Tag Archives: fantasy

Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London)

I received this at no cost from the publisher, Hachette. It’s out now; RRP $32.99.

Firstly, this is number 9 in the Rivers of London series, so do not pick it up if you haven’t read the rest. You’d be able to follow the basic plot – provided you’re ok with the idea of London police needing to deal with weird bollocks (that is, magic); but the relationships will make no sense to you and the references to past problems won’t have any impact. Also, it’s an enormously fun series (with, sadly, some thick-headed and annoying misogyny in the early books from the main character) so if you ARE fine with modern London policing engaging in magic and dealing with criminal practitioners, just start from the start.

And if you’re already on the Rivers of London train, you really don’t need me to write this review because you’re already going to be reading it whenever it comes in at the library / your preorder arrives / you nick it from your mum. So if the purpose of the review was to convince people to read this particular book… there’s really no point.

Not my main reason!

I have enormously enjoyed the development of Peter Grant over these books – I was very dubious about him as the POV when I first started, because he was just a bit … painful. Young? Smug? At any rate, not a character I could particularly connect with. But the world Aaronovitch presented – a very modern one, but where magic fries electronic circuits; his boss Nightingale, whom I always found intriguing; and the magical cases themselves – all convinced me to keep going. And Peter has indeed grown up, due to circumstances and Beverley, and has become much less annoying and more like a decent bloke and a generally good copper. So that’s been worthwhile. The cases keep being interesting – and what I like there is that Aaronovitch doesn’t feel like he has to keep uping the ante; it’s not like one book we’re blowing up a building then the city then the world. Because magic can help you do a vast assortment of nefarious things so you can just have varied crime, rather than ratcheting up.

Here, Aaronovitch takes the opportunity to make some Lord of the Rings jokes, with a bunch of people connected through university and each in possession of odd rings being targeted by a peculiar and rather terrifying person. There’s the usual work with Guleed, more Seawoll than usual, and trainee Danni – plus, of course, Nightingale. (I would love a bunch of Nightingale prequels…) Not so much Mary or Foxglove, but more foxes; plus, Beverley is very nearly at term, so there’s paternity leave to be considering, too. It’s a standard Rivers of London, which is in no way a slight! It’s exactly what I was hoping for: a bit ridiculous, some very clever connections, an enormous fondness for London as a city, lots of banter and precisely paced – brisk, but not whirlwind. I’ll happily keep reading these for as long as this standard endures.

Nettle and Bone

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

If you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher, I can say “this is exquisitely T. Kingfisher” and know that you’ll run for a copy of this book. (Fair warning: book does include reference to family violence, and an abusive partner.)

If you’re not already… maybe you’re a fan of Angela Slatter? Kingfisher’s books remind me of her work too.

What does that mean?

They’re both doing fascinating things with fairy tales… except not really fairy tales, because they’re not always familiar stories, but it’s the vibe of fairy tales – fairy tale logic – fairy tale expectations and narrative structures. And I don’t mean Disney versions, I mean grim/m and sometimes gritty and meaty and fully embedded in the world, where not everything is lovely and wonderful but sometimes they are, and sometimes by force of personality you can make a change in the world and sometimes you just have to roll with the world’s punches.

I loved this book a lot.

There’s a princess who doesn’t especially want to be and who is really sure that she’s good at it, and a bone dog, and two godmothers, and a dust-wife. Also a quest and a heavy dose of gritted-teeth determination and a good level of snark, generally dished out by old ladies, which is of course the best sort. It goes at a good pace – not so fast as to leave you spinning, but you’re also not just sitting around always admiring flowers. I read this quickly and it felt just right.

This book keeps Kingfisher as one of those novelists whose work I just read pretty much automatically. I mean, it includes such gems as: “My dog trusts me… My dog is witless and also dead” and also this, addressed to a chicken: “I know you aren’t broody, demon, but you’re going to make an exception or so help me…”.

Definitely should go on your to-read shelf.

Aspects, by John M. Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in April 2022.

Glorious. Frustrating. Confusing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking…

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it’s unfinished. The author, John M Ford, died in 2006. He had been working on this novel, it seems, for many years – at least that’s what I get from the introduction, written by a friend of Ford’s, Neil Gaiman. And so… the book is incomplete. That is, there’s no conclusion; and I suspect there are bits that might have been edited for clarity if the author had, indeed finished.

