Book Review: Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books

This is the first story in a new series of urban fantasy about Mick Oberon; we first meet him getting beaten up by the hired muscle of a crooked committeeman of Chicago’s 34th Ward. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter too much because he heals fast and he has a wand: a Luchitaine & Goodfellow Model 1592, polished whitewood that the seller swore had a sliver of the raft that carried King Arthur to Avalon. Using magic (temporarily blinding the hired muscle, forcing luck to help him out, exerting his willpower on other people, all through the wand), he manages to accomplish his task (stealing some incriminating photos from the committeeman and serving him with a subpoena to testify) and extricate himself from any trouble.

This is all in a day’s work for Mick Oberon, private investigator in 1930s Chicago, and a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe, ‘the People of the Mounds’) – he is ‘among the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lords of the Emerald Isle, conquerors of the Firbolgs’ and has lived among mortals for many centuries (he’s seen woad-painted Celts, war-painted Indians, Vikings on longships, knights on horseback, French revolutionaries, Spanish conquistadors) when he walked away from the Seelie Court and his heritage. His hearing and sense smell is better than ours, he can detect auras, mortals cannot see the exact details of his facial features in the same way (although they can’t make out his pointed ears), he is stronger and faster and take more punishment than a human, and can understand all spoken human languages if he hears a few sentences of it. He has learned to blend in – he pretends to fidget, he remembers to blink, he speaks with the current slang no matter how ungrammatical it is – and lives in an office with no iron (the only thing that can hurt him) and no electrical or mechanical stuff: the reason why the Fae retired permanently to the Otherworld was the development of technology, which is anathema to their very being (Mick has difficulty using the elevated train, making his entire skin itch and his brain shudder, and he can barely cope with cars).

Oberon (not his real name – he took the name of the King, his third cousin on his mother’s side) works as a PI but doesn’t take money for the jobs – he doesn’t need it, because the only thing he consumes is milk (preferably warm) and he lives rent-free after he helped out his landlord; instead he takes ‘unusual’ items in lieu of payment. He also has some principles, which is why he turns down a job for The Outfit. However, when he has to find $300 to help his landlord save his building, he doesn’t have a choice – he has to seek out the man who came to his office, Archie ‘Echoes’ Caristo, a torpedo for Fino ‘The Shark’ Ottati, a capo who runs a local crew for The Outfit. He finds Echoes at the Lexington Hotel, where Al Capone used to live until he was sent to prison the previous year, but discovers that the meeting isn’t with The Shark – it’s with his wife, Bianca, who needs Oberon to find her daughter. The only problem: she’s been missing for 16 years because the girl they’ve raised is actually a changeling.

Mick needs to hunt down leads connected to Otherworld while avoiding it, so seeks out Four-Leaf Franky (who is mixed race, mostly aes sidhe, but also related to an old blood line of leprechauns [what is it with American writers and leprechauns?]), but when Franky doesn’t know anything about it – a changeling swap is pretty public in Otherworld – Mick works out that it must be a secret changeling. Therefore, Mick has to see Mrs Ottati for more information; he does so at her home, where he discovers that there are wards against Fae all over the house, created by Fino Ottati’s mother, Donna Orsola Maldera, who is also a witch (a Benandanti, a former fertility sect in 16th-century Italy that developed witchcraft as Catholics to fight evil spirits, although they were mostly eradicated by the Inquisition). It turns out that the Shark is in a feud with the Uptown Boys (bad things happen to the Shark’s enemies), but it’s not a feud that goes back 16 years, so Mick doesn’t discover any new leads, although he does meet the changeling, who is definitely Fae, who is suffering from being kept in the house with wards against Fae.

With no other recourse, Mick has to go to Elphame (the Otherworld version of Chicago – no sun or moon, impossibly beautiful, natural, more intense, where you are more ‘you’); he needs to go to the city, which is a reflection of our cities: the Fae are mimics, so the city looks like cities of the era but with Fae touches to the skyscrapers and the trains; the Fae dress in modern clothes, but with other accessories, and all armed with swords and daggers as well as magical revolvers and Tommy guns and wands. Most of the ‘civilised’ Fae are split into two factions: Seelie Court and Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is the one associated with what we think of concerning the Fae, and titles have changed to reflect the modernisations (kings and queens are Judges and Chiefs; dukes and earls and barons are now aldermen and lawyers and captains); the Unseelie Court are the nasty side of the Fae (goblins, trolls, mari-morgan, redcaps, dullahan [headless riders on headless horses]), and take after the gangsters of our world, calling themselves the Unfit (Unseelie Outfit).

While Mick is in the city, staying at the hotel where he used to be house detective before he left for the mortal world (the Fae believe he was exiled from the Court and had his title stripped due to some sort of crime he committed; this is untrue, but he allowed the rumours to spread), Mick is attacked by a low-level torpedo. With evidence that the Seelie Court might be involved with the Ottati changeling and the attempted hit, Mick gets a meeting with Eudeagh, queen of Chicago’s Unseelie Court, Boss of Bosses of local Unseelie, which leads to him getting into a bargain with her and knowledge that will help him locate the missing daughter – who is back in ‘real’ Chicago – and try to solve everything …

The world that Marmell has created for his characters is rich and full of potential. This book has to do a lot of world-building to set things up, but he does it well, helped by the wealth of background to use. He talks about how Fae are the same, it’s just humans who differentiate: the tylwyth teg in Wales, the aes sidhe in Ireland, the elves in England, the Norse ljósálfar; they’re all the same but with different legends. This world is full of lots of different Fae: goblins, boggards, clurichans, spriggans, ghillie dhu, bean righe, gancanagh, leanan sidhe, brounies, coblynau, dvergr, pixies (and there is mention of ghosts, vampires, griffons, demons, dragons and basilisks); however, in Elphame there are more humans than Fae, people who got lost or stumbled into the wrong place or who made bad bargains. If you are human and eat the food or drink liquids or accept a gift, you never leave because you feel great and never age – the happiest slaves ever.

