Review of series Belladonna U by Tansy Rayner Roberts including Unreal Alchemy, Holiday Brew and Practical Witching. Belladonna U is a series about a group of university students studying magic at an Australian magical university while living in a shared house and making geeky music and playing role-playing games. It’s wonderfully geeky, whimsical and fun. It falls under the umbrella of cozy fantasy and hopepunk.
My review of the Belladonna U series
My review of Unreal Alchemy by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Unreal Alchemy contains the first four stories in the Belladonna U universe: Fake Geek Girl, Unmagical Boy Story, The Bromancers and The Alchemy of Fine. The Unreal Alchemy is a wonderful mix of fairly cozy urban fantasy and high personal stakes with a big dash of whimsy. The stories very much have a fanfic feel, which I mean in the best way possible. There is a lot of slice of life but also so much drama.
You can feel that Roberts had so much fun writing these stories. While they deal with heavy themes of power and privilege, they are always hopeful and have enough slice of life to feel cozy.
Title: Unreal Alchemy
Author: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Series: Belladonna U
Genre: Urban fantasy, magic school, hope-punk, cozy fantasy, new adult, mosaic novel
Themes: Finding yourself, university, music, role-playing, finding love, finding purpose, friendship, found family, privilege
Meet Fake Geek Girl, the band that plays nerdy songs at the university bar every Friday night, to a mixture of magical and non-magical students: lead singer Holly writes songs based on her twin sister Hebe’s love of geek culture though she doesn’t really understand it; drummer Sage is an explosive sorcerous genius obsessing over whether Holly’s about to quit the band to go mainstream; shy Juniper only just worked up the nerve to sing her own song in public and keeps a Jane Austen themed diary chronicling the lives and loves of her friends. When the mysterious, privileged Ferd joins their share house, everything starts to unravel…The blurb of Fake Geek Girl
The setup and world of Belladonna U
The Belladonna U series is set in an urban fantasy version of Australia where magic is real and normal. Most of the protagonists live in a shared house off campus while they get their magic degrees. Some of the group is also in a geeky band together. The series very much have the feeling of a tv-show including the fact that the series is a collection of short story about the same characters that follow each other chronologically – what is sometimes called a mosaic novel.
It is very much an Australian and not an American take on the university and youth experience. They don’t go to frat parties or live in dorms, but they do have sex and shitty side jobs. It also means that the racial dynamics are less overcharged than in an american novel.
The world is set up so the magicians are very much in charge while people without magic will have to try to muddle through as best they can. So unlike most urban fantasy magic is not hidden. There are however no magical creatures, but there is so much magic. Of and coffee dampens magic, so if you feel your magic is out of control, drink so coffee.
The characters and the stories
My sister Holy is a fake geek girl. A card-carrying, blatant, “I pretend to care about superheroes to get attention in public” fake geek girl.Opening paragraph of Fake Geek Girl
The characters are: The sisters Hebe and Holly, the drummer Sage, the celloish Juniper and the two rich friends Ferd and Viola. Their friend group is complicated and full of drama, geekery and they are all quite queer. Well maybe not Hebe, but then again that is just another thing making her feel like she isn’t quite part of the group.
The characters are all trying to navigate university with all that that entails including deadlines, stupid and amazing professors and weird jobs. They are all very geeky about pop culture and Roberts does an amazing job of inventing fun pop culture for them to obsess over. You get messy collage romances where people break up and get together inside the friend group but also pull in new people messing with the dynamics. I don’t know about you but in my friend group most of us have kissed at some point and moved on. It didn’t ruin the relationships but it did change them and boy did it create drama. This is very much the vibe here.
The series is also very much about music and being in a band with all the weird dynamics that puts on a friendship. It is also very much a story about geeks.
Belladonna U have very strong themes of found family and friendship as well as a good dash of romance. The characters are wonderful and loveable even the ones that are spiky as prickly pears.
The structure of the stories change from story to story, but there tend to be a mix of scenes, text-messages, diary entries and song lyrics telling the story. I especially enjoy the banter in the mirror chat chapters. The scenes are very short and often cut out just before the drama and then giving you the fall out of in the next scene. The tone of the stories are light while the themes can be quite dark, but because we don’t see the all out fight (verbal or physical) but only get the impact it never feels dark.
The series was originally written as serialized audio drama for Sheep Might Fly, meaning that there is a lot of cliffhangers in-between chapters and I can really recommend consuming these stories as podcasts – where they are also completely free! The short stories are collected in the three collections that each form a mosaic novel.
My review of Holiday Brew by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Holiday Brew is the second collection of Belladonna U short stories and include: Halloween is Not a Verb, Solstice on the Rocks and Kissing Basilisks.
This collection very much focus on the tension between family and found family. On family expectations, privilege and growing up. It also plays with how relationships change and people find new and old romances.
My review of Practical Witching by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Practical Witching includes the stories: Untitled Cryptid Album, The Year of Critical Rolls, Like Witches For Coffee and bonus material. The collection is very much about what happens after you finish your education, what do you do with your life, now that the structure of school is gone. How will your relationships change now that you are not seeing each other ALL THE TIME. What happens to the band when people get “real” jobs?
The bonus material is a whole album worth of song lyrics that are very important to the final story of the collection: Like Witches For Coffee and it is fun to read them in full.
I can very much recommend the whole series – especially if you like drama, romance and magic in your urban fantasy. You will not get a romance arch, these are not romance books, but they are books focused on relationships. The women are the main focus on most of the stories but the men get their own arches and are also fully fletched characters – not just Kens to their Barbie.
The stats: Belladonna U
Published: 2020 – 2023
Length: 274 pages, 215 pages & 257 pages
Author: Female, white, Australia