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Rings of Power, Season 1 Review

Rings of Power Season 1 Review
Rings of Power Season 1 Review

Now that season 1 of Rings of Power is already behind us, it’s time for a retrospective look at Amazon’s big-budget fantasy.

Does Rings of Power live up to the hype? Or does it fall into obscurity?

*Heavy spoilers follow, obviously*

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good

Art Direction

It’s been remarked upon by all and sundry, but Rings of Power is a terrific looking TV show. The art direction, makeup team, prop department, CGI designers, and cinematographers have done a sublime job. 

It’s easy to downplay this when the show has cost upwards of £400m. But without talented people, and a passion for the craft, you’ll never achieve the level of love and care that has gone into the creation of Rings of Power.

The transformation from Southlands to Mordor itself is a visual spectacle, providing a stunning ending to episode 6, even if it’s a little hammy.

Middle-Earth

Middle-Earth itself is the star of the show. 

From the architecture – particularly in Númenor and Khazad Dum – to the dreary landscape of the Southlands, there’s a genuine understanding of how Tolkien’s world should look. 

Some of the online discourse has centered around Rings of Power either not understanding the lore, or willfully ignoring it, but from an aesthetics point of view, the creators have done a great job.

Númenor looks phenomenal. Being the ancestors of men in Middle-Earth, it’s great to see the detail that has gone into the architecture and clothing of their people. Visual cues and some fantastic designs nod to the later establishment of Gondor and Rohan, which shows real care and attention from the art and props team.

The Orcs

The orcs in Rings of Power are cruel, grotesque, and sinister, which was a pleasant surprise. 

In the first couple of episodes, they’re reminiscent of a horror movie monster – emerging from the darkness and disappearing almost as quickly. Not unlike the trollocks of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, which were one of the very few positives of that show.

LOTR Orcs vs The Hobbit Orcs
LOTR's Orcs (Left) VS The Hobbit's CGI Orcs (Right)

And when the orcs attack the Southland villagers, they’re ruthless and brutal. It adds that extra element of threat that orcs don’t always possess in fantasy – particularly those in The Hobbit.

I’m glad that they chose to use people in makeup and prosthetics, instead of CGI – it always looks better.

Originality

Unpopular opinion time.

I like that the writers chose to use the source material as inspiration to tell their own largely original story (and that’s something I never thought I’d say!)

In fact, when it was announced that the creators of Rings of Power only had access to the appendices, rather than the expansive Silmarillion, and would be filling in the blanks, I was incredibly sceptical. Quite concerned too.

Having now watched the show, I think it was mostly a success.

It’s worth remembering that an adaptation is just that – it’s a piece of media ‘based on’ the original material, and not always a like-for-like reconstruction.

The Bad

Pacing

Rings of Power‘s pacing is staggeringly slow. Especially when you consider that the first season runs for 560 minutes – a mere 3 minutes longer than Peter Jackson’s theatrical cut of the original trilogy. 

Galadriel’s arrival on Númenor is a perfect example of this. Following a dramatic unveiling of the historical nation upon the sea, the plot immediately grinds to a halt whilst we’re introduced to a bevy of new characters.

The introduction of Elendil and his son Isildur should feel like a seminal moment in the series. After all, these are two of the most important people in the 2nd age of Middle-Earth. 

However, the plot rapidly devolves into a small-time family drama. Isildur and his friends offer very little, Earien even less, and whilst Elendil commands great screen presence, his slow-mo horse ride with Galadriel is hardly riveting television.

Five seasons have been budgeted for, which raised a number of eyebrows when it was first announced. But if each season continues at the same glacial pace, then five seasons seems realistic. But that’s not a good thing.

To be fair, it’s not as if nothing happens – each episode always features a solid chunk of world-building, and the plot is typically advanced, albeit at a snail’s pace.

Poor Character Development

Rings of Power has a major problem with character development, and a stunning lack of charisma, which is perhaps why the pacing feels so off.

Tone-wise, it’s all a little one-note. There are very few moments of levity amidst the drama. 

Compare this to Merry & Pippin of the Peter Jackson movies who undergo phenomenal character arcs whilst retaining the cheeky sensibility that directly contrasts with the world of wizards and elves.

The only exception here is the relationship between Elrond and Durin, which is truly the heart of Rings of Power. Both exhibit some actual character development for a start (shock horror!) and a richness in charisma that, aside from Galadriel, lacks in other parts of the show.

The Ugly

The Harfoots

Calling back to the Hobbits of the Shire, the Harfoots represent the David & Goliath themes of small people changing the world. In reality they do nothing except move from place-to-place.

One of the most powerful elements of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring is the harsh contrast between the simple country life of the Shire and the darker places the story goes to later on, such as Gandalf’s fall in Moria.

It emphasises the acute danger of the journey to Mordor, and the risk that the Hobbits are taking in order to see the task succeed.

The Harfoots narrative has an entire season to build this emotional weight or tension, and fails spectacularly. Who is Nori really? What does she stand for? One season in, it’s still not entirely clear. It’s dreadful.

The Writing of Female Characters

Tolkien’s writing in general has problems when it comes to female characters. 

From the frankly bizarre absence of any women at all in The Hobbit, to the pitiful fate of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings’ appendices, it’s just not good enough.

Sure, there’s Eowyn – a remarkably progressive depiction of a woman in fantasy fiction. Plus there are a handful of really well-drawn female characters in The Silmarillion such as Melian, Lady Haleth, Luthien, and Idril. But the point remains that these characters are in relatively small company considering the scale of the canon.

Tolkien on-screen doesn’t fare much better. Attempts to redress the gender balance in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit resulted in the creation of Tauriel – an uninspired personality vacuum defined by her love triangle with Kíli and Legolas.

And then there’s Rings of Power. Its representation of women has certainly improved when compared to previous Tolkien media, but it’s not great.

Take Earien for example, whose role on Númenor exists just to be Isildur’s sister. Beyond this, she has a dinner date scene and stumbles on a palantír (one of Middle-Earth’s ancient seeing stones) in the finale, albeit by accident. And that’s about it. 

