Falling Free: Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★½

The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 0

A couple of points before I begin. First, there are numerous different entry points into the Vorkosigan Saga and I’ve based my reading order on the inner chronology of the series. This is not the only reading order: it just happens to be mine. Secondly, you might object that you can’t really have a ‘Book 0’ of a series. Well, this is a prequel to the main saga, set 200 years in the past, and you could even argue that it doesn’t really belong to the Vorkosigan Saga at all, because it doesn’t involve any of the same settings or characters. Nevertheless, it’s set in the same universe and people have told me that I should read it, so here we are. I thought I’d go back to Falling Free before getting stuck in to Miles Vorkosigan’s story arc in The Warrior’s Apprentice. I will confess to a moment’s alarm when I saw that this was a novel about futuristic welding engineering – not one of my strong points – but, as ever with Bujold, it actually turned out to be a story about people… ethics in space, which is a subgenre that she really has made her own.

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Followers: Megan Angelo

★★★½

It’s remarkable how prescient The Truman Show (1998) looks nowadays. It’s also rather alarming that it no longer seems quite so strange for someone to live his entire life in public, for the voyeuristic gratification of others. After all, it happens all the time on Instagram. This dystopian debut novel by Megan Angelo tells two linked stories about the impact of celebrity: one set among the influencers and ‘Insta-famous’ of 2015, and the other in 2051, in a world that has changed beyond recognition in some ways, but which retains its thirst for consuming the lives of others. Now, I’ll be honest with you, and confess that I bought this expecting it to be a piece of diverting literary fluff – but it turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing, holding up an ominous mirror to the world in which we currently live, and asking just how much we really want to share.

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Shadows in Bronze: Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 2

Time to head back to Ancient Rome, for some political skulduggery in the company of our overworked and underpaid Roman sleuth, Falco. This book slots in between The Silver Pigs and Venus in Copper, and follows Falco as he embarks on yet another over-complicated mission for his patron Vespasian. Falco is always great fun to read about: like Cadfael, he’s a vivid and lively character, whose world is meticulously historically accurate, but evoked with a light touch. Unlike Cadfael, he’s prickly, full of himself, and still young enough to be trying to find his feet in the world. In Shadows in Bronze, Vespasian orders him to mop up the loose ends left by the aristocratic conspiracy we saw in The Silver Pigs but, as Falco heads down to the opulent Bay of Naples to round up a couple of recalcitrant senators, he starts to get the uneasy feeling that he hasn’t seen the last of the plotters. Although his trip to Naples is dressed up to look like a family holiday, he swiftly realises that danger is never far away. To make matters worse, his cut-above-the-rest love interest, Helena Justina, is also enjoying a break on the Bay of Naples, and Falco’s personal and professional lives look set to collide once again.

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Blood of Elves: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 4

Blood of Elves gathers together strands from the short stories in Sword of Destiny and sets us off on the first instalment in an epic tale of fate, love and loyalty. As far as I can see, nothing in Season 1 of the Netflix Witcher relates to Blood of Elves, so I imagine that its storylines will come into play in Season 2 (hopefully in a slightly more linear fashion). Here we rejoin Geralt, Witcher and monster-slayer by trade, and his new ward Ciri, deposed princess of Cintra. They have withdrawn to the Witcher stronghold at Kaer Morhen, where (excitingly!) we meet other Witchers and watch Ciri being trained in the skills she will need to survive in the outside world. But this is merely a moment, a brief catching of the breath, before that world begins to impose on Kaer Morhen once again. As Ciri’s needs outstrip the Witchers’ abilities, they must find somewhere else for her, while Geralt has unfinished business out on the politically ravaged Continent.

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Barrayar: Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★★

A Vorkosigan Saga Novel: Book 2

It’s taken me over two years to write up my thoughts on Barrayar, the second in the loosely-knit Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve actually read it twice in the interim, but for some reason never quite managed to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to keys). Picking up the story immediately after the end of Shards of Honour, it reintroduces us to our protagonists Cordelia and Lord Aral Vorkosigan as they adjust to newly-married life. The adjustment is greater for Cordelia, who is unused to the rituals and customs of aristocratic Vor life on the planet of Barrayar, and also unused to Barrayar itself. It seems far more archaic than her own home-world, and she finds it hard to believe that she’s given up Betan technology and egalitarianism for this old-fashioned hierarchical world under the rule of an Emperor. But she has done so for a good reason: her new husband, who is one of the most honourable, caring and upright men she has ever met. And Vorkosigan will need all those qualities for, as Barrayar opens, he is about to be made an offer he can’t refuse, which will place him and his entire household in the gravest danger.

