The Copper Promise: Jen Williams

★★★½

The Copper Cat: Book I

My to-read pile for the Summer Without Men project includes rather a lot of sober books examining the human condition. It was refreshing to offset those with Jen Williams’s novel, which swaggered its way to the top of the list with the ease of a roistering sell-sword in a shabby tavern. I’ve meant to read The Copper Cat for some time and I decided this was the perfect moment, as I inch closer to my holidays. A loving tribute to the golden age of sword-and-sorcery, The Copper Promise is a gleeful romp complete with an odd couple of mercenaries, a fledgling mage, haunted ancient ruins, magical artefacts, murderous gods, and even a dragon. Yet it’s written with a lighthearted modern touch and our ‘heroes’ are a well-drawn and diverse bunch. It’s a jolly good fantasy adventure, fresh and fun while affectionately respecting the genre’s conventions.

Continue reading

Witchmark: C.L. Polk

★★★½

The Kingston Cycle: Book I

Miles Singer is a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital, treating men who’ve come back from the front line shattered by their experiences in war. A former soldier himself, Miles knows only too well what they’re going through and he does all he can to help them; but he must be careful not to be too clever with his healing. For Miles is in hiding: a magically-gifted member of one of Aeland’s greatest families, who has escaped his family and his destiny to find his vocation elsewhere. Better that he should help these men, than spend his life as a moderately-talented Secondary, bound as a source to his more talented Storm-Singer sister Grace. Unfortunately, his family don’t agree. And, when a dying man turns up at his hospital one day, with Miles’s real name on his lips, claiming to have been poisoned, Miles will find that he can no longer keep at a distance from his powerful clan. But at what cost? For he isn’t the only one with secrets.

Continue reading

Karen Memory: Elizabeth Bear

★★★★

Elizabeth Bear has been on my radar since Heloise introduced me to the startling Iskryne books that she co-authored with Sarah Monette, although her solo work has (so far) been of a less blush-inducing stamp. I have all three of her Eternal Sky books, which I’m hoarding for a moment when I fancy a good solid dose of Genghis-Khan-inspired fantasy (which, to be fair, is always). However, I’ve kicked things off with this standalone novel, best described as Western steampunk noir. This delicious adventure takes all the elements of a good cowboy yarn – the tall, dark stranger from out of town; the slimy businessman who fancies himself as mayor; the plucky girls from the local brothel; and reimagines them in a feisty, female-driven romp with a brilliantly diverse cast.

Continue reading

Bite-Sized Fiction

Bite-Sized Books

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.

Continue reading

The Radleys: Matt Haig

★★★

Nothing much ever happens in the Yorkshire village of Bishopthorpe. That’s exactly why the Radleys moved there from London before their children were born. With their unremarkable middle-class villa, their predictable middle-class people-carrier, their unobjectionable middle-class existence, their book clubs and their Sunday dinners, and their two shy and rather sickly teenage children, Helen and Peter Radley are barely worth a second glance. And that’s the way they like it. Unfortunately, their children are getting to a difficult age and events soon rapidly spiral out of control. It turns out that teenage self-discovery is much harder to handle when your entire family are vampires.

Continue reading

The Two of Swords: K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Two of Swords: Volume I

My next step with K.J. Parker should have been to continue the Engineer Trilogy, but it just so happened that I had time to kill on the evening I bought this book, and couldn’t resist starting it. In fact, Parker’s novels all seem to take place in the same world, so it didn’t even feel like straying. The Two of Swords has only confirmed my admiration for him as a writer. I’d go so far as to say I love his books. They’re knotty, cynical, pragmatic fantasy without a hint of magic, and the general flavour is what you might get if Machiavelli settled down to write an alternate-universe version of the Byzantine Empire. Stuffed full of double-bluffs and double-agents, this series takes us into the heart of a long-lasting war, spurred on by the personal enmity between the opposing generals – who also happen to be brothers. Two brothers; two armies; two empires; and one secret international fraternity, who may not be as neutral as they’ve always claimed to be…

Continue reading

The Five Daughters of the Moon: Leena Likitalo

★★★

The Waning Moon Duology: Book I

In a towering glasshouse at the Summer Palace, a new marvel is unveiled to the Crescent Empress and her five daughters. The Great Thinking Machine will be able to calculate numbers at incredible speed and will simplify the administration of this vast empire. But this is more than a scientific demonstration. Little Alina, the Empress’s youngest daughter, feels the danger rolling out from the vast contraption and fears what it may bring, and what it might have to devour in order to work. And she also fears its promoter: her mother’s unsettling, ambitious adviser, Gagargi Prataslav. In this novel, Leena Likitalo reimagines an alternate universe based on the world of the Romanovs, in which magic and visions go hand in hand with the first deep stirrings of revolution.

Continue reading

Deathless: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★★

Impatiently waiting for the third novel in Katherine Arden’s Bear and the Nightingale series? This is just the thing to tide you over until it’s published, but Catherynne M. Valente’s novel is no mere stopgap. Indeed, it’s more of an experience than a book, bulging at the seams of its 350 pages. Valente reworks Russian folklore into a dark, dense and compelling narrative which skips in and out of tragic reality. Unlike Arden’s books, it’s also firmly adult, encompassing war, death and desire, while its folklore is the unbowdlerised kind, drenched in sex and blood. The curtain rises at the dawn of the 20th century, in St Petersburg, as the old order collapses, the boundaries between worlds grow thin, and a young girl receives an unexpected suitor.

Continue reading

Tales of Strange Encounters from Tor.com

Tor.com

Time for another collection of short-stories from the reliably thought-provoking archives of Tor.com. This time I’ve selected a group of tales which focus on strange encounters, in which curious creatures add meaning to characters’ mundane lives, or people unearth odd threads in their own family histories. The stories also have a refreshing cultural and historical sweep, stretching from the modern-day anonymity of a big American city, to the parched grasslands of a post-apocalyptic future; to the exotic charm of medieval China and India at the turn of the 20th century.

Continue reading

La Belle Sauvage: Philip Pullman

★★★★

The Book of Dust: Book I

This review is overdue because I read this book back in January, but the delay doesn’t point to anything rather than my own inefficiency. I’d asked for it for Christmas, eager to return to the otherworldly Oxford that I knew so well from His Dark Materials. After so many years, I did wonder whether Pullman would be able to carry off the same magical mixture that he achieved in the original: part children’s story, part moral fable, part religious allegory, which by the end had a truly epic sweep. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. For me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t quite have the same wild, transporting alchemy as Northern Lights, but Pullman’s writing remains entirely reliable. To read it is to give yourself up into the hands of a master storyteller.

Continue reading