Perhaps she’ll offer more in future seasons, but it’s not a great look after eight 70-minute episodes.

Then there’s Bronwyn, who has the opposite problem. She goes from unimportant civilian to de facto leader of the Southlands in a mere handful of scenes.

It’s not as if she’s an out-and-out bad character – and Nazanin Boniadi does a serviceable job in the role – but there were so many opportunities missed to demonstrate why Bronwyn is an influential character.

Why is sbe consorting with the Queen of Númenor, Galadriel, and Elendil? Because she’s important. Why is she important? Because we’re told she’s important. Again, that’s about it.

Mirien, said Queen of Númenor, is an example of representation done well. As Queen, she’s powerful, persuasive, and the people respect her. In spite of protectionist troubles in Númenor, she is able to assemble enough troops to attempt the liberation of the Southlands.

Compared to the Mirien of the book, who is forced into a marriage with Ar-Pharazon as part of his ambitions to seize power, Rings of Power does a far better job at exploring who the daughter of Tar Palantir actually is.

Finally, Galadriel probably warrants an article of her own. Faced with some reasonable critiques about a lack of character growth and some creative decisions around her military role, she has also copped a boatload of very unfair (oftentimes sexist) criticism.

Morfydd Clark has done a tremendous job in bringing Galadriel to life. Her on-screen presence is exceptional, with some stellar vocal work, and natural charisma befitting of Tolkien’s elves. Meanwhile her scenes with Halbrand (née Sauron), particularly in the finale, are excellent.

But her character has undoubtedly suffered from poor writing at times, and Clark has shined in spite of the script, not because of it. Nor has she had that much of an arc. It’s been hinted at, but rarely reached any meaningful depth.

Season 2 must improve this, both for Galadriel and the wider show.

Rings of Power Audience Reactions

Final Thoughts

Rings of Power is an imperfect show, with some brilliant creative ideas and a handful of odd ones.

The world feels like authentic Tolkien, and from an aesthetic perspective, it’s £400m well spent.

It does deviate from lore in some notably awkward ways – time compression of events, mithril as a healing property, and the Harfoot narrative in general. This doesn’t make for good television, let alone good depictions of Tolkien’s work.

However, Rings of Power does include some nuanced lore that all but the closest readers of Tolkien would notice. The portrayal of Sauron and the titular rings of power for example – which was highlighted by Twitter user MadEyeGamgee – is inspired:

"Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganisation and rehabilitation of the ruin of Middle-Earth, 'neglected by the Gods', he becomes a reincarnation of evil and a thing lusting for Complete Power…

…But many of the Elves listened to Sauron. He was still fair in that early time, and his motives and those of the Elves seemed to go partly together: the healing of the desolate lands…

…the chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay, the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance." The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion Share

This demonstrates how the showrunners developed both Halbrand’s arc and why they perhaps chose to pursue the ‘mithril as a healing property’ narrative arc.

It also shows how Rings of Power is far closer to the lore than its critics make out.

Still, is Rings of Power the event television it proclaims to be?

No, probably not. It’s an ambitious television show that undoubtedly entertains, but the writing room has a lot to do for season 2 in order to improve upon its quite notable flaws.

3/5

13 Halloween Book Recommendations for 2022

13 Halloween Books for Your TBR alt banner
13 Halloween Reads for your TBR

The spooky season is just around the corner, so you’re probably looking for some suitably spooky Halloween book recommendations as the dark nights draw in.

For books featuring ghosts, vampires, witches, and all things supernatural – here are a selection of thirteen books to add to your Halloween TBR.

Halloween Book Recommendations

13 Spooky Halloween Reads Edgar Allan PoeLet’s begin with one of the icons of the gothic horror genre – Edgar Allan Poe.

The Boston-born author lived a rackety life of alcoholism and poverty, and even the circumstances surrounding his own death remain a mystery.

A prolific short story writer of spooky, sinister tales, Poe penned classics such as The Raven, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, and so many more. The Complete Tales is a great way to enjoy all that Poe has to offer – plus, you can get some amazing editions. 

Perfect for your Halloween bookstagram!

Henry James’ most well-known ghost story is a classic for good reason – it’s genuinely terrifying.

The Victorian novella tells the tale of a Governess who, taking care of two children, becomes fearful that the estate is haunted. Structured as a framed narrative in which the narrator reads the testimony of the governess herself, the reader is unable to ascertain the absolute truth of events, adding an additional layer of fear.

With ghostly children, apparitions at every turn, and the ambiguity of an unreliable narrative, The Turn of the Screw is a perfect read for Halloween.

Halloween Books IT Stephen KingClowns are generally regarded as all kinds of scary.

Whether this has always been the case, or whether Stephen King brought about this cultural phobia, is up for debate.

IT – one of King’s most well-known stories – has been adapted to screen numerous times, with the malicious clown Pennywise now a staple of Halloween popular culture.

The novel itself is no exception.

Wild and Wicked Things isn’t an out-and-out horror novel.

However, it’s drenched in a delightfully witchy aesthetic. And as a Sapphic, supernatural retelling of Gatsby, May’s novel excels. It’s dark, moody, and mysterious with illicit magic and alcohol-fueled antics.

In short, Wild and Wicked Things is a terrific novel and a must-read this Halloween.

Here’s what I said in my review of Wild and Wicked Things:

“An atmospheric, slow burner that delights throughout, it’s clear that May has poured love and passion into building her characters, as well as the dark, moody setting of Crow Island. The result is a tangible and authentic world – a kind of richness that many authors dream of.”

If you’ve only seen the movie adaptations of Dracula – even the excellent Christopher Lee version – you need to read the book.

Whilst it’s a little silly, (the obsession with Mina’s purity is almost comical at times) the novel remains sufficiently dark, gothic, and creepy.

And despite its age, Stoker’s vampiric classic actually reads really well.

