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Being a fangirl often feels a little bit like you’ve missed the signs pointing out ‘Polite Boundaries’ and crossed over into ‘Creepy Town’. You talk about the object of your fangirlishness all the time. Every topic you think of seems to relate to it. You seek out other people who talk about your new obsession. You start 'following’ sources (probably down scary, dark alleys) so you can find out more. Then you write another post about that series, band, film - whatever it is you’re crushing so hard on and feel like your interest might be getting a little bit too much, but you ignore it because you just have too much to say about this piece of entertaining media.

Yes, it’s time for me to review Sarwat Chadda’s young adult novel,
‘Dark Goddess’ all of three months after I reviewed his first novel 'Devil’s Kiss’. This is the second novel following Billi Sangreal the only female squire belonging to The Knights Templar. I hope I don’t go overboard, but I promise my love comes from a non-creepy place.

The book opens strong and bloody, pumping up the shock and battle factor in the early pages. Billi becomes involved in a fight with a clan of werewolves called the Polenitsy who have broken a vow to the Templars and started hunting humans again. The opening of this sequel is less concerned presenting violent emotional conflict, as in ‘Devil’s Kiss’ opening pages. Instead this equally violent opening (not to seem out for blood all over again, but I’m fine with violence when it’s in a paranormal battle) focuses on thrusting readers into an exciting, hard fought battle and uses the extreme tension of Billi’s described fight for survival to encourage readers to bond with this heroine by willing her to win:

'The shape turned its long lupine head and out of the darkness predatory grren eyes glowed. Its snarl was deep and low, so elemental that the air quivered. Big Red stepped closer, dragging its long, still-bloody claws along the plaster, digging deep grooves along both walls. There was no way past it. Behind Billi was a window and a four-metre drop. She was trapped.'

The werewolves Billi has been tracking attack a farmhouse and inside Billi discovers a girl called Vasilisa, who the Polenitsy seem desperate to recover. When it emerges that Vasilisa is a Spring Child, or medium and the werewolves intend to feed her to their dark goddess Baba Yaga, the Templars take on the task of protecting Vasilisa.

Billi is still recovering emotionally from the events of her first major fight with evil, detailed in ‘Devil’s Kiss’. I mentioned in my review of that novel that Billi’s ability to remain open and caring, even when everything around her makes it clear that caring can bring pain, is one of my favourite things about Billi’s character . In this book readers meet a different Billi, one sure that the only way to live as a Templar and avoid pain is to keep from caring about others. At first Billi doesn’t want to look after Vasillisa, as she’s been hardened by her experiences. Even her dad notices that 'She's changed...'. As she gets to know Vasilisa she begins to care about the girl, but knowing how Vasilisa’s life will progress, knowing how emotionally hard her friend Kay was when he came back from his psychic training in Jerusalem and well aware of the short life span of a Templar Billi keeps herself apart from her. However, she’s incapable of cutting herself off from her emotions (hurray) and she’s soon making promises she can’t keep to her young charge in the hope of protecting her.

The friendship between the two girls adds a powerful emotional element to the book. As Billi tries to save Vasilisa it seems to be hinted, by the way that Vasilisa is present in her dreams of Kay, that by saving this young medium Billi is trying to atone for what happened to Kay. I’d also argue that she’s trying to save herself by saving Vasilisa, trying to allow the young girl to keep some of her innocent trust in the world. Although readers might try to keep their feelings in check, knowing that Chadda is a writer who will kill any of his secondary characters to heighten the power of his books, it’s hard not to get swept up in the girl’s friendship. I love that. I love that Chadda makes his readers mirror Billi’s struggle with her knowledge and her emotions. I love that he has the power to make me care and then devastate me.

Vasillisa is stolen away to Russia by members of the Polenitsy and Billi, Elaine, Gwaine and a new knight called Lance travel to find support from the larger, Russian equivalent of the Templars, the Bogatyrs. Here Billi meets Ivan, son of the last hereditary Bogatyr leader and *brief pause for a sigh of pleasure* Ivan is awesome too. He’s fashionable, wry, determined, charming in his occasionally skeevy way, angry and hurt over his father’s death, desperate to lead well and he always carries a glock. Does this not sound like the boy for Billi? Chadda has created a ‘she saves him, he save her’ couple dynamic in ‘Dark Goddess’, matching Billi with someone equally driven and yet playful, honest and interested in others with no ulterior motive.