Mick Oberon is a great character with a classic private investigator’s sense of honour and doing the right thing, with the added advantage of being Fae; he’s got a sense of humour as well, and Marmell’s prose style is very enjoyable – the use of gangster lingo of the time never descends into parody and feels authentic at all times. The story is riveting, a page-turner that keeps you engaged as well as setting up this new urban fantasy with the scope for so many stories. Hot Lead, Cold Iron is a very good book and I can’t wait for the next story in the series.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: India Black

The first Madam of Espionage mystery, written by Carol K Carr
Published by Titan Books

Carol Carr is a former lawyer who decided to indulge her passion for history into writing, which led to this book. You know where you are from the preface: ‘My name is India Black. I am a whore.’ It is 1876. India Black runs a brothel on St Alban’s Street in London called the Lotus House (a deliberate reference to The Lotus-Eaters poem by Tennyson, because she caters for gentlemen – it’s more like a gentlemen’s club than a house of ill repute). She used to be a whore but prefers the independence and freedom of being a madam who owns her establishment.

At this juncture in history, Queen Victoria rules the British Empire, and there is sabre-rattling from the Russians, backing the Serbs against the Ottoman Empire. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (or ‘Dizzy, the novelist’ as India Black refers to him) is rattling back while having to contend with former prime minister William Gladstone writing evangelical tracts against the ‘Mussulman’ Turks and supporting the nominally Christian Russians.

India Black’s life is changed when a regular client, nicknamed Bowser and who worked in the War Office, dies in the Lotus House. She enlists the aid of a reliable urchin called Vincent (a14-year-old boy who lives on the streets but knows how to get things done) to remove the body; however, a dark and mysterious man arrives, who knows all about Bowser (actually Sir Archibald Latham) and wants to help move the corpse but want’s Bowser’s case. But the case is gone, as is the ‘bint’ Arabella who was with him at the time of his death.

India Black is brusquely fetched to a meeting with the prime minister and French, the mysterious stranger, where she is told that the case had important documents in them about the number of soldiers in the British army – due to the massacres of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, European countries want to attack Constantinople and the Russians want to join in, but Disraeli fears that the Russians will take Constantinople and then move on to Egypt and block the Suez Canal to India (the country, not the heroine of our tale) and the source of the wealth of the British Empire. Disraeli can’t fight a war with the Russians but Gladstone’s troublemaking might force him to an untenable position. If the Russians get their hands on the information in the case, then they will invade Constantinople knowing that the British can do nothing about it. So India Black is coerced into getting it back – she is to accompany French to the gala ball at the Russian embassy and use her ‘feminine charms’ on Count Vladimir Maksimovich Yuspov, the head of military intelligence for Tsar Alexander II, to retrieve the case, which is currently in the possession of his most trusted agent, Major Vasily Kristoforovich Ivanov. Of course, things don’t go as planned and India Black gets involved further in escapades with French to retrieve the documents, including incidents at Claridge’s hotel, a chase to Dover and a trip across the English Channel …

The story is told as a first-person narrative (which means that any sense of real danger to the lead character is moot) and there is a nice use of a Victorian style and vocabulary (décolletage, prebenderies, glissading, ‘mandrake’ as a Victorian term for homosexual), as well as a nice sense of humour (when writing about her bints, India Black says, ‘Next they’ll be unionizing. It was becoming increasingly difficult for an employer to exploit the workers in this country. I’d have to write to my MP soon.’) and a knowing wink (there is a nod to Inspector Morse in the mystery of French’s Christian name: ‘Endeavour, perhaps?’).

However, there is an anachronistic shadow in some places that throws the reader out of the book, such as using the term ‘the dog’s bollocks’, which wasn’t invented until much later. There is the unexplained contrast between a woman who spent ‘a lifetime of fending for myself in the streets of London’ as a prostitute and the huge breadth of knowledge she displays (in addition to the Tennyson reference, there is quoting from Shakespeare and Sam Johnson, a reference to Trollope, plus the geopolitics of the era), which might be a mystery for future novels but comes across as confounding in this book. There is also a lawyer-like tendency to over-explain every aspect of the story, to reiterate why the missing documents were so important to the various people and nations, which becomes quite wearisome; this is brought into amusing contrast with the phrase, ‘I won’t bore you with the details’, used at least three times to omit some parts of the story but is exactly what the narrator has been doing throughout the book. The worst crime is the fact that the entire reason for the adventure is completely pointless – I don’t usually spoil books but I feel compelled in this instance, because our protagonists do not stop the information in the documents from getting to Russia, but it has absolutely no effect on the outcome of history at all, making the entire adventure a waste of time in my opinion. This book might be for those who enjoy a breezily paced historical adventure, but it’s not to my tastes, I’m afraid.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: The Wild Ways

