Book cover: Sunbolt - Intisar Khanani (rich red-orange text on a blue background with a geometric motif above it)Hitomi is a foreign-born street thief with dangerous secrets: untrained magical abilities and ties to the Shadow League, enemies of the corrupt Archmage. But even the haunted streets of Karolene are safer than what awaits her beyond its borders.

Bear with me, I’m going to gush. I loved The Bone Knife, but Sunbolt cements Intisar Khanani as an author whose work I won’t hesitate to seek out and recommend. The opening chapter swept me up with its dazzling world-building: a foreigner in a foreign land, uncertain of her welcome; an unpleasant regime with mercenary enforcers, sufficiently feared that the market vendors will risk their safety to protect an innocent (foreign or not); a hint that not all citizens are entirely human (we’ll soon meet shapechangers, vampires and soul eaters); and a whiff of magic to sweeten the sting of fear.

When the action kicks in, it doesn’t stop the details coming thick and fast. Karolene existed as a tangible place in my head long before Hitomi was safely stashed in a box while the Archmage’s mercenaries blundered past. Hitomi herself emerges more slowly – we meet her as a fearful immigrant with secrets, keeping a low profile and ensuring she stays out of the hands of threatening authorities.

I was honestly surprised when her brasher, more confrontational side came to the fore in her dealings with Ghost and the Shadow League. Here she is mocking, cheeky, brave even as circumstances become ever darker. She doesn’t hesitate to take risks – and before long we see how much she’s willing to sacrifice to protect others. I couldn’t help but like her daring and her determination.

For a novella, there’s a lot of plot packed in, and if the villains are all rather moustache-twirling, Hitomi’s allies were slightly more nuanced. I liked that while she had the courage to repeatedly stand up to Blackflame and Kol, she wasn’t able to run rings around them. Being forced to rely on chancy allies is a favourite trope of mine – can they be trusted? Can they trust themselves? – and I loved how it came into play here. SPOILER (mouse over to read): Val was inevitably one of my favourite characters of the piece, not least for his chilling comment on why he wouldn’t stay with Hitomi and Brigit.

Sunbolt is engaging, well-written, gripping and as full of Promise as its heroine. It does just enough world building to hang together and tantalise, focusing instead on showing the strength of character of its young protagonist. While it stands alone, there are more than enough loose ends to demand I continue on with the sequel, Memories of Ash, in due course.

****1/2