[reading] What have you read recently?

Maddz

Rune Priest
A couple more Early Reviewers books:

The Boughs Withered by Maura McHugh

A short story collection by an Irish writer. I hesitate to classify these as urban fantasy, but they are reminiscent of Charles de Lint's Newford stories, but darker in tone, and shading on horror. An anthology to be read slowly rather than gulped down.

Recommended

Chivalry by Gavin G Smith

A novella set either in a fantasy world or in a post-apocalyptic future (I was unsure which). A knight of the Iron Kingdom discovers the brutal realities of war against the Harlanian Empire. Very grimdark, verging on schlock horror.

Not really to my taste, but others may like it.

Nearly caught up now, but annoyingly there's 3 potential freebies up this month. As I really want one (the Marie Brennan), it means I have to make a choice between the other two. (You can request all you want, but you'll get at most 2.)
 
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Maddz

Rune Priest
Whistling Down the Wind, by Irene Radford (Whistling River Lodge Mysteries 1)

Free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme in exchange for an honest review.

I brought this one forward as book 2 is in this month's available titles. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there's 3 potential titles for me to request.

Glenna, the majority owner of the Lodge and Resort, is shocked when her ex-husband turns up at the Lodge, and what's more, is murdered. She is the prime suspect for the crime and she needs to clear her name fast. Complicating this is a potential to repurchase some land sold off by the previous owner - if she can raise the money - but there's another potential purchaser or two.

This was a bit of an oddity; it was primarily a mystery but had other elements as well - paranormal goings on and a potential romance. I thought the 3 elements didn't set well together, and at the end of the book I was none the wiser whether the paranormal element was a red herring or not (let alone whether it was genuine or local geological and meteorological phenomena). As a result, I've decided not to go for book 2 unless it gets re-offered next month and I don't have anything better to get.

Some bits I thought OTT - the local fire bug, for instance, and the fact that the previous owner of the resort had faked his own death with Glenna's help. Also, Glenna's ex (who had remarried twice) was a serial bigamist - their divorce wasn't completed. Another thing (which may not be jarring to a US audience) was a hike in the country with her new security chief - and both are armed. This is the only scene in the book where they are armed...

It was an OK read, but I won't go out of my way to get others in the series.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Star Trek: Signature Edition: The Hand of Kahless, by John M Ford and Michael Jan Friedman

This was in the 99p deals for Star Trek novels this month and I got it for the John M Ford. It’s an omnibus of The Final Reflection by John M Ford, and Kahless by Michael Jan Friedman.

The Final Reflection has been in my library for many years and forms the basis for Klingon culture in the Fasa STRPG, and as such is considered to be non-canonical now. The story is told from the point of view of Captain Krenn who has been tasked to travel to Earth to collect the Federation ambassador to open an embassy in the Klingon Empire.

Awkwardly bracketed by a pre-script and a post-script featuring Captain Kirk, it’s a historical piece. The only TOS character to feature in the main story is a very young Spock. We do get to meet Dr McCoy’s grandfather, though.

The story is very much a trademark Ford political story with shadow games and betrayals. It’s similar in style to The Dragon Waiting and The Scholars of Night, so I can understand why Ford didn’t go down too well with Paramount.

In comparison, Kahless reads like a children’s book. While dealing with the Klingon Empire about a century later, it feels more like a human empire with human motivations not alien motivations. Stylistically, it felt awkward; the story switched between the historical Kahless and the present-day Picard and the cloned Kahless.

There was one twist in the story that was obvious by the end, but nobody appeared to pick up on it.

Still, buy this for the John M Ford story not the Michael Jan Friedman story. I can’t recommend Ford as a writer enough. Sadly, most of Ford’s output is only available in hardcopy; The Final Reflection and the Liavek series are the only titles that seem to be available in the UK in English.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Sanctuary, by V V James

An urban fantasy set in a contemporary Connecticut small town. In this world magic is real and witches are known. However, witches are feared and operate under stringent restrictions to the extent that a misdemeanour for a mundane becomes a felony for a witch.

Sarah Fenn is the town witch in Sanctuary. A high school student dies at a party and the party house catches fire. His mother believes that he was magically murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Harper Fenn, Sarah’s non-magical daughter. She stirs up the town against the Fenns, but she herself is tainted as she was part of Sarah’s coven.

