A Wind in Cairo: Judith Tarr

★★★★

For some reason, I always had Judith Tarr down as an author of historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt. However, though she has written some books with this setting, it turns out she’s a prolific author of historical fiction more broadly, as well as historical fantasy. I discovered this book completely by chance thanks to a post Tarr wrote at Tor.com on C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, and have been utterly charmed by it. It’s an Arabian-Nights-style fantasy, set in Cairo in the 13th century during the rule of the young sultan Salah Al-Din: a tale of enchantment, arrogance, romance, and self-realisation, with a fiery young heroine and a most unconventional hero.

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Do Not Become Alarmed: Maile Meloy

★★★½

This, like The Last Days of Summer, was a surprise book that arrived in my postbox with no warning or introduction and, like The Last Days, it’s a thriller that confronts us with one of life’s nightmarish situations. It begins when Liv and Nora, two cousins, decide to get away from it all with their families for a different kind of Christmas holiday. They take a luxurious cruise down the coast from California to South America, savouring the sun and the freedom from responsibility. But when a shore excursion goes horribly wrong, the two families are left to face up to every parent’s greatest fear.

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These Dividing Walls: Fran Cooper

★★★★

Paris is easy to love, isn’t it? Think of the sleek, chic boulevards and grand buildings; the art, department stores and pavement cafes… But this is only the side of the city that the tourists see. Over on the rive gauche, in a quiet apartment building, a group of mismatched inhabitants deal with another face of the world’s most romantic destination. In these rooms, jumbled cheek-by-jowl and yet rarely connecting, the inhabitants of number thirty-seven live their complicated parallel lives, negotiating the paths of grief, love, loneliness, failure and a growing sense of hatred. For this is a sweltering summer and tensions are rising, directed against a scapegoat ‘other’. In this, Fran Cooper’s debut novel has its finger firmly on the pulse of a world in which tolerance hangs by a fraying thread.

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More Short Stories from Tor.com

Tor.com

I’ve really been enjoying reading short stories from Tor.com – it feels decadent to sample one or two different authors during my commute – and so I decided to continue working my way through their treasure-trove of original fiction, each story presented with its own specially-designed cover by one of various talented artists. This selection includes all manner of fantastical sub-genres, taking in horror, romance, morality tales and epic fantasy with a comic twist. Find the first batch here. More coming soon!

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The Half-Drowned King: Linnea Hartsuyker

★★★½

The Norway Trilogy: Book I

This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.

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Slow Boat: Hideo Furukawa

★★★

A Slow Boat to China Rmx

This new Japanese novella, published by Pushkin Press in a translation by David Boyd, is an odd beast. I asked to review it as part of my mission to read more from other cultures and because I’ve been generally impressed with the Japanese fiction I have read. The tale of a man wandering in Tokyo on Christmas Eve 2002, pondering the boundaries of the city, the body and the self, it’s a curiously hallucinogenic mix.

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Traitor’s Blade: Sebastien De Castell

★★★½

The Greatcoats: Book I

I’ve been saving this book as a treat, because I felt sure it was going to be a sparkler and, while I’m not exactly disappointed, it didn’t turn out to be quite what I was expecting. In many ways it ticks all the boxes of a fantasy-tinged swashbuckler, featuring dashing blades, impossible odds and dastardly nobles. These are all very, very good things. There are times, however, when it seems to lose its way: it shoehorns in a vague quest element and too often uses magic as a convenient way to achieve something, or to get out of a tight spot, rather than an integral part of the world. I can’t help feeling it’d be much more successful without its fantasy elements, as a simple character-driven adventure.

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Witches Abroad: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book XII

Stories are dangerous things. As they flow through the world, they cut their paths into the fabric of reality, each time strengthening its shape. As time passes, it becomes harder and harder for a new story to diverge from the old one. In time, every seventh son of a seventh son will become a hero, and every put-upon stepdaughter will be blessed with a fairy godmother. But surely that’s all right? Fairy godmothers are always good, aren’t they? They make sure the story ends as it’s supposed to. But who says what the end should be? Someone in the exotic city of Genua is twisting reality to make it suit the stories, and the three witches of Lancre aren’t having any of that. Despite their fear of ‘forn parts’, they ride out to put things right.

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Vindolanda: Adrian Goldsworthy

★★★★

One of my forthcoming scheduled reviews questions the current trend for historians to write historical fiction. It’s become something of a fashion but it doesn’t always work: good historians may tell stories with novelistic flair, and good historical fiction writers have to get their facts right, but the two genres do demand a different skill-set. Not everyone can make the transition from one to the other. So I was amused to see that Adrian Goldsworthy, the celebrated historian of the Roman Empire, has decided to try his hand at a novel. Naturally, I couldn’t resist; and I’m pleased to report that Goldsworthy is one of the rare breed who can make the leap. Focusing on the men based at the forts along the northernmost frontier of Roman Britain, he tells a story full of battles, diplomacy and honour, with a very enjoyable ‘odd couple’ pairing at its heart.

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Michelangelo & Sebastiano

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

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