Written by Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

The Wild Ways is the follow-up to The Enchantment Emporium (which I reviewed here), focussing on Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Gale – she is a cousin of Alysha ‘Allie’ Gale, the lead in the first book, and was also a major character in the story. Unlike the other women in the Gale family (the aunties, who have certain magical abilities), Charlie is a rare Wild Power – she is not tied to any particular location, she has the ability to travel between places through the Woods, and can do her magic with music, which is perhaps why she enjoys a carefree life as a jobbing musician, travelling with bands and playing session gigs. However, since Allie took over her grandmother’s Enchantment Emporium in Calgary in the first book, Charlie has felt more at home there than anywhere else, something which has the aunties worried. Of course, this wouldn’t be a story if everyone settled down and was happy …

Amelia Carson is CEOof Carson Oil, turning around the fortunes of the company after taking over from her father, and is on the verge of acquiring the rights to one of the biggest oil fields in the North Atlantic, near Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. However, it is near a seal sanctuary, so environmentalist groups have started to protest, which means that Amelia has to turn to a woman who says she can do something about it; the only trouble is that the woman says she’s related to the Gales …

Independently of this, Gale family stuff becomes unbalanced and Charlie’s life is nudged towards Cape Breton when she receives an invitation to rejoin a Celtic band playing in a festival near the seal sanctuary; the fiddler in the band has girlfriend who is distraught because she has lost a family heirloom – except she’s not a normal girl: she’s a Selkie, a mythological creature who is a seal in the ocean but discards her sealskin to become a human when she comes on land and bonds herself with a human. The family heirloom is her sealskin, and she and several of her sisters have had their sealskins stolen as blackmail – the Selkies are behind the environmentalist group protesting against the oil company, and so will only get them back if they retract their protest.

Charlie gets involved because she realises who is behind it: her Auntie Catherine Gale, the other Wild Power in the family. Charlie takes with her Jack, the new member of the Gale family, who looks like a teenage boy but is actually a Dragon Prince from the Underworld as well as being a sorcerer (his father was a Gale man who had gone bad), and they go on an adventure that will affect their futures for ever …

Huff once again displays fresh and fun prose for a contemporary fantasy novel – there are geek references (Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings) and a negative mention of Justin Bieber, and a wry turn of phrase (Charlie: ‘Wow. Her inner voice had gotten sarcastic of late.’) which make this a very enjoyable, breezy read. There is an expansion of the world she has created for the Gale women, and she has a great way with characters – the banter between Charlie and Jack is particularly delightful – and I really enjoy the way she mixes folklore in an modern setting. The focus on the Celtic music scene doesn’t really do anything for me – Huff plays folk music herself, so knows music and is able to convey a sense of the natural power of songs, but it didn’t draw me into the story the way that it obviously appeals to Huff. This makes the story a little slow to get going, but it’s worth keeping with it because the last third is exciting as well as resonant when Charlie and Jack realise things about themselves (she has a particularly good handle on the teenage aspect of Jack the Dragon Prince). It’s a very enjoyable story, although I think I prefer Allie to Charlie as my focus in the Gale women stories.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: The Fell Sword

Written by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz

This book is the second part of The Traitor Son cycle, and it’s another huge chunk of medieval fantasy after the wonderful initially entry, The Red Knight (which I reviewed here). Cameron has written another epic story about the Red Knight aka the Captain aka Gabriel Muriens, as he expands the scope of the world he has created to include the machinations of other nations across the sea, civil war within Morea, and the higher powers that wish to destroy men and the world.

The prologue introduces things, including the Fell Sword of the title (it’s a weapon that will perform the same way in the real and the aethereal, forged inside a memory palace): there’s Morgan Mortirmir, a 16-year-old prodigy from Harndon, studying in the University in Liviapolis, the Imperial capital of Alba, situated in Morea. However, he can’t render potential into ops, which means he will be sent home. So he goes to a tavern to drink and think about killing himself because he doesn’t want to return to barbaric Harndon (even if he is the bastard son of a lord, he prefers refined Morea), but gets into a fight with Harald Derkensun, a Nordikan of the Guard (a giant of a man), although they end up friends after Derkensun beats him unconscious.

Meanwhile in Liviapolis, which is ruled by Emperor Andronicus, the Empire is in decline – there is no money for anything, especially the many unpaid soldiers, which is why there are plots … The Emperor rides out to meet his cousin, the Duke of Thrake, who is the Megas Ducas, commander of the Emperor’s armies, and the Duke’s son Demetrius, Despot of the North; when he does, Aeskepiles (magister to the Emperor) kills the guards, although he is stabbed by the Logothete (head of the Emperor’s spies), who is beheaded by Demetrius, and the Duke takes the Emperor prisoner. The Duke wants to take Liviapolis, but Derkensun was put on guard duty by the Logothete and spots trouble so raises the alarm and closes the gate. He goes to find someone in the authority in the city, but the Mayor and the Chamberlain are dead, as are the Scholae’s quarter guard, and assassins are trying to kill Lady Irene, daughter of the Emperor, so he lends his axe – Irene is saved and decides she needs an army to save the city, mercenaries like the ones already hired by the Emperor, led by a certain Red Knight …

The mercenaries are already on their way to Liviapolis – the Captain, Toby his squire, Mags the seamstress, Bad Tom, Ser Michael, Ser Gavin, Ser Alison, Gelfred the forester, Ser Alaceus the Morean, Ser Jehan – camped in Morea, having received word that their prospective employer has been captured. Meanwhile, the royal court of Harndon is busy: news has reached them that the Galles are counterfeiting the King’s coin, devaluing it; also they need money from those who don’t pay their taxes – the nobles, such as the Earl of Towbray and the Earl of Westwall. So Jean de Vrailly, the Gallish knight who came to the aid of the King at the siege of Lissen Carak in the first book, is sent to collect taxes while the armourer Master Pye is made Master of the Mint and commissioned to make new coins.