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High Rising: Angela Thirkell

★★★½

If you’re in need of some cosy period escapism at the moment (and who isn’t?), you could do a lot worse than delve into Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, first published in 1933. It isn’t life-changing literature but, like the self-proclaimed ‘second-rate’ novels penned by its heroine Laura, it has a distinct charm of its own. We meet Laura Morland as she is taking her young son Tony home from school for the Christmas holidays, to their cottage in the country village of High Rising. What follows is a mixture of social drama – of the gentlest and most genteel kind, as a series of potential romantic attachments ebb and flow among the middle-class villagers – and mild mystery. Why has such trouble been caused by the arrival of Miss Una Grey, the new secretary hired by Laura’s friend and fellow writer George Knox? Does she really have ambitions to marry him? And, if so, how can Laura protect his shy daughter Sibyl from the claws of this Incubus (as Miss Grey is christened)? Charming and mild, this feels like a Sunday-evening BBC period drama in prose and, although you never have any doubts that everything’s going to end up neatly resolved, there’s some fun to be had seeing how it develops along the way.

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Ma’am Darling: Craig Brown

★★★★

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

After finishing the Netflix series of The Witcher, we decided to move on to something more conventional and, since neither of us had yet seen it, plumped for The Crown. I suspect I’m not the only viewer of that surprisingly absorbing series who has sought out Craig Brown’s delicious, scurrilous, gossipy, genre-bending biography of Princess Margaret. Although standard, respectful royal biographies hold little interest for me – much better to read about people from a few hundred years ago, because the deference has worn off – this proved to be an engrossing read, bubbling over with bon mots and eye-opening stories. Brown has delved deep into a dizzying range of memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, hearsay, rumours and interviews to create a memorable picture of the Queen’s younger sister. He doesn’t pull his punches, but he is not without compassion for Margaret’s fate. While the result certainly shows Margaret in all her unreformed brattishness, it also has a certain sympathy for a woman who ended up becoming a caricature of herself, with few ‘friends’ whom she could really trust. Fascinating.

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In the Name of the King: A.L. Berridge

★★★★½

Chevalier: Book 2

As the world grows stranger, I’ve taken comfort in something so satisfying, so delightful and escapist, that it should almost be prescribed on the NHS. It’s been over two years since I read Honour and the Sword, the first of A.L. Berridge’s novels about the Chevalier de Roland, but I don’t want you to think that betokens a lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary! This is a sequel but also – apparently – the last book in the series, because it was published in 2011 and Berridge has gone alarmingly quiet in recent years. I didn’t want to get to the end too quickly, so I’ve been saving it for a moment when I really need it. And now, with new rules bidding us stay at home, my annual trip to Paris cancelled, and no knowledge of when it will end, I needed it. So I escaped to France in 1640, to a world of duels, honour and skirmishes; of fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens and gritty subterfuge in the forests; of intrigues and plots, romance, war, and Cardinal Richelieu bestriding the world like a (fading) colossus.

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The Last Tsar’s Dragons: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

★★

Russia, 1917, under the autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas II. The imperial will is enforced by the airborne terror of the Tsar’s dragons: great black beasts reared in the palace stables and then sent out across the country to ravage the lands of those the Tsar deems offensive – the Jews chief among them. But times are changing. In a quiet Jewish village, a group of ambitious men have long dreamed of bringing that change to Russia. Now they have the means. As their leader Lenin drums up support beyond the Russian borders, Bronstein and Borustch carefully work on a secret weapon that will bring down the forces of tyranny once and for all. Meanwhile, mutiny also simmers within the palace walls as a cabal of courtiers plot to rid themselves of the charismatic monk Rasputin. Set in the final days of the Romanov dynasty, this is a strange little novella: historical fiction skewed by the addition of dragons, which somehow never quite takes flight.

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The Honjin Murders: Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 1

Strange times. I can only hope that none of you or your loved ones have been directly affected by coronavirus, and I send virtual hugs out across the ether to all of you. I don’t intend to dwell on the present madness, though: I’m here, writing this, because I’d rather forget about it for a few minutes, and I hope you’re here for the same reason. Let’s go somewhere else together instead. Somewhere like provincial Japan in the late 1930s: a world still struggling to free itself from the legacies of feudal hierarchies, in which a shocking crime offers a brilliant young detective the chance to make his literary debut. I didn’t recognise Kosuke Kindaichi’s name, but he has a devoted following in Japan and appeared in a whole series of Yokomizo’s novels after this, his first appearance, in 1946. Unfortunately, The Honjin Murders (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) is at present one of only two Kindaichi novels available in English; the other, The Inugami Curse, is also available from Pushkin Vertigo. Let’s hope that these two books are successful and encourage Pushkin to get the rest translated, because on the basis of The Honjin Murders they’re going to be mind-scrambling, very entertaining classic crime stories.

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