In the Name of the King: A.L. Berridge

★★★★½

Chevalier: Book 2

As the world grows stranger, I’ve taken comfort in something so satisfying, so delightful and escapist, that it should almost be prescribed on the NHS. It’s been over two years since I read Honour and the Sword, the first of A.L. Berridge’s novels about the Chevalier de Roland, but I don’t want you to think that betokens a lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary! This is a sequel but also – apparently – the last book in the series, because it was published in 2011 and Berridge has gone alarmingly quiet in recent years. I didn’t want to get to the end too quickly, so I’ve been saving it for a moment when I really need it. And now, with new rules bidding us stay at home, my annual trip to Paris cancelled, and no knowledge of when it will end, I needed it. So I escaped to France in 1640, to a world of duels, honour and skirmishes; of fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens and gritty subterfuge in the forests; of intrigues and plots, romance, war, and Cardinal Richelieu bestriding the world like a (fading) colossus.

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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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Paper Wife: Laila Ibrahim

★★★

This gentle novel throws light on an aspect of history that I knew nothing about. Set largely in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it focuses on the surreptitious custom of the ‘paper wife’, and on one particularly determined and compassionate woman. In March 1923, in a small village in China’s Guangdong Province, young Mei Ling is obliged to take her elder sister’s place in a matchmaking deal. New American immigration laws mean that Chinese workers in the USA can no longer move freely back and forth to their families in the motherland. A businessman from San Francisco has come home, hoping to take his wife and son back with him, only to find that his wife has recently died. Now he needs a replacement, and Mei Ling’s family are poor enough and desperate enough to send their daughter to the other side of the world, with a stranger, in the hope of securing a good life for her. The catch is that Mei Ling must pretend to be the dead wife of her new husband, in order to get through the examination given by US border officials. A tale of resilience, hope and well-meaning deceit, this book looks at the challenges of building a new life in the New World – and stepping into another woman’s shoes.

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The Remedy: Michelle Lovric

★★★★

Venetian convents are famous above all things for their laxity, with sweets and cakes; visitors; fine fashions; and beautiful music. But the headstrong young woman we meet at the start of The Remedy isn’t interested in the things that come in to the convent, so much as in how to get out. She has been confined within the walls of S. Zaccaria by her noble parents, quite unfairly of course, after allegedly bringing shame on the family. Since good behaviour hasn’t made an ounce of difference to her prospects, bad behaviour might just be her ticket back out into the world. After all, everyone knows that discerning gentlemen can make donations to certain convents in exchange for the company of nuns. Such arrangements take place at S. Zaccaria and our narrator is confident that her well-bred beauty will find her a lover who’ll whisk her away. Alas! When her plans are betrayed, leaving her ruined and furious, our narrator’s prospects seem darker than ever. But then the state’s spymasters make her an offer she can’t refuse: to have her crimes wiped clean in return for service as one of their agents. A pitch-perfect tale of double-dealing, murder, sex, and opera in 18th-century Venice and London, written in sumptuous prose, this deeply satisfying period romp never quite lets you forget the grit under its fingernails.

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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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The Sealed Letter: Emma Donoghue

★★★★

When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

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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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The Living Infinite: Chantel Acevedo

★★★½

The Infanta Eulalia of Spain is a disappointment: another girl to add to the royal nursery, rather than the longed-for second son to secure the family line. But she is, nevertheless, a princess and such a child must be raised in state. Officials searching for a wet nurse find and hire Amalia, a woman from Burgos with a bouncing, healthy baby boy of her own, christened Tomás. Amalia is offered a small fortune to come to Madrid to serve at the palace, with one free day each month to meet her husband. Her decision to accept is the point from which several different stories spiral outward, affecting the lives of those involved far into the future. Chantel Acevedo’s novel resurrects, on captivating form, a very real Spanish princess (1864-1958) who questioned convention, who loved and lost and travelled, who wrote with a fierceness and freedom that none of her predecessors had dared, and who sought to broaden the boundaries of her own stifling world.

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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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