Near Albinkirk, the women are restoring the manor of Middlehill, with the help of Ser John Crayford the Captain of Albinkirk and Sister Amicia, clearing the corpses and avoiding Boglins still in the area. In Ticondaga Castle on the Wall, the strongest rock against the Wild, ruled by the Earl of Westwall and his wife Ghause Muriens, sister to the King of Alba and possessor of hermetical power of own. Their son is Ser Gavin, who sends news of the siege of Lissen Carak and the fact that Gabriel (the Captain) is alive – Gabriel is the bastard son of the Earl and Ghause, who they thought was dead.

We catch up with other characters from the first book: Bill Redmede, Jack of Jacks, is leading his men after the defeat at Lissen Carak, heading west into the Wild to possible salvation, when the Jacks are attacked by boglins, and they are saved by an Irk who calls himself Tapio Halfija, the Fairy Knight. Ota Qwan and Peter (now Nita Qwan) of the Sossag are in Squash County, having survived the siege of Lissen Carak, are deciding what to do best for their people. Meanwhile, Thorn, the villain of the first book, is in the north-west of the country, licking his wounds and pondering his next move, as something even more powerful circles him … Meanwhile, the King of Galle (de Vrailly’s cousin) is thinking about taking the north (Morea and Alba) but with a military force using a sellsword called the Black Knight, who had sailed to Ifrquy’a in the sought and conquered it, instead of his own knights.

Back in Liviapolis, after securing the title of Megas Ducas and all of the former Duke’s possessions as payment for his services, the Red Knight uses ars magicka to lead his men around the mountains and face down a force of the Duke’s army – the battle is described with Cameron’s usual excellent prose, putting you in the action and making you feel it all, alternating between the point of view of the Red Knight and the Duke, as well as the hermetical battle going on unseen between Aeskepiles and Harmodius (the magister of Harndon who died and took up residence in the Captain’s memory palace). The Red Knight’s mercenaries are joined by the Vardiotes (Eastern horse soldiers), who turn the tide of the battle and the Red Knight enters the city of Liviapolis while the Duke escapes. However, it’s not plain sailing – there are many attempts on the Captain’s life with poisons and magic, and there are the many different factions coming together for war and worse …

Cameron continues to impress with his ability to tell an exciting epic with a huge cast of characters and many different plotlines, and juggle it all with skill, passion, wit (‘Uh oh,’ muttered Harmodius. ‘I just kicked a god in the nuts.’) and intelligence. There is more of everything in this book – more characters, more countries (Etrusca, Iberia, Arles, Rhum), more bizarre creatures (Eeagues in the sea; hastenochs [monstrous armoured elks], Ruks [giants] on land), more history to the world he has created, more plot, more scope. I’ve tried to provide a flavour of the book, but it’s only a small taste – there is so much going on and yet Cameron keeps it all entertaining; he uses the same technique of telling the story from a character’s perspective under the heading of the character and location, with a small number of chapters compared with the (huge) size of the book. He has a great skill with briefly essaying characters in a vivid fashion, in addition to his talent for writing battle scenes (although there is nothing of the scale of the battles in the siege of the last book). The Fell Sword is a very good book, and I can’t wait for the next book in the cycle.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: Further Encounters Of Sherlock Holmes

Edited by George Mann
Published by Titan Books

BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films – the enduring appeal of one of the most famous fictional characters has never been more evident. You simply cannot have too many Sherlock Holmes stories. This anthology continues this tradition in fine form: all twelve stories are written in the style and idiom of Conan Doyle at the time of the original stories (for example there is a use of a ‘Chinaman’ in one of the tales that is a little out of place to the modern reader), so you feel like you’re reading some undiscovered originals.

The Adventure of the Professor’s Bequest by Philip Purser-Hallard involves letters left by Professor Moriarty after his death to his brother-in-law, which have gone missing and are believed to have explosive repercussions if they are seen by the public; Holmes and Watson are called in to locate the missing letters. The second story, The Curious Case of the Compromised Card-Index by Andrew Lane, which is set before the adventure at the Reichenbach Falls and after the adventure with Charles Augustus Milverton, involves the hardcopy version of Sherlock’s data, which hasn’t been stolen but there is the possibility that a copy exists somewhere …

Sherlock Holmes and the Popish Relic by Mark A Latham is suitably gothic, where an uncle goes missing, presumed dead, a haunted abbey, ghosts monks and rumours of a popish relic … The fourth story, The Adventure of the Decadent Headmaster by Nick Campbell, is about the disappearance of a boy from an excellent public school and the suicide of a teacher at the same school soon after, leading to Holmes and Watson investigating and coinciding with the fact that the story is set in 1899.

