Tag Archives: historical fantasy

Review of KINDLE book The King’s Peace – Book 1 of the Tir Tanagiri series by Jo Walton

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This detailed and engrossing historical adventure novel is the start of a retelling of the King Arthur story, though not necessarily from any viewpoint you instantly recognise…

Sulien ap Gwien was seventeen when the Jarnish raiders came. Had she been armed when they found her, she could have taken them all. As it was, it took six of them to subdue her. She will never forgive them. Thus begins her story—a story that takes her back to her family, with its ancient ties to the Vincan empire that once ruled in Tir Tanagiri, and forward to Caer Tanaga, whethekingspeacere the greatest man of his time, King Urdo, struggles to bind together the squabbling nobles and petty princes into a unified force that will drive out the barbarian invader and restore the King’s Peace. King Urdo will change Sulien’s life. She will see him for what he is: the greatest hope the country has. And he will see her for what she is: the greatest warrior of her day. Together they will fight and suffer for an age of the world, for the things that the world always needs and which never last.

Regular visitors to Brainfluff will know that one of my all-time favourite authors is Jo Walton, so why this offering has been languishing unread in my TBR pile for so long, I’m unsure. Walton has, once again, created a vibrant and rich world where upheaval, raids and constant food shortages are commonplace. Therefore the kind of attack Sulien is subjected to is also not infrequent – what is unusual is the fact that she survived and how she managed to do so. But it leaves scars that define the rest of her life and what she decides to do next. Once more, Walton’s writing swept me up so that I was immersed in a world where the new religion is beginning to force out the older, land-based beliefs. Where might is right is the way of life and those with the healing powers of the old gods regularly call upon them for help.

I love Sulien – an unusually powerfully built woman with strong reasons to dedicate herself to learning the craft of fighting. From her viewpoint as one of the most gifted fighters and battle commanders of her age, she tells the story of how she is part of a movement trying to restore a measure of peace to a land battletorn since the retreat of the Vincan Empire years before. As ever, there are layers of detail and political infighting within Walton’s writing that bring extra focus to the inevitable action scenes, with no guarantee of success. There are upsets and reversals that had me brimming with emotion and anyone who loves epic fantasy and has enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire should give this one a go.

The story ends with some of the major plotpoints dangling, though the current crisis has – sort of – been averted and it is a given that I shall continue reading this amazing historical fantasy series early in the new year.
10/10

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Series I Want to Continue in 2017

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I’ve already blogged about the favourite series I completed during 2016 here. Today I want to talk about the series I have started and want to continue reading in 2017.

WAYFARERS SERIES BY BECKY CHAMBERS

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Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

This is the blurb for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as I’m allergic to providing spoilers for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure. If you enjoyed Firefly on TV, then you’ll probably like this one. I loved it and for some reason missed requesting A Closed and Common Orbit from NetGalley, so have promised myself the pleasure of this one in the early new year as long as I have managed to get my TBR pile down a bit more.

 

THE STEERSWOMAN SERIES BY ROSEMARY KIRSTEIN

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Steerswomen, and a very few Steersmen, are members of an order dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge. Although they are foremost navigators of the high seas, Steerswomen are also explorers and cartographers upon land as well as sea. With one exception, they are pledged to always answer any question put to them with as truthful a response as is possible within their own limitations. However, they also require anyone of whom they ask questions to respond in the same manner, upon penalty of the Steerswomen’s ban; those under the ban do not receive answers from the steerswomen.

This is a delight – a clever, nuanced world with a confident mature woman at the height of her powers who enjoys exploring and learning. While there’s nothing wrong with the slew of coming-of-age books out there, it makes an enjoyable change to read of a protagonist who is wholly comfortable in her own skin. I have the other books on my Kindle and will have the pleasure of reading them and completing this series during 2017.

 

PLANETFALL BY EMMA NEWMAN

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Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown. More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

I loved Planetfall – it’s one of my favourite books of 2016 and yet haven’t managed to get around to reading After Atlas. So this is one I’m going to track down and read this year.

 

EARTHCENT AMBASSADOR SERIES BY E.M. FONER

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Kelly Frank is EarthCent’s top diplomat on Union Station, but her job description has always been a bit vague. When she receives a gift subscription to the dating service that’s rumored to be powered by the same benevolent artificial intelligence that runs the huge station, Kelly decides to swallow her pride and give it a shot. But as her dates go from bad to worse, she can only hope that the supposedly omniscient AI is planning a happy ending.