Acutely sinister, Dorian fears the waning of his youth. And after meeting socialite and all-round party guy Lord Henry Wooton, Dorian binds his soul to a portrait in exchange for eternal beauty.

But trading away one’s soul entails a heavy price. 

Renowned more for his poetry and plays, The Picture of Dorian Gray was the only novel Oscar Wilde ever wrote.

And it’s a shame because it’s terrific.

Of all the books on this list, A Monster Calls is the most disturbing book due to its portrayal of child trauma.

Conor O’Malley’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy, and with an absent father, he’s highly troubled. Meanwhile, he’s also bullied at school.13 Spooky Halloween Reads

Each night, he’s visited by a monstrous tree that tells a number of tales.

The real-world setting, with real-world problems – interspersed with supernatural interludes – is what makes this book such a troubling read. 

With most people having faced death or family break-ups (sometimes both) Conor’s trauma is the reader’s trauma. 

A Monster Calls is a terribly sad read, but it’s very, very good.

Similar to A Monster Calls, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a blend of the contemporary and the supernatural, which is what makes it such an unsettling tale. 

Following a family breakup, the narrator goes to visit his father in the countryside. But infatuated with Ursula Monkton, his new lover, the narrator’s dad becomes distant.

Going to some surprisingly sinister places, Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is poignant, thought-provoking, and intensely unsettling.

Not one of my favourite books, but it’s well loved by many.

A rare ghost story by Charles Dickens, The Signal-Man tells the tale of an apparition haunting a railway signal-man in rural England.

Living an isolated life in shame after failing to achieve his academic dreams, the taciturn signal-man operates a small signal box near a darkened tunnel. 

Meeting the titular signal-man in passing, the unnamed narrator of Dickens’ novella becomes concerned by his apparent hallucinations of the supernatural.

Preceding a tragedy on the tracks, the signal-man claims to witness a spirit at the entrance to the tunnel, covering their face as if cowering.

Like all good ghost stories, the truth of the tale is open-ended, provoking discussion for readers.

There is also a brilliant 1970s BBC adaptation of the short story, if you’re unable to get hold of a copy of the text itself.

10) Winterset Hollow, Jonathan Durham

Morbid fairy tale meets slasher horror – this is Winterset Hollow, in brief.

And yet it’s so much more than this. Durham’s text is also a really clever metafiction novel, playing with ideas of authorship whilst questioning social values.

The novel sees fans of Winterset Hollow – also the name of the in-universe text – visit Addington Isle to celebrate the anniversary of the book’s release. But with the island itself harbouring a dangerous secret, things deteriorate rapidly.

This dark fantasy is a must-read for your Halloween TBR.

“It’s as if Beatrix Potter’s merry cast of creatures developed a predilection for torture and violence. Disturbing, but admittedly a lot of fun.”

Okay. Hear me out.

The Worst Witch is obviously not a scary Halloween read. It is, however, an absolutely wonderful children’s book. Long before Harry Potter, and the various dark academia books spawned as a result, came Jill Murphy’s witchy classic. 

Mildred Hubble, our protagonist, is enrolled into a school of witchcraft and is waiting to receive her customary broomstick and black cat. Things don’t go according to plan, with the school running out of black cats and instead granting Mildred a curious, misbehaving tabby cat, and from here onwards, hijinks occur.

The writing is charming and the illustrations (by Murphy herself!) are a delight. So, no matter your age, if you haven’t read this wonderful series of books, then you need to add this series to your list of Halloween books.

Sadly, Jill Murphy passed away this year, but her legacy lives on in the adventures of Mildred Hubble, Tabby, and the girls of Miss Cackle’s Academy.

The Passage is an unusual book.

The first half of the book is primarily a contemporary thriller surrounding a lab outbreak, a missing girl, and a policeman gone rogue.

The second half goes full-tilt YA post-apocalyptic vampire world, which sounds really naff but it genuinely isn’t. Somehow, it just works.

Great characters and a well-told story create a terrific beginning to Cronin’s trilogy. If you’ve not read this book, Halloween is a great time to begin. Be warned though – at 766 pages, it’s a long book!

Convicted of witchcraft, Geillis Duncan sits in an Edinburgh prison cell awaiting her execution. Whilst reflecting, she is visited by Iris, a woman claiming to be from the future.

Bridging the gap between the 1571 of Geiller’s world and the reader’s contemporary world, Hex explores the way in which women are still routinely discriminated against.

This is a short book at circa 100 pages, but Fagan is able to exhibit the rage, sadness, and defiance associated with the fight for equality over the years.

What are you reading this Halloween? Let me know down in the comments!

The Battle That was Lost Book Review (by Michael S. Jackson)

The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Review
The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Details

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

The Battle That Was Lost is the latest book in Michael S. Jackson’s Ringlander series. 

A 50ish page novella, this entry details a battle that has significant ramifications for the narrative of Jackson’s full-length fantasy novel, Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

On the surface of it, how interesting could a novella about a battle be? Swords presumably clash, armour is rent, and people die. Par for the course. And let’s be honest – the most memorable parts of fantasy fiction tend to be the character moments and world-building.

Fear not, dear reader. The Battle That Was Lost strikes a good balance between character and world-building elements. The frenetic fighting is punctuated with flashbacks that help steady the pace of the writing, giving the story both time and space to breathe.

This is another impressive outing from Jackson, and well worth your time if you’re into fantasy fiction.

Discontent is brewing in the world of Rengas.

The occupying Bohr faction faces a rebellion in the form of the native Tsiorc, led by Tactician Laeb. And whilst this civil war plays out in more detail in Jackson’s full-length novel, The Battle That Was Lost instead focuses on the smaller, but nonetheless important frontier of Drakemyre.

Thugs for hire, Qor and Staegrim – the latter a proud bastard – prowl the outskirts of the battle, moving between the lines of troops in pursuit of their target for assassination.

The banter between the two is a winning formula; it’s authentic and genuinely amusing. 

