2000 - 2007 Fantasy Science Fiction YA

The Shadow Speaker – Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu


Five words from the blurb: 2070, mysticism, West Africa, survival, magical 

Earlier this year Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu won the World Fantasy Award for her novel, Who Fears Death. It sounded really interesting, but a few people on twitter suggested that her earlier novel, The Shadow Speaker, was even better and since it was available in my local library I decided to give it a try first.

The Shadow Speaker is a young adult fantasy set in West Africa in 2070. The world has been changed by a nuclear war that released “peace bombs” around the globe. These bombs caused the human population to mutate in a variety of different ways; the idea: to create so much diversity that no single group would be big enough to launch a war against another. Many of the population now possess magical powers – some can fly and the central character, Ejii, has the ability to hear the thoughts of plants, animals and people.

There is a lot going on in this book. African mythology is mixed with science fiction and fantasy to create something truly unique. The blend of magic with interesting predictions for the future created a book that I found very compelling and the fact it is aimed at teenagers means that it is easy to read and is the perfect introduction to African literature.

There is something for everyone in this book – there are talking cats, flesh-eating bushes, links to other worlds and a myriad of new inventions. At times there was a bit too much going on for my liking – so many new ideas on each page that I longed for a bit of calm.

My only other criticism is that the characters weren’t very well developed. There was so much world building crammed into this book that the characters remained a bit flat. They lacked an emotional depth and I failed to connect with any of them, but this wasn’t a major problem as other aspects of the book were so strong.

The best thing about The Shadow Speaker is that it contains a depth behind the words. I found this interesting blog post about the religious messages in the book and I’m sure that it contains equally insightful thoughts about many other aspects of our civilisation.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different, especially if you are interested in African literature.


1950s Classics Fantasy

Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone (Gormenghast trilogy)

Five words from the blurb: escapes, city, zoo, traitor, home

Titus Alone is the third book in the Gormenghast trilogy, but whilst the first two are amongst the best books I’ve ever read, Titus Alone was a big disappointment.

Titus leaves the wonderfully atmospheric surroundings of Gormenghast castle and arrives in a modern city. Both the city and the people that he meets there lack the vivid descriptions of the previous books. I struggled to connect with the characters and was bored by plot. Reaching the end was a real chore and I only finished the book because I was hosting the read-along.

There were a few paragraphs that grabbed my attention, but overall I found the writing choppy and unconvincing. The world of Gormenghast wasn’t realistic, but somehow Peake made the happenings of the first two books entirely believable. This wasn’t the case with the third book. I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the city of Titus Alone; the fantasy elements jarred and the plot seemed ridiculous.

He strode to the forest verge, his head in his hands, then raised his eyes, and pondered on the bulk and weight of his crazy car. He released the brake, and brought her to life, so that she sobbed, like a child pleading. He turned her to the precipice, and with a great heave sent her running uopn her way. As she ran, the small ape leaped from his shoulders to the driving seat, and riding her like a little horseman using the best equipment from western saddlery Australia.
Ape gone. Car gone. All gone?.

I’m sure that there are some wonderful messages beneath the surface of this book, but it didn’t work for me.


Did you enjoy Titus Alone?

Which bits did you enjoy most/least?

1950s Chunkster Fantasy

Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))







Gormenghast is the sequel to the wonderful Titus Groan and it doesn’t disappoint. The writing is just as vivid and the story is, if anything, even more compelling. 

The two books are slightly different in style and it took me a while to adjust to the more intimate feel of Gormenghast. As the book progresses the plot becomes increasingly gripping and for the last 40 pages I was unable to put the book down, totally engrossed in the action. 

It is hard to imagine a book with more complex characters – each one so alive they seem to breathe on the page. The setting is just as good – it is atmospheric and there are many creepy moments.

It is impossible to review this book without giving spoilers for Titus Groan, so I’ll reveal nothing about the plot, other than to say that it is filled with surprises.  

I am enjoying these books so much that I don’t want the experience to end.

All I can do is suggest that you try these outstanding books yourself.


Fifty-Nine – Eighty (p659 – p752)

I can’t believe we’ve made it to the end of Gormenghast! I’m so glad that I took the time to read it slowly and have wonderful discussions along the way. I’m feeling a bit sad at finishing Gormenghast as I suspect that the next two books will not be quite as good – the setting of Gormenghast Castle makes these books special and I can’t see how they will work without it dominating proceedings.

