The Binding: Bridget Collins

★★★★

Colleagues at work have just set up a book club, which is an exciting development, especially because they’ve picked out some really interesting titles. The first meeting I’m able to make is devoted to The Binding, which I devoured yesterday during a long flight and which turned out to have a delicious mixture of flavours: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, all wrapped up in evocative prose. We follow Emmett Farmer, a young man who is recovering from a serious illness that has wiped out most of his summer. He’s just beginning to regain his strength when a troubling letter arrives for his parents. The binder has asked for him to be her apprentice. Emmett doesn’t understand why an old woman, shunned for her unspeakable craft and regarded with fear, could possibly want his help; but nor does he understand the new undertones of suspicion with which his family regard him. What happened during his illness? And why, when he reaches the binder’s lonely home, in the middle of the marshes, does he feel so sickened by certain rooms? Can Seredith, the binder, his new teacher, harness what she believes to be his deep natural talent? And what exactly does a binder do, anyway?

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Blackwing: Ed McDonald

★★★½

The Raven’s Mark: Book 1

You want grimdark? You got it! In this debut novel, the first part of a trilogy (all of which has now been published), McDonald throws us deep into a frontier steampunk world struggling to defend itself against the forces of darkness. Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow who, as far as most people know, makes his living seeking out those fugitives and thieves desperate enough to flee into the Misery – a blighted wasteland surrounding the city of Valengrad. But Ryhalt has another set of obligations. He bears a tattoo of a black bird, marking him out as Blackwing: sworn to the service of Crowfoot, one of the Nameless (ancient sorcerers whose great power was once all that stood between the Republic and the Deep Kings). But the Nameless’s power is fading and the drudge, the Deep Kings’ undead armies, are growing stronger. All is not well: Ryhalt doesn’t need a tattoo to tell him that. But it isn’t until his past returns to haunt him, in the person of the irritating scholar Ezabeth Tanza, that Ryhalt realises exactly how wrong things are.

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The Last Wish: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★½

The Witcher: Book 1

Everything has suddenly become much clearer. Boys and girls, don’t follow my example and start with the earliest date of publication in the Witcher series. The Last Wish is definitely the place to start and I now have answers to several of the questions that were troubling me at the end of Sword of Destiny. That’s not to say that everything will be laid out nice and neatly: The Last Wish, like Sword of Destiny, is a collection of six short stories and these dart around chronologically within the story of our hero Geralt. They are all bound together, however, by parts of a seventh story, taking place in the ‘present day’ – although the ‘present day’ sits somewhere between the timelines of the stories ‘Sword of Destiny’ and ‘Something More’ from the collection Sword of Destiny. It’s all a little bit confusing, but worth the effort: to my relief, one of the stories in The Last Wish even links in with the first episode of the Netflix TV series. And, while these stories aren’t as light-hearted as those in Sword of Destiny, Sapkowski still has a lot of irreverent fun undermining some of the most cherished fairy tales in the European canon.

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Sword of Destiny: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 3*

We’d finished Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and needed a new series to get our teeth into, so I suggested The Witcher on Netflix. I’d bought the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski back in the autumn, when the Kindle versions were on sale and, though I hadn’t yet read any of them, I was intrigued to see what the series was like. The result was an hour of complete bafflement, with both of us trying to get a handle on this new world while also remembering the names of a dizzying number of characters. We haven’t yet moved on to the next episode, but I decided that I needed to do some preparation first. Although Sword of Destiny isn’t the first book in terms of the series’s inner chronology, it was the first to be published, and I hoped this collection of six short stories would give me a better understanding of the context. As it happens, there’s only the very slightest crossover, but the stories turned out to be an unexpected joy. Far funnier than the TV show, they were the perfect way to whet my appetite before plunging deeper into this engaging world of old-school sword-and-sorcery.

*Opinion seems to differ on the reading order, but this seems the most common.

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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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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 Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

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Jingo: Terry Pratchett

★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 21

When a mysterious island rises abruptly out of the sea, right under his boat, fisherman Solid Jackson knows precisely what he’s going to do. He’s going to claim that land in the name of Ankh-Morpork and become a national hero, no question about it. Unfortunately for Solid, he isn’t the only one present at the moment of the island’s apparition, and his great rival Arif promptly decides that it actually belongs to his own country, Al-Khali. As the fishermen scurry home to inform their respective governments, their dispute swiftly escalates to the level of international diplomacy… and worse. While this book sparkles with all Pratchett’s characteristic verve, reading it is a mitigated pleasure, because a satire on the stupidity of racial intolerance, hate crimes and the futility of war feels so bloody pertinent in the modern world. And, unlike the good citizens of Ankh-Morpork, we don’t even have Sam Vimes and the City Watch standing by to save us…

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Feet of Clay: Terry Pratchett

★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 19

All is not well in Ankh-Morpork. In itself, of course, there’s nothing unusual about that. Indeed, if things were all well in Ankh-Morpork, that’d be a sign that something’s definitely wrong. But things seem to be less well than usual. An elderly priest and a harmless museum curator have been brutally murdered; someone has poisoned the Patrician; the city’s workforce of golems are behaving in a suspicious way; and a group of plotters are scheming to return Ankh-Morpork to a monarchy. And, worst of all, Sam Vimes discovers to his horror that Nobby Nobbs might just be the long-lost heir to the Earldom of Ankh. Something must clearly be done; but what?

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Maskerade: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 18

Agnes Nitt, formerly of Lancre, has had enough. She doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life being known as the big girl with a lovely personality and great hair, and she isn’t going to meekly join Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as dogsbody in their coven. Instead, she’s going to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer at the Opera House. It sounds like a great idea, until she discovers that opera types are an odd bunch: neurotic, superstitious and obsessed with the resident Opera Ghost, who leaves maniacal notes with too many exclamation marks, and demands that the best box in the house is reserved for him. And things are about to get worse. Fortunately for the world at large, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have come to Ankh-Morpork too, just to keep an eye on Agnes, and they are more than a match for any man who ponces around in evening dress and a mask. A glorious parody of The Phantom of the Opera, this has always been an absolute favourite of mine, and it’s only got better on rereading.

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