A chilling story about bigotry and small-town mob hysteria. Echoes of the Salem witch-trials abound as the town is sucked deeper into the mire.

Recommended
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
A God in Chains, by Matthew Hughes. Part of the Archonate series, probably book 8.

Free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme in exchange for an honest review.

This is a Dying Earth pastiche but although ostensibly set in the Dying Earth, probably isn’t. Stylistically, it draws on the Vancian style but doesn’t fall into the verbose purple prose Vance used.

A man is abandoned in the wilderness with no memory of who he is. Catching up with a caravan, he becomes employed by the caravan master. By dint of trial and error, it becomes apparent he was a soldier. The story is about his efforts to regain his memory.

Rather fun, and recommended.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
A Man Lies Dreaming, by Lavie Tidhar.

Set in London, 1939, this alternate history novel follows the fortunes of the private eye, Mr Wolf. He is a German refugee following the Communist take over of the German government, and the forcible disbandment of the Nazi party, many of whom escaped to the UK. It soon becomes apparent what Wolf’s real name is.

The kicker in the story is that he is working for a Jewish banker to find out what happened to one of his daughters, as well as investigating assassination attempts against Sir Oswald Moseley.

It’s a very dark and violent story with some kinky sex. I was reminded of The Man in the High Castle in the attitudes displayed by the characters.

I hesitate to recommend this whole-heartedly, but it’s a less often travelled alternate universe.
 
A Man Lies Dreaming, by Lavie Tidhar.

It soon becomes apparent what Wolf’s real name is.
Wolf was his favourite nickname apparently. I quite enjoyed Look Who's Back which re-incarnates him as a modern day media figure and later politician (slogan "It wasn't all bad!") so would be tempted to give this a try.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Wolf was his favourite nickname apparently. I quite enjoyed Look Who's Back which re-incarnates him as a modern day media figure and later politician (slogan "It wasn't all bad!") so would be tempted to give this a try.
There was one thing I hadn't mentioned - one of the threads is a concentration camp (probably in our timeline) inmate who was a pulp fiction writer. It's not apparent whether the main story is the story he dreams up or not. In fact, there's a shout-out to Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives....
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
I've caught up with my Early Reviewers books - one outstanding which I only received this week, so I'm taking a break.

Quality Maid, by Mira Stables

A very light post-Regency romance. The Longden sisters are dirt-poor following their mother's disappearance and their father loosing his fortune in mining shares. Clemency (the eldest) goes to ask advice from a neighbour about getting a job as a companion (in order that her father is not put to the expense of keeping her). They get off on the wrong foot, but his aunt takes her on as a companion/housekeeper following a fall and the arrival of her sister with her family.

There's a truly nasty villain - a highwayman with a taste for veal, who turns out to be behind Mrs Longden's disappearance. He kidnaps Clemency and holds her to ransom.

I didn't like this one very much - I thought the villain was rather OTT. Given when the book was originally published (1973), he was distinctly close to the knuckle.

OK, but probably not a re-reader.

A Point of Honor, by Dorothy J Heydt

This has been in my library since it came out, and I've just picked up the e-book. Heydt is offering them as a free download (with tip jar), so I got it along with some other titles I'd not previously seen.

Sir Mary de Courcy is a virtual knight; she plays in the VR world of Chivalry as a tourney knight. At a tournament, she defeats a knight who is unable to pay his ransom, and offers her a (virtual) manorial holding instead. However, the holding turns out to be a poisoned chalice - on the way home, her plane nearly crashes, she's driven off the road, and an intruder breaks into her house that night. Nest day, while helping to train new players in VR, someone sticks a hacked digitalis patch on her...

It turns out the manor is illegal; it's being used as a back door into a fantasy VR game based on a book - and the creator has forbidden any VR or other derivative work. The hackers are willing to kill to protect their secret.

It's very good; it's set in the near future (unspecified how far ahead) but Heydt was prescient in terms of global warming (although this USA is not in denial). There's been a bit of updating - the copyright of life+50 has been updated to life+70, and there's maybe some other minor tweaks.

Recommended - it's an interesting take on cyberpunk.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
A Wind in Cairo, by Judith Tarr.

This is a stand-alone historical fantasy, sharing much of the setting of The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, but without the elves. It’s also a book for horse lovers.

