The Second Blind Son

the second blind sonThe Second Blind Son by Amy Harmon (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Saylock

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Rob Shapiro

Source: my own collection 

Length: 15:58:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Second Blind Son is a sequel of sorts to Amy Harmon’s earlier novel, The First Girl Child. I say of sorts because this story ran concurrently to the events of TFGC, rather than portraying a continuation of that story. In this, the focus is on Hod, a blind man who is raised to be a Keeper of the Temple by Arwin, a cave keeper. Arwen has taught Hod how to listen, smell, feel in ways that are uncanny to help him compensate for his blindness. As a result, Hod is adept at hunting and fighting through the use of his heightened senses. He can identify the heartbeats of individual people, their specific scent, and so forth. And then one day, he rescues a girl who washes up near his cave from a shipwreck. Ghisla is the sole survivor from her people, the Songers, whose voices are ethereally beautiful, and she wants to die. Slowly, she and Hod become the best of friends and, when she uses a rune carved upon her hand, Hod is able to see. Their paths are often separated but they retain their connection through the years, through political upheaval, and across vast distances.

I loved this book so much. I really liked the way it wove into the earlier story of TFGC and made you remember events from that story alongside this new one. I hadn’t realised it was that sort of timeline, so I kind of wish I had reread TFGC before jumping into this one, but it in no way hindered the ease of following the story. It is just a thing I would have done to refresh my own memory. And yes, it can probably be read as a standalone, but I truly think readers are short-changing themselves not to read TFGC first. Not only will you become familiar with the world of Saylock, but the characters from that book who make appearances in this one are familiar and welcome. You’d miss out on that if you only read TSBS as a standalone.

The narration was excellent as well. The narrator did some different voices for various characters, but only enough to differentiate them within the scene. He didn’t go crazy with melodrama, he just read the story in an engaging way. There were times when he sounded just like Tuvok, though, so that was a bit of cognitive dissonance. I kept expecting Star Trek. 

The character development throughout was decent, though I would have liked to get more scenes with the other Daughters of the Temple. They were an important part of the story but I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. Maybe future Saylock books will focus on them more in some way. Ghisla becomes one of the Daughters when she is forced to leave Hod’s cave and is given in lieu of a clan chieftain’s daughter to the Keepers. There, she is known as Liis of Leok and no one learns her true identity. Hod is the only one who knows her real story. Also, YAY for the book sample on Amazon having the spelling of characters’ names! I would not have gotten some right from just listening to it.

I thought it was interesting how King Banruud was a hateful, horrible person but Ghisla could help keep him from raging too much with her music. I don’t remember his madness at all from TFGC, but here it struck me as horrific, persistent tinnitus. I know that can make people crazy – mine sometimes wakes me up – but if one is already crazy and cruel to begin with, what new horrors could the condition bring about? Doesn’t make his actions at all ok, but I thought it was an interesting reading of madness. 

Keeping Hod and Ghisla apart in distance but giving them the means with which to communicate with each other was a great touch. It allowed them to grow and mature, and their relationship did likewise. The rune magic that helped them speak to one another really keeps things humming along for readers so we can sense their desire to be together but we don’t get bored by the separation. 

Probably there is a message in there about how true love doesn’t need to see to recognize one’s beloved. Or something. Ick. I don’t really do romance, though I find this sort of non-melodramatic, non-bodice-ripping romance within many fantasy novels to be entirely acceptable. 

Overall, a thoroughly lovely story, nicely paced, and I can’t wait to read more of Harmon’s fantasy novels!

Advertisement

Elatsoe

elatsoeElatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: MG fantasy

Setting: slightly different America/ Texas

I read it as a(n): audiobook, then switched to a physical book

Narrator: Kinsale Hueston

Source: public library 

Length: 09:01:00 / 360 pp

Published by: Dreamscape Media (22 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Elatsoe “Ellie” is a Lipan Apache who is able to raise the ghosts of dead animals. She comes from a long line of family members with this talent, back to her great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who her family calls Six Great, also Ellie’s namesake. Ellie’s constant companion is the ghost of her dog, Kirby. When Kirby freaks out, Ellie soon learns that her cousin Trevor was killed in a car accident, but it was a cover-up to his murder. When Trevor’s ghost visits Ellie and asks her to help take care of his wife and baby son, Ellie and her best friend Jay try to figure out what really happened to Trevor, and how a white man called Abe Allerton from Willowbee, TX is involved. Dark, ancient secrets then threaten to consume Ellie and all her family as she digs deeper to uncover the truth about Trevor’s death.

There was a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I think it’s good that Ellie identifies as asexual and not one person in her circle gives a toss or makes a big deal out of it. It is just pure acceptance and it is part of who she is, no questions asked and no one trying to tell her she’ll change her mind once she’s older. 

