Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar Cover.png

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.