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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The Honjin Murders: Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 1

Strange times. I can only hope that none of you or your loved ones have been directly affected by coronavirus, and I send virtual hugs out across the ether to all of you. I don’t intend to dwell on the present madness, though: I’m here, writing this, because I’d rather forget about it for a few minutes, and I hope you’re here for the same reason. Let’s go somewhere else together instead. Somewhere like provincial Japan in the late 1930s: a world still struggling to free itself from the legacies of feudal hierarchies, in which a shocking crime offers a brilliant young detective the chance to make his literary debut. I didn’t recognise Kosuke Kindaichi’s name, but he has a devoted following in Japan and appeared in a whole series of Yokomizo’s novels after this, his first appearance, in 1946. Unfortunately, The Honjin Murders (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) is at present one of only two Kindaichi novels available in English; the other, The Inugami Curse, is also available from Pushkin Vertigo. Let’s hope that these two books are successful and encourage Pushkin to get the rest translated, because on the basis of The Honjin Murders they’re going to be mind-scrambling, very entertaining classic crime stories.

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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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Love Without End: Melvyn Bragg

★★½

A few days ago, Helen reviewed Love Without End, which reminded me that I’d read a galley of this novel back in August and had, embarrassingly, failed to do anything about it. I’d been attracted to the book by its story of Abelard and Heloise, the brilliant medieval scholars whose love story captivated me at university and who have never quite released their hold on me. Bragg’s novel, however, is not straightforward historical fiction, as it weaves another story in and out of the past, entwining Abelard and Heloise’s story with that of the modern writer Arthur. He (we’re told) is the author of the historical chapters that we read and, in the modern chapters, we’re invited to follow his progress as he wanders through Paris, having long lunches and intellectual conversations with his daughter Julia. The major difficulty that Bragg faces with the book is that intellect is prized over humanity, which may mean that we get closer to what Abelard and Heloise actually believed, but robs the reader of any chance of truly engaging with them.

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In/Half: Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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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 Water Cure: Sophie Mackintosh

★★

This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.

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Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

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Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

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Walking to Aldebaran: Adrian Tchaikovsky

★★★★

Gary Rendell is living the dream. One of a handpicked international team of astronauts on board the Quixote, he’s been sent out to the very edge of the solar system to investigate a strange, gravity-defying structure known variously as the Artefact or the Frog God, due to the gaping holes in its surface that suggest eyes and a mouth. There’s no doubt that this object has been constructed by intelligent beings, but what is it? Gary and his team are there to find out. But when we meet Gary, some time after their expedition sets out into the Artefact, dream has become nightmare. He’s alone, desperate, driven half-mad by the psychological tricks of this alien labyrinth. As he fumbles his way through the darkness, he becomes aware of something scratching at the edge of his mind; something calling him; luring him. But Gary Rendell is in no mood to be lured. He’s been through hell and back; these endless corridors have changed him, and all he wants is to get home. But, when we’ve experienced so much, is it ever possible to go home? There’s certainly a monster in this dark esoteric maze; but is Gary its victim?

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