What did you think of the way Gormenghast ended?

I was interested to discover that I was rooting for Steerpike’s death. I loved him in the beginning, but his evil had gone too far by the end. This change in compassion for a character was quite an unusual experience and the fact that all the characters underwent similar transformations shows Peake’s skill as an author.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the central character changes from one stage of a book to the next. Not knowing which character would play a major role and which would never be seen again added to the intrigue of the narrative. I was also impressed by the way Peake chose to kill off almost all the main characters. It was brave to create such a wealth of amazingly vivid characters and then risk upsetting readers by removing them.

The only thing that I didn’t like in the books was Keda and her daughter. I had expected them to play a greater role and so was baffled by the sudden death of “the Thing”. Do you think the books would have been better without Keda and her child?

It was good to have such a hopeful ending. With all that death it could easily have become depressing, but I loved the way that Titus looked to the future and wanted to risk everything to better his life experience. I found myself warming to Titus towards the end of Gormenghast and am looking forward to seeing what happens to him next. Are you looking forward to Titus Alone?

Gormenghast Read-along Schedule

1940s Classics Fantasy

Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

You have seen nothing like it before … but after … you see things like it everywhere …. C.S. Lewis




Titus Groan contains the most vivid writing I have ever read. Mervyn Peake has created an amazing cast of characters, each one packed with a range of flaws and their own complex agenda. It is rare to enjoy reading about such unlikable characters, but the quality of the writing means that you can’t help but want to find out what happens to them.

The book is set in a creepy, sprawling castle which is so well described it almost feels alive. Gormenghast castle may be a sparse stone structure, but it contains many intriguing rooms – including the room of roots, the room of spiders and a room packed with white cats. I’d really like to know if JK Rowling has read this book, because I spotted a lot of things that appear to have influenced the Harry Potter books.

Into this dark castle a baby boy is born. This baby is Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast castle. His birth sparks a series of events which are impossible to predict, but fascinating to read about.

This is one of those books that defies genre. It is part fantasy, but has strong gothic undertones. The plot could easily have become far-fetched, but Peake somehow manages to ground his weird world in reality, giving a sense that this could even be  a piece of historical fiction.

The only problem I found was that it was occasionally too wordy, but this is a fault that lies with the reader, not the writer. I struggled to read the first few pages and sometimes found this situation repeated if I left too long between readings (especially if I’d read something light in between) but once I became used to the writing style I loved its complexity.

Titus Groan doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but as the first in a series of four books it sets the scene well and leaves me desperate to know what happens next. It is already one of my favourite books and if it continues to maintain this high standard I can see the Gormenghast series becoming my all-time favourite. I highly recommend that you give it a try.



Titus Groan

The Twins Again – Mr Rottcodd Again (p277 -p361)

We’ve reached the end of the first book! I am amazed at how much Peake has managed to cram into 361 pages. Most books manage to combine a few characters and a simple plot into this space, but we have a whole cast of different individuals, a vivid location and a complex plot.

Despite my raving review I did have a minor quibble with this final section. I thought that the “Reverie” for each character was a great idea, but it didn’t quite work. It was interesting to see their thoughts, but these sections jarred with the rest of the book and as I read them I was hoping for a quick return to the omnipotent narrator. Did you enjoy “The Reveries?

I loved the reappearance of the skull, but those twins must be really stupid to have fallen for Steerpike’s ghost costume. In the real world I’m sure that they’d have recognised his voice and the bit of white material and had a good laugh at his silly costume!  I’ll have to suspend my disbelief for this bit of the plot, but I’ll forgive Peake because it was at least entertaining.

I was interested to see Peake’s drawings of the twins. Their long necks remind me of aliens and I no longer think of them as being fully human. Whenever I read about them I am reminded of characters like Dren, from the film Splice. Are you picturing the Gormenghast characters as human? Or do you think of them as a slightly different species to us?

We have always suspected that Gormenghast Castle was an actual character, so I loved the final page in which the castle breathes:

The Castle was breathing, and far below the Hall of the Bright Carvings all that was Gormenghast revolved.

I thought this was a perfect ending and I’m really looking forward to reading the next book.

Did you enjoy reading Titus Groan? Are you looking forward to reading the rest in the series?

