Blood of Elves: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 4

Blood of Elves gathers together strands from the short stories in Sword of Destiny and sets us off on the first instalment in an epic tale of fate, love and loyalty. As far as I can see, nothing in Season 1 of the Netflix Witcher relates to Blood of Elves, so I imagine that its storylines will come into play in Season 2 (hopefully in a slightly more linear fashion). Here we rejoin Geralt, Witcher and monster-slayer by trade, and his new ward Ciri, deposed princess of Cintra. They have withdrawn to the Witcher stronghold at Kaer Morhen, where (excitingly!) we meet other Witchers and watch Ciri being trained in the skills she will need to survive in the outside world. But this is merely a moment, a brief catching of the breath, before that world begins to impose on Kaer Morhen once again. As Ciri’s needs outstrip the Witchers’ abilities, they must find somewhere else for her, while Geralt has unfinished business out on the politically ravaged Continent.

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The Last Tsar’s Dragons: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

★★

Russia, 1917, under the autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas II. The imperial will is enforced by the airborne terror of the Tsar’s dragons: great black beasts reared in the palace stables and then sent out across the country to ravage the lands of those the Tsar deems offensive – the Jews chief among them. But times are changing. In a quiet Jewish village, a group of ambitious men have long dreamed of bringing that change to Russia. Now they have the means. As their leader Lenin drums up support beyond the Russian borders, Bronstein and Borustch carefully work on a secret weapon that will bring down the forces of tyranny once and for all. Meanwhile, mutiny also simmers within the palace walls as a cabal of courtiers plot to rid themselves of the charismatic monk Rasputin. Set in the final days of the Romanov dynasty, this is a strange little novella: historical fiction skewed by the addition of dragons, which somehow never quite takes flight.

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Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

★★★★

Once upon a time, a little girl called Ofelia was born to a beautiful mother and a caring father, who were very much in love. Unfortunately, by the time this story starts, that happy time is long gone. Now Ofelia’s father is dead and, in the volatile Spain of 1944, a young widow and a little girl need protection. Ofelia’s mother has made a dangerous gamble and chosen to marry again, to the brutal Capitán Vidal. She is already heavy with his child and now, like a monster in a fable, he’s waiting for them in the old house he uses as his base, deep in the middle of a forest. Ofelia can’t resist drawing comparisons with fairy tales. She loves them. They help her make sense of the world around her, and now, as Spanish men kill other Spanish men, and evil digs its tendrils into her life, Ofelia will need her imagination more than ever. Darkness awaits her at Capitán Vidal’s farmhouse, but something else awaits her too. An extraordinary discovery: a labyrinth, a faun, and a promise – and a quest, which Ofelia must undertake to prove her worth. Based on the 2006 film, this is a deliciously dark homage to the magic of books and fairy tales, emphatically not for children (except grown-up ones). 

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The Company: K.J. Parker

★★★½

Gosh, it’s been far too long since I’ve read a K.J. Parker novel. How I’ve missed him. Reading his books can feel slightly like reading Georgette Heyer; not, I hasten to add, because they’re Regency romances (heaven forfend!), but because his stories are all rather similar. It doesn’t matter, though, because you know you’re getting into something well-crafted and entertaining, in supremely competent hands. In The Company, Parker introduces us to the former members of A Company’s line-breaker division: crack troops, sent ahead of the infantry to punch a route through the enemy’s front line of pikemen. The line-breakers became legendary: a band of men from the minor town of Faralia, who weren’t expected to last past the first battle, but who worked together to become – apparently – indestructible. Once, they were heroes. But now the war is over and most of them have moved on, taking up the threads of their old lives. When their charismatic leader Kunessin comes home with money in his pocket and a crazy dream on his mind, the rest of the company must decide whether to follow him once again. After all, if they can trust anyone in the world, they can trust each other. Right?

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Shades of Milk and Honey: Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★½

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman, of modest birth and even more modest fortune, must be in possession of numerous accomplishments if she hopes to find a husband. The two Ellsworth sisters of Long Parkmead have certainly done their best in this respect, having studied the gentle arts of music, painting and glamour. Their hopes rest on Melody, the younger, whose prettiness and vibrant spirits are expected to attract a fine match. Jane, the elder daughter, is plainer and quieter, but far more gifted than her little sister in the use of glamour. When their simple lives are disrupted by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a dashing captain and a brooding glamourist, the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners – with just a little extra magic. This elegant Regency romp certainly wasn’t the kind of book I’d expected from Mary Robinette Kowal, since I’d only read her Lady Astronaut of Mars before this, but I was immediately charmed by a novel that embraces so much of Austen’s spirit with such success and affection. Imagine it as Georgette Heyer with a side of light sorcery.

