered by belligerent and expansionist pirates. Old friends and new enemies are drawn into a struggle that quickly becomes a fight for the fate of the world. Ben must decide to focus on his own survival or risk it all on a desperate chance for a better future.

Falling Sky follows the story of Ben Gold – a gun-wielding, Feral-fighting airship captain – who finds himself the protector of a colony of scientists, and Miranda in particular, at the small research town of Apple Pi. Except this is a world of vicious Ferals who roam the earth and barbarian raiders and hostile townships who patrol the skies. Ferals kill indiscriminately and the bandit states revel in pillage and plunder, actively seeking the destruction of others. Once under their radar, no one is safe… and for Apple Pi time is running out. Ben and Miranda must set off on an adventure which takes them into the heart of the piratical state as Miranda attempts to continue her search for a cure to the Feral plague and Ben does all he can to help Miranda, and himself, survive.

Khanna has creating a terrifying and enthralling world where the beauty and wonder of life aboard airships and on sky towns is contrasted with the destruction of the human race and the unstoppable spread of the virus which turns humans into Ferals. Thematically I loved this book, and in particular the wonderful depiction of the warmongering bandit states -Valhalla and Gastown. Khanna has fashioned a world where airships and, quite literal, townships vie for supremacy over a ruined and overrun world; where life on the ground is undeniably dangerous, and where carving out an honest existence in a world of cruelty and selfish greed is an incredible hardship.

It is through the voice of the narrator, Ben Gold, that a true sense of this hardship is made apparent. Ben is an interesting protagonist whose rough and ready approach makes for a fast-paced and exciting read, his life and history unfolding unobtrusively as the narrative progresses. However, whilst enjoyable throughout, Ben’s voice failed to captivate me as much as it ought to and I became keenly aware that I would prefer to read this book in a third person perspective, in order to convey more of the post-apocalyptic landscape.

This, as always, is subjective and whilst Ben might not be the man for me, he played an excellent counterpoise to the scientists of the novel who are almost in a world of their own with their singular, and sometimes dangerous, determination. Khanna also fields a host of other characters full of charm, wit and gun-toting reflexes; in particular Diego and Rosie, who convey a sense of strength and solidity in a fragile world, and Claudia, who all became firm favourites over the course of the novel.

Falling Sky is a thoroughly exciting read set in a brilliantly realised world, whose climactic conclusion had me reaching for the next book. Khanna has succeeded in creating a dynamic tale which is constantly moving forward (even when looking backwards) and practically brims with action on every page. This is a novel which surprised me with its world and storyline, left me a little wanting where the protagonist was concerned, yet surprised me again with its cliffhanger ending. In short – a very enjoyable read.

If you want to read a novel about a terrifying post-apocalyptic world where lives are carved from the ruined remnants of society, and life is truly experienced in the airships of the sky, then this might just be the read for you. Whilst by no means perfect, Falling Sky remains an exciting and enjoyable read, has satisfied my zombie cravings, and has introduced an author who I certainly intend to read far more of in the near future.

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Review: 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough

13 Minutes

by Sarah Pinborough

Young Adult | Thriller | 320 Pages | To be published by Gollancz on 18th February 2016

| Rating |

This book was received from Netgalley in return for an honest review

Between the gorgeous cover art, an intriguing synopsis and a very witty author (whom, thanks to Lynn’s Books, I unearthed at the Gollancz Book Festival), I just had to request 13 minutes and find out what all the fuss was about. And Sarah Pinborough does not disappoint. 13 Minutes is an intense psychological crime thriller which twists and turns and continues to surprise until the very end. This a novel full of teenage angst, decaying friendships and melodrama, which examines the inconsistency of youth on a backdrop of lies, revenge and murder. 13 Minutes is a carefully crafted thriller which is utterly absorbing and makes you think twice about the teenagers in your life…

I was dead for 13 minutes.

I don’t remember how I ended up in the icy water but I do know this – it wasn’t an accident and I wasn’t suicidal.

They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but when you’re a teenage girl, it’s hard to tell them apart. My friends love me, I’m sure of it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to kill me. Does it?

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough is a gripping psychological thriller about people, fears, manuiplation and the power of the truth. A stunning read, it questions our relationships – and what we really know about the people closest to us . . .

13 Minutes follows the story of Natasha ‘Tasha’ Howland, a popular, beautiful and brilliant teenage girl who is found close to death after being pulled out of a freezing river by a dog walker. With no memory of the events leading up to her attack, everyone is a suspect – from the man who found her to her high school entourage. As suspicions are heightened and all evidence starts to point in a certain direction, will the police intervene before it’s too late? Or will Tasha and her old friend Becca take matters into their own hands to uncover the killer’s identity?

