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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fever Dream: Samanta Schweblin

★★★

Sometimes you feel you’ve completely missed something. You end up suspecting there was a big revelation in the final pages that you completely overlooked and which would have made everything make sense. I feel that may have been the case here, so I’m hoping we can get into a discussion in the comments about exactly what was going on. Schweblin’s novella unfolds in the course of a single unbroken, breathless dialogue. Here is Amanda, lying in the dark in a hospital bed, running out of time. Here, at her side, is David, a young boy who keeps probing her with ruthless questions. They have to find something among the confused tangle of Amanda’s memories: a clue; a moment that will bring everything into focus. But what has happened to Amanda? And who is David?

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Slade House: David Mitchell

★★★

If you’re looking for Slade House, you have to keep your eyes open. The way in is through a little black metal door, set into the wall of narrow Slade Alley, and it can be hard to find. To be precise, it only reveals itself once every nine years on the last Saturday in October. But don’t worry too much about that. If you’re looking for it, chances are you’ve been called. The door will open at your touch and reveal a wonderful garden leading up to an old stone house. You might, for a moment, wonder how these grounds fit into the modern estates you walked past on the way, but this won’t matter for long. You’ll be drawn in, captivated and entranced by the house and its inhabitants. And then, before long (or perhaps it will seem like a long time), you’ll suddenly discover that there’s no way out. Paradise has become prison. And something is coming to get you…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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