The Final Empire: Brandon Sanderson (2010)

★★★½

Cosmere: Book 2 / Mistborn: Book 1

I’ve now been back at work for a couple of weeks, thank goodness, and have been happily readjusting; although this strange new world brings new challenges. How, for example, does one manage to appear professional on a Zoom call from one’s bedroom? (I need to experiment with backgrounds.) However, weekends are still sacred and I’ve spent this particular chilly Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa with The Final Empire. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson and, while it isn’t the first in his Cosmere saga (that would be Elantris), it marks the beginning of its own sub-series, Mistborn. I’ve heard a lot about Sanderson in recent years – he’s definitely one of the most popular modern fantasy authors, in part thanks to his completion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – and my expectations were, inevitably, high. While his inventive world-building and magic system didn’t disappoint, I was initially underwhelmed by his writing style; but that bothered me less as I made my way through the book. In part a self-contained adventure story, and in part a clearly-signposted springboard for future events, this is a satisfying romp full of honourable thieves, dark religions, disguise and politics: just up my street.

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Piranesi (2020): Susanna Clarke

★★★★★

Piranesi lives in the House. There is nothing beyond or outside. He has explored with scientific rigour, as far as he can go, diligently mapping his progress. His findings suggest the House is infinite, its upper halls thick with drifting clouds, its lower levels submerged beneath silent waters. Each hall has its own collection of statues, which Piranesi catalogues with earnest devotion. He is entirely alone, save for weekly meetings with the elusive Other, the only other living man in the House. Piranesi likes to believe that they are colleagues, working together for the greater good, but he knows deep in his heart that he and the Other have different ambitions. The Other dreams of discovering some great and terrible knowledge hidden within the House, while Piranesi cares only for the well-being of the House itself, in all its majesty. Susannah Clarke’s long-awaited new novel transports us to an extraordinary world and poses a question: How can we understand and rationalise our world when we can’t escape it? Dream, reality and perception tremble on the brink in one of the most original novels I’ve ever read.

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The Fetch (1991): Robert Holdstock

★★★½

So far, I’ve only read one book by Robert Holdstock: Mythago Wood, an utterly captivating tale of mythic power and ancient legends, closely bound to the English landscape. The Fetch turned up in a second-hand bookshop some months after I’d finished Mythago Wood and, although I was keen to explore more of Holdstock’s imaginative world, it didn’t take me long to realise that The Fetch is a very different kettle of fish. I’ve never actually read any Dennis Wheatley, but I suspect this has a similar flavour to his books; I’m reminded, too, of those horror films in which wholesome families are gradually reduced to primeval terror. Yet this isn’t an outright horror novel: if it were, I wouldn’t have read it. In some ways it’s a classic Holdstock story, a tale of the past weaving itself into the present and breaking through in unexpected ways, a tale of treasures and quests and miracles – but one underlaid with the slow, inescapable thrum of something nasty in the woodshed.

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The Second Sleep (2019): Robert Harris

★★★½

Robert Harris’s new novel opens on a bleak evening in 1468, as a young priest makes his way wearily towards the village of Addicott St George. The parish parson, Father Thomas Lacy, has recently died and Christopher Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to oversee the burial. It’s supposed to be a quick job but, when Fairfax arrives, he begins to hear rumours of murder that he feels bound to investigate. Even worse, he makes shocking discoveries in Father Lacy’s study: the former priest was dabbling in dangerous heresies, which seem to have had some bearing on his mysterious death. And that, my friends, is all I feel able to say before the cut. I will add that I found this an engaging, amusing and unexpectedly engrossing novel, and that if you’ve enjoyed Harris’s earlier works you would do well to give this a go. But The Second Sleep is a novel best approached in complete innocence. If you haven’t yet read it, but think you might like to, I urge you to stop right here. Don’t read past the cut, where there will be spoilers. Come back when you’re done and, while you’re reading, pay attention. Those with sharp eyes will realise pretty swiftly that all is not quite as it seems.