I was charmed by the quirkiness of Date Night on Union Station and have promised myself to tuck into more of these enjoyable science fiction novellas which are as much a comedy of manners as anything else. So I’m making a date with Union Station in 2017 to read at least a couple more – particularly when in need of some light relief.

 

THE MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT SERIES BY MARIE BRENNAN

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Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here, at last, in her own words, is the story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

I recently read The Natural History of Dragons and absolutely loved it – so I’m determined to read more in 2017. A plucky Victorian lady battling convention to learn more about dragons by travelling to wild and inhospitable places – what’s not to love?

 

THE CHRONICLES OF ST MARY’S SERIES BY JODI TAYLOR

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“History is just one damned thing after another.” Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don’t do ‘time-travel’ – they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power – especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet. Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document – to try and find the answers to many of History’s unanswered questions…and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And, as they soon discover – it’s not just History they’re fighting.

I’ve recently finished reading the first book in this time-travelling series and absolutely loved it. Taylor’s writing is punchy and fun and her protagonist Max is a delight. The plot had so many twists and turns, I cannot quite imagine where the next book will take the story, but I’m betting there’s a fair amount of mayhem and chaos in the process. A must-read series for 2017!

And there are series I plan to continue reading in 2017. What published series have you promised yourself to dive back into during the coming year?

2016 Discovery Challenge and Tackling my TBR – December Roundup

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but despite December being a really busy month I managed to continue reading more than two books a week. As for my Discovery Challenge, which I undertook after reading this post by Jo Hall to read and review at least two books a month by women authors previously unknown to me – I managed to read and review five books during December, though one of those reviews hasn’t yet been published.

Split the Sun – Book 2 of the Inherit the World series by Tessa Elwood
splitthesunThe Ruling Lord of the House of Galton is dead, and the nation is in shock—or celebrating, depending on the district. Kit Franks would be more than happy to join him. Kit’s mother bombed the digital core of the House, killing several and upending the nation’s information structure. No one wants the daughter of a terrorist. Kit’s having dreams she can’t explain, remembering conversations that no longer seem innocent, understanding too much coded subtext in Mom’s universal feed messages. Everyone has a vision of Kit’s fate—locked, sealed, and ready to roll. The question is, does Kit have a vision for herself?
I really enjoyed this one. Foot-to-the-floor, action-packed dystopian sci fi adventure with an appealing spiky heroine, I was scooped up into the middle of this world and didn’t want to pull away until the last page. Great fun – see my review here.

Rebel of the Sands – Book 1 of The Rebel of the Sands trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton
rebelofthesandsShe’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands. Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from, as she’s destined to wind up “wed or dead”.
There has been a real buzz about this YA desert fantasy offering, and I can see why. Hamilton tips us right into the middle of the action from the first page as Amani’s spiky first person narrative pulled me into the story and didn’t let go. It is a foot to the floor, non-stop adventure where she careens through the vividly depicted landscape that borrows much from eastern influences. It’s a delight and I’m now hoping to be able to hunt down the sequel. See my review here.

Ever the Hunted – Book 1 of Clash of Kingdoms series by Erin Summerill
Seventeen year-old Britta Flannery is at ease only in the woods with her dagger and bow. She spends her everthehunteddays tracking criminals alongside her father, the legendary bounty hunter for the King of Malam—that is, until her father is murdered. Now outcast and alone and having no rights to her father’s land or inheritance, she seeks refuge where she feels most safe: the Ever Woods. When Britta is caught poaching by the royal guard, instead of facing the noose she is offered a deal: her freedom in exchange for her father’s killer. However, it’s not so simple. The alleged killer is none other than Cohen McKay, her father’s former apprentice. The only friend she’s ever known. The boy she once loved who broke her heart.
It was pure chance that I read two YA fantasy adventures back to back. They both featured teenage female protagonists on the run, both had secrets and issues they knew nothing about at the start of the adventure. Both had a romantic sub-plot. Both are cracking reads. However, Britta isn’t so carelessly, gloriously reckless as Amani – she is wary and untrusting of everyone. The pace in this one isn’t quite so full-on, either, but I thoroughly enjoyed this tale set in a more traditional medieval fantasy setting. There were some pleasing plot twists in this adventure I didn’t see coming – and I certainly didn’t guess who had murdered Britta’s father. See my review here.

