Twelve Days of Bookmas: mini reviews

I prioritised reviewing ARCs this year, but I also read books I bought, borrowed or received as gifts. Some I read alone; others with friends in read-alongs – and a few I never got round to reviewing. Today’s round up features thumbnail reviews for The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, The Bone Shard Daughter, and Winter’s Orbit.

The Loneliest Girl In The Universe – Lauren James

Book cover: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe - Lauren James (a silhouetted girl against a burst of stars)

Romy Silvers is the only survivor aboard humanity’s first mission to the stars; a lonely teenager who has lost everyone she loves. When a second craft is launched to support her, she clings to the shining promise it represents; but she has no idea what has been happening back on Earth… or who is coming to find her.

I first heard about this YA stand-alone when I heard Lauren James speak on a panel a few years back; she talked about the spreadsheets she’d set up to ensure the timelines worked out and I was sold on the spot. This is why my friends tease me: I claim to be all about character and world-building, but talk up a good spreadsheet and you immediately get my interest (yes, I plan to read Hench).

I came in expecting YA romance, so set my expectations low (romantic (sub)plots are often my main beef with YA novels). But – at the risk of spoiling you – The Loneliest Girl engages in bait and switch. The first act sets up a space meetcute as two young people build a relationship over email as they hurtle towards a distant planet. The second act abruptly changes tack to deliver a paranoid space thriller that pushes our heroine to her limits; a trial by fire in which she must come to terms with her past to survive.

Related through Romy’s diary entries, Lauren James does a sterling job of seeding plot to move things along while keeping her heroine’s state of mind front and centre. Initially cute, often harrowing, I appreciated that Loneliest Girl sidesteps the red flags inherent in its concept. And yes, I’m keeping this vague because while I think it’s worth knowing this isn’t a YA romance, I also think it rewards being unspoiled about the details.

The Bone Shard Daughter – Andrea Stewart

Book cover: The Bone Shard Daughter - Andrea Stewart

Change is coming to the Sukai Empire. Rebellions are brewing everywhere – even in the imperial palace, where the Emperor’s daughter is desperate to master bone shard magic so she can take control and care for her people. As myths rise and islands sink, the future of the Empire hovers on the brink…

Hats off to Andrea Stewart: she kept me guessing throughout this twisty debut with her sly hints and unexpected reveals. I had a whale of a time throughout our read-along second-guessing what was going on. The physical world (migrating islands!), well-teased mysteries and dark magic system are highlights with intriguing implications, but I found the social context and supporting characters sketchy in a plot-heavy series starter.

I think this was partly down to there being too many POVs / plots – Phalue/Ranami felt particularly underdeveloped, even mechanical; I was never sold on their relationship or the decisions they rather conveniently made to service the plot. Thankfully, it’s easy to love Jovis the smuggler and the adorable Mephi, and I was fascinated by Sand and her mysterious circumstances. If I didn’t like Lin, I enjoyed mistrusting her motivations and moral compass.

In the end, while I loved many of the ingredients, I didn’t find The Bone Shard Daughter a truly satisfying read. Very little of it has stayed with me, and when the sequel came out in the autumn I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy (although I will pick it up at some point, perhaps when the series is complete). A diverting read, but I am yet to be won over – although I wonder if it suffered from the extra scrutiny of a read-along; I suspect I’d have been less critical if I’d been reading more casually.

Winter’s Orbit – Everina Maxwell

Book cover: Winter's Orbiit - Everina Maxwell

The Iskat Empire is built on a delicate web of treaties and marriages. When Prince Taam dies unexpectedly, his widower Jainan is rushed into accepting irresponsible Prince Kiem as a replacement. The two young men must build a relationship to salvage peace between their worlds if they are to secure the Empire’s treaty with the mighty Galactic Resolution…

I’m the first to say that romance isn’t really my thing: I don’t get much out of romance tropes, so I generally avoid romance-driven narratives. I made an exception for Winter’s Orbit thanks to strong word of mouth and the tantalising space opera window dressing (I am helpless in the face of SFnal diplomats).

I’m glad I did: it’s an entertaining rollercoaster of conspiracies, political traps, imperial bureaucracy and at times hilarious social occasions. I was quickly invested in the good-hearted Prince and awkward widower, and sucked in by the spiralling questions of exactly what dead Prince Taam had been up to. Maxwell’s light-touch world-building neatly evokes a broader sense of setting, suggesting a bigger world that might be explored in future stories.

That said, there’s no denying that Winter’s Orbit is primarily interested in its romance. Perhaps inevitably, I found some of the romantic beats frustrating and the end of the final act a little too convenient, with political issues evaporating once the romantic outcomes were delivered. While it left me feeling warm and fuzzy (the characters are irresistibly charming), it didn’t really satisfy as political space opera. Still, I can see myself revisiting it as a comfort read, even if it didn’t ring all my bells.