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Johnny and the Dead (1993): Terry Pratchett

★★★

Johnny Maxwell: Book 2

It was just a matter of time. I wrote a few days ago that we’ve been exploring some of our local cemeteries during the lockdown, piecing together the stories of the families buried there, and judging people on the quality of their gravestone poetry. Inevitably, this reminded me of one of my few childhood books that I brought with me to London: Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, which I promptly unearthed (‘exhumed’?) from my bookshelves. I don’t remember the circumstances of this purchase – I never read the other Johnny Maxwell books and this was long before I started reading Discworld – but my parents got it right. There’s something ineffably British about Pratchett’s story of a young lad who realises to his alarm that he can see dead people in the local Victorian cemetery. And, as he’s apparently the only one who can talk to them, he feels that he’s the one who has to break the news. Because the town council has decided that the cemetery is no longer relevant, and has decided to sell it off to a glossy modern company for a glossy progressive modern office block. Needless to say, the dead are not happy…

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The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (1961): Tonke Dragt

★★★

You know when you buy a book and mean to read it, and keep meaning to read it, but never quite get round to it, and then it’s adapted for TV and you realise that you’ve missed the moment, and that now whenever you read it people will assume you’ve only read it because you’d seen it on Netflix? Yep. That’s happened to me with Tonke Dragt’s story The Letter for the King, so I was keen to get ahead with her novel The Goldsmith and the Master Thief. I should emphasise that this is a children’s story and it’s written as such: there are no winks or extra layers of meaning aimed at adults, just a good old-fashioned fable which follows the adventures of two very different (and yet very similar) brothers. Cynics need not apply: in this world, duplicity is always punished, the misguided mend their ways, and the pure of heart are always rewarded. Reading it feels like a deliciously self-indulgent step back in time, to the days when life was simpler.

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Middlegame (2019): Seanan McGuire

★★★★

The Up-and-Under stories by A. Deborah Baker are cherished classics of children’s literature. Two friends, a strangely complementary boy and girl, set out together on a journey to a dazzling city, where destiny awaits. Along the way, they meet strange characters, some of whom are friends, and help them on their journey. Others seem friendly, but only hinder them. This is a core narrative in other stories too: the road; the city; and the knowledge that awaits you when you get there. But what if the story isn’t just a story, but a road-map? What if Baker’s innocent series of children’s books is actually a manual of secret knowledge? Few people know that A. Deborah Baker wasn’t a cosy children’s author. She was Asphodel Baker, one of the most brilliant and frustrated alchemists of all time, and the books were the distillation of her knowledge, in a world that slammed all its doors in her face. Now, a hundred years down the road, two children – a strangely complementary boy and girl – are about to embark on their own journey into the unknown. They can succeed, or they can die. Success will mean remaking the world. Sprawling, ambitious, and stuffed with ideas, Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame grabs you by the throat and simply doesn’t let go for five hundred pages.

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Blood of an Exile (2019): Brian Naslund

★★★½

The Dragons of Terra: Book 1

Silas Bershad is an exile, condemned by his king to the life of an itinerant dragon-slayer. Marked with the blue bars of his trade on his cheek, and with his arm covered in tattoos recording the beasts he has killed, he is an object of fascination and fable to those he meets. Most dragon-slayers don’t last long, but Bershad – known popularly as the Flawless – has outlived sixty-five dragons and has no plans to stop there. The alternative is death on the king’s command and Bershad doesn’t fancy giving him the satisfaction. But when he’s summoned to the capital, Floodhaven, Bershad must confront the life he gave up fourteen years ago and decide whether his hatred for King Hertzog will stand in the way of accepting a new mission beyond the kingdom’s borders. If he succeeds, he will win his liberty and regain his noble status. And besides, there’s more at stake than simple politics. While this first instalment in Naslund’s fantasy series is focused on setting out the pieces – and ends rather abruptly – it does offer rich and intricate scene-setting, with an unusual emphasis on the ecosystems of this fantasy world.

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Blood of Elves (1994): 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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The Last Tsar’s Dragons (2019): 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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