13 Minute is part thriller, part teenage drama; a Mean Girls and psychological thriller mash up, full of broken friendships, angst and betrayals which tie into the unfolding crime drama. The chapters are split into the diary entries of Tasha and a third person perspective of Becca, a girl whom she dumped as a friend when she no longer had the image to fit in with Tasha’s ‘barbie’ retinue. When events conspire to bring them together again, their entirely polarised lives and friendship groups come together in a clash of blonde hair, Vogue cigarettes and eyeliner.

Tasha and Becca’s characters are extemely well depicted and are instantly believable, if not always likeable, and through them the cast of barbies and nobodies which weave their way through the narrative. The success of this novel relies heavily on its skilled characterisation which provides a true reflection of real life. There is a danger in novels such as this in creating a cast of stereotypes but any girl who has experienced high school will see something of the reality in the teenage dramas which crowd the corridors… if not with quite the same dangerous consequences.

Sarah Pinborough writes effortlessly in an almost conversational tone to craft an excellently thrilling tale, which kept me guessing until the very end. I don’t often read novels centred around teenage dramas – it isn’t something I would instantly pick up in a bookshop – but once I let myself go, I soon became immersed in this world of bitching and backstabbing, and mayhem and murder, which left me genuinely surprised at its conclusion.

13 Minutes exceeded all my expectations, and its almost continuous surprises had me gripped from start to finish. If you’re craving a Young Adult thriller then look no further, this is a truly absorbing read. With The Death House already awaiting my attention, Sarah Pinborough is certainly an author I am determined to read more of.

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Review: Down Station by Simon Morden

Sci Fi Month 2015

Down Station

by Simon Morden

Science Fantasy | 323 Pages | To be published by Gollancz in February 2016

| Rating |

This book was received from Netgalley in return for an honest review

Initially I requested this book because.. well.. it has a pretty cover! However, after attending the Gollancz Book Festival in Manchester and seeing a very funny Simon Morden on the panel, I couldn’t wait to crack this book open. Down Station is a novel about fresh starts and new beginnings, about bravery and loyalty and the nightmares that haunt us, and the determination of the human spirit. This is a sweeping science fantasy which harks back to genre traditions and takes the reader into a world of strange magics and even stranger creatures.

A small group of commuters and tube workers witness a fiery apocalypse overtaking London. They make their escape through a service tunnel. Reaching a door they step through…and find themselves on a wild shore backed by cliffs and rolling grassland. The way back is blocked. Making their way inland they meet a man dressed in a wolf’s cloak and with wolves by his side. He speaks English and has heard of a place called London – other people have arrived here down the ages – all escaping from a London that is burning. None of them have returned. Except one – who travels between the two worlds at will. The group begin a quest to find this one survivor; the one who holds the key to their return and to the safety of London.

And as they travel this world, meeting mythical and legendary creatures, split between North and South by a mighty river and bordered by The White City and The Crystal Palace they realise they are in a world defined by all the London’s there have ever been.

Reminiscent of Michael Moorcock and Julian May this is a grand and sweeping science fantasy built on the ideas, the legends, the memories of every London there has ever been.

Down Station follows the tale of a group of multi-ethnic Londoners who find themselves transported to another world – Down – following a fiery encounter whilst working on the London Underground. For some, Down provides a chance for them to escape their pasts, escape the expectations of others and give them a new start in a land where anything may just be possible. For others, Down is hell and they will do anything they can to get back to London and the world that they know.

From the opening pages, Down Station sets a pace which is maintained throughout the novel. With barely a dull moment and an open ending which seems to yell sequel, this novel is a refreshing  and somewhat whimsical read. However, there were elements of the narrative which could have used a little more depth and explanation. The overriding danger which quite literally exploded into the opening chapters dissipated upon our company’s arrival in Down. Though there were plenty of dangers present in this strange new world – eaten by a monstrous fish? Sure! Carried off by a hungry eagle? Why not! – the narrative lacked the urgency and desperation that perhaps it should have had.

The world of Down, however, is certainly a captivating place which is portrayed in beautiful short passages of description. The similarities to an Earth of the past are quite apparent and though strange beasts and plants were hinted at if not described outright, I would have preferred Down’s otherworldliness to have been more apparent. Having said that, this is a world which is accessed by a portal from our own so perhaps a sense of familiarity was the intention all along.

The magic system Morden has created certainly makes up for any similarities to our own world but, again, the danger could have been turned up a notch. This is a world where, if you have the ability, anything is possible – you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do – but not without paying a price. Either you take control of your powers or they will certainly take control of you. The times when our protagonists were confronted by this strange magic certainly made for interesting reading.

The most intriguing aspect of this magic system, however, has to be its worldbuilding element. This is a world powered by magic, a magic which runs along lines of power which connect one portal to another. It is at these intersections that Down starts to respond to its inhabitants and the magic truly happens. Castles, fortresses, towns and villages spring up in righteous glory from the earth or fall into rot and ruin until they disappear into decay. Simon Morden has created something that sits well in the fantasy genre but has a distinctly unique feel to it which I only hope will continue to grow in future novels.