The City of Ice – Book 2 of The Gates of the World series by K.M. McKinley
thecityoficeDeep in the polar south stands a city like no other, a city built aeons ago by a civilisation mighty and wise. The City of Ice promises the secrets of the ancients to whomever can reach it first. It may prove too little knowledge too late, for the closest approach of the Twin in 4000 years draws near, an event that has heralded terrible destruction in past ages. As the Kressind siblings pursue their fortunes, the world stands upon the dawn of a new era, but it may yet be consumed by a darkness from the past.
It took me a while to get into this genre mashup, where epic fantasy meets a steampunk-type world using magic to power machinery. However there are unforeseen consequences to harnessing such power in that particular way… I love the intricate, layered world with a number of interesting creatures including the tyn, powerful godlike rulers who nevertheless are somewhat down on their luck – and a number of ambitious humans trying to get what they can. Altogether, this becomes an engrossing world with a number of fascinating stories – I’m definitely going to be looking out for the sequel. See my review here.

It was also a good month for my other reading challenge of the year – Tackling my TBR as I read and reviewed five books from my teetering To Be Read pile, which were:-

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart
The story is about a lonely child who is made to see the world through her cousin’s unusual eyes. When thornyholdthe child becomes a young woman, she moves to Thornyhold where she is thought by the local community to be a witch. However, as she finds out, this is no normal community, and worries quickly present themselves. And not everyone who initially greets her is as friendly as they seem…
An enjoyable, initially slightly eerie read that becomes a more conventional romance – as ever Stewart’s writing is a joy. See my review here.

 

 

A Natural History of Dragons – Book 1 of The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here, at last, in her own words, is the story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.
This was recommended to me by the wonderful Kitvaria Sarene during an intense evening at Bristolcon talking books, so I made it a top priority on my TBR list and decided to treat myself this week. And I’m delighted I did – it’s a gem and you can find review here.

Judged – Book 3 of the Blackhart Legacy by Liz de Jagar
judgedKit’s job description includes solving crimes – the supernatural kind . . . Glow, a fae-created drug, is rapidly going viral and the suppliers have to be shut down. Teaming up with Aiden and Dante, Kit follows leads across London, tracking down dealers. They stir up trouble, making themselves a target for the gang they’re trying to stop. In the Otherwhere, Thorn stumbles across a secret that could destroy both the human and Fae worlds. The Veil that separates our human world from the fae realms is weakening and the goddess is dying. And if she dies and the Veil fails, madness and chaos will wreak unstoppable havoc upon both lands.
I really enjoyed the previous two books in this series, Vowed and Banished so was pleased to be able to wrap up Kit’s adventure before the end of the year. Though whatever you do – don’t start with this book, go back to the start and experience this charming series in the right order. See my review here.

Just One Damned Thing After Another – Book 1 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor

“History is just one damned thing after another.” Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s, a jsutonedamnedthingdifferent kind of historical research is taking place. They don’t do ‘time-travel’ – they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power – especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet. Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document – to try and find the answers to many of History’s unanswered questions…and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And, as they soon discover – it’s not just History they’re fighting.
This is time-travelling adventure is a joy. Funny, anarchic with a reckless sense of derring-do, this tale is told in first person viewpoint by Max as we follow her initial introduction to St Mary’s, training and early adventures. That said, the attrition rate is high and a number of folks die in this – some of whom I was really sorry to see go… I think this would make a marvellous TV series, however – not yet. There are a raft of these books out there and I want to read them all, first.

The King’s Peace – Book 1 of the Tir Tanagiri series by Jo Walton
thekingspeaceSulien ap Gwien was seventeen when the Jarnish raiders came. Had she been armed when they found her, she could have taken them all. As it was, it took six of them to subdue her. She will never forgive them. Thus begins her story—a story that takes her back to her family, with its ancient ties to the Vincan empire that once ruled in Tir Tanagiri, and forward to Caer Tanaga, where the greatest man of his time, King Urdo, struggles to bind together the squabbling nobles and petty princes into a unified force that will drive out the barbarian invader and restore the King’s Peace. King Urdo will change Sulien’s life. She will see him for what he is: the greatest hope the country has. And he will see her for what she is: the greatest warrior of her day. Together they will fight and suffer for an age of the world, for the things that the world always needs and which never last.
I loved this version of the King Arthur story. As ever, Walton took me somewhere different and engrossed me in the life of someone with other values and ideas. Another great addition to a wonderful reading year…

What about you – how did your December reading targets go?