And I nearly cried when I got to the end, because this book is just so amazing. Like, this could have been the start of one of The Great Series. I’ve read only one other Ford novel, and I think a few short stories; this makes me want to go back and read absolutely everything. Because if this is the standard, well – I’ve been missing out.

Aspects is set in an alternate world. It’s kind of Britain, I think, although it doesn’t seem to be an island. It’s kind of analogous to the nineteenth century – there are trains (the Ironways), for instance, and there’s a form of electricity but some people are suspicious. But chemistry doesn’t quite seem to work the way it does here. Religion is important, but it’s not a Christianity-analogue; there’s a goddess with several faces, and matching consorts. And there’s a Parliament, with Commons and Lords, but here’s the final difference to our world: the lords are lords of the land, of religion – and of sorcery, or Craft.

So it’s kind of steampunk, but it doesn’t really fit into what I know of that category, and it’s fantasy set in an industrial context. Honestly though it just defies categorisation. It’s a deeply political work – three of the main characters are in Parliament, and at least part of the narrative revolves around machinations there, like writing a new constitution. It’s a country struggling to figure itself out several decades after becoming a republic – and it seems that the previous monarchy had been imposed by a conquering race, although that’s one aspect (heh) that I never quite got my head around. Some of the characters have the ability to use magic, which is not without its difficulties, and it’s clear that was going to a significant thread if the book had continued. There’s a romance, with its own difficulties; and such a large array of characters, all with their quirks (and bringing diversity, too) that this should have – could have – provided many, many pages of just mesmerising story. And now I’m making myself sad all over again that I’ll never read them.

Ford’s writing can be profound: “Play keeps us happy and agile, in mind and muscle; sleep and good meals keep us alive. We can misspend time – hurting people, ourselves included, making the world worse – but to ‘waste’ time – to get no motion at all, good or bad – to do that one would have to be not at alive at all” (p172 of the e-version). While I was sometimes a bit confused about what was going on, I was always captivated by the writing itself and somehow convinced – even though I don’t know Ford’s work that well – that everything would eventually make sense. And I was largely right.

Spear, by Nicola Griffith

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s due out in April 2022.

I adore the Arthurian mythos, and in particular that it can keep being reworked by different authors with different intentions and get completely different results that are still clearly linked. Most recently I read Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and it shook me to the core… and now Nicola Griffith gives me something completely and utterly other.

( Which begs the question, Can you read and enjoy this with no knowledge of the Arthur stories? Absolutely. And in fact it would mean that you wouldn’t have the same looming dread / fear / second-guessing that I did, trying to figure out who was meant to be who and would Griffith include that particular thing and oh noooo…. )

This was nothing short of amazing.

To begin at the end: I really enjoyed Griffith’s Author’s Note at the end, explaining both her choices and her inspirations. It wasn’t necessary, but it shows very nicely how Griffith sees herself fitting into the existing canon, and how her choices were influenced by archaeology and other sources. Also, her acerbic “crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain” – yes indeed.

Griffith has set her Arthur in the very early medieval period – the Romans are gone but the Normans aren’t there (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise who the Redcrests were (Roman soldiers)). It’s the beginning of Arturus ruling a fairly small area; he is gathering Companions to help him fight off invaders and also to try and give some sort of peace, and lack of banditry, to his area. But the focus of the story is not on him: it’s on Per, Peretur, who has many names and none, who is on a quest to figure out who she is and where she fits. Because oh yes, this is Perceval / Parsifal as a woman, following in that grand tradition of “women have always fought” and having the same adventures as any of the men might. Griffith uses some of the medieval stories as a starting point – her love, and deep knowledge, of the genre is clear; and she tells a rich and compelling and human story that I just devoured.

One of the most intriguing things from an Arthurian perspective is where Griffith chooses to stop the story – which I’m not going to spoil. But it does make me hopeful of more in this world; she herself mentions the possibility in the Author’s Note, so now I guess I just have to sit here and wait. Because shut up and take my money already.

Where the Drowned Girls Go

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in January 2022.