There was also a lot of tradition and stories from Ellie’s Apache heritage. I know absolutely nothing about this, so I’m just going to assume that it is at least partially true, considering that Darcie Little Badger is Apache herself. The elders, the way they are so highly respected, and the various stories are all awesome.

Related to Ellie’s knowledge of her Native culture is her experience with racism. That is not a pro – for those sitting in the back, racism is bad! – but the discussions that came with her experiences are important and necessary. I liked that Jay was shown as a generally real, clueless white dude who has never had to experience racism of any kind. He means well and doesn’t have a mean or racist bone in his body, but he is utterly unaware of why he would have to convince a store clerk to sell him anything because “we haven’t done anything wrong.” Ellie’s response to him is somewhat amused eye rolling, which in real life doesn’t help much of anything, but in the story, it gets the discussion onto the page for readers to ponder over. 

Also, how can a story involving the ghosts of fossilized animals not be cool on at least some levels? Ellie brings back the ghost of a trilobite, for fuck sake! And there’s a wooly mammoth ghost! That is rad!

There was a lot, though, that I definitely did not like, and I mostly feel that it outweighed the good things that I did like. For one thing, this book was marketed as a YA. However, it read as way, way younger than that. Middle grade would have been far more accurate. I often had to remind myself that Ellie and Jay were both 17 and nearly through with high school. For example, when the ball at Allerton’s mansion was in swing and vampires were killing, Jay’s older sister wanted to keep Ellie from seeing. She responded that she and Jay were at least at a PG-13. Um, yes. Considering that you are actually 17, it would make sense that a PG-13 scene would be something ok for them to see. I mean, what? 

Also, Ellie and Jay are described as being best friends from birth, having met when their mothers were in the same birthing class. And yet they don’t know some very basic things about each other. Out of the blue, Jay tells Ellie he is a descendant of Oberon and that was a huge surprise to her. You wouldn’t know your best friend is descended from the most famous fairy king ever? Really? And Jay didn’t know “Ellie” is short for Elatsoe. Things like that are little facts about a person you learn when you are first becoming friends, not when you have grown up with someone. At one point, Ellie asked Jay if he had other sisters. The way it was written made it unclear if she was joking in that moment or if she was being serious. Given the lack of knowledge they have about each other, I think the confusion is understandable. Which leads me to the next reason I didn’t like this.

LAME DIALOGUE! OMG so lame. Ellie and Jay would literally be in media res and trying to fend off bad guys – and they engage in witty banter? Which isn’t actually witty? No. Just no. It might have worked if this was something like The Princess Bride or Indiana Jones but here? It just came across as immature. Also, one character made actual use of the phrase “meddling kids.” Like from Scooby-Doo. The dumb witty banter would have been fine in that children’s cartoon as well. But here, it kind of just smacked of the author needing to work on aging up her dialogue a lot more. 

And finally, the audio book. I had started this as an audio book. The narrator was so awful that, if I hadn’t been reading this for book club, I would not have bothered to continue. Since it WAS for my book club, I got a hard copy from the library and read that instead. It was better and far more interesting to eyeball read it. I would not listen to another book read by the same narrator. She made what was already a mediocre book for me almost unbearably boring. 

So ultimately, this was a solid meh for me. I didn’t hate it, I think it had some good things in it, but I definitely did not love it. 

All that said, I did find Little Badger’s short storyNkásht íí online. I thought it was pretty good.

The Lady Jewel Diviner

The Lady Jewel DivinerThe Lady Jewel Diviner by Rosalie Oaks (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy/ cosy mystery

Setting: Georgian England/ Devon coast

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 266 pp

Published by: Parkerville Press (11 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Miss Elinor Avely finds herself exiled on the Devon coast with her mother and brother after her reputation was ruined in London in a most public fashion. Accused of stealing a jeweled necklace, she self-destructs further when she shuns Lord Beresford, who tried to save her by declaring before one and all that she was his fiancee. Exiled from society, Elinor is determined to keep her head down and be a dutiful daughter. Until, that is, her evening is interrupted by a bat flying into her room, turning into a tiny, naked woman, and demanding to be fed a sheep. The two form an unlikely alliance when a local man turns up dead, piles of jewels and gold are missing and presumed smuggled over to France to pay Napoleon, and the identity of an English spy may hit too close for comfort.

This was an entirely agreeable cosy mystery. Or cosy fantasy. Either one would be accurate. Honestly, though. Who wouldn’t adore a Regency cosy mystery fantasy romance? Elinor is a typical figure in many Regency romances and mysteries. She is curious, intelligent, and not at all afraid to speak her mind. If only Lord Beresford could appreciate that about her! Or does he? 