Sunday Post – 1st January 2017

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Sunday Post

This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

Like many of you, I’ve been busy catching up with family and enjoying the festive season. It’s been a wonderful Christmas – better than I dared wish for. We spent Christmas with my in-laws, while staying at a nearby hotel – an arrangement that worked very well. I also got a chance to pop in and see my parents and sisters and their families. On Boxing Day we returned home, then travelled on to my daughter’s house for a meal and picked up my son who stayed with us for a few days. It was all lovely. On Friday afternoon I chilled with a couple of friends at a local spa, catching up with them and enjoying the sensation of being toooo hot in the sauna – bliss! Today we’re hosting a New Year lunch with writing buddy Mhairi and her mother as well as my sister, while last night we saw 2017 in quietly, just the two of us. I hope you, too, all had a great Christmas and here’s to a better year.

This week I have read:
The King’s Peace – Book 1 of the Tir Tanagiri series by Jo Walton
thekingspeaceSulien ap Gwien was seventeen when the Jarnish raiders came. Had she been armed when they found her, she could have taken them all. As it was, it took six of them to subdue her. She will never forgive them. Thus begins her story—a story that takes her back to her family, with its ancient ties to the Vincan empire that once ruled in Tir Tanagiri, and forward to Caer Tanaga, where the greatest man of his time, King Urdo, struggles to bind together the squabbling nobles and petty princes into a unified force that will drive out the barbarian invader and restore the King’s Peace.
Walton’s writing never disappoints. This retelling of the King Arthur legend took me back to a world where might is right and a wartorn, battle-weary people long for some stability. As one of the great warriors of her time, Sulien helps to deliver it. I loved this one and as I received some book tokens for Christmas – yippee! – I shall be acquiring the other two books in this wonderful series.

 

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible by Ross Welford
Turning invisible at will: it’s one way of curing your acne. But far more drastic than 13 year-old Ethel whatnottodoLeatherhead intended when she tried a combination of untested medicines and a sunbed. It’s fun at first, being invisible. And aided by her friend Boydy, she manages to keep her extraordinary ability secret. Or does she…?
Ethel is tipped into a series of farcical adventures once she becomes invisible and Welford has absolutely nailed this spiky twelve-year-old protagonist. I was caught up in her problems and at times teetered between wanting to both laugh and cry at her struggles. This is a book I shall be reading to my granddaughter in due course.

 

Freeks by Amanda Hocking
freeks1Welcome to Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Sideshow, where necromancy, magical visions, and pyrokinesis are more than just part of the act… Mara has always longed for a normal life in a normal town where no one has the ability to levitate or predict the future. Instead, she roams from place to place, cleaning the tiger cage while her friends perform supernatural feats every night. When the struggling sideshow is miraculously offered the money they need if they set up camp in Caudry, Louisiana, Mara meets local-boy Gabe…and a normal life has never been more appealing. Until things start going wrong…
This YA paranormal tale of a travelling show starts with a bang and then pulls back to steadily ramp up the sense of unease, culminating in a shocking denouement. Mara is an appealing convincing protagonist in this enjoyable this page-turner.

 

Graveyard Shift – Book 10 of the Pepper Martin series by Casey Daniels
Pepper Martin, now Community Relations Director of Garden View Cemetery, is contacted by the ghost graveyardshiftof Eliot Ness, one of Cleveland s most famous dearly departed. According to Ness, the ashes scattered at the ceremony twenty years earlier weren’t his. His were stolen prior to the ceremony by a Ness groupie, and he cannot rest until those ashes are found. Luckily, Pepper has an idea where they may be. But, this being Pepper, it isn’t going to be that straightforward…
The fact this is the tenth in the series simply doesn’t matter. Daniels whisked me into the middle of the action without any difficulty as Pepper’s first person pov popped off the page. She’s funny, slightly lazy and not adverse to spinning a yarn or two to ease her way through life – and thoroughly likeable. So it mattered as murder, ghostly attacks and her mother’s slightly demented attempts to get her married all kicked off. This was an amusing, enjoyable addition to my holiday reading and I shall be reading more of this series.