The first thing to note is that I love this entire series enormously. I love the very idea of asking what happens to children if they come back from their fantasy land but they didn’t want to, and then have to confront parents who want them to be ‘normal’.

Pretty early on in the series we learned that there was an alternative school: that Eleanor West’s school was for those biding their time, waiting to go back to their real home; the other place was for those who wanted to forget their adventures. It was obvious that eventually a story would be set there – but I didn’t expect it to be Cora who went. And for this reason, I do think that the previous books need to be read first; you need to understand what Cora has gone through, the trauma she has experienced in helping her friends, before you can understand why she wants to do something to try and forget. So if you haven’t read the others, you should go and do that first… don’t worry, it’s totally worth it, I promise.

So Cora goes the Whitethorn, and things are as opposite to Eleanor’s school as it’s possible to be, and completely dreadful. Unsurprisingly, it’s all even more dreadful than it initially appears, and events unfold as Cora confronts both her own trauma and the school-wide problems. It’s beautifully and devastatingly set up, and – as with all the Wayward Children stories – unfolds in complex, complicated, bittersweet ways.

McGuire continues to do wonderful things with her characters. Across the novellas she’s presented humanity in all of its myriad shapes and colours. Cora being fat has always been a part of her character because it had such an influence on how people saw her, and therefore how she saw herself, and therefore all the choices and consequences from there. In some ways I feel that the deliberate and blunt way in which Cora’s size is presented – and her implacable insistence that, of course, there is nothing WRONG with her – is perhaps more transgressive these days than discussing queer and trans folk. The world is coming to accept a gender and sexuality spectrum… but we’ve still got a lot of hang-ups about appearance. So I love that we have a fat hero, who hears and acknowledges the snark from her peers and it DOES get her down but also it doesn’t destroy her. Cora is so very, very human (and a mermaid).

This is a marvellous addition to the series and my only regret is that I read it too quickly and now I’ve got too long to wait til the next one.

Terciel and Elinor

YAY OLD KINGDOM.

If you haven’t read any of the other Old Kingdom books, let me tell you these things: the Old Kingdom is a place where some people can summon the spirits of the dead, usually using bells and a variety of magic. It borders Ancelstierre, which is kind of early 20th century England? ish. They don’t have magic there. In this story, Terciel lives in the Old Kingdom and Elinor is across the border and they’re brought together by, unsurprisingly, some tragedy and much adventure. It’s really, really, good.
OK, now go and read it and don’t read the rest of this review.

If you HAVE read Sabriel et al…

OMG. Given the opening pages of Sabriel – which, yes, of course I read immediately after finishing this – this was such a bittersweet story! I am SO, so glad that Nix went back to this world and gave Elinor and Terciel their own story. I am always intrigued to read about a young man when I originally knew them as an older man, and of course we had no knowledge of Elinor at all (which is such a classic, if awful, circumstance for YA fantasy). This is a really wonderful addition to the Old Kingdom, and to an understanding of the kingdom and the Clayr and, in particular, the Abhorsens – Terciel’s experience as In-Waiting was not the best!

This is, of course, beautifully written; it’s fast-paced – I read it in a day – and balanced with lovely dialogue and character moments. Definitely going onto the bookshelf for rotation every year or two. (I really need to buy a new copy of Clariel, since someone has nicked mine.)

Quantum of Nightmares

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tordotcom. It comes out in January, 2022.

This is a Charles Stross novel on… whatever drugs you take that make you talk at, like, three times the normal speed. (Hmm. Is it speed?)

One blurb says this is a Laundry Files novel. Another says that it is Laundry Files-adjacent… and that’s the accurate one. I haven’t read every Laundry Files, but I’ve read enough that I know what’s going on. The start of this novel, though, was unrecognisable… so then I went to look it up, and it’s the sequel (not mentioned in the blurbs I saw) to a spin-off. So… that’s all important information to have on hand. (There is no Bob Howard in this novel.) Having said that, I did read the whole thing and I did largely enjoy it, so Stross manages to get enough background info in without dry info-dumps to make it understandable… eventually.