Down Station also has a whole host of characters to sink our teeth into too (if you so wish). Our main protagonists are Mary and Dalip, who are both incredibly likeable but in completely contrasting ways. Even Mary’s verbal diarrhoea when it came to f-bombing only serves to make her a more believable character.  Morden manages to depict their personalities incredibly well by including their thoughts and beliefs throughout the narrative and both these characters have something very distinctive and unique in their portrayal.

The secondary characters could perhaps have done with a little more attention as, though they featured heavily throughout the novel, it felt like we never got to learn much about their lives or motivations. Their snapshot depictions were enough to keep me reading but these intriguing hints only left me wanting more! The villains of the piece also suffered from the ‘lack of danger’ present in parts of the plot and, even though they were ruthless and dangerous, they almost felt devoid of both ruthlessness and danger. This, however, did not stop it from being an absorbing read. All the right elements were there, I just wanted more!

Down Station is a fun and interesting read which I zipped through in no time at all! Though there were elements of the novel which I felt could have used a bit more depth, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment and I’m sure fans of both science fiction and fantasy will find enough to keep them happy! I’ll certainly be on the look out for more books by Simon Morden… and perhaps next time I can get one I can get signed!

What are your feelings for science fantasy? Do you enjoy the crossover between genres?

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Review: The Traitor Queen by Trudi Canavan

The Traitor Queen

Book Three of the Traitor Spy Trilogy

by Trudi Canvan

Fantasy | 509 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2012

| Rating |

three point five

If you’re a reader of my Top Ten Tuesday posts, then you might have noticed that Trudi Canavan’s The Traitor Queen has been appearing on rather a regular basis. This is one of those books that I intended to read as soon as I bought it but managed to neglect until oh… you know, several years later! The Traitor Queen is the closing chapter in the Traitor Spy Trilogy, and while it doesn’t reach the exciting, dizzying heights of The Black Magician Trilogy, it is still a rather entertaining read.

The Traitor Queen concludes the story which opened with The Ambassador’s Mission and continued with The Rogue.

Events are building to a climax in Sachaka as Lorkin returns from his exile with the Traitor rebels. The Traitor Queen has given Lorkin the huge task of brokering an alliance between his people and the Traitors. Lorkin has also had to become a feared black magician in order to harness the power of an entirely new kind of gemstone magic. This knowledge could transform the Guild of Magicians – or make Lorkin an outcast forever.

This book has, probably quite rightly, received very mixed reviews and despite the criticisms, I still found this to be an enjoyable read. It might not be heart-thumpingly-awesome, it might not have those breathtaking qualities that some of Canavan’s other work possess but it is entertaining and the overall storyline is well thought out. The Traitor Queen manages to expand upon and add detail to the world so beautifully drawn out in The Black Magician Trilogy and brings about a satisfying, if a little lacklustre, close to the trilogy.

Canavan writes in an accessible and gratifying way, giving insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters whilst providing careful doses of description throughout. Everything that should have happened did happen – that’s not where the problems lie; they lie with how each of these events unfolded. All the action is packed into the latter half of this novel and when it does occur it is somewhat rushed; we’re left with a final battle where not a lot happens and pivotal scenes where I was left wondering if I’d missed something. I would rather this book had been twice the length and had given more play time to these elements than have rushed through them in 500 pages.

And though there is much to enjoy in this novel, the one thing which The Traitor Queen is seriously lacking is tension. Tension, tension, tension! And then some. The action needed more tension – more do or die moments, more close shaves and descriptive destruction; the romances needed more sexual tension – less of the predictable, the safe and the ‘nice’; the politics needed more political tension – more danger, more intrigue and more terrible consequences. The Traitor Queen had the potential for all these things, the stage was already set! It just failed to give them enough page space or execute them in a satisfying way.

While all the main and supporting characters are essentially likeable and have a lot to offer, I would have enjoyed more growth and development throughout the novel. It was a shame that Sonea, our fantastic protagonist in The Black Magician Trilogy, had such a small and insignificant role in this book and though I enjoyed the development in Regin’s character, his role was too small to really make much of an impact. Lorkin doesn’t quite manage to live up to the expectations of a protagonist in a Canavan novel, nor does Tyvara succeed as well in her role as the main love interest. Having said that, I didn’t dislike any of the characters, nor did I dislike the novel – The Traitor Queen merely suffers the fate of not living up to the expectations created when you write something truly awesome.

The Traitor Queen is a tale of conflicting loyalties, of trust and of power which develops and adds insight into the world Trudi Canavan has created. This is a quick and easy read which, despite some issues, has a lot going for it. While this might not be the breathtaking read that The Black Magician Trilogy was, The Traitor Queen is still enjoyable and will probably receive far too much criticism for having such a brilliant predecessor. If you’re new to Canavan, I seriously urge you to read The Black Magician Trilogy or The Age of Five. If not, you could do much worse than pick up a copy of this trilogy!

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