The fifth story, The Case of the Devil’s Door by James Goss, relies on the mystery of not knowing anything about 24 Leinster Gardens, London; as a Londoner, I knew the reveal already, but its use in the recent series of Sherlock suggests that it is not a mystery any longer. The Adventure of the Coin of the Realm, by William Patrick Maynard and Alexandra Martukovich, sees Holmes and Watson on a boat returning from America with a group of coin dealers, one of whom ends up dead in a classic locked-room mystery, with the ship as the locked room.

The seventh tale, The Strange Case of the Displaced Detective by Roy Gill, has a fake client vanish from the rooms of 221B Baker Street, which sends Watson out on a search that leads him to a dingy shop: Wells & Co., Retailers of Antiquity & Chronologists of Futurity. This leads Holmes into, basically, facing the idea of the Minority Report. The Girl Who Paid For Silence by Scott Handcock is about the brutal and notorious death of a little girl and the very unusual witness who comes to see Watson, not Holmes, with information about the murder.

The ninth tale, An Adventure In Three Courses by Guy Adams, see Holmes take Watson to a new dining establishment that serves only cold food, where they pass the time by analysing the other diners, which takes a turn for the dark … The tenth story, The Sleep Of Reason by Lou Anders, is narrated by Dr Avery F Wilson, of 177B Bleecker Street, about New York’s famous dandy consulting detective, S Quentin Carmichael, retelling the narrative from a pulseless Carmichael through the medium of Morse code by clacking his teeth together. He relates how he met William Aldebert, author and chronicler of the adventures of Joanna Carson, War Mistress of Mars (or Moosrab, as the Martians call it), and he helped to solve the murder of a Martian ambassador.

The Snowtorn Terror by Justin Richards is the eleventh tale, which starts with a man wanting Holmes to solve the death of his father, but a connection to a railway robbery at the same location means that Holmes gets to solve both crimes. The final story, A Betrayal Of Doubt by Philip Marsh, is narrated by Dr John Watson Jnr – his father has passed away and Holmes is in retirement in his cottage in Sussex; Inspector Bennet of Scotland Yard has called him out of retirement to investigate a locked-room murder with occult overtones (the body was covered in intricate symbols post-mortem). Although Holmes shows signs of old age and deterioration of his mental faculties, he shows that there is still plenty of mental acuity left …

I enjoyed this book. It was more traditional than I thought it would be; I thought it would trend more towards the likes of The Sleep of Reason – a mash-up between Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs (like my favourite mash-up, A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman, which mixes Conan Doyle with HP Lovecraft) – but it manages to be bring modern sensibilities and attitude to the stories. There are interesting ideas, intriguing twists on the Holmes/Watson plots, and good prose. I look forward to even more further encounters of Sherlock Holmes

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: A Natural History Of Dragons

A Memoir By Lady Trent written by Marie Brennan
Published by Titan Books

Marie Brennan, the pseudonym of Bryn Neuenschwander, is an American fantasy author who graduated from Harvard University and did graduate studies in folklore and anthropology. This means she is smart and has an affinity with science and mythology, and she brings a naturalness and clarity to her writing in this utterly charming book, about a young lady following her scientific passion for dragons despite the social etiquette of the time, reflecting on her first adventure on the road to becoming the preeminent dragon naturalist.

Isabella is the only daughter of six children of Lord and Lady Hendemore, of Norringale in Tamshire. When she is 7 years old, she finds a sparkling in the grounds of their estate – thought to be an insect with dragon-like features – but actually a small dragon. It collapses into dust when it dies but, when told by the cook that pickling in vinegar is the answer, her obsession with dragons begins in earnest, helped by the original book called A Natural History Of Dragons by Sir Richard Edgeworth, the indispensable guide of the time (although completed with information from correspondence with traders and missionaries). She is 14 years old when she sees a dragon for the first time, not escaping the incident without injury, meaning that she must put away her dragon obsession; however, she funnels her energy into sketching animals and studying them, which becomes important later on.

At 16, Isabella is taken to the city of Falchester to be introduced into society, but her favourite brother Andrew gets them into the king’s menagerie where, accompanied by the king’s naturalist, they are given a tour that ends up in the prize: three live dragons. She also meets Jacob Camherst, second son of a baronet (who is on the list of suitable eligible suitors provided by her father who realises that while she might not find a husband who would buy her a library, she might find one who would share a library), who shares an interest in dragons, which leads to a marriage. After she unfortunately miscarries, Jacob rekindles her interest in sparklings, which leads to a meeting with Maxwell Oscott, Earl of Hilford, who is about to go on an expedition to Vystrana to see dragons … So, at the age of 19 years old, Isabella accompanies her husband and the earl on the steamship Magnolia, in a time before railways and fast ships, visiting a foreign country (her first book was A Journey To The Mountains Of Vystrana, a travel guide of the trip, an acceptable pursuit for a young lady at that time), arriving in the village of Drustanev, which would be their base of operations for their adventures.

This story is set in a world different from ours (the country in which Isabella lives is Scirland, but with similarities to England, such as references to chilly fog; the names of other countries are quite alien: Chiavora, Akhia, Bulskevo, Eiverheim, Mrtyahaimas; there are even different months, such as Floris, Graminis, Messis) but the setting is very similar to a Victorian time, with all the rules of social etiquette and patriarchal hierarchy that implies (Lady Trent writes an aside about her editor fretting when she mentions that, when she was a teenager, she was able to disguise herself as a boy to go on a hunt for a wolf-drake with her father’s hunting party because she had not much in the way of ‘hips and breasts’).

