The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

Continue reading

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

★★★★

A man wakes up in the middle of a wood, with a single name on his lips: “Anna”. That’s all he has. His mind and memories are blank. Who is Anna? What is she to him? Who is he? He has no idea. When he sees a screaming woman running through the wood, followed by a man in a dark coat, and hears a shot shortly afterwards, he knows he has just witnessed a murder. But when, terrified, he stumbles out of the woods and into the grounds of a crumbling country house, he discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. For this novel is in a genre all of its own: a ferociously creative, time-travelling, body-hopping murder mystery, which reads like a cross between Memento, Inception and Groundhog Day, written by Agatha Christie.

Continue reading

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night: Jen Campbell

★★★½

Some of you might already be familiar with Jen Campbell, the compiler of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Although I haven’t yet read these compendiums of the odd, I’ve seen snippets here and there and they’ve made me laugh out loud. So I was curious to see how Campbell’s talents would translate to the short story medium. The answer is: extremely well; although these unsettling stories aren’t at all what one would expect from this tongue-in-cheek observer of human nature. Or… on the other hand… perhaps they are, for they reach deep inside us to the darker corners of the psyche, and their unifying feature is that these miniature worlds seem so straightforward, so simple, until you look between the lines and realise that something, subtly, is out of kilter.

Continue reading

The Thief: Megan Whalen Turner

★★★

The Queen’s Thief: Book I

By popular demand (usually from Melita), I’ve finally got round to Megan Whalen Turner! I understand from Kerstin that the Queen’s Thief books are loved by Dunnetteers, among many other readers, for their twisting plots and intrigue, and so I’d really been looking forward to them. At the end of this first novel, however, I can’t help wondering when that promised court intrigue is going to get underway. The Thief is an enjoyable young-adult quest novel, throwing together the traditional bunch of ill-assorted companions in search of an ancient relic, but I don’t feel it’s hugely out of the ordinary. I’m not about to give up, though, and am sure things will warm up later in the series.

Continue reading

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz: Russell Hoban

★★★

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book. Surely it wasn’t just because there was a lion on the cover? I’d never heard of Russell Hoban, and knew nothing about the story; and yet here it is, on my shelf. It has turned out to be a thought-provoking, if somewhat mystifying read: the first half full of poignant comments on belonging, self-direction and the relationship between fathers and sons; the second half verging on hallucinogenic self-indulgence. Realising that it was first published in 1973, I wondered if parts might have made more sense if I’d been smoking something not entirely legal. And yet there’s one irresistible aspect: it’s inspired by the magnificent Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum.

Continue reading

Dystopian Short Stories from Tor.com

Tor.com

Here is the next batch of short stories from Tor.com. I’ve collected together five stories which deal with near futures in which the world has changed: often clearly for the worse, but sometimes for the better with a poignant kick. Here we find people relieving others of pain or emotion; a virus that traps you in a fatal dream of happiness; and the cruelty of the fashion industry taken to extremes. And a reminder, should you need it, that dystopias don’t always need to be outside our own heads…

Continue reading

The Girl in the Tower: Katherine Arden

★★★★

Winternight: Book II

Hot on the heels of The Bear and the Nightingale comes its sequel: another compelling slice of Russian-flavoured fantasy, prickling with ice and magic. Our heroine Vasya has saved the villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya from an evil far greater than that of the Devil the priests have taught them to fear, and far older than the icons and crosses of their churches. Yet her reward is scorn, distrust and hostility: a reputation as a witch. And so her eyes turn to the horizon, to the wider world she has craved for so long. With her incomparable horse Solovey, she sets out – but not before her path leads her back to a little house in a fir-grove in the forest, where the frost-demon Morozko waits for her.

Continue reading

Eaters of the Dead: Michael Crichton

★★★★

We all know not to judge books by their covers (even if we still do it), and this is a very good example of why it can be dangerous to do so. Both title and cover suggest this is a gruesome horror story. A quick glance at online reviews shows that some readers have been (legitimately) baffled to find themselves, instead, reading a pastiche of an academic text edition, complete with introduction, footnotes and bibliography. They’ve responded with low ratings and that’s a shame, because this novel is a daring blend of fact and fiction: a pseudo-intellectual sleight of hand which playfully offers a historical ‘source’ for the greatest of Western medieval legends: Beowulf.

Continue reading

Lion of Macedon: David Gemmell

★★

Parmenion: Book I

I’ve read fantasy for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve managed to finish a book by David Gemmell, one of the dominant British authors of speculative fiction in the 1980s and the 1990s. I tried his Lord of the Silver Bow a few years back, being unable to resist anything to do with the Trojan War, but I confess it just didn’t do it for me. I hoped that this – essentially a historical novel with added demons – might be slightly more to my taste, but I’ve finished it in a state of slight bafflement. There’s a good idea behind it and some clever twists, but once again it just hasn’t engaged me. Join me, as I try to figure out exactly why that is.

Continue reading

The Spirit Lens: Carol Berg

★★★

A Novel of the Collegia Magica: Book I

Portier de Savin-Duplais used to dream of being a great sorcerer, but reality has an unfortunate habit of failing to meet expectation. Instead, he has become the librarian of the great magical college that teaches other, more successful mages: a sober, scholarly, slightly unfulfilled man past thirty and wondering what more life has to offer. And then, one day, he receives a message from his distant cousin, the King of Sabria, asking for help. Someone has attempted to assassinate the king, leaving behind terrifying proof of a power that breaches the bounds of magical heresy. The King fears a second attempt and needs an agent: someone who understands magic; and someone he can trust. So, Portier finds himself thrust into a web of intrigue, danger and sorcery of the darkest kind.

Continue reading