Chunkster Classics Fantasy Other

Gormenghast Read-along: Week 3

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Groan

The Grotto – The Bloody Cheekbone

(p194 – p277) 


Steerpike’s evil plan actually worked! I thought that something would go wrong with his fire setting, so was quite surprised that everything went like clockwork. It is quite appropriate that things seem to be unravelling for him now though – Fuchsia is giving little hints about the convenience of the pre-cut ladder and those evil twins are demanding their reward. I like the way these seeds of trouble are spreading throughout the castle – it is giving the plot a fantastic sense of foreboding.

Despite his misdemeanors I still love Steerpike and this was especially evident when I felt sympathy for him during the cat attack.


The air is filled at once with the screaming of a hundred cats which, swarming the walls and furniture, leaping and circling the blue carpet with the speed of light, give the appearance of a white maelstrom. The blood streaming down Steerpike’s neck, feels as warm as tea as it slides to his belly.

Throughout the library fire I didn’t care whether any of the other characters were killed or injured. Steerpike is still the only character I connect with. Do you feel empathy for any of the characters?

I was never a big fan of Keda, but this week I realised that I don’t like her character. She seems out of place in this novel and the scene in which her lovers battled with each other made me think I was reading a different book. I had to stop and re-read the beginning of this chapter to remind myself who these strange men were, and once I realised, I found the whole episode a bit bizarre. It was like something from a Western and the outcome was so convenient that it reduced my opinion of the section even further. Did anyone else have a problem with the lover’s battle?

Photo Credit: KellyandRoger, Flickr

This week everything seems to have stepped up a level. The plot is getting more complex, the language appears to be increasingly dense and there is a greater frequency of events that make no sense to me. I am used to reading books based in reality and so I am finding some of the plot a bit strange. I am hoping that everything will be explained at some point as I don’t like this feeling that I’m not quite getting it. One example of this is the Sourdust’s burial. Why was he buried with the calf’s head? That seemed very weird to me.

Another is the Earl’s transformation into an owl. I feel as though there must be some symbolism behind this, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet.

This all sounds as though I’m being a bit negative, but that is not the case. I am still in love with this book and actually like the fact it is making me think; living in my thoughts long after I have closed the pages.

I’ll finish with the best quote about Titus Groan that I’ve found this week:

Titus Groan is not so much a book as it is a sensual feast for the brain. The Night Land Journal

2010 Fantasy Novella

Light Boxes – Shane Jones

Five words from the blurb: Flight, banned, ominous, children, honey

I decided to read Light Boxes when David from Follow the Thread named it as one of his favourite reads in 2010. It is certainly an original book, but I can’t decide whether I like it or not.

The problem is that this book pushes the boundary of the novel so far that it almost becomes art. I read for the excitement/emotion of the plot and this book felt as though I was looking at a series of scenes instead of reading a novel.

The book is half the size of a normal paperback and each page briefly describes a new scene. Many of the pages are written in different formats and font sizes. For example, whispers are always written in a small sized font  and SHOUTING IN LARGE ONES. Lists and drawings are also used to illustrate points. The writing is simple, but packed with vivid imagery. I know that some people love these random scenes, but I think I failed to see the symbolism in it all.

Bianca’s ghost appears in the town. She wears red shorts and a white blouse and has long black hair. I watch her buy mint leaves and talk to shop owners about how soon until we will only experience summer. She walks through the streets passing out tulips whose petals have veins that spell out the word July.

The plot is very bizarre, but it is basically an adult fairytale in which an evil character bans the use of flight. The town has been stuck in a perpetual winter for more than 300 days and then the children start to go missing. It was all over very quickly and I was left wondering what the point of it all was. I think I’m just not the kind of person who appreciates art. If you want to spend an hour immersing yourself in a weird fantasy world then this is for you, but it was a bit too experimental for me.

Everyone else seems to love it:

Light Boxes is enchanting, whimsical and rather brutal in some parts. Mad Bibliophile

I could describe the experience of reading Light Boxes as being like witnessing a beautiful mirage, but that wouldn’t be correct, because a mirage is ultimately insubstantial. Follow the Thread

Light Boxes is almost inhumanly hopeful, offering insights both genuine and relevant, and distant echoes of our world in a war fought with futile tactics against a nebulous enemy. The Rumpus