When readers first meet Ivan, Billi is rescuing him from a vampire, later Ivan shoots a werewolf that is trying to tear her throat out, showing that Chadda is in favour of gender equality in the life saving department. When Ivan wants to find the perfect present for Billi, her gets her an expensive gun, because he understands that Billi likes weapons. The first time Ivan calls her beautiful is when she’s dressed in chain mail for battle (yes alright I awed a little bit at that) because he understands her and sees her strength as a part of her to be celebrated. And just as Ivan likes Billi the way she is, Billi comes to like all of Ivan, even his cockiness, with his ‘yes I usually date super models’ comments. They love each other as they are!

Honestly Chadda is one of the coolest writers I’ve come across in ages. ‘Dark Goddess’ includes a society of deadly female werewolves, Russian mafia types, a secret male descendant of Anastasia who wears a diamond ear stud and loves beautiful guns, descriptions of the beauty of new and old weapons, plane crashes, a show down at Chernobyl.... it just goes on. He appeals to my violent, fantasy side.

He’s also one of the most responsible, cool writers I’ve come across. He writes violence, but he makes sure he tempers the glory that can automatically attach itself to violence in fiction when it helps to save the world by including scenes where Billi expresses reluctance at killing any member of the Polinetsky tribe that isn’t actively fighting them, just because werewolves are ‘Unholy’. He also shows the consequences of human villians becoming desensitized to violence, in what I thought was a chilling scene where Billi finds victims of violence chained in a storage container. So he’s still pushing the idea that violence can be put to a righteous purpose, by making the Templars warriors out to save the world by killing the Unholy, but he offsets this with reminders that violence shouldn’t always be your first solution, not even when the enemies you’re fight are supernatural monsters.

There’s so much good stuff in this book, I’m going to have to resort to a list to find the space to fit it in:

The use of a witch and a female group of paranormal creatures as the villains. I thought I was going to have major issues with that aspect of the book, but Chadda does so much work to make sure that his novel doesn’t devolve into ‘womenz, they are evil’ clichés.

The remarks about the state of the planet, which make the way we relate to Baba Yaga and the werewolves interest in removing the human race from the planet so much more complicated. I only occasionally felt this message becoming a bit preachy.

Billi and Ivan realise that their enemies goals may not be so far removed from their own (saving the world) although they would never agree with how Baba Yaga and the werewolves go about it (trying to wipe out humanity). I thought the base message of the need to try to understand peoples motives, despite the awful way they might try to achieve things was subtle and very relevant.

Sharper plot, sharper writing and better transitions from scene to scene than ‘Devil’s Kiss’. I also thought it was interesting to see just a couple of experimental devices crop up in this book (like a three sentence chapter).

There were still a few things I thought didn’t work so well, but then I am picky and most of them are tiny issues. What really stuck out to me was the ending. Chadda writes effective endings and I was freaked out by this one, but when ‘Devil’s Kiss’ ended I felt like it was implied that the ending was possibly a cliff hanger and the strangeness of the final page might mean something in the next book. That wasn’t really the case, at least the voice Billi hears on the final page wasn’t referred to in ‘Dark Goddess’. When I finished ‘Dark Goddess’ the ending had a similar cliff hanger feel, but because the books plots are self contained, rather than connecting I expect this potential cliff hanger feeling will prove to be false too. The ending was effective and it made me sad and a little afraid, but if what happens on the final page has no significance in the next book/rest of the series should there be more than three books I’ll feel a little like the scare factor was only inserted to provoke a final artificial spike of feeling.

The only other big bother for me was Billi’s relationship with her dad. Billi learns something so shocking in the first book and I expected their relationship to be better, but still tense. Instead it seemed fairly clam and I found that a little unrealistic. I expected to still see some problems between them, especially as their relationship was so central in the first novel and there were times when I found their new, kinder relationship just too easy in relation to all their history.

So many of my favourite fangirl inspiring projects have been cut short that I’m equal parts wary and hopeful that the projected third book will get bought by a publishers, but maybe positive energy (and money) can make a third Billi book appear. Whatever happens I know I’ll be paying out money for whatever Sarwat Chadda writes next. Good luck to him!

Other Reviews

The Booksmugglers
Wonderous Reads (including a guest post by Sarwat Chadda on his trip to Russia and ancient female characters)
Rhiana Reads
Alpha Reader
Reading in Color
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It's a rare moment here at Bookgazing, as I bring you a question and answer session with an author! The reasons why I don't do this often are many and varied (afraid), but I couldn't resist getting in touch with Sarwat Chadda, author of 'Devil's Kiss' to have a bit of further nose into his paranormal adventure series. He has been so nice about giving up a bit of time to answer these questions and I hope you find his answers of interest.