Hasan is an indulged son; he’s cut a swath in Cairo with his boon companions until he goes too far and looses his father’s cherished horses wagering them in a game of backgammon. Although his father covers his debt, he puts his foot down - Hasan is to go to the desert tribes. Escaping from the house, Hasan goes on a binge and is attacked and beaten. Rescued by a magus, he is taken in and nursed back to health by the magus and what Hasan takes to be a slave girl. When he is well enough, he celebrates by raping the girl.

Unfortunately, the girl is the magus’ daughter. For acting the stallion, Hasan is turned into one and condemned to serve a woman. He can only return to human form by dying for her.

Sold to a horse dealer departing for Damascus, he is purchased by the son of an Emir - who is the woman he is destined to serve. This is the story about how Hasan is taught to restrain himself as a horse and comes to love his mistress, eventually dying for her.

It’s more in the romance genre than the fantasy genre and is a pure horse story, but is a great read for all that. I read it every so often, and recently acquired an ebook version.

Recommended if you’re a hippophile, probably too girly for those that aren’t.
 
Alien: Engineers by John Spaiths - earlier draft of the script for Prometheus. Interesting to compare with the finished film but not convinced it's that much better. You've still got supposedly hardened professionals behaving in a way that would disgrace the Scooby-Doo gang.

Also some old fashioned war-porn I picked up in a pay-what-you-like charity bookshop in Gloucester:Short pulpish novels from the 1970s, competently written and by and large and tastefully done given the subject matter i.e no Sven Hassel or James Rouch style gratuitous gore:

633 Squadron: Operation Crucible by Frederick E Smith. One of Smith's many sequels to his original book about a special operations squadron flying the De Havilland Mosquituo. The original is perhaps notable for the film adaptation that inspired Star Wars' death star trench run. Smith's wartime service in the RAF probably gives some authenticity to the scenes of wartime life on the ground and the sometimes uneasy relationship between the western allies. The combat stuff strikes me as mostly preposterous (although not as much as the immediate sequel Operation: Valkyrie) . A sub-plot about a a doubting Roman Catholic pilot who engages in half baked theological discussions with his still devout navigator don't really add anything to the story.

Intruder Squadron by Jack Bannatyne. More Mosquitoes, this time taking on Luftwaffe night fighters over Germany before they can shoot down RAF bombers. Seems fairly well researched - the last few chapters take place during a disastrous raid over Nuremberg that I thought was too ghastly to be true, but a cursory bit of reading shows it actually happened with casualties pretty much as described in the book. Fairly even handed in its depiction of RAF personnel and their Luftwaffe counterparts.

Sons of the Morning by Matthew Holden. Briskly written tale of a Spitfire squadron during the Battles of France and Britain. Doesn't pull any punches about pilots' life expectancy or the possibility of being horribly injured. Veers off towards the end into a rather surreal meditation about life and death. First one in a series. Not in the same league as Derek Robinson's Piece of Cake but good enough that I'd be interested in reading the other books.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Tales from the Spired Inn, by Stephen Palmer

Free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme in exchange for an honest review.

An anthology of short stories and novellas set in the world of Memory Seed (which is included in the collection).

The city of Kray is the last remaining hold-out of humanity on Earth. Even so, it's dying; strange wildlife stalks or grows in the streets, factions and sects bicker amongst each other and try to escape their inevitable doom. The Spired Inn is neutral ground; it's where factions come to talk and where people can be hired. It's surprising how prescient it is (Memory Seed was published in the mid 90s), with the ecological catastrophe and doomed humanity.

Very elegaic and elegantly written; it's in the same vein as Dying Earth but very much more dystopian and without the high faluting Vancian prose.

Recommended.

Throne of Isis, by Judith Tarr (Three Queens 1)

A historical novel with fantastic elements chronicling the love affair between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. I hesitate to characterise it as historical fantasy (book 2 in the series which I've owned for many years isn't), but the magical thread is there although discreet.

Dione, the Voice of Isis, a distant cousin of Cleopatra, forms part of her court. She is the mother of two sons; the elder lives with his father (who divorced Dione), and is rather strait-laced, the younger, who is very wild, lives with his mother. Starting after Cleopatra flees Rome following Julius Caesar's assassination, the story ends with Cleopatra's suicide.

It makes an interesting read; I read Gillian Bradshaw's take on Caesarion while back, but this book covers a longer time period.