They share an unconventional relationship; friendly, but wildly antagonistic. Each exchange is tense, yet amusing – it’s a compelling paradox that keeps the reader involved in the narrative, and it’s this relationship that forms the heart of The Battle That Was Lost.

But there’s plenty more at stake here than the result of a single pitched battle. After all, this is a world of political intrigue, supernatural forces, and tactical minds. This confrontation between the Tsiorc rebels and the Bohr could determine the future of the continent.

The Art of the Novella

The publishing industry is not short of fantasy novels.

People are constantly on the lookout for the next The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and because of this, fantasy novels tend to be fairly lengthy in an attempt to replicate the epic scope of the genre’s more iconic titles – whether they justify the length or not. 

The novella is therefore a brilliant medium for readers to enjoy the genre. It’s a challenging style that forces an author to be clinical with their prose, including only the best of their writing.

Indie Publisher Interview

I recently spoke about short-form writing with Andy Leach of subscription-based publisher Seventy2One.

And in a world where some fantasy authors simply want to write 7-book epics, it’s refreshing to see a writer embrace the short form for a change.

Jackson’s a good writer too, and this novella is no exception. It’s witty, amusingly crude in parts, and tells a good story in a concise manner.

It’s an accessible means of introducing new readers to a larger world, allowing them to dip into a mythos without the need to commit their time and patience to a larger novel. Plus, The Battle That Was Lost also includes the first three chapters of Ringlander, Jackson’s full-length novel, to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. 

From the author’s point of view, it’s great marketing for their larger novels. From the reader’s point of view, they get a shorter, more concise snapshot of what to expect from the author’s larger books, as well as their writing style.

Flashbacks to the Future

Flashbacks have a sketchy reputation in fiction, both on-screen and in books. And for good reason.

Too often, they interrupt the pacing of narratives, risking the alienation of a viewer or reader who is thrust into a time or space they don’t immediately recognise. If the flashback doesn’t add to the present narrative, either plot-wise or thematically, it can be jarring.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case in The Battle that was Lost. Jackson uses the technique in a really smart way, with each flashback foreshadowing future events whilst creating a sub-narrative of its own. These are equally compelling as the battle, helping to switch up the full-tilt pace of the titular battle.

The flashbacks make this novella far stronger, and also serve as a window into the events of Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

Book Review

Read the full Tales from Absurdia book review of Ringlander: The Path and the Way

Conclusion

The Battle That Was Lost is another solid entry into Jackson’s expanding world. It’s an approachable novella that reconnects readers already familiar with the world of Ringlander, whilst serving as a solid entry point for new readers.

It’s witty, features some brilliant battle sequences, and fleshes out the existing lore in a really satisfying way. The inclusion of maps is also a brilliant addition – every fantasy author should do this. It’s a great way to situate the events of the book, whilst still encouraging the reader to use their imagination.

Sure, it won’t change the minds of readers who don’t enjoy fantasy, but for those who do, The Battle That Was Lost – plus its full-fat sibling Ringlander – offers readers a compelling world, a strong narrative, and a bevy of unique characters.

4/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publishing Interview with Andy at Seventy2One

Recently, I caught up with Andy Leach of Seventy2One – a publishing imprint of Massive Overheads.

Hi Andy – cheers for getting involved. Great to have you on the blog.

To start things off, can you tell my readers some more about Seventy2One and Massive Overheads?

What’s your angle as a publisher, and what sort of literature do you want to deliver to your audience?

Hi, John, good to be here. Massive Overheads Productions is essentially me and my pal Alec Bowman-Clarke.

Alec’s a photographer, filmmaker and musician. We’d met via Twitter and talked about doing a project together. In 2020 I mooted the idea of a short film and sent Alec a script I’d written. He liked it, so as the UK came out of lockdown we started making a film, called Overheads. The experience was great for both of us, so we set up a creative collaboration called Massive Overheads Productions, through which we could put any other work that we might do together. Over time I began to like the idea of Massive Overheads being more than short films, and so when I decided to set up a publishing imprint, I put it under the same umbrella.

Seventy2One was essentially born out of frustration. My friend (writer) Hannah Persaud and I had long talked about how we’d like to run a small press. In 2021 we found ourselves in similar positions; we’d both recently split from agents, were both frustrated at both the pace and lack of originality in publishing. 

"I want to concentrate on short stories, in a genre I'd call accessible literary. Bite-sized pieces of art."

So we decided to do something about it and created Seventy2One. In July 2021 we agreed that the first book would be a collection of short stories, focusing on the climate emergency. Somehow, 80% of the writers we contacted about it said yes, and it came together quickly, enabling us to launch Sunburnt Saints in November.

Hannah stepped away from the project after Sunburnt Saints came out; she’s still an enthusiastic supporter and we’re still good friends, just that the demands of Seventy2One didn’t sit with the rest of her life at the moment. Whereas I had 101 ideas about how I wanted to progress the imprint, so decided to take it on myself. 

I want to concentrate on short stories, in a genre I’d call accessible literary. Bite-sized pieces of art.

I hear that a lot from indie publishers in terms of a lack of pace and originality. Could you expand upon it a little?

And regarding your point on making literary writing accessible, I think that’s a really great endeavour. Some readers I speak to on a regular basis tend to be quite put off by literary fiction.

Speaking as a marketer, I think your Twitter presence gets that ‘accessible literary’ vibe across really well to be honest.

Thanks for saying that we’re managing to get what we’re about across on Twitter; it’s certainly been a good place to grow our community.

I’ve always found the term [literary fiction] to be somewhat pretentious, a bit up its own backside. It suggests a denigration of other genres in favour of itself, a sort of ‘one true calling’ of book genres. But as we seem stuck with it, what I mean by it is something that’s original, that uses language to communicate as much as story, if that makes sense, and which doesn’t follow a conventional pattern. Those type of books have always been more interesting to me. 

But essentially it’s a nonsense term. I remember a Booker longlister being described as a litfic crossover with crime and thinking ‘Stop trying to pigeonhole books! It’s just a damn good book that happens to be about a crime.’