1. I found it really interesting that you made your main character female and gave her a Muslim parent, then made her part of a group that is almost exclusively male and Christian. What made you decide to make Billi a member of the Knights Templar? Did you consider making Billi part of a Muslim group, or a female warrior force, that is out to fight the forces of evil?

The name of the game is tension and how to create it as soon as possible. The standard cliché is the son following in the father’s footsteps, so how much more interesting it would be if we had a daughter taking the role, it is the 21st Century, after all.

By starting with the extremes a dynamic tension was created between Billi and the other knights, between her and her father, and her personal desires and her responsibilities. Devil’s Kiss is a story about these extremes.

With regard to Billi being part of other groups that is something that I explore in depth in
Dark Goddess where she encounters the Polenitsy, a group of Russian Amazons. As Devil’s Kiss was centred around a powerful male group, so Dark Goddess centres around an equally powerful female group and Billi’s attraction to it.

If all goes well and there are more books, I would then explore Billi’s Muslim heritage. When I worked on an early draft of Devil’s Kiss there was far more in it regarding Billi’s Islamic upbringing but I realised the story was becoming way too crowded.

2. Billi is such a kickass female warrior. I am still amazed by how well you've realised this girl who is vulnerable and at times very scared, but at the same time so capable and determined. I'm intrigued by the female characters and real life women who might have inspired Billi. Can you tell me who your top fictional women are and why?

Lyra out of Golden Compass and Hester from the Mortal Engines saga are two favourites from contemporary fiction. Both are clear action heroines who have the fate of the world in their hands but remain true children. However my biggest fictional inspirations are from legends and mythology. Athene is perhaps the biggest influence as she’s both her father’s daughter and goddess of war and wisdom. That is definitely how I saw Billi. Historical influences would be Boudicca and the Rani of Jhansi, fabulous warrior queens and combined their duty with a brilliant grasp of warfare.

3. You make Billi face some incredibly hard choices in 'Devil's Kiss'. Is it hard to push the characters you've brought into the world to the limits of their emotions?

It was hard to write but then writing about the depths of any emotions is hard because you don’t want it to be melodramatic. But it had to be hard, true strength is only revealed when the character is confronted by immense emotional and mental hardship. Writing about superheroes who are always on top of their situation would be somewhat boring. Much of Devil’s Kiss is about how Billi, well-trained for sure but otherwise a normal human, has to draw up courage from her very soul to beat the villain and the price she pays.

This is one of the key attributes of children’s fiction is the raw and true nature of a child’s courage. They don’t have the experience, strength and skill to defeat evil. All they have is their courage.

One thing I was careful of was showing the violence. Devil’s Kiss has scenes of extraordinary violence but it’s tempered by the cost, physically and emotionally, of being a warrior. What I didn’t want was the heroes brushing off injuries and set-backs like they didn’t matter. Each character must be pushed to their limits, well beyond when all others would give up. That’s Billi’s truest, best attribute; she never gives up. Only when you give up are you truly defeated.

4. I've seen a reviewer say they found it strange that your characters weren't strongly Christian, even though they were supposed to be fighting for God. I thought you created characters with a strong faith and made Arthur open to other religions for practical and personal reasons (which I loved). The Templars in general just seem to accepted God as a given, because he is such an undeniable presence in their lives (as is evil). Can you explain your intended approach to religion in 'Devil's Kiss'?

You’ve got to remember that the original Templars were betrayed by the Church. The last grandmaster was burnt at the stake for being a heretic, so I think the knights would have a fairly ambiguous attitude towards orthodox religion.

So, despite spending two hundred years fighting Muslims, they were destroyed by fellow Christians. In my alternative history of what happened next I decided that the surviving Templars would have turned their back on the Church and would find their own way to God.

Some of the rumours around them were that they’d adopted heretical beliefs, were secret Muslims, spat on the cross and prayed to a head (Baphomet, later perceived to be a devil). Plus they received tribute from the Islamic cult of Assassins, so it’s safe to assume their relationship with the Muslims was complex and allows for plenty of mischief.

Having lost the Holy Land, the remaining Templars needed a new purpose, hence their war on the Unholy, the Bataille Tenebreuse.

Then, from a fairly personal point, there’s enough literature out there promoting the differences between religions (especially Christianity and Islam). I thought it would be more interesting writing about the similarities. I was brought up a Muslim while my wife’s a vicar’s daughter. I really don’t see what the fuss is all about. Since my daughters were the inspiration behind Billi it seemed natural she should share their dual-religious background.