The book is written in the style of a book from that time, with all the language associated – there is a lovely use of the word ‘crepuscular’, and dragon bones becoming ‘rapidly frangible postmortem’, and delightful turns of phrase such as ‘take care of a certain biological matter’ as a euphemism for urinating. It is a memoir of an older and famous woman who is reflecting on her youth, which is distant and she has written about before but not in such detail and honesty – she doesn’t care what people think any more. It is a very well written book, acting as an introduction to the world of dragons, as well as to this other world that Brennan has created – there is the Egyptian-like pre-history of the Draconean culture (dragon-headed gods at temples) with an indecipherable written language; there are the mentions of religions, with Vystrana a land of Temple-worshippers and Scirland full of ‘proper followers of the Magisterial path’. It’s a delightful book, accompanied with beautiful charcoal sketches of various dragons observed during the story (done by Todd Lockwood, who also did the amazing cover), and an absorbing introduction to this world of dragons and Lady Isabella Trent. I can’t wait for the next book.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium

By Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

I’ve never read anything by Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff before but, based on The Enchantment Emporium, I need to rectify that state of affairs. She is prolific, having written several contemporary fantasy series (including the Blood Books series, about a human detective and a vampire writer who stop supernatural threats, which was made into a television series called Blood Ties) and a science fiction series, the Valor Confederation series. The Enchantment Emporium is the first novel in a new urban fantasy series – this was originally published in 2009, but Titan Books is reissuing it, as well as the sequel and the as yet unpublished third book.

Alysha ‘Allie’ Gale had been an archaeological research assistant until last week; now she’s back home with the large family of cousins and aunties in Darsden, near Toronto. Until she receives a letter from her Gran, telling Allie that Gran is dead and that she’s left Allie her ‘junk’ store in Calgary, Alberta. However, things are not that simple – the Gale women are actually witches, the store in Calgary is a protected place for the supernatural creatures of the city to use as a mail drop (among other things), and which has a magic mirror in the living area, and the closest friend to Gran is a leprechaun called Joe, who Allie decides to hire as an assistant to help in the shop. When Allie discovers that there is a sorcerer hiding in the city (the Gale women usually hunt down and stop sorcerers) and a much larger and more dangerous threat from the UnderRealm coming through a gate into the city, she has to decide what she’s going to do with her life, her Gran’s store and try to keep her aunties away from Calgary – the aunties don’t like other members being away from the heart of the family, and nobody wants to get on the wrong side of the aunties.

Family is a large part of the book – in addition to Allie, there is her cousin Charlie (short for Charlotte), who plays music in various bands, but who is also able to use magic to work her magical charms and allow her to transport from place to place through The Wood, except when she tries to get to Allie in Calgary; there is Allie’s older brother, David, who works as a criminology consultant, but is a powerful Gale man (there are few Gale men, with the family mostly made up of Gale women), and the aunties are afraid he might turn bad; there’s Allie’s cousin Roland, a lawyer, who comes to help out; there is Michael, her best friend and former focus of affection until he announced that he was gay, who is considered a part of the family. These main characters are all fully fleshed out, three-dimensional people, and the world of the Gale women is an intriguing mix of the mundane (baking pies to the highest quality is a daily chore) and magical (their mobile phones are charmed so they can make free calls and have good signal anywhere). You are thrust straight into this world of casual magic – the first chapter doesn’t take a breath as you are immersed into proceedings (you almost feel like there was a previous book that did a lot of world-building because there is a casualness in descriptions – talk of tracing charms on skin, rituals, first/second/third circles of power – which suggests that you should know this already; it’s the only slight flaw in an otherwise entertaining book, but worth getting through before you get to the second stage of world-building in Calgary, where Allie is like the reader and discovering new things).

The Enchantment Emporium is a very enjoyable read and I really enjoyed the style of writing that Huff uses in the book. There are lots of casual references for geeks – a ‘Joss Whedon is my master’ T-shirt, a mention of Emma Frost, Han Solo, The Dresden Files television show, Captain Jack Harkness – that are thrown in with no explanation, which is just the way I like it. There is a very comfortable way with the setting and the characters and how they interact that makes the book an enjoyable read, immerses you into a world we know but with the supernatural edge and hints at plenty of backstory that leaves lots of questions to be answered in future books, but without leaving you needing to know anything else for the sake of the story you are reading. There is also the strangeness of the way that sex between cousins seems to be quite normal in the Gale family, as a way for the aunties to keep the power of the Gale men within the confines of the family, and as a way for the Gale men to be re-equilibrated after displays of powerful magic (there is a connection with stags – they have antlers that display if powerful magic has been used; there is headbutting between males in a display of alpha maleness). This is a little unusual perhaps, but this is a world where Gale women can write charms of ownership on friends, do some healing with them, a mirror displays your reflection in an embarrassing or cryptic fashion, and there are dragons – oh, didn’t I mention the dragons? I’ll let you find out for yourselves – you’ll certainly enjoy the discovery in this very entertaining book …

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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Book Review: Vicious

By V.E. Schwab
Published by Titan Books

When two friends find a way to acquire superpowers, events will never turn out smooth. When these friends are intelligent, competitive, driven individuals, the top pre-med students at their college, whose friendship is shattered by acquiring their superpowers, their lives and the lives of many other people will be adversely affected. Victoria Schwab has written a gripping, thrilling adventure that you can easily see as a film (and so could other people, because it has already been optioned).