As to pace and originality, there are times when publishing feels like a sausage factory, a never-ending line of genre-based identi-books. And then when something new does come along and become an unexpected hit, everyone spends the next eighteen months trying to pull off a repeat of it with sub-standard replica books.

The pace thing is a mystery to me. Books are written within a timeframe and yet by the time they come out, the author has moved on, is probably interested in different things, is writing different things, so they’re always retrospective. I’m less bothered as to why this is the case (because I’m sure someone from Harper Collins or wherever would have an answer) than the fact that it just shouldn’t, needn’t be the case.

For me and what I’m trying to do at Seventy2One, it’s back to that late ’70s early ’80’s ethic of immediacy, of writing it, editing it and getting it out all within a pretty short period of time. And then move on to the next one, knowing that the best of them will stand any test of time as great works.

At Seventy2One, you’re all about chapbooks.

What are they exactly, what made you opt for that format, and how do they differ from a regular paperback?

It’s all about chapbooks for now. Going forward, there will be other projects. I think chapbooks suit the short story format really well. They allow short stories to stand up for themselves in the way that a novel would, rather than getting lost within an anthology. I find the best short stories more satisfying than most novels.

"Think high-end punk aesthetic. The Elvis Costello of publishing! "

There are lots of definitions of ‘chapbooks’ online; as I understand it. They originated in the sixteenth century as little folded pamphlets, and were popularised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as print became more accessible. ‘Chap’ books because they were sold at the roadside by chap men: pedlars and street sellers. Chap taken from the old English cäep, meaning ‘cheap.’

The modern resurgence tends to mean little books of 40 pages or less. Mine are 28 pages from cover to cover. I wanted them to be easily affordable but with great writers, quick, unpretentious, accessible, things you could slip into a pocket or handbag, but at the same time retain a literary integrity. Think high-end punk aesthetic. The Elvis Costello of publishing!

On a similar note, you’re a subscription-only publisher.

What made you take that route, vs the traditional method of selling books for a one-off fixed price?

I think the traditional method is broken. I spent some time working as a bookseller at a branch of Waterstones, ostensibly to gain more insight into the UK fiction publishing market. 

I started wondering why they made Greta Thunberg ‘author of the year’ yet positioned her books at the till, surrounded by plastic toys and all sorts of environmentally ridiculous bits and bobs. I got told that’s where the profit is. It’s not in books. And then you have great indie publishers putting out some terrific work that are one flop away from going bust. 

I also think distributors have too much power. So I wanted to see if things could be done differently. Subscription builds a community among Seventy2One’s readers and also means the cost can be kept low. Times are so tough for so many at the moment, that spreading the cost of four storybooks over a year at just £1.50 a month means that perhaps people might be able to manage that, rather than an outlay on one individual book. 

Books are, after all, a luxury item. At least when compared to food and energy costs.

Wow, that’s pretty telling.

I must admit my (and a fair few others’) eyebrows were raised when last year’s Waterstones Book of the Year was Paul McCartney’s book (selling for around £75 no less!)

I think the booksellers at high street bookshops do a great job, and I’ve got a lot of time for them, but it’s pretty interesting to get that insight from a higher-up commercials point of view.

Yes, the McCartney book is another good illustration as to what’s wrong.

No one loves McCartney more than me, I think he’s up there with Mozart as just the greatest composer we’ve ever known, the definition of a living legend. But for a £75 book to be Book of the Year suggests someone somewhere is trying to claw back a huge advance!

I noticed that you published an anthology on climate change in Sunburnt Saints – you’ve got some really talented writers in there!

What impact do you think writers, and indeed publishers, can have on influencing positive action towards climate change?

To a certain extent we’re preaching to the choir. If you have a book subtitled ‘An anthology of climate fiction’ it’s not going to be bought and considered by those in denial. By the same token, I think it’s vital that we, everyone, not just writers and publishers, continue to engage with the subject, learn more, demand more, take action, make better decisions. 

And the one thing writers and publishers can do is use their voice, their platform, to continue to raise awareness, to show what’s happening. If one story in that collection made one reader out of hundreds stop and think and make a better choice with the environmental crisis in mind, it’s done its job.

What are the main challenges you face as an indie publisher? In an ideal world, what would you change overnight?

Seventy2One’s challenges are those that face any new brand: awareness and customer acquisition. The quicker we can grow, the sooner we can bring out more books and do more things. 

But it’s very easy to lose money in publishing! So it’s a constant battle between seeking growth and finding out what works. 

In terms of changes, my initial reaction was to restore the net book agreement, but in retrospect that ship has sailed. I think changing the distribution landscape would bring most benefits to indies. Distribution deals that don’t allow for more than a certain percentage of returns would make a more level playing field. At the moment the publisher takes the risk at both ends of the market and that can’t be right.

Yeah, distribution returns can be a real pain point for small press. I can imagine it’s incredibly hard to manage the budget with that in mind.

For my readers who aren’t aware of distribution agreements, essentially, how it works is that a publisher sells an inventory of books to the distributors, who then move them on to retailers.

If the stock isn’t shifted by the retailer (or not shifted after a stipulated period of time) the books get sent back to the publisher and the publisher essentially has to reimburse the distributor accordingly.

Pretty much, plus a distributor can, for example, charge the publisher for its services on a weekly basis and then agree to pay the publisher for books sold monthly or quarterly, so it becomes a cashflow issue too.

Do you think there’s an appetite for that sort of change? Presumably it would have to come from the bigger publishers.

There are a number of small distributors out there, but since Bertrams’ demise it’s basically Gardners, so it’s fair to say a large percentage of the market is sewn up. And of course, the big publishers have their own distribution services, too. Grantham Book Services, for example, is owned by Penguin Random House.

But things are changing, indeed have been changing since Amazon entered the UK 15 years ago (yes, it’s only been 15 years!). Don’t forget, Amazon’s original offer was built around books. They were the first real modern disruptor to the books market and offered all sorts of differences to the consumer and to writers.