5. The big question, which all your readers are probably anxious to know is will there be more Billi SanGreal books? What are you working on right now?

I’m working on Billi 3# right now. It centres around one of the big Templar legends, what treasures they’d uncovered in Jerusalem. In Devil’s Kiss we find one, the Cursed Mirror. In Dark Goddess Billi mentions the fate of the Holy Grail. There were two more but the plot of Billi 3# is about the most infamous, a real game-changer for the Templars. Getting it published is another matter, it depends on how well the first two do. Meanwhile I’m putting the final touches on a book set in India. The Indian history and mythology is so rich with extraordinary characters and events that really aren’t that well known outside of the country. I’m trying to fix that.

Jodie: I really would like that third book to turn up, so I hope the general reading public will dig out their pennies for the first two. Possibly they might feature in one of my bookish Secret Santa presents this year *shifty eyes - not using present giving to increase likelyhood of getting to read a fab book*.

Thanks again Sarwat for agreeing to answer my questions :)
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At the beginning of ‘Devil’s Kiss’ Billi SanGreal is about to face her final Ordeal; a test to prove that she is worthy of joining the Knights Templar. The dwindling group of London based knights are tasked with defending the world against the unholy demons that stalk humanity, so Billi needs to be tough. She’s been preparing for this test since she was very young. Still, she never expected to be asked to kill a child. There’s no way she’s ready for that.

I know, I KNOW! How is that for dramatic tension in the opening chapter? I am an emotionally, bloodthirsty fantasy reader so when I saw that bit of the blurb, my chain of thought went like this: extreme innocence vs the sword - potential for huge guilt, despite making the right choice – Buffy angst – damn it where is my credit card? There was never a thought for the poor child about to get the chop.

There are quite a few things in ‘Devil’s Kiss’ that could be considered plot twists, including revealing why Billi’s Ordeal involves killing a child. While I think the twists are fairly obvious when you’re reading the book, I do think not knowing how the story progresses makes it more fun to read, so I’ll try to avoid talking about plot specifics. Instead I’m going to focus on the wonderful, conflicted warrior heroine that is Bilquis SanGreal (to give her full Muslim name - Billi’s mum was from Pakistan and Billi is a mixed race heroine). I’m afraid this post may gush a little as warrior women are one of my favourite character groups.

Like a lot of teen protagonists engaged in an ongoing battle with evil, Billi SanGreal’s daily life is not exactly all fun and frolics. She has no friends and everyone thinks her father is abusing her, because she is always covered in bruises from Templar training. Billi’s father is the revered Master of the Knights Templar. He has dedicated his life to God’s service and sworn to protect humanity. He is also a total bastard. Rumour has it, the devil is afraid of Arthur SanGreal. Everyone at Billi’s school thinks he killed Billi’s mother, although Billi knows she was killed by ghulls (vampires). Arthur has never shown any tenderness towards Billi and although she trains to become a Templar in the hope that he will be proud of her he never gives her any positive recognition. It’s not surprising that Billi often hates her dad and longs for a normal life away from the Templars.

There was a point during ‘Devil’s Kiss’ where I despaired of Sarwat Chadda’s handling of Billi. It seemed like she was going to be one of those heroines who is highly trained and physically strong, who never gets a chance to fight. She kept getting into vulnerable situations because she listened to her emotions during battles, when victory would have come from just slashing and killing. There’s a reasonably major plot point that boils down to Billi accidentally helping an evil person because she wants a normal teenage romance. Cue me sighing and rolling my eyes, because I want my kickass heroines to kill people, not have their authors stop them from making with the stabby stabby! I also thought Chadda was showing that girls could not be effective defenders against evil because of their emotions make them susceptible to being tricked, or losing fights. All the people fighting without letting their emotions decrease their effectiveness were male and Billi was the only one openly wrestling with emotional problems. This seemed like a suspiciously gender biased approach to the fight against evil.

Then I had an epiphany –what initially seems like Billi’s weakness, is actually a rock solid form of emotional strength, as impressive as her physical abilities.

