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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Gardens of the Moon: Steven Erikson

★★★★

The Malazan Book of the Fallen: Book 1 (Malazan Chronology 11)

I’ve spent far too long on aeroplanes over the last month, so was looking for something big and meaty to occupy me during eighteen-hour schleps back and forth from London to Macau. Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon promised to be just the ticket. His Malazan books are based on an intricate high-fantasy universe co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, who also writes a series set in the same world, and they’re notorious for being tricky to get into. Rumour has it that you either give up at a third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, or fall for it completely, so I suppose I belong to the second camp. The problem cited most often is that the book throws you in at the deep end with no back-story, little exposition and a dizzying cast of characters; but I’ve made it through the Lymond Chronicles, so such things hold no fear for me. I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what’s been going on, but I feel weirdly exhilarated, as if I’ve dipped a toe into a world and mythology that expands far beyond anything I can yet imagine.

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The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

★★★½

The Left Hand of God Trilogy: Book 1

Thomas Cale is sixteen years old and has spent virtually all his life as an acolyte of the Redeemers at the forbidding Sanctuary of Slotover. Brutalised, radicalised and raised to place the True Faith before everything else, Cale is just one of hundreds, thousands, of boys being trained as soldiers to fight the Antagonists on the Eastern Front. In the labyrinthine corridors of Slotover, it pays to blend in, to conform, never to do the unexpected – but Cale is an exception. Groomed by the Lord Militant Redeemer Bosco, Cale has been raised not only to be a fearsome killer but also an excellent strategist. Yet these strategies can be placed at his own service just as much as that of the True Faith and, when this protege mounts a daring escape from Slotover, Bosco is determined to get him back. Inadvertently, Cale is on the edge of plunging the world into war.

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Interesting Times: Terry Pratchett

★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 17

Back when I first read Interesting Times, in the spring of 1998 when I was thirteen, I remember deciding that its title was misleading: this was the least interesting of all the books I’d read so far! In retrospect that was a little harsh, but it’s true that Interesting Times feels like a retrograde step after the sheer glory of Soul Music. After many books’ absence, we re-encounter the hapless Rincewind (last seen in Eric), who is snatched away from a life of desert-island contentment when Unseen University is confronted by a crisis that only he can solve. (Well, that’s the official line. The reality, as Rincewind knows only too well, is that they don’t want to risk any proper wizards.) A request has come from the mighty and secretive Counterweight Continent for ‘the Great Wizzard’ and, before you can say ‘travel insurance’, Rincewind finds himself up to the ears in a great clash of noble houses, revolution, insurrection, and some alarmingly familiar faces…

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Soul Music: Terry Pratchett

★★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 16

This has always been one of my favourite Discworld books and, at this point in the reread, I think it’s categorically the favourite. Pratchett uses other books to riff on the arts – filmmaking (Moving Pictures) and opera (Maskerade), for example – but this homage to rock music affectionately skewers its pretensions, while maintaining a sense of the deep, raw, primal magic beneath it. Our hero is Imp y Celyn, a young bard from the rainy kingdom of Llamedos who dedicates his life to music in the midst of an argument with his intransigent father. Making vows like this is dangerous on the Discworld, because there’s always the danger something is watching and waiting for just such an opportunity to arise. And, when Imp (whose name roughly translates as ‘Small Bud of the Holly’) arrives in Ankh-Morpork, he finds himself fetching up in a strange old music shop, where he meets his destiny in the form of a very special guitar.

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