A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark

By Harry Connolly

Rating: 3 stars

Marley Jacobs is not only rich and eccentric, she’s also the protector of Seattle. When her nephew is murdered, and a vampire seems to be responsible, it’s up to her to protect the peace that she’s spent decades building up, and prevent it from crashing down around her.

I quite enjoyed this urban fantasy. I heard about it when the author had a guest slot at Charles Stross’s blog. I liked the idea of pacifist urban fantasy, although that’s not to say that there’s no action, or even violence. Despite being resolutely pacifist herself, and insisting that those around her don’t use violence either, she can’t stop others trying to attack her. But, like the Doctor, she uses her wits and intelligence rather than fists (her own or magical) to deal with dangerous situations (not that fists are a great option for an older lady like Marley).

There are lots of hints dropped about her past, before Marley came to this philosophy, and the reasons behind her very particular habit of not opening doors for herself. Marley’s other nephew, Albert, is our entry point to this world, which he’s discovering at the same time as we are, when he’s hired as her driver and assistant. He’s a likeable guy, albeit one who’s too prone to wanting to solve problems with violence (not surprising since he’s just out of the army) and finds it difficult to cope with these situations on Civvie Street.

I found the pacing to be slightly uneven, especially towards the end, and the last chapter or two especially odd, as the final reveal seemed to come entirely from nowhere. I’ll look out for the sequel, but won’t rush to get it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780989828482
Publisher: Radar Ave Press
Year of publication: 2014

King Solomon’s Mines

By H. Rider Haggard

Rating: 3 stars

The hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain is engaged by Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good to travel into unknown parts of Africa in search of the legendary mines of King Solomon – not for the wealth, but to try and find Sir Henry’s missing brother, who was last heard of going in search of them himself. The intrepid trio, together with their native manservant Umbopa must face many dangers before and after they find their destination.

I first encountered Allan Quatermain not through the works of H. Rider Haggard, but those of Alan Moore, via The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I would probably not given this volume a second glance if I hadn’t recognised the protagonist from Moore’s story.

I’m glad that I did though, as it’s a fair rip roaring adventure. As with so much other literature of the period, especially that set in the Empire, it does need some cognitive filtering though. You’ve got to remember when and by whom it was written: it is very much a book of its time, and its treatment of non-white characters reflects that. In saying that, it’s not as bad as some in that regard, but the almost unconscious assumption that white men are the superior race feels difficult to a 21st century reader.

And I must confess that I laughed out loud when they pulled the convenient eclipse stunt, although to be fair, it wasn’t the worn, laughable trope that it is now when the book was written.

So a fun adventure, but one that needs to be read as a period piece and has all the difficult racial problems of its era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140350142
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1885

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 4 stars

Irene is an agent of the Invisible Library, which exists between realities. She goes out to one of the many alternate Earths and brings back rare, important and sometimes dangerous books to be kept safe within. Her latest mission is to retrieve a book from a steampunk-esque alternate Earth and is given a new apprentice. However, she soon discovers that the world that she’s been sent to is infested with chaos magic, that her new apprentice has secrets of his own and that a terrible threat stalks her in her quest for the book.

This is a great fun story. I’m a book geek (big surprise from someone who’s reviewed how many books on a social network for readers!) and this pressed so many of my buttons. From the intelligent, capable woman who can rewrite reality with Language to the hints of the mysterious Library itself to the steampunk world that Irene finds herself on, there’s lots to enjoy here.

The main thrust of the story here has a conclusion, but the main plot is only just beginning. I look forward to volume 2 (coming this year, according to the author!).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447256236
Publisher: Tor UK
Year of publication: 2015

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

By Ed Finn

Rating: 3 stars

This anthology has an interesting gestation. It came about after Neal Stephenson published an essay called Innovation Starvation and was on a panel with Arizona State University president Michael Crow. Crow challenged Stephenson on his essay and so Project Hieroglyph was born, to create a space where writers and scientists could mingle and share ideas, ideally hopeful ideas for a better future. The first output from this project is this anthology of stories.

Mostly the stories are plausible in a near-ish future, and they tend to have some sort of optimistic thread or conclusion to them, harking back to the Golden Age SF days where the future was a great thing that we wanted to happen, rather than the dystopic dread that so much of modern SF is.

Stephenson’s own contribution, Atmosphæra Incognita kicks the collection off starts as it means to go on, with an entrepreneur deciding to build a tower twenty kilometres high, the challenges and rewards of such a structure. Of all the stories, I think only Lee Konstantinou didn’t get the memo about being optimistic. His Johnny Appledrone vs the FAA has a sort of grimness to it that was missing from the other stories, although I can see a sort of hope in its conclusion.

Highlights included David Brin’s Transition Generation about how technology that is innate and obvious to one generation is difficult and alien to the previous; and Bruce Sterling’s Tall Tower about a guy and his horse who climb the Tall Tower on the way to the Ascended uploaded humans in the stars. This feels very much like a fable and it’s a lovely story that washes over you. Lots of fun.

A decent collection all in all, and each story had URLs at the end linking to discussions and further reading at Project Hieroglyph. I must confess that I didn’t follow many of these, but it’s good that they’re there. (It would have been nice if the links had been shorter though).

Book details

ISBN: 9780062204691
Publisher: William Morrow
Year of publication: 2014

A Natural History of Dragons (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #1)

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 4 stars

This is a memoir of the foremost dragon expert in the world, Isabella Camherst, her first expedition to study the creatures and of the very human problems that the expedition encountered. I