The Mere Wife: Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.

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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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The Light Beyond the Forest: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★½

The King Arthur Trilogy: Book II

I haven’t yet read The Sword and the Circle, the first part of Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the legends of King Arthur, but the trilogy really doesn’t need to be read in sequence. The Light Beyond the Forest is a children’s novel, yet it’s one written with grace and poetic sensitivity (as is everything by Sutcliff), telling the story of the Grail Quest. Thereby it tackles some fairly weighty issues: trust, honour, truth, loyalty, temptation, sacrifice and evil. If I’d read it as a child, I think I’d have been deeply impressed by its grandeur; reading it now, I’m struck by its lyrical simplicity and by the way it boils down a complex mix of Christian and pagan legends into a highly readable story.

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The Cleft: Doris Lessing

★★★

Doris Lessing is an author who’s always intimidated me, simply by virtue of having won the Nobel Prize and thereby, obviously, being a Great Name. I’ve been shilly-shallying over The Golden Notebook for the past few years, so when I stumbled across this curious book in a charity shop, I thought it could be an interesting way in. And, oh, it’s a very odd thing: part fantasy, part fable, part allegory. It focuses on the Clefts: a primitive society of parthenogenic women who only ever give birth to female children. And then, one day, a monstrous creature is born with horribly deformed genitals. The Clefts expose it, as they do all damaged infants, but then more of these Monsters are born and, before long, the Clefts find themselves struggling against the rise of a new population, who are so similar to them and yet so horrifyingly, incomprehensibly different: men.

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Ransom: David Malouf

★★★★

This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists.

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Circe: Madeline Miller

★★★

For her second novel, Madeline Miller returns to the fertile world of Greek mythology, and to another figure often overshadowed by a swaggering hero. This time her protagonist is Circe, sorceress and nymph, ruler of one of the many islands where Odysseus manages to get lost en route from Troy to Ithaca. Artists have always loved Circe: John William Waterhouse, in particular, seems to have been obsessed with this exotic enchantress. And yet Miller invites us to look beyond the magic, the sensuality and the unfortunate habit of turning people into pigs. As she did in The Song of Achilles, she gathers strands of myth from various sources and reveals little-known aspects to a familiar figure. Like Penelope, Miller is a master weaver; and yet there’s something at the heart of the book that doesn’t quite work.

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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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The Girl in the Tower: Katherine Arden

★★★★

Winternight: Book II

Hot on the heels of The Bear and the Nightingale comes its sequel: another compelling slice of Russian-flavoured fantasy, prickling with ice and magic. Our heroine Vasya has saved the villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya from an evil far greater than that of the Devil the priests have taught them to fear, and far older than the icons and crosses of their churches. Yet her reward is scorn, distrust and hostility: a reputation as a witch. And so her eyes turn to the horizon, to the wider world she has craved for so long. With her incomparable horse Solovey, she sets out – but not before her path leads her back to a little house in a fir-grove in the forest, where the frost-demon Morozko waits for her.

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The Bear and the Nightingale: Katherine Arden

★★★★½

Winternight: Book I

This book is made to be read in the long winter nights as the year creeps towards its end. Set in the snowbound forests of northern Russia in the 14th century, it’s a fairy tale for those who haven’t lost their sense of wonder: a brooding story of frost and darkness, of endless black forests and the powers that lie within. And it’s a tale of conflict, between the old, primeval world of nature’s power in the here and now, and the new world of Christianity with its gold, glamour and focus on the life hereafter. Into this uneasy world comes Vasilisa Petrovna, half-wild, passionate and blessed with a growing power of her own. Magical and enchanting, this is one book I found extremely hard to put down.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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