Recommended.
 

Guvnor

The Guvnor
Staff member
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman.
A great 80s literature-history-vampire melange with a lot of nerd cross references and lots of author's notes.
Loved it.
8/10
 
A Dangerous Climate, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (Saint Germain 21 chronologically, 22 by publication date).

One of Yarbro's trademark historical novels featuring her vampire, Saint Germain. This is set in Russia at the founding of St Petersburg. Saint Germain is impersonating a Hungarian nobleman married to a Polish aristocrat; his wife is spying on Russia at the behest of the Polish king - but needs her husband to accompany her but he's vanished. Step in Saint Germain.

It's an interesting setting; the shanty town erected to house foreign craftsmen, merchants, Russian aristocrats and various embassies is built of wood. Even Peter the Great has only got a four-room house when he visits (mind you, he built it himself). The corvée labour force doing the actual building live in tents and die like flies.

In terms of the writing, the stock characters that seemed to be in recent outings are much muted; the unstable female character has been considerably toned down, the virtuous female is still there but isn't OTT. There's no identifiable villain of the piece; there is one - but we never really find out who he actually is. My main issue is the prose - there's a lot of rather poncy language which makes it look like somebody has gone overboard with a thesaurus.

If you enjoy historical vampire novels, this is OK. If I wasn't a Saint Germain fan, I'd probably say this is for the completist; it's one of the weaker ones.

The Eagle's Daughter, by Judith Tarr (Three Queens 2). This is the only one of this series I have had in a print copy; in fact, until I ran across the Kindle editions I wasn't aware it counted as part of a series.

Set in 970 and beyond, it deals with the marriage of Princess Theophanu of Byzantium to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II. The book's focus is on one of Theophanu's companions, her widowed cousin Aspasia, who accompanies her to Germany and ends up as teacher to the children of the court. This is a straight historical novel, with no fantastic elements, unlike the first instalment in the series.

Recommended.
 
Queen of Swords, by Judith Tarr (Three Queens 3)

Starting in 1129, this is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem where the Princess Melisende, heiress of Baldwin II, is marrying Fulk of Anjou. It tells the story of Richeldis, who has travelled to Outremer in Fulk’s company, who is trying to find her brother and persuade him to return to France to take on the family estate. Unfortunately, her brother has other ideas, having sworn never to return. Richeldis becomes one of Melisende’s ladies, and her confidante. Richeldis’ story is interwoven with that of the Kingdom; she marries and settles in the kingdom (having sworn not to return without her brother), and the story ends when Baldwin III ends his mother’s regency.

This is set in more familiar Tarr territory; that of The Hound and Falcon trilogy and the Alamut duology. However, like the preceding book in the series, this is a straight historical novel with no hint of magic.

Recommended.

The Nine Lands, by Marie Brennan

Free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme in exchange for an honest review.

An anthology of seven stories set in the eponynous Nine Lands; a world built by Brennan in response to reading a fantasy set in a large continent with a monolithic culture and no diversity whatsoever. Considering that to be an impossibility, she started developing her own take on this idea, and ended up writing 7 short stories set there. However, she hasn’t written anything set there for a number of years, and has released this anthology.

Not bad at all; the cultures depicted range from a pseudo-African shamanistic culture to an islander warrior-nation riffing off Japan, with a large empire steadily conquering other territories.

Recommended.
 
So, this Judith Tarr.. where to start @Maddz ?
Historical: The Three Queens series isn’t bad, but may be a bit girly. They are fundamentally historical romances, but very well written (i.e. don’t come across as chick-lit).
Historical Fantasy: A Wind in Cairo is basically a YA horse story, and it’s been a while since I read The Hound & Falcon or Alamut. Death and The Maiden is part of the same fantasy Europe world.
Fantasy: It’s been years since I read the Avaryan Rising & Avaryan Resplendent trilogies.

Probably the best place to start is The Hound and the Falcon. That series comes across as rather Ars Magica-ish (in fact, Tarr has written a book called Ars Magica, but it’s nothing to do with RPGs, and AFAIK is a straight historical. If I get a decent enough Amazon gift card, I may well pick up the two historical fantasy series (I’ve got them in print, but it’s easier to haul the Kobo around...). At the moment, the individual books in both series are £3 - £4, The Three Queens are 99p, and £1.99.
 
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