My posts last week:
Teaser Tuesday featuring Freeks by Amanda Hocking

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Ever the Hunted – Book 1 of The Clash of Kingdoms series by Erin Summerill

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The City of Ice – Book 2 of The Gates of the World series by K.M. McKinley

Friday Faceoff – Ho, ho, ho to the bottle I go… featuring Dandelion Wine – Book 1 of The Green Town series by Ray Bradbury

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible by Ross Welford

 

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:
Looking Back – And Forward https://inesemjphotography.com/2016/12/30/looking-back-and-forward/ Inevitably there are a host of articles on this subject at this time of year – but this one is exceptionally good…

SFSF Awards 2016 https://sfsfsocial.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/sfsf-awards-2016/ I looked down this list with approval and if you are wondering what good modern science fiction and fantasy books to next tackle, this is an excellent starting point.

My New High Maintenance Boss https://readlorigreer.com/2016/12/28/my-new-high-maintenance-boss/ This one had me chuckling with sympathy and recognition…

Space Features of the Week (25th December) http://earthianhivemind.net/2016/12/25/space-features-week-25-december/ Once again, Steph provides us with an excellent roundup of some of what is happening offplanet, complete with links.

Many thanks for visiting and taking the time and trouble to comment – and may you have a wonderful reading and blogging week. Happy New Year, everyone!

Review of KINDLE Ebook A Natural History of Dragons – Book 1 of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan

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Regular visitors to my blog will recall my attendance at Bristolcon this year, where I had one of the best evenings of my life, talking books with similarly passionate readers. One of these marvellous people – Kitvaria Sarene highly recommended this series as one of her favourite fantasy reads. When Himself hit a reading slump a few days later, I suggested he get hold of this one. Once he did so, he then bought the rest of the series. So would I also become a huge fan?

anaturalhistoryofdragonsEveryone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here, at last, in her own words, is the story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

This is gem is a must-read for those smitten by dragons. It is set in the Victorian era in a parallel world where a high-spirited, intelligent girl makes a habit of sneaking into her father’s study to read his learned tomes deemed unsuitable for well born young ladies. And she encounters the book A Natural History of Dragons and falls in love with them. From then on, she is determined to try to learn more about them in any way and this story charts her efforts to do so.

What I would caution is that Brennan does couch the language in an approximation of 19th century prose – however, it is only an approximation. There is nothing like the pages of intense description or long, involved passages of exposition you’d find in a novel written by Dickens or Mrs Gaskell. Brennan takes the story forward in the form of a memoir written by Lady Trent as an elderly lady about the exploits that made her famous, which moves along at a fair clip.

I was utterly beguiled. This is a wonderful conceit brilliantly pulled off by Brennan. The plot rapidly corkscrews away in all sorts of directions I hadn’t anticipated and there is a really shocking outcome that left me winded at the ending, while leaving me keen to learn more.

I’m so glad Himself has bought the next three books in the series – and the great news for fans of this accomplished series is that the fifth and final book, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is due out in February 2017. I’m very much looking forward to reading it – which also gives me an excellent excuse to tuck into the other three in the meantime. Happy Christmas me – and many, many thanks to Kivaria for her recommendation. She is spot on – this is one of my outstanding reads of the year.
10/10

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2016 – March Roundup

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Another month that has slid by far too fast – and here we are with Spring springing and a quarter of the year already gone… So am I on track to meet my crazily ambitious writing and publishing targets?

• As I reported last month, both Running Out of Space and Dying for Space were a nice surprise when I sjhigbeefinalcame to look at them again. But Breathing Space was bound to pose more of a challenge as this was the first time I’d looked at the manuscript since I’d finished writing it last January. I’m now about halfway through the first major rewrite. I’ve introduced a murder and a kerfuffle in a tunnel and fixed a hatful of niggling formatting errors, mistakes with the Spanish and typos. Hopefully by the end of the month I will have completed this pass and be checking the Kindle format for Running Out of Space on my Kindle.
Challenge – To have The Sunblinded trilogy published during 2016. After my failure last year, I am reluctant to give any firm dates when this will happen until I have everything in place, but at present, I am certainly on schedule.