CW: there’s some pretty gross stuff here. Think… meat packaging… and really the very worst bits about what can go wrong in abattoirs. Also, and I’m only slightly joking, if you have a phobia about HR and their policies, this is not the book for you; it takes corporate speak and the ill-intentions of large corporations to a whole new level. I suspect this does count as horror, because of those aspects, in which case this is right on the giddy edge for me.

There are many different strands entwined throughout this story. There’s a pseudo-nanny looking after kids who are not what they seem (well, they’re annoying little kids but with Extras); there’s loafers who just want to play D&D who get pulled into annoying real world stuff; there’s the aforementioned HR and a truly heinous view of cut-price supermarkets and a nightmarish future for how they might turn a profit. There are desperate people and sad people and bewildered people; there are double-crosses and worshipping of sinister entities and ruthless acts that just made me blink at their atrociousness. It’s not a particularly happy book; nor is it uplifting; so if that’s what you need right now, go somewhere else. But there is a dark humour to parts, and there’s a diverse cast of characters (trans, queer, not-Anglo), and the occasional good deed, so it’s entirely and unrelentingly depressing.

… when I put it like that I’m not sure how I managed to get through it! It’s not quite as bad as that makes it sound. For one thing, it rockets along at a tremendous pace. I never quite got lost but it was occasionally a white-knuckle, hold-on-tight and trust that Stross is in control of the narrative kind of experience. I probably only kept going because I do, indeed, trust Stross to land such intricate stories in a way that makes sense. Which he does here, yet again.

I don’t think I’ll go find the first book now – I suspect much of it is now spoiled, because I know who survives various difficult situations. Also, if it’s like this one, I need a fair while to balance out the grimness. But I don’t regret reading this one.

Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

As someone more au fait with anthologies than me pointed out, this anthology doesn’t have a introduction. So there’s no discussion of what speculative fiction is, let alone what African speculative fiction is. Which means that the answer to both of those questions is: These stories. All of them. These authors write that.

A few of these names – Sheree Renee Thomas, Tobias S Buckell – were familiar to me, but most were not. Part of this is that I don’t read a whole heap of short fiction these days, especially not the online magazines – it’s too hard – but it’s also partly about the speculative fiction scene that gets a lot of notice still being really white (I am not very wired into the whole scene these days anyway). Which makes an anthology like this excellent… because we’re a long way away from not needing such a thing, so don’t bring me the “but everyone’s work should be judged on merit” nonsense.

Anyway: the stories! This is a truly diverse set of fiction. There’s magic and there’s robots and there’s myths and there’s so-close-to-reality, and there’s horror (sometimes akin to the close-to-reality); there’s stories set in recognisable places and future places and past places and nowhere-places. Women and men and ungendered and who cares, families and not, hope and not,

I didn’t love every story, but I never do, with an anthology. And some of those were horror, which I pretty much always don’t enjoy. There was only one story that I got impatient with and skimmed over, which is a pretty good hit-rate in 360 pages.

This is great. I hope it’s the first in a long line of such volumes, as the cover page suggests.

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

Buried Memories, Simon R Green

I received this via NetGalley.

I have not read any of the previous Ishmael Jones books; the NetGalley description doesn’t make it clear that this is part of a series. However, I am a long-time fan of Simon R Green, and as with many of his other books he provided enough background – without it being a massive info-dump – that I was able to carry on my merry way and enjoy the book regardless.

Ishmael Jones arrived on Earth in 1963; his dying spaceship turned the sole survivor into a human and wiped his memory of what had come before. Over the next few decades – covered, I assume, in the books I haven’t read – Jones has both tried to hide his identity from nefarious groups who would like to exploit aliens/their technology, and also investigated mysteries himself – because Simon R Green never missed an opportunity to do clever things with mysteries and whodunnits. In this narrative, Jones has realised he was not, in fact, the only survivor of his crash, and he’s going back to where it all started to try and get some resolution.

There’s banter, a spooky rural English village, murders, twists and turns and double-crosses, and ultimately a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Also, any book that opens with “Call me Ishmael” (except for the original) is going to get an appreciative eye-roll from me.

This was fun. Fans of Simon R Green know what they’re getting. Possibly not the place for those new to Green to begin their adventures (I would say that’s the Nightside books; the Blue Moon stories are a different kettle again).