The Seven Daughters of Eve: Brian Sykes

★★★★

I don’t often read about science, but the field of human evolution fascinates me. I find it almost impossible to imagine the sheer expanse of time that has passed between the development of the first modern humans and the present day. It makes my head hurt. Things that seem so important in everyday life suddenly dwindle into nothingness when confronted with the epic story of humanity. But, if you turn the question on its head, you realise that humans really haven’t been around that long at all compared to other species with much longer innings – the dinosaurs, obviously, but even our extinct cousins the Neanderthals. Keep thinking, though, because the really staggering thought is actually the most obvious. Every single one of us alive today has direct ancestors who learned to make fire, who hunted mammoths, who made flint knives. It wasn’t just our general species that descended from these people. You did. I did. If there was a way to trace your family tree back far enough, through the Ice Age and beyond, into a world that looked completely different to the one we know today – if that was possible, you could find out who your ancestors were. Well, it is possible. Bryan Sykes and his fellow geneticists have done it. And this is the story of their work.

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Different Class: Joanne Harris

★★★½

The Malbry Novels: Book 3

At one point in this novel, a character comments that nothing ever happens in Malbry. I can only assume they were being ironic, or haven’t been paying attention, because this Yorkshire village has recently played host to intrigue, murders, scams and full-on psychopathy. We return to the world of Gentlemen & Players and blueeyedboy for a third time, slipping back within the walls of St Oswald’s School and back into the company of the tweedy Latin master Roy Straitley. It’s the year after the events in Gentlemen & Players and the school is still struggling to recover, with a new Head taking over the reins in an attempt to bring the school into the modern era and to brush off unpleasant associations. Many of the new initiatives are anathema to Straitley, but it isn’t just the corporate-speak of the modern education system that makes him feel threatened. For Straitley recognises the new Head – a man who was a boy at St Oswald’s thirty years ago, at another time of scandal and misfortune – and senses that all is not well. It clearly isn’t accidental that Johnny Harrington is back; but what’s his plan?

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In/Half: Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

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The Singing Sword: Jack Whyte

★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

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The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

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The Glass Woman: Caroline Lea

★★★½

As we head deeper into the season of long nights and crisp mornings, this tale of anxiety, fear and distrust in an Icelandic winter feels very appropriate. It opens with a wedding: Rósa, the daughter of the late Bishop of Skálholt, is wooed and won by the wealthy farmer Jón Eiríksson. But this tale of a new marriage is far from being a cosy feel-good romance: no one is foolish enough to believe that love has anything to do with it. With luck, it’ll come later. Jón is a recent widower who needs a wife to help him on the farm and give him children. Rósa faces suspicion in her own community because she reads, writes and is fond of ancient runes and sagas – things that the church forbids. In theory, their union should help both of them. But Rósa has barely settled in before alarming questions begin to unsettle her. Why won’t Jón let her socialise with the local women? What’s the story behind his near-demonic servant Pétur? And what actually happened to Jon’s first wife?

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House of Dreams: Pauline Gedge

★★★★

The Story of Thu: Book 1

Sharp, shrewd and ambitious, Thu chafes at the limits of life in her small village, Aswat, on the banks of the Nile. She resents the fact that her beloved brother Pa-ari is allowed to go to school at the Temple of Wepwawet, where he is learning to become a scribe, while Thu has to content herself with learning to follow her mother’s trade as a herbalist and midwife. What alternative does she have? This is the 12th century BC, in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, and young women have limited say in their own destiny; but her family haven’t reckoned with Thu’s steely determination. This engaging novel, the first of a two-part series, draws us into the inexorable rise of a protagonist who is by turns strikingly naive and astonishingly manipulative, occasionally irritating, but always intriguing. Inspired by the Harem Conspiracy of 1155 BC, it’s the first of Pauline Gedge’s books that I’ve read and offers an enjoyable glimpse of Ancient Egypt seen through the eyes of a novelist who has made the period her speciality.

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In the Vanishers’ Palace: Aliette de Bodard

★★★½

Aliette de Bodard frequently appears on lists of the most exciting authors currently working in the fantasy field, but I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read anything by her until now (despite owning several of her works). As a writer of French-Vietnamese descent, she’s interested in exploring fantasy traditions beyond the white, European, medieval worlds that dominate the genre. In this novella, for example, she takes us to a post-apocalyptic Vietnam, in which a young woman is given up by the elders of her village to placate a dragon. In its simplest form, it’s much the same story as Uprooted, but de Bodard challenges our expectations just as Novik did – though in a less familiar idiom.

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The Thing About Clare: Imogen Clark

★★★

The sprawling Bliss family revels in the kind of chaos you’d expect when you have four characterful siblings, a wordy, slightly feckless father and a doughty Irish mother. The children have, with varying amounts of grace, embraced the roles thrust on them by their order of birth: Miriam, the eldest, the organiser; Sebastian, the unexpected baby, coddled and charming; Anna, the cherished, spoiled favourite, who has been supported no matter what she does. And then Clare, the second child: troubled, troublesome and fractious. As we follow the Bliss siblings through their lives, we gradually come to understand them better and to grasp the complicated network of allegiances and obligations that binds them together when we first meet them, as adults, standing around the grave of their mother. But Dorothy Bliss, deceased, has one final surprise to levy upon her children.

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