And from a Seventy2One point of view, I see lots of things being sold by subscription that in times past you’d never have thought would have been: wine, fruit and veg, beauty products, vinyl records, gadgets, cheese… they’re all available on subscription. We’re just adopting a retail method that’s proven in other sectors. 

Big thanks to Andy for getting involved. If you enjoyed this interview, leave a comment below and head over to Massive Overheads to find out more!

Must-Visit Manchester Bookshops

Manchester Bookshops Skyline
Best Bookshops in Manchester

A History of Literature in Manchester

With the likes of The Secret Garden author Francis Hodgson Burnett, Elisabeth Gaskell, and the opium-fiend, Thomas de Quincey, Manchester has a rich heritage in producing writing talent. 

In more modern times, exceptional writers like Jeannette Winterson and Howard Jacobson hail from Manchester, whilst the brilliant writer and poet Lemn Sissay OBE occupies the office of Chancellor of the University of Manchester.

Must-Visit Manchester Bookshops

Paramount Books is a really unique spot in this list of Manchester Bookshops.

They have all of the latest literary paperbacks, plus classic genre staples such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

However, what’s really interesting about Paramount Books is their extraordinary collection of vintage magazines and collectable first editions of older books.

A broad church of publishing, you can even buy comics and graphic novels. Ace!

Paramount Books
25-27 Shudehill,
Manchester,
M4 2AF
0161 834 9509
https://paramountbooks.co.uk/

Much like its Leeds counterpart, the Manchester Travelling Man Bookshop is nerd paradise.

From comics, to graphic novels, to table top board games… this is where you want to be for all things anime, sci-fi, and fantasy.

Definitely a must-visit if you’re heading Manchester way.

Travelling Man
4 Dale Street
Manchester
M1 1JW
0161 237 1877
[email protected]
https://travellingman.com/

Catalog bookshop is definitely the quirkiest of Manchester bookshops, insofar that it’s a bookshop on wheels. Bicycle wheels!

No, really.

Inspired by a trip to Copenhagen, owner Peter believes in blending ‘the practicality of industrial design with the sustainability of the Nordic minimalism’.

You’ll usually find him on Oxford Road, selling periodicals and indie published books off the back of a cargo bike.

Check out Peter’s Instagram for pictures, and some of the latest periodicals available from Catalog.

Catalogue Bookshop
Oxford Rd,
Manchester,
M1 7DU
United Kingdom
[email protected]
https://www.catalogmanchester.com/

Chorlton Bookshop in Manchester
Image by Chorlton Books

Chorlton Books is a family-run chocolate box-like bookshop designed for all the family.

From the gates at the front to the approachable interior, this Manchester bookshop is built on a passion for encouraging reading in young people.

They also have a free book ordering service, with many books – whether fiction or non-fiction, hardback or paperback, available on a next-day delivery service. Neat!

Also, they sell Jellycat children’s cuddly toys. My kids love those.

Chorlton Bookshop
506 Wilbraham Road,
Chorlton,
Manchester
M21 9AW
0161 881 6374
[email protected]
https://chorltonbookshop.co.uk/

Image courtesy of Chapter One Books

Chapter One Books is a really interesting spot.

Part artisan coffee house, serving some delightful-looking cakes (check out their Insta for instantly gratifying food porn), it’s also a really beautiful place to write, watch the world go by, and – well, you know, buy books!

May win the award of most beautiful bookshop on this list. Definitely check it out.

Chapter One Books 
Chatsworth House,
23 Lever St,
Manchester
M1 1BY
[email protected]
https://chapteronebooks.co.uk/

Urmston Bookshop in Manchester
Image by Urmston Books

Urmston bookshop in Manchester is a classic community-first bookshop.

Working closely with local schools, arranging author outreach visits and welcoming school trips to the shop, they perform a really important role in the local community.

The Urmston Bookshop
72 Flixton Road,
Urmston
Manchester
M41 5AB
0161 747 7442
[email protected]
https://www.urmston-bookshop.co.uk/

Queer Lit was founded by owner Matthew to help fellow LGBTQ+ readers discover literature that expressed their own lived experiences.

Manchester has a particularly vibrant gay scene, but he found representation in literary circles to be a challenge. 

Image by Queer Lit

In only October last year, Queer Lit was awarded ‘Best New Business’ at the LGBTQ+ Business Awards, and by the looks of things – they have plans to expand.

It’s a stunning little shop and definitely worth poking your head in next time you’re Manchester-bound.

Oh, and they also have a bookshop doggo called Jasper who I hear is one of the goodest of boys.

Queer Lit
39 Tib Street,
Manchester,
M4 1LX
0161 2224049
https://www.queerlit.co.uk/

Image by The Modernist

The Modernist, a mere stone’s throw from fellow booksellers Chapter One Books, focuses primarily on architecture and design books.

A quirky spot, you can buy prints and even stationery (who doesn’t love stationery?!)

Fans of modernist art and architecture can even sign up to a quarterly magazine, which focuses on untold stories and undiscovered places. Previous topics have included a Paris tower block, a city in Eritrea, a micro apartment in Tokyo, and even something as trivial as an Accrington public toilet!

The Modernist
58 Port Street,
Manchester
M1 2EQ
https://the-modernist.org/

As well as being a great Manchester bookshop, Blackwell’s performs a vital function for arts and literature both locally and nationally.

Spearheaded by bookseller, David, Blackwell’s Manchester runs a range of bookish events, including panels and book launches – always with really interesting guests.

Plus, it’s just a really beautiful shop. Well worth visiting.

How many of these Manchester bookshops have you visited? Let me know some of your favourites in the comments below!

Ghost Signs Book Review (by Stu Hennigan)

Ghost Signs Book Review Header

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.

Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.

A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.

It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.

It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.

One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.

In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.

If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.

Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.

One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:

“Is that FOOD? she asks when she sees the bags
I nod.
ALL of it?
I nod again.
For US? She points to herself, eyes wide.
Yep, all for you.
YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!...

