Tag: book review

March Reading Roundup & Recs

Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)

All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.

I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…

This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.

Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.

Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.

I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.

One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.

If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.

So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.

Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.

Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…

On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.

I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)

Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.

I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.

Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.

I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.

Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.

Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?


With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.


You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!

A Medievalist Reads ‘Blackheart Knights’ by Laure Eve

I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:

From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.

Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?

I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.

So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.

A photograph of 'Blackheart Knights' by Laura Eve. The cover features a knight riding a motorbike amidst bright swirls of electricity and/or magic. The book has been positioned so that it appears to be standing on Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's "Morte D'arthur", and Simon Armitage's "The Death of King Arthur".
My elderly copy of Malory wasn’t photogenic enough to make it into this picture.

First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.

It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.

So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…

But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.

It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.

It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.

And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.

There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!

Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.

The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.

That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.

Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.

This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.

The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.

Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…

I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)

I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.

So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.

I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on Bookshop.org (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!


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