• I have finally completed checking Miranda’s Tempest – my fantasy novel charting the fortunes of Miranda and Prospero after they leave their enchanted island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was slow, fiddly work and I didn’t want to rush it, but I completed the job to my satisfaction during the second week of March. I’ve put it on one side and will look at it one more time before sending it anywhere after I’ve completed the edit on Breathing Space to check it’s fit to submit.
Challenge – to get Miranda’s Tempest fit to send out by the end of the Easter holidays. I want to get at least one more pair of eyes to check it over for me before sending it out, so am waiting for feedback…

I read 15 books and wrote 14 reviews during March, which I think is some sort of record. Again, it’s been a blast to read so many great books. I wrote seven New Release Special reviews during March, although some of these won’t be published until the launch date of the books in question. I have acquired more NetGalley ARC copies, and am in the process of organising my reading schedule, so I don’t miss downloading books by accident – which happened a couple of times last year. I am continuing to widen my reading and during March I encountered five authors I hadn’t read before. Read my Discovery Challenge March Roundup here.
Challenge – To review a minimum of 100 books during 2016 and widen my reading to include more authors new to me. So far, I’m on course for hitting this target, although it’s early days and later in the year it could very easily slip, when I’m grappling with some of my other targets.

I’m very pleased with my blogging and reading targets, as I produced a blog every day, something I don’t think I’ve managed before. I wrote just over 13,500 words on blogs and just under 12,000 words on teaching admin. As I’m in the depths of Editland, I have produced a paltry 2,000 words on creative writing, which brings March’s wordcount to just over 27,000 words. Am I on target? So long as I manage to get this editing pass of Breathing Space completed by the end of the month and the Running Out of Space formatting continues to behave well. But it’s going to be a close-run thing, of course it is – after all, I’m shooting for the Moon…

Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

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A copy of this classic was a gift from a talented friend of mine whose opinion I value, so clearly it had to go right to the top of my reading pile – and I’m not sorry that it did as it started my 2012 list on a really high point.

Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed – yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil.
Led by Fate into the timeless struggle were:devilintheforest
WAT the savage and charming highwayman…
MOTHER CLOOT the cunning and cruel possessor of mysterious powers…
BARROW MAN the awesome spirit of a long-dead warrior… and
MARK not yet totally seduced by Evil, not yet totally convinced by Good…

And there you have it – the back cover blurb. As you can see they did things slightly differently back in 1976 – for starters they didn’t see fit to tell you at least half the plot although there were lots of capital letters and slightly portentous pronouncements due to the Tolkein effect still rippling through the genre at the time. And the blurb gives no insight whatsoever as to what the book is actually about. Neither does the cover. I was expecting major battle scenes… nasty armoured beasties lurking around every tree… which simply doesn’t happen. It’s SO much better than that.

Told in third person limited pov from Mark’s viewpoint, this little book gives you a slice of the gritted business of surviving in an isolated community that has seen better times when their religious shrine brought in a steady stream of pilgrims. But now, thanks to the depredations of their very own highwayman, Wat, that trickle has all but dried up and everyone is having to tighten their belts. A lot.

Mark is an orphaned fourteen year old apprentice to the village weaver. Which means he often goes hungry and has learnt to take care of himself – something that stands him in good stead when a foray into the forest with the innkeeper’s daughter turns into a dark and dangerous adventure. Where his future and very soul is at stake…  Wolfe has a trick of utterly subsuming you into his created world. We accept that Mark spends a large chunk of time so hungry that his stomach gripes with the pain. That he has to always pick his words carefully to the adults around him, because there is no one who innately cares about him. We learn just how unnerving Mother Cloot’s behaviour can be – and what Mark does when he comes across a murdered man…

The huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between forces that he cannot hope to prevail against. All this occurs without an ounce of sentimentality and in just over 220 pages, Wolfe produces a gripping adventure that had me reading faaar into the night to discover what would happen to Mark, and Wat and Mother Cloot. The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect.