… I’ve got tears streaming down my face on the way back to the van… …her reaction to the food is so sad that it’s unbearable. Months later, I still won’t be able to recall the event without welling up. It’s a moment I’ll remember as long as I live.”

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan (2022)

And this is just one man’s story in one city. 

Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.

*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”

The Road to Armley Gaol

Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.

However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.

Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.

The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.

The Human Casualties of the Pandemic

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.

But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.

Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.

Conclusion

Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.

Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.

4/5

Ghost Signs is available in paperback (affiliate link) at bookshop.org, or directly from the publisher at Bluemoose Books.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Edgware Road Book Review (by Yasmin Khan)

Edgware Road Book Review

Edgware Road, Yasmin Khan’s debut fiction novel, is a tale about the lives of three individuals, spanning the streets of London to the Asian subcontinent.

Khan’s prose is wonderful – a real pleasure to read – and yet the novel isn’t quite able to facilitate the scope and ambition of its plot and characters.

Still, despite its flaws, Edgware Road is a good novel and well worth your time.

One of the three protagonists, Khalid is a Pakistani immigrant working as a croupier at Hugh Hefner’s infamous London Playboy Club. Shuffling cards by night, Khalid has big plans for his partner and daughter – dreams of Caribbean islands, diamonds and flash cars. However, despite knowing that the house always wins, Khalid has a gambling problem, staking his family’s future happiness at the expense of the present.

Meanwhile Alia is searching for clues following the disappearance of her father. In an endeavour to discover the truth, Alia’s travels take her from exploring the streets of London to connecting with distant relatives in Pakistan. A daughter of a post-partition Pakistani family now living in England, her complex heritage forms a significant part of her narrative.

Elsewhere, politician Arthur Denby seeks to unveil a political conspiracy surrounding the mysterious BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International). Based on a real historical scandal of the ‘80s in Britain, Khan uses Denby’s perspective to explore the political underworld of lobbying, sweetheart deals, and financial fraud.

These three narrative threads are interwoven into a compelling structure with some solid characters, each perspective alternating between 1987 and 2003.

It’s a great way to write a novel, especially one with complex family drama and political intrigue, keeping the reader guessing whilst adding flourishes of detail to the emerging plot.

However...

Despite the pleasing prose, interesting characters, and smart structure, there are a few problems.

For a start, the novel feels far too short for the amount of plot and character development. 

At 300 pages, relating three perspectives across two separate periods of time, Khan can only dedicate roughly 50 pages per character, per time period to build character and write a satisfying plot.

And whilst this would be entirely possible with more economical prose, the magic behind Edgware Road is its brilliant writing style. It’s a real pleasure to read, which is why it’s frustrating that there isn’t more of it.

Of course, word count isn’t everything. A shorter book like The Sound Mirror uses similar techniques surrounding multiple perspectives in separate time periods with far greater success.

However, the key difference here is that there are a large number of narrative threads opened by Khan, including Khalid’s involvement with the BCCI, Alia’s relationship with her family in Pakistan, Denby’s troubled home life – just to name a handful. These plot moments, amongst others, do not feel fully explored.

Pacing is also an issue. The first third of the novel is well paced, but the rest, from the middle section through to the conclusion, feels rushed. Alia’s on-off relationship with her flatmate goes nowhere, and whilst Denby’s perspective is an interesting one, he often reads like an afterthought and never quite earns his place in the story.

What results is an ending that feels wholly unsatisfactory, with Edgware Road unable to give its characters the closure they deserve – and that’s a real shame.

Conclusion

Whilst Edgware Road is a flawed debut, it’s still worth a reader’s time, particularly for fans of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which explore similar themes of the immigrant experience in London.

Unfortunately, Edgware Road doesn’t reach the depth of those novels, but the prose is lovely, and the characters, whilst lacking the depth they deserve, are a delight. It’s just a tad frustrating that such potential has been squandered.

Still, keep an eye out for Yasmin Khan’s future books – she’s a talented writer.

3/5

Edgware Road is available in hardback at bookshop.org, with the paperback also available to pre-order.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying Book Review

How to Suck at Business Marah Archer Book Review

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is, if it isn’t nakedly apparent from the title, a satirical text on breathtakingly bad business management.

Written in the style of a self-help business book, it’s designed to impart pearls of wisdom and innovative insights from a sociopathic entrepreneur who has grown their corporate empire from nothing.

These types of books, often penned by self-styled ‘LinkedIn Gurus,’ are ripe for parody and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying falls flat. Amusing in parts, the book unfortunately leans into predictable satire that never truly evolves beyond the first joke.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying
Overview

From business strategy and HR policies (a particular highlight), to marketing and project management, Archer’s text features some of the most egregious, irresponsible, and morally bereft business advice, packaged as wisdom. That in itself has the potential to be hilarious.

It’s a social commentary on American workers’ rights, damning the power that unscrupulous bosses have over their employees.

This should be a fairly straightforward target for some sharp satire. And yet somehow How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is to satire what a blunt instrument is to open-heart surgery, bludgeoning the same point over-and-over.

Even the title is problematic. The writer-character of the book is absolutely convinced he’s the world’s best boss, and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying breaks immersion by implying that the ‘real’ author simply wants to vent at their experience of bad managers.

Still, it’s not an altogether bad book. There’s some solid social commentary and amusing remarks on business culture that, frustratingly, shows what this book could have been.

Like David Brent, but Without the Charm

Our main character, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s best boss’, reveals as much about his own life through his running commentary and actions, as the misery he piles upon his employees. He’s a seedy, tragically bad manager who has convinced himself that he’s an industry thought leader.

But he lacks any sort of charm to offset the lack of humanity. The boss of How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is a straight-up terrible human being, without any vulnerabilities or complexities that would enable the reader to connect with him on any meaningful level. He’s insecure and hates his employees succeeding.

There’s a missed opportunity here to introduce doubt, or sincerity, like The Office’s (UK) David Brent. Brent is a pretty ethically and morally dubious boss, but he’s entirely sincere in his buffoonery.