The story starts in the present day, with Victor Vale digging up a coffin, before jumping back to 10 years ago, at the fictional Lockland University, where he met Eliot ‘Eli’ Cardale. Both are very smart, although Eli is the more charming and extrovert compared with Victor’s introversion, but they become good friends anyway. The events in the book begin in their Comprehensive Science Seminar, a general course that they need to take, and the declaration of their thesis for the course: Eli says that his will be ‘EOs’, short for ‘ExtraOrdinaries’, the term used to describe people with unusual abilities in this world. (The book acknowledges superheroes and references a few, but exists primarily in its own universe. For example, nobody at all mentions the fact that Victor Vale sounds incredibly similar to Vicki Vale, the Kim Basinger character from Tim Burton’s Batman, which I found incredibly hard to believe.)

EOs seem to exist on an urban legend level, with mentions of the phenomena on websites and forums, late-night television ‘exposes’ of possibilities; however, Eli wants to believe they exist and therefore are either born or created. If they can be created, how are they created? And can that creation be replicated? His research has led him to the conclusion that trauma, specifically trauma leading to a near death experience, along with the genetic disposition and a strong will to survive the near death experience, will create an ExtraOrdinary. With Victor on board with the idea, the two decide that they can try to create EOs – themselves – using controlled suicide and returning to life. Victor is the first to try but unsuccessfully; Eli goes next and succeeds, acquiring the ability to heal from any injury; Victor is jealous and tries again but without Eli’s help, which leads to an accident that changes their lives for ever and leads to Victor spending the next 10 years in prison.

The chapters switch between the past and present, as Victor has broken out of jail with his cellmate, Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Turner, and befriending a 13-year-old girl called Sydney, who is also an EO with the power to return the dead to life. Meanwhile, Eli has decided that EOs are returned with part of their soul missing and therefore an affront to God and has been killing all those he could find, with the exception of Sydney’s older sister, Serena, who has a siren-like ability to control the thoughts and actions of others. The chapters in the past provide backstory for the characters and the events as they unfold, with the second half of the book focusing mostly on the build-up and eventual meeting of our two protagonists, with Victor eager to extract vengeance on his former friend.

This is a solid, fast-paced, crime-revenge thriller. The prose is slick, assured, confident – it tells the story cleanly and clearly, without adornment, in a solid thriller style that makes the story easy to read. There are not many characters in the book, and not just because Eli is killing off all the EOs he can find, so it is focused and driven. The resolution is satisfying, although it does depend on which of the unpleasant main characters the reader dislikes the most in that regard; neither is really a hero or villain in the normal sense, although the story is told from Victor’s point of view for most of the book, thus lending his character some empathy.

The book concentrates on the trope in comic books of the characters knowing each other before acquiring their superpowers and how that affects their relationship after acquiring their powers. (There is also, unfortunately, a ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope included in the book, which is a shame from a female writer.) Vicious doesn’t change the way you see superheroes – this is a crime/revenge thriller done with superpowers, something that’s been done before and will be again, with pseudoscience explanation of EOs to give the sheen of reality, although there is no explanation of why or how the effectively magical powers are acquired or how they work. How does Eli heal? How does Vic’s pain thing work? Is Serena a telepath or are the sound waves of her voice affecting a part of the brain connected to the audio sensors? How can Sydney bring back the dead? Ultimately, that’s not relevant in a tense, well-written, exciting adventure that is compelling and keeps you reading.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: Red Country

By Joe Abercrombie
Published by Gollancz

Take a Western but with swords instead of guns. Set it in an epic fantasy world. Throw in a stagecoach chase, an attack by ‘natives’ around the wagons, a prospector town full of vice and criminals, and tough characters living in a harsh world. And make it good. You now have Red Country, the new novel from Abercrombie, set in the same world as his First Law trilogy (and featuring some of the characters from those stories, although without needing to know anything about them), and which is a compelling, violent, gritty, well-written tale that combines Abercrombie’s sense of realism, excellent characterisation and great action into a love letter to the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, to whom the book is dedicated.

Shy South is a teenage girl with a past who lives on a farm in Squaredeal in the Near Country; she is sister to Ro and Pit, looking after them after their mother has died. Lamb is a huge but timid Northman who works on the farm and has been a stand-in father for them. When Shy and Lamb return to the farm after selling their stock to the local shop keeper, they discover the farmstead burned, the old farmhand hanging from a tree and that Ro and Pit have been taken by bandits. Shy and Lamb have no other option but to follow them to get the children back.

Meanwhile, Captain General Nicomo Cosca of the Company of the Gracious Hand, a ragtag group of mercenaries (including legal counsel, Temple, who is developing a conscience), has been employed by the Inquisition of the Union (specifically Inquisitor Loren) to ‘pacify’ Near Country in their search for rebels. The Company ‘pacifies’ Squaredeal, killing and looting along the way, where they meet a Northman with a metal eye who is looking for a nine-fingered Northman …

Lamb and Shy catch up with three men who had split off from the group who stole the children, and Lamb shows that he isn’t the cowardly man he has pretended to be, extracting information that helps them: a man named Greg Cantliss leads the bandits, stealing children to sell on up river at the town of Crease. To get there, they join up with a famous scout called Dab Sweet and his partner, a Ghost woman called Crying Rock (Ghosts are the equivalent of Native Americans in this world), who are leading a Fellowship of people (Styrians, Suljuks, a Gurkish priest, a once-famous actor, a herder and his huge family, and many others) going to Crease for gold and a better life. Things will come together when everyone involved ends up in Crease, a classic frontier town run by a mayor and Papa Ring.