So Mark is less defiant and more accepting of the clear injustices that Life has dealt him; more suspicious of nearly everyone and their motives for being friendly; and very aware of the occult and dark forces in play around the village. Mother Cloot is a tough, wise old woman – and then something else a whole lot darker… As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I felt I had a far clearer understanding of what it meant to part of an underclass in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

As you might have gathered, this 1970’s offering mightily impressed me and confirmed what I’ve always known – that superb writing is timeless. If you enjoy excellent adventure Fantasy in an historical setting, then hunt down this little book – it’s worth the effort.
10/10

Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

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This supernatural historical thriller is set in 1991, with flashbacks to the era of the notorious Salem witch trials. Don’t worry, though. You will not have to endure the whole harrowing business all over again – Howe has managed to put an interesting spin on this much-visited subject.

While clearing out her grandmother’s cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. So begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name; a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance’s spell book The Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.  What secrets does The Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer the questions – and reveal the truth abuot Salem’s condemned women – before an ancient family curse fulfils its dark and devastating prophesy…

deliverancedaneThis story does have its creepy moments, but it is far more bound up in the everyday with the oddness and discordant details sneaking in when you’re not necessarily paying attention. I really like the way that while in Connie’s viewpoint, we gradually become aware that things are not exactly normal. So when we are confronted with the more gruesome details – they really provide full shock value.

One of the recurring themes in this enjoyable story, is the relationship between mother and daughter – and how circumstance and genes can conspire to create friction between the generations. Connie and her hippie mother, Grace, certainly have been at odds throughout Connie’s life. I found the telephone conversations between mother and daughter one of the book’s highlights, both managing to be poignant and amusing at the same time.

In setting the book in 1991, Howe has been smart. This is before the computerisation of records had really got going and mobile phones are not widely used. So as a historical researcher, she spends hours combing through the primary source materials in cotton gloves and when alone in her grandmother’s derelict cottage, she is truly marooned in a way that these days with wireless internet and mobile phones would be almost impossible.

Howe’s connection to this story is more than just keen interest – she is related to two of the victims of the Salem witch trials, one survived and one didn’t. In these sceptical times, the accepted version for the Salem witch trials is that the whole sorry business was as a result of an overly repressive regime, raging teenage hormones and an hysterical reaction to both the power and the attention. But, what if there really was an element of magic clouding the whole issue? The contemporary accounts certainly absolutely believed that witchcraft was in evidence. And this is the premise that Howe uses as the foundation and starting point for her tale, providing her with an enjoyably original and yet plausible version of the Salem trials.

This is book, while not necessarily found parked alongside the other Fantasy offerings on the bookshelves, offers a delightful slice of supernatural happenings from a refreshingly original angle by an accomplished writer. If you are feeling a tad jaded with the genre right now, I suggest you look this book out. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10

Review of In Ashes Lie – Book 2 of The Onyx Court by Marie Brennan

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I thoroughly enjoyed Brennan’s first book in this series, Midnight Never Come, a tale of faerie plot and counterplot set in Elizabeth I’s England. Therefore, I was keen to sample Brennan’s next offering.

The year is 1666. The King and Parliament vie for power, fighting one another with politics and armies alike. Below, the faerie court has enemies of its own. The old ways are breaking down and no one knows what will rise in their place.

But now a greater threat has come, one that could destroy everything. In the house of a sleeping baker, a spark leaps free of the oven – and ignites a blaze that will burn London to the ground. While the humans struggle to halt the conflagration that is devouring the city street by street, the fae pit themselves against a less tangible foe: the spirit of the fire itself, powerful enough to annihilate everything inahsesliein its path.

Mortal and fae will have to lay aside the differences that divide them, and fight together for the survival of London itself…

As anyone who has more than a nodding acquaintance of English history can see, this book isn’t a straight sequel. Despite some of the same characters, there is a jump from the time of Elizabeth I’s reign between 1588/1590 and the timespan of In Ashes Lie, which hops between 1639 and 1666. One thing you can’t fault Brennan for is her ambition. Using any historical setting requires a degree of research and knowledge before putting word processor to paper – and even then it can all go horribly wrong. To swing between two major, disparate events throughout the first half of a novel as the setting for your action is brave to the point of being recklessly daft. I’d love to report that Brennan pulled it off. But sadly, I don’t think she does.

For a start, the big threat facing the faerie at the beginning cannot get our blood racing too much – for the simple reason that throughout that narrative arc, we keep getting yanked forward to the start of the Great Fire of London. So immediately, the reader realises that whatever is facing our plucky crew – they are going to get through it in 1639, because there they are in 1666 confronted with this big old fire… I have to say, I found the juxtaposition of the two story arcs annoying and distracting.