How to Suck at Business David Brent
Like this guy, but not.

The boss in this book is only comparable with David Brent insofar that he possesses the same dated and misguided views, but lacks any corresponding charm whatsoever. The result is that the running joke quickly begins to grate.

Satire at its best works with a wink and a smile, straddling an uncomfortable gap of truth and exaggeration. The problem is that How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying keeps winking over and over, whilst holding up a sign daubed with “this is satire”.

Conclusion

Anyone who has worked for terrible (or hostile) management will find some relatability in this book. It runs the full gamut of areas in a business, with our main character naturally professing to be an expert in almost all areas.

However, the humour is very on the nose, and once you’ve read a couple of chapters, you’ve pretty much read them all.

A mildly humorous read, but not the most original.

2/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

A reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a supernatural twist, Francesca May’s Wild and Wicked Things spins a compelling yarn about the bond between three women – Annie, Emmeline, and Bea. It’s a terrific tale of witches, blood magic, and small-town intrigue on the shores of the North Sea.

An atmospheric, slow burner that delights throughout, it’s clear that May has poured love and passion into building her characters, as well as the dark, moody setting of Crow Island. The result is a tangible and authentic world – a kind of richness that many authors dream of.

And whilst the aesthetic often recalls more Roaring Twenties America than its apparent UK setting, Wild and Wicked Things is a sensual and stylish Sapphic novel.

It’s an exceptional piece of writing.

Drawn to Crow Island to settle some routine legal affairs following the death of her father, Annie Mason walks the shore of her holiday cottage, drawn along the beach to the revelries of the manor next door.

Cross House, home of the notorious Emmeline Delacroix, is renowned for its raucous parties and flowing of Kazam (an alcohol that may-or-may-not be laced with magic). Warned of this, Annie is nonetheless magnetised, pulling her into a world of illicit magic and forbidden romance.

With the exception of brief diary entries from a mysterious individual, the novel functions as a twin narrative, flowing between both Annie and Emmeline’s perspectives. Given Wild and Wicked Things’ predilection for revealing its secrets in a gradual manner, this style works well – each character’s perspective proffers pieces of a narrative jigsaw in an attempt to uncover the true nature of the mysterious bond between Annie and Emmeline.

Wild and Wicked Things might be a slower-paced novel, but it never wastes the reader’s time. Each conversation reveals aspects of character, driving the plot forward, or helps further build this marvellous world. Take your time with it – it’s a rewarding piece of writing that has been crafted meticulously to be enjoyed.

Something Wicca this Way Comes…

Being a Gatsby-inspired novel, Wild and Wicked Things is glamorous and raucous. In fact, May’s novel leans fairly heavily into the Gatsby-like influences early on. 

For example, there’s a purple light across the bay instead of a green one; Emmeline resembles Jay Gatsby in numerous ways, and Annie’s modest house, set across the way from Emmeline’s, is similarly placed to Nick Carraway’s own humble abode. Fans of Gatsby will find these references comfortingly familiar.

Still, because it’s so culturally intertwined with Roaring Twenties America, it’s difficult to divorce Wild and Wicked Things from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. Crow Island itself is a fictional place and therefore exists in its own spatial dimension. So whilst the setting feels authentic, it never feels especially British. 

This isn’t a bad thing at all, and it certainly doesn’t affect immersion – Wild and Wicked Things is a highly stylised novel that borrows ideas from The Great Gatsby and builds upon them in some really fascinating ways. 

Any surface-level influences eventually yield to reveal deeper, darker secrets. It’s when the parties are over and the lights are dimmed in the hallowed halls of Cross House that Wild and Wicked Things truly comes into its own, usurping readers’ expectations with a thrilling plot.

There’s also far more at stake than a linear plot about witches. Wild and Wicked Things is also a thoughtful, methodical examination of what it was to be LGBT in the early 20th century. 

Magic is often presented in the society of the novel as a frowned-upon practice, functioning as a smart metaphor for homosexuality. Indeed, Emmeline herself is often portrayed as a mysterious and malevolent force, her predation upon young women playing into age-old, harmful tropes that many will be familiar with.

It’s a social topic handled sensitively, with May’s novel challenging these tropes and social mores, engendering empathy in the reader thanks to fantastic, well-written characters.

To Bea or Not to Bea

It’s fairly clear when an author knows their characters, and May has evidently spent many a day and night with these individuals. These aren’t just characters on a page. From mannerisms and gestures to inflections in dialogue, they feel like real people, and that’s testament to the writing and world-building. 

Bea is insecure and desperate, but unlike Daisy, her counterpart in The Great Gatsby, it’s relatively easy to empathise with her.

Likewise, Emmeline is a complex woman, tortured by her past and haunted by her future. She’s strong but vulnerable, with a reputation as an Anne Lister-like sort; corrupting young women and ensnaring them into her cult of personality (if, of course, you believe the rumours). Naturally, the truth isn’t quite as clear-cut as that.

Annie, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an inquisitive but shy young woman. But unlike Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, she’s an active participant in Wild and Wicked Things, driving the narrative and shaping the lives of those around her. Beneath her innocent, seemingly passive, demeanour is an influential, forthright woman trying to find her true self. 

Meanwhile, Isobel & Nathan, two of Wild and Wicked Things’ supporting cast, are excellent additions, playing off against Emmeline’s dark, brooding demeanour.

Conclusion

This is one of the books to read in 2022. Especially if you enjoy witchy vibes and magic realism. But it also features some fantastic social commentary.

May has a wonderfully evocative style of descriptive writing that conjures vivid imagery at the mere turning of a page. The setting and aesthetics drip with detail, and the characters are fully-realised three-dimensional people. They have flaws, make terrible decisions, and it’s because of this, amongst other reasons, that they’re so much more believable. May takes all the time necessary to reveal their hopes and fears and the novel is far stronger for it.

In short, Wild and Wicked Things is a terrific novel that’s well worth your time.

5/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.