Aldreda Zooth, the tiny bat-woman, is a vampiri from France. She is in England to search for a necklace that belonged to her lost beloved and she convinces Elinor to help. Elinor is what Eldreda calls a Diviner, one who can find hidden objects by a sixth sense. This is, of course, what led to Elinor’s disgrace in London – she found a necklace but was accused of stealing it. Elinor agrees to help Eldreda but they are soon both drawn into an intrigue. Elinor gets to display her bravery and intelligence in several instances, but is still able to be a damsel in distress. Eldreda is an ideal chaperone, even though she is fairy-sized, and is a plucky and fun character.

Elinor’s brother, Perry, is a bit flat in terms of character development, but I really don’t think it matters a whole lot since he is not the main attraction of the novel. He is in it enough, though, that a little more depth for him would be appreciated. Perhaps this will come in future books, as the second in the series is set to be released on 1 March 2021. 

I will definitely be on the lookout for that book as well as others by this author. A light, somewhat silly, cosy mystery is exactly what I needed to read as pure escapism. Enthusiastically recommended.

Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Hitolia, the fantasy version of Anatolia, the ancient Hittite lands

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 482 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (13 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In this third instalment of Starkston’s delightful Tesha series based on ancient Hittite culture, Of Kings and Griffins picks up a few months after the events of her second book, Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha, our protagonist, is now Queen of Alpara and has given her husband, Hattu, a baby daughter, Arinnel. Hattu’s brother, the Great King, has died, leaving as heir his untested teenaged son, Urhi, who plots against Hattu’s aid. At the same time, Tesha’s blind sister, Daniti, is called by the griffin king, Bothar, to help him overcome a deadly danger in a way she is uniquely suited for.

This novel opens around a year after the events of Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha and Hattu are at the funeral of his brother, the Great King Muwatti, and Tesha, seeing that Hattu’s young nephew, Urhi, will be a problem for them, uses her magic to influence him to bend to Hattu’s will. Except Tesha, still being very young, wasn’t so subtle and got caught, thus undermining any authority Hattu might have had over Urhi. At odds with each other and his nephew, Hattu and Tesha return to Alpara to regroup. 

At the same time, Hattu’s best friend and military commander, Marik, is dealing with a mysterious illness that is striking down his troops. The court physician believes the illness to be caused by a curse from a powerful sorcerer, and that the ultimate goal is to kill Marik or Daniti next. To stop the magickal illness from killing all his troops, Marik goes on a dangerous spying mission to learn what he can and, with luck, kill the sorcerer responsible for the curse.

There are many layers to this novel, all delicately entwined and teased out over the course of the narrative. The politics involved are interesting and often very subtle. I liked the interplay between Tesha and both Urhi and the Egaryan ambassador, Ahmose. Seeing how Tesha learned to work with and, in some cases, manipulate, these men was fun to read. She has grown as a priestess, a queen, and a woman since we first met her and she’s becoming a very well rounded character. 

I always liked Daniti, so it was great to see her have such a prominent role in this novel. She has begun to manifest magic as well, not as strong as Tesha’s, but she is able to communicate telepathically a little bit over distances. She uses this skill to talk to her niece Arinnel. This ability, as well as her blindness, makes her valuable to the griffin king Bolthar, who brings her to the hidden realm of the griffins to help protect his young cubs. Daniti is certainly kinder than I would be. Bolthar needs her help and yet he is arrogant and disdainful of her practically every step of the way. It would be really hard to want to help someone who treats you like that, but Daniti has a loving heart and throws herself into the project despite Bolthar’s attitude. 

I also liked that Marak played a large role here, even more so than Hattu. Marak was all over the place in this story, from undercover spy searching for a sorcerer to leading military campaigns. It seemed like everywhere you turned, there was Marik, in the best way possible. 

I remain utterly delighted with this series. I read a LOT of fantasy, both pure fantasy and historical fantasy. A series that is based on historical context is almost always going to appeal to me greatly, like Stephen Lawhead’s Robin Hood King Raven series, or Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen Arthurian series. To have a historical fantasy series that is based on ancient Hittite culture is entirely unique. Starkston’s knowledge of the Hittites and the political events of the time period is deep. She supports her characters’ decisions and drives the plot based on her thorough research and understanding of the culture. I have read all three books that are now in the series and can honestly say they are just getting better and better. Also, these books could probably all be read as standalone stories, though you are missing out if you don’t read all of them. Including the author’s notes! Learning the real historical events and people that the Tesha series is based on adds so much depth and meaning to the story. 

Very enthusiastically recommended! 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • When searching through old scrolls and clay tablets for a binding spell, Tesha discovers a whole room of forgotten, ancient tablets. She says the old ones are the best kind. I loved this! Tesha would totally be a book nerd! 

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.”