This brings me onto my next point. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I reveal that the first of these deals with the unsuccessful reign of Charles I, ending in his execution in 1649. Once again, in Brennan’s world, this event is strongly influenced by what is happening in the faerie court. However, the series of political crises surrounding the relationship between Charles and Parliament is quite a complicated story in its own right. My personal knowledge of this period allowed me to pick my way through the admirable amount of historical detail included, here. But I did wonder how readers wholly ignorant of this period would cope and felt that maybe the pace of the novel floundered at times, which added to the lack of narrative tension.

All in all, getting through the first half of the book wasn’t exactly a struggle – but it came perilously close. Which is a real shame, because if any readers did give up at this point, they missed a cracking (and crackling) second half that really did have me at the edge of my seat and wholly made up for the rather creaky start.

The concept of having the Great Fire become a powerful dragon is a lovely notion – and the power struggle between the faerie courts that endangers London is an excellent idea. I did feel that some of the main protagonists were not so sharply depicted in this book, mostly because of its overly complicated structure. However, despite its evident flaws, this book still managed to be a stimulating, enjoyable read with some excellent ideas and memorable scenes, especially when battling the Great Fire. I recommend it – and if you get initially bogged down, grit your teeth. The rest is worth it, I promise…
8/10

Review of The Dark Mirror – Book One of The Bridei Chronicles by Juliet Marillier

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Set in the far north of England, in approximately 500AD, this is the story of the embattled Priteni. Marillier based them on the Picts, who were wiped out of history by the end of the Dark Ages. Recent archaeology reveals them to have had a sophisticated society with developed art and a deep religious belief and interest in the animals and plants around them.

darkmirrorMarillier, as ever, weaves her knowledge and interest into a compelling story. Her version of High Fantasy pulled me back into regularly reading this genre and although there are others who do it equally well, there is no one in my opinion who does it better.

Marillier normally writes in first person POV, with a female protagonist. In this tale she has gone inside the head of Bridei, a young boy destined for great things. Taken from his family to live with the forbidding Druid, Broichan, in his structured household at the age of four, Bridei is often lonely and frightened. Until one freezing December night, he discovers a child on the doorstep. Bridei already knows enough to realise that she is no human baby, and immediately conjures a basic hearth charm to protect her from being rejected by the other members of the household. Fortunately the dour Broichan is away at the time, for the old man instantly dislikes and distrusts this unwanted intrusion onto his ambitious plans for Bridei and his training as a king-in-waiting. This doesn’t stop Tuala growing into a fey, adventurous child who adores Bridei. He, in turn, finds that she is the only person he can confide in. But, where does Tuala fit in Broichan’s grand schemes for Bridei? And what happens when she inevitably gets in his way?

If you haven’t yet encountered Marillier’s excellent Sevenwaters series, but enjoy well written, tightly plotted Fantasy in a strong historical setting, then I highly recommend this book. Marillier’s knowledge about the time shines through every page. Authentic details litter the everyday doings of these characters, without impeding the pace or obstructing the storyline.

You won’t find a host of sword-waving heroes dripping in lots of blood and gore. But when Marillier does give you action, the encounters seem all the more desperate because you really care about the characters. And war is constantly in the background. There is talk of it; discussions about how to deal with the aftermath by old warriors; long gruelling hours of practice and drills. Unlike many other Fantasy tales of derring-do, however, a dread of warfare and its cost to the society is depicted very clearly by those with most to lose. Interwoven amongst the everyday, is a strong blend of magic and Otherness that fans of Marillier will recognise. The power and ability carried by a few comes at high price. Magic is about blood and sacrifice and most right thinking people avoid it whenever they can.

This is a book about conflict. Circinn’s king has turned to the new Christian faith, creating a rift with other rulers who still hold to the Druidic traditions. This schism creates opportunities for the marauding Gaels. But there are also tensions on a more personal level. Ambitious contenders target Bridei. High-born women destined to be married off to secure treaties and produce heirs are bitter at their fate.

This is no dewy-eyed gloss on a lost, glorious past but far more grittily political and aware. I am just waiting for the library to send me Blade of Fortriu, so I won’t have to wait too long for the next slice of life in this gripping series.
9/10