No, no hear me out. I know it sounds apologist and maybe you don’t trust my taste in heroines after my defence of Bella , but I think I might be on to something. Billi grows up with a father who is harsh and discourages emotion. Arthur tries to dissuade her from making any positive emotional connections and trust me the extent of his strategy for keeping Billi from forming these kind of attachments will blow your mind. When her best friend Kay reappears in her life, after avoiding contact with her for a year he feels something for her, but essentially rejects her and refuses to take their relationship any further because basically (let’s say it all together) THE FIGHT AGAINST EVIL MUST BE UNCOMPLICATED BY PESKY EMOTIONS. She grows up isolated from her peers, surrounded by the idea that any attempt to connect will end in rejection and is taught throughout ‘Devil’s Kiss’ that feelings brings danger, yet she still feels. She’s still capable of feeling natural human compassion when she is asked to kill a child. She still attempts to find some way to care about her father, despite his lack of affection. She tries to form romantic connections, not because she’s desperate, or incomplete without a boyfriend, but because she wants to be a human being with feelings. She’s bloody well going to defy the orders of the Templar master to function like a normal person. Feeling is her own form of hard-headed rebellion and that makes me love her oh so much.

Now trying to remain a fully feeling person does place Billi in some tough situations, because evil takes advantage of emotional feeling. Her openness makes her vulnerable to being tricked, or disarmed in battle. There are quite a few scenes where Billi does something that hurts her fight against evil, which she could have avoided by being harder emotionally. These parts of the book can seem a bit silly to readers who are detached from the text and can see evil coming a mile off, but they correspond with the logic of the character Chadda has created.

While Billi is in touch with her feelings she’s still capable of making hard choices which require her to go against every emotional tie she’s made. Sarwat Chadda sets her some very hard, but necessary decisions in ‘Devil’s Kiss’ and it is heartbreaking to watch Billi realise what she has to sacrifice to combat evil. When Billi takes action it is always a choice that she wrestles with, even though readers can see what she should choose for the good of the world. This act of choosing between feeling and duty sustains narrative tension and shows that Chadda’s decision to keep Billi emotionally susceptible is important for creating conflict, which adds to the reader’s enjoyment. Having a heroine who is always looking for another option, who is always wondering if the hardest choice has to be the best choice just because it’s hard and who can cry after she makes the hard choices that do have to be made because it was fucking hard for her to choose the world over herself and those she loves, is much more interesting than having a robotic killer for a heroine. Obviously I also wanted Billi to have some uncomplicated fight scenes where her their training comes to the fore and she wins, because she’s a great fighter. Billi gets that, which made me happy.

I just had a few problems with the book. The dialogue is sometimes uninspired and predictable. Although the general plot furthering dialogue is fine, when a powerful sentence is required to knock readers in the head the book often provides a clichéd line that’s been overused by other writers. It’s often much more fun to hear the third person narrator describe Billi’s thoughts, than to hear people vocalise things. The simplicity of the dialogue makes the explanations of religious stories simple to understand and provides strong moments of genuinely emotional speech. However, sometimes the conventional lines of dialogue can be a bit of a distraction.

When Ari tweeted about the book (thank you
Ari for getting me to pick this up) she mentioned some pacing problems and things do tend to happen a little abruptly. Although, this has a positive side, as it means readers don’t have to spend too many chapters suspending disbelief when the characters don’t catch on quite as quickly as readers do. I would say that the internal pacing of individual episodes feels fine, the problems are more with the pacing and connection of some of these episodes to make up the overall plot arc. The fight scenes progress at a good speed and feel sequentially coherent. Conversations don’t feel like they go on for too long, or are too short. It’s just that sometimes people appear, or secrets are revealed in a rather hasty way that makes it feel like Chadda is forcing the plot along unnaturally. For me this was a point that only bothered me when it was happening, but it’s something to be aware of.

I mentioned above that I think the plot reveals are sometimes quite obvious, but I’m not sure Chadda meant them to be super secret twists of astonishment. He powers through many of the supposedly secretive sections and foreshadows like crazy, then when he does keep back a really big surprise it is so stunningly different from anything else that has been revealed. In fact it’s almost like the other, more obvious reveals are intended to distract you from what you should be looking at. That would be cleeeeeeverrrrr if Chadda meant to do that. Authorial intent is such a slippery beast though.

Let me finish by saying that there’s so much more I could write about ‘Devil’s Kiss’. It makes a smashing addition to the warrior girl, paranormal sub-genre, with kick ass battles, creeptastic demons and major emotional conflict. The sequel ‘Dark Goddess’ is already in my book pile, because I have no spending restraint.

As a bonus I think I’ll be hosting a rare author interview with Sarwat Chadda here at Bookgazing, because I have ravenous questions to assail him with. He is very nice and politely ignored my typing mistake when I asked if he would like to talk here.

Other Reviews

Reading in Color
Tina's Book Reviews
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Wondorous Reads
Carrie's YA Bookshelf
My Favoruite Books
Brown Paper
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Alpha Reader


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April 2019



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