This is like The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, the Leone trilogy, but in a fantasy world – there is a stranger with a dark and violent past, a new-fangled metal weapon, a stand-off between enemies, a lawless town full of unpleasant types; the only thing missing is the Morricone score. Abercrombie is obviously a huge fan and it shows, but he is also a very good writer so the execution is very enjoyable. He has a great way with characters – he’s good with names and he’s able to essay them quickly and clearly – and his sharp prose and dialogue mean the book is filled with the West: you can smell the dirt and the open plains and herds of cows and the blood and death. Shy and Lamb always have a pithy retort, presumably through gritted teeth, which sometimes seems a bit much for people who don’t have much social contact and makes you think they have a scriptwriter – it’s fine in a two-hour film but in a book is stretching it a bit. But that’s the only qualm in an otherwise excellent book. Red Country is a great genre-smashing piece of work that is entertaining and hard to put down.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Book Review: The Red Knight

Written by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz

The Red Knight paperback is a huge, thick book – it could be used as a handy shield in a fight – and it is only the first part of The Traitor Son cycle. However, you won’t notice the size of the book when reading (well, apart from the weight) because you will be so absorbed in the story. This is Cameron’s first fantasy novel and it is an impressive achievement, rich with characters and detail (the author has a degree in medieval history and is a passionate re-enactor who participates in tournaments as a 14th-century knight), and you will be swept away by this adventure epic.

The Red Knight, or the Captain – he keeps his identity hidden for most of the book – is the leader of a mercenary army. Their services have been retained by the Abbess of Lissen Carak, an ancient convent/fortress in the north of Alba, because creatures of the Wild have been attacking and killing the local farmers. The Wild refers to the ‘uncivilised’ lands outside of society, full of mythical creatures – daemons, fairies, boglins, irks, trolls, wyverns, Qwethnethogs – and humans gone native, called Sossags; the creatures have been corralled by a Power of the Wild, called Thorn, to reclaim Lissen Carak, or as they know it, The Rock. Although the King has been notified, he and his armies are far to the south and will take time to arrive and defend Lissen Carak; it is up to the captain and his company to do what must be done.

This is a massive novel that takes its time to set up the world. It uses a similar style to George RR Martin – instead of Martin’s chapters titled after the character it follows, the sections within chapters are headed with the location and the character they follow, enabling Cameron to introduce his huge cast of characters: Sauce the female soldier; Jehannes the grizzled professional soldier; Bad Tom the seasoned veteran; Ser John Hayworth the old soldier in charge of Albinkirk; the Abbess with her secrets concerning the nuns and herself; Amicia the novice; Father Henry the priest; Ser Alcaeus the Emperor’s cousin; Desdirata the Queen and her ladies in waiting; Harmodius the Royal Magus; Gerald Random the merchant; Michael the Red Knight’s squire; Mags the seamstress; Jean de Vrailly and Gaston the knights from Galle who are used to the Rule of War not the Rule of Law; Peter the former slave who ends up with the Sossag; and Thorn the Power of the Wild and his secrets (and these are just a few). The slow build-up allows the characters to develop into fully rounded people so that we care about their fates when the eventual siege of Lissen Carak dominates the story, where the captain’s company is joined by Harmodius and the convoy of merchants led by Gerald Random and the farmers from the surrounding areas to survive the onslaughts of the Wild.

The world is a medieval setting with Christianity as the ruling religion, even if the Red Knights has no use for it. It is a gritty and brutal depiction of the knights of legend, bringing to life the realities of a company of soldiers and their squires and valets and archers and the knights themselves. However, it also has time for magic, based on Hermeticism and with a ritualistic nature that is finely crafted by Cameron – apart from Harmodius, who can use the power of sunlight to perform incantations, the Red Knight can do ‘workings’, his huntsman is an officially licensed Hermetic who is able to read information in a crime scene at the start of the book, not to mention Thorn who can enforce his will upon the creatures of the Wild using different magic. As a side aspect of the detailing of the use of magic, I enjoyed the use of the Red Knight’s memory palace as a way of describing the way his magic works.

The book is impressive but it excels in the description of combat – Cameron’s expertise in this arena and his writing skill mean that you are put in the middle of the fighting and made aware of the pain of simply wearing armour and the frantic nature of fighting with swords in the middle of an attack by thousands of creatures and the brutality of raw combat. It is exhilarating but also authentic and immersive, the deployment of tactics on the battlefield contrasted with butchering enemies with swords and axes with vision limited to a slit in the visor and the punching of arrows on strong armour. There is blood and death and heroics and sacrifice and nobility and slaughter, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous, although there is relief when it is over. The level of insider knowledge also means that it feels genuine; terms related to the area of medieval combat might require a dictionary but it indicates that the author knows this stuff and immerses the reading experience even more.

The Red Knight is a very good book and the Red Knight himself is a fascinating character. I was thoroughly gripped by this mammoth book and the world that Cameron created. I look forward with anticipation to the next book in the cycle.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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