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Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence: Michael Marshall Smith

★★★

Hannah Green is eleven years old and has recently learned the word ‘mundane’. She learns that it has two meanings: 1) of the earthly world; and 2) tedious, everyday, inconsequential. As the book opens, her life very definitely falls into the latter category. She is an only child whose life follows a comfortable set of patterns: trips with her parents downtown in Santa Cruz; visits to a favourite restaurant in Los Gatos; holidays to a lodge in Big Sur. These things have formed Hannah’s childhood with a reassuring sense of security. But then things start going wrong. Suddenly Hannah’s mum and dad don’t seem happy any more. Then her mum moves out to focus on a big work project in London. Then her dad announces that Hannah is going to stay for her granddad for a couple of weeks. And it’s at this point that things start to become very, very weird, and Hannah begins to realise that perhaps her new life is going to be best defined in the first sense of ‘mundane’. Because, quite frankly, when your granddad turns out to be working for the Devil, and you end up on a road trip with said prince of darkness, ‘tedious’ just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

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Things in Jars: Jess Kidd

★★★★

A strange, sharp-toothed child, bleached of colour and trailing the scent of the sea. Sinister kidnappers. The ominous underbelly of London’s class of collectors, where even the most particular tastes can be indulged. A seven-foot-tall housemaid. And a dandyish pugilist ghost. In my first encounter with Jess Kidd’s writing, I was taken by the hand and led deep into a deliciously disturbing story, told in prose that sparkles with the cadences of an Irish brogue. At its heart there is Bridie Devine, a formidably down-to-earth woman who makes a speciality of taking on unusual mysteries – and who is about to encounter a case which will push her expertise to its limits, as well as forcing her to face up to a dark period of her own past. Blending Victorian Gothic with a roistering tale of London’s underworld, this is a deeply enjoyable adventure.

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Day of the Minotaur: Thomas Burnett Swann

★★

I vaguely remember reading this book when I was young. It had infiltrated my dad’s stash of 1970s sci-fi in the attic, sitting ill-at-ease beside Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Silverberg. When I stumbled over a copy some twenty years later in Hay-on-Wye, I decided to read it again. And was it worth it? Hmm. It was written in 1966 and hasn’t dated well, in ways that would have gone over my head as a young teen. More on that in a moment. The story itself means well, though. Stuffed full of Greek mythology, it seems to have been written under the influence of Mary Renault. It’s the tale of Thea and Icarus, two half-Cretan children who escape the destruction of the city of Knossos – in a glider, naturally. They hope to reach the Country of the Beasts, the region into which Greece’s mythological creatures have withdrawn to escape the advance of men. But their headlong flight leads instead to further danger, leaving them stranded in the cave of the Minotaur himself.

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The Perfect Assassin: K.A. Doore

★★★

The Chronicles of Ghadid: Book I

There’s been a lot of talk about The Perfect Assassin, the first book in K.A. Doore’s new Middle Eastern flavoured fantasy series. It has won well-deserved praise for its setting, which takes readers beyond the standard white European semi-medieval tropes of fantasy fiction, and also for its diversity in including characters with a wide range of sexualities, including an asexual hero. The world-building is tantalising, both in terms of the physical space of the city of Ghadid, and in the metaphysical workings of the story. Now, anyone who remembers my posts on Robin Hobb will know that I have a soft spot for stories about assassins, so I should have loved this book, as so many other readers have. Unfortunately, though, I was never quite able to lose myself in the story. Ironically, for a tale about assassins and murder, I found it a little bloodless.

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The Binding: Bridget Collins

★★★½

Colleagues at work have just set up a book club, which is an exciting development, especially because they’ve picked out some really interesting titles. The first meeting I’m able to make is devoted to The Binding, which I devoured yesterday during a long flight and which turned out to have a delicious mixture of flavours: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, all wrapped up in evocative prose. We follow Emmett Farmer, a young man who is recovering from a serious illness that has wiped out most of his summer. He’s just beginning to regain his strength when a troubling letter arrives for his parents. The binder has asked for him to be her apprentice. Emmett doesn’t understand why an old woman, shunned for her unspeakable craft and regarded with fear, could possibly want his help; but nor does he understand the new undertones of suspicion with which his family regard him. What happened during his illness? And why, when he reaches the binder’s lonely home, in the middle of the marshes, does he feel so sickened by certain rooms? Can Seredith, the binder, his new teacher, harness what she believes to be his deep natural talent? And what exactly does a binder do, anyway?

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