The Table of Less Valued Knights: Marie Phillips

★★★

In the darkest, least distinguished corner of the Great Hall at Camelot is a table they never speak of in the songs: the Table of Less Valued Knights. Here the retired and the also-rans live in the shadow of their glamorous peers on the famous Round Table. Sir Humphrey du Val is one of these past-it paladins, banished from the first division for an unchivalrous act and resigned to spending the rest of his life in the company of toothless has-beens. But then, one Pentecost, Fate throws Sir Humphrey an unexpected chance to distinguish himself once again. Before he knows it, he’s out on the road, riding to avenge a damsel in distress; but little does the poor knight realise that his trials are only just beginning. Cheerfully silly, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossed with A Knight’s Tale, this is an all-out medieval romp.

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The Bird King: G. Willow Wilson

★★★½

By 1492, the great empire of Al-Andalus has shrunk to a thin strip of land along the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, harried by the forces of the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Yet, within the harem of the palace in Granada, life keeps its languid pace. While siege closes in on the city outside, the women continue their petty rivalries, their music and their poetry, under the sharp eye of the Lady Aisha, the Sultan’s mother. The concubine Fatima – sharp, irreverent, and beautiful – diverts herself with secret visits to her childhood friend Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who is gifted with an extraordinary ability to invent doors where there were none before. As their world crumbles, these two dreamers realise that the only life they’ve known is on the verge of becoming a nightmare; and that sometimes safety lies beyond the reach of any map.

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The Sleeper in the Sands: Tom Holland

★★★½

Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…

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Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

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Downfall of the Gods: K.J. Parker

★★★★

When I was in Oxford last weekend (in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, to be precise, which is extremely good; you must go), I found something remarkable: a K.J. Parker novella that I’d never even heard of before! Unable to believe my luck, I snaffled it and read it all in one go the following day. It was exactly what I needed: undemanding but witty, irreverent and smart in all the right ways. While, like most of Parker’s fiction, Downfall of the Gods has a Grecian tinge, it looks further back in time, beyond the days of the Byzantine-inspired empires in his Engineer and Two of Swords trilogies, to an older time, when men still have to worry about annoying the gods – and the gods themselves can’t always be trusted.

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Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

★★★★★

Mythago Wood: Book I

Mythago Wood was first recommended to me five years ago, but it was only last weekend that I saw a copy in my local library and pounced. I hadn’t been at all sure whether I would like it – indeed, I hadn’t been at all sure what it was about – but reading it has been a truly remarkable experience. I suppose the book does fall under the fantasy banner, but it’s actually about myths and legends, the collective unconscious, and what Peter Ackroyd calls in his book Albion ‘the English imagination’. And it’s about woods: those deep, old English woodlands which can give you a thrill of unease when walking through them simply due to their antiquity. What might be hiding in the depths of such primeval forests? Playing with notions of relativity, time and space, Holdstock creates a world of such fascinating allure that I was captivated from the very first page. I may have taken half a decade to get round to this recommendation, but by heaven it was worth the wait.

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How To Stop Time: Matt Haig

★★

So that’s the end of the Summer Without Men 2018. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself: I’ve read 27 books over the two months of the challenge, which is pretty respectable; even if I didn’t quite manage to embrace the broad spectrum of subjects that I’d hoped. But those other books are still there, waiting, and will be read in due course. Having a reason to focus on the female authors in my library made me appreciate their scope and range and wit so much more, and I think I might make this an annual thing. There’s no danger of running out of books: at my present count, I have 755 books by women on my to-read list (across all genres, both digital and hard-copy – yes, that figure rather scared me as well), so I could actually do Three Years Without Men and still have books to spare. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to letting the men in again – as long as they behave themselves. I’ve had books by Ben Kane and Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris and all sorts of people just sitting there, tempting me for the last two months, so we might have a bit of a rush on Romans and Vikings and general muscly-warlike-stuff until the novelty wears off again. But we’re easing ourselves in gently for the first book, with a typically sentimental, introspective novel by Matt Haig.

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The Hall of the Mountain King: Judith Tarr

★★★½

The Avaryan Rising Trilogy: Book I

I’ve wanted to read more by Judith Tarr ever since finishing A Wind in Cairo and, thanks to a very bountiful visit to Hay-on-Wye, I now have quite a few of her books lined up. The opening salvo was this high-fantasy trilogy, combining court intrigue with an elemental struggle between light and dark. It begins with a loss: the disappearance of the old king’s daughter, chosen as his heir but consecrated to the Sun God. She leaves on the traditional Journey of a trainee priest; and never returns. For twenty-one years, the old king stands waiting every morning on the battlements of his mountain-locked castle, hoping that his beloved heir will return. One morning, he has an answer, in the form of a young man, a stranger, who bears an almost incredible message. He is Mirain, the son of the lost princess, fathered by the Sun God himself, and he has come home. His arrival brings joy to the heart of his aged grandfather, but alarm to the court – for this stranger has, at one stroke, destabilised all the hopes of the king’s illegitimate son…

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Tongues of Serpents: Naomi Novik

★★★½

Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

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I Am Dragon (Он – дракон)

I Am Dragon

★★★★

(directed by Indar Dzhendubaev, 2015)

Remember those classic fantasy films of the 1980s and 1990s: WillowLegendThe Never-Ending Story; or Labyrinth? They managed to combine magic with darkness, appealing to the lively imaginations of children but also hinting at something deeper and more troubling, something that lurked beyond the brink of adolescence and adulthood. After all, these films are adventures but they’re also all coming-of-age stories. And I was reminded of them by this sumptuous Russian fairy-tale, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, which boasts a strong young heroine, an improbably gorgeous hero, and a classic story about learning to know who you really are. If I were ten years old, I’d have absolutely adored it, and even now I thought it was rather lovely. If you’re looking for a way to distract children (or yourself) on a dark, wet afternoon, and if subtitles don’t hold any fear for you, you could do a lot worse than turn to this little gem.

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