Liar's Test, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

I haven't read much YA fantasy yet this year, so it was a nice departure to immerse myself into the complicated world of Liar's Test, by Ambelin Kwaymullina (May 2024, Knopf Books for Young Readers).

At first glance, it doesn't seem that groundbreaking--seven girls must compete to be queen, knowing that four are fated to die, and one of these girls, Bell, is special. But this is really only a side note of plot in a much bigger story. And although Bell is indeed a chosen one, the choosing is far from arbitrary.

Bell is a Treesinger, whose people were forcibly removed from their homeland by the Risen, colonizers worshiping gods who are anathema to the Treesinger way of life of deep connection to nature and the ancestors. They are much more than just gentle oppressed tree huggers, and as the book progress, this becomes very clear. (Knowing that the author belongs to the Palyku people of the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia gives an additional gravitas to the story's portrayal of the Treesinger way of being in the world). When Bell's home, one of the resettled enclaves, falls into a sleeping sickness, with only Bell untouched by it, she's taken to the colonizers main city to be studied like a lab animal (and is cruelly abused by the sadistic high priest of the sun god).

But Bell is good at lying, and good at not giving in. And so when she's told she'll be the first Treesinger to compete for the crown, she's all in--even though being queen isn't her priority.

And so the challenges being, and the story explodes beyond episodic fantastical trials into a tapestry of gods who real (and from outside the world), people who are not at all what the seem, and the complex plans that Bell's maternal ancestors set in motion, with friendships and alliances that bring warmth to the story, a small touch of romance, trees that are more than magical, and more (the more includes a small tree spirit companion who is very charming).

Although it can get a bit confusing at times if you aren't paying attention and step away while reading to deal with domestic disaster (ask me how I know), it all makes sense (I think) in the end, and I appreciated the complexities and twists and fantastical details lots.

One small in the larger scheme of the story that I appreciated was that Bell's personal trauma ends up being directly confronted. After the horrific beginning in which Bell is almost killed by the high priest, and seeing how isolated she has been, I found it hard to accept how apparently unaffected she was. But Bell is an excellent liar, and we are show in a scene toward the end how good she's been at lying to herself when she is forced to confront and release, through the intervention of the ancestors, all her reservoirs of pain.

Bell's relearning the ability to trust is also an important part of the story, without which the big picture of overthrowing tyrannical alien gods and saving her people would have been impossible. And it's more than just trusting others; it's also making herself (habituated as she has become to deceit) trustworthy. So though she is a chosen one, by virtue of her birth to her particular ancestors, and by virtue of not succumbing to the sickness that afflicted her people, it is her character growing and changing that makes her the heroine that is needed.

In short, I can see the target audience enjoying it lots, except for those who really want a Romance, because though Bell does get one bit of passionate kissing, it's far far to the side of the main story.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. I thought of you when I saw Sixteen Minutes by K.J. Reilly on Edelweiss. Someone travels back from the future and interacts with high schoolers. I'll have to read this myself. And did you ever read Stanton's Waking in Time? I bought a copy of that one for my daughter!

    1. I did enjoy Waking in Time! and thanks for the head's up about Sixteen Minutes.


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