The Silver Tide: Jen Williams

★★★★

The Copper Cat Trilogy: Book III

Now back in London after some adventures with my parents, I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of posts about books, plays and operas, so do bear with me. First of all, it’s time to say goodbye to the dauntless heroes of the Black Feather Three, because this is the last book in Jen Williams’s fantasy series. As you might expect, Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian find themselves up against their greatest challenge yet and, in the course of a book filled with pirates, mages, haunted forests, gods, the fabric of time and, of course, almost certain death, there’s hardly time to draw breath. I’ve certainly enjoyed the series: all the way through, Williams has managed to combine the key components of sword-and-sorcery with a knowing humour that keeps it all very lively and modern. And I’ve realised that I’m really going to miss the three main characters. Especially Wydrin.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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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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Afternoon of a Good Woman: Nina Bawden

★★★½

When I was in primary school, we had a visit from Nina Bawden: I’ve no idea why she should have come to a modest school in a distinctly undistinguished small town, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. I bought Carrie’s War, got it signed and, since then, I’ve always associated Bawden with children’s books. So it’s been a surprise to find out that actually she wrote numerous books for adults, and this happens to be the first one I found. It unfolds during the course of one day, as middle-aged Penelope – a magistrate, wife and mother – sits in judgement at the Crown Court with her colleagues. But this is no ordinary day, for Penelope has decided to leave her husband. And so, as she finds herself up against the letter of British justice, she finds herself revisiting her own past and wondering, if her own life was laid out for public scrutiny, how she would fare…

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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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The Fortune Hunter: Daisy Goodwin

★★★

Every time I go to Austria, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of Sisi memorabilia that’s on sale. The Empress Elizabeth isn’t as iconic a figure here in England and I really know very little about her, except that her life wasn’t a very happy one, so I hoped that this novel might give me a bit more insight into a compelling historical figure. Set in 1875, it focuses on the avid horsewoman’s visit to England for the hunting season, and her alleged romantic liaison with the dashing cavalry officer ‘Bay’ Middleton. Honestly, I can’t say I know massively more now than I did before, as this turned out to be a romantic novel with its credentials worn proudly on its sleeve – mainly interested in burning glances across ballrooms – but it made for a pleasant enough distraction.

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The Iron Ghost: Jen Williams

★★★

The Copper Cat Trilogy: Book II

In the second instalment of Jen Williams’s sword-and-sorcery extravaganza, we rejoin our three heroes, now calling themselves the Black Feather Three: Wydrin, the titular Copper Cat of Crosshaven; the disgraced knight Sir Sebastian; and the aristocratic mage Aaron Frith. Their new job has brought them out to the mountainous wilds of Skaldshollow, where they finds themselves cast into the middle of an age-old rivalry between the Skalds and their neighbours, the Narhl. All they have to do is retrieve the Heart-Stone, a precious artefact crucial to the Skalds, but sacred to the Narhl, who have stolen it. It should have been easy. And yet, before they know what’s happened, our three adventurers find themselves caught up in another terrifying tale of ancient magic, demons, blood, ruined cities and the living dead.

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Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

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The Copper Promise: Jen Williams

★★★½

The Copper Cat Trilogy: Book I

My to-read pile for the Summer Without Men project includes rather a lot of sober books examining the human condition. It was refreshing to offset those with Jen Williams’s novel, which swaggered its way to the top of the list with the ease of a roistering sell-sword in a shabby tavern. I’ve meant to read The Copper Cat for some time and I decided this was the perfect moment, as I inch closer to my holidays. A loving tribute to the golden age of sword-and-sorcery, The Copper Promise is a gleeful romp complete with an odd couple of mercenaries, a fledgling mage, haunted ancient ruins, magical artefacts, murderous gods, and even a dragon. Yet it’s written with a lighthearted modern touch and our ‘heroes’ are a well-drawn and diverse bunch. It’s a jolly good fantasy adventure, fresh and fun while affectionately respecting the genre’s conventions.

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My Lady of Cleves: Margaret Campbell Barnes

★★★★

Margaret Campbell Barnes’s works have often cropped up in historical fiction lists, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Although My Lady of Cleves was first published in 1946, it doesn’t feel remotely prim or dated: only a certain elegant restraint hints at its age. It feels very much like a Norah Lofts story in that sense. Yes, it’s yet another Tudor historical novel, but Barnes rings the changes by focusing in on the least familiar and most appealing of Henry VIII’s many mistreated wives: Anne of Cleves. With grace, generosity and gentle humour, she gives this much-maligned woman her moment in the spotlight and pays tribute to the quiet pragmatism that allowed Anne to do what none of her five sister-queens managed: to keep both Henry’s affection and, more crucially, her head.

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