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Fantasy Short Story Review: ‘The Bone Knife’ by Intisar Khanani

I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.

Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie…

It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.

My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.

I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Sunbolt’ by Intisar Khanani

I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. It was one of my best reads of last year, so I approached the author’s latest offering with trepidation. Can the next book possibly be as good? Quick answer – yes, it can. This is a novella, the first in a projected series of perhaps six altogether, a beautifully written piece which displays all the author’s trademark originality, terrific characters and an intriguing world.

Hitomi is an orphan, struggling to survive on her wits – no, it’s not the most original scenario, but this is possibly the only aspect of the book which has that problem. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. There are one or two jarring moments, though. Just as the reader gets accustomed to one setting and its cast of characters, there’s an abrupt shift to a new location, a new villain, new challenges for Hitomi. But it’s all perfectly logical, and just served to keep me on my toes.

Hitomi is a lovely heroine – spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. I loved the way in the early chapters she always did exactly what she wanted to do, regardless of whatever instructions she was given. Later, she shows her indomitable spirit, and never gives up, even when things look black. Some of the other characters were fascinating too – Val, in particular, but all of them had depth. I hope we find out more about the character left behind in the cells, too. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains. Things just aren’t that simple here.

One doesn’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. There are kingdoms and religions and races and magical capabilities and cultures, all beautifully defined and nuanced. The speed of the book was a real hindrance here, since every few pages I found myself saying: wait a moment, that’s interesting, I’d like to know more about that. Hitomi’s family history, her magic, Ghost and the secret society, Blackflame, the breathers, the mages… But no, the plot swept on relentlessly. Hopefully, with another five or so books to come, the author will be able to develop these aspects in more detail.

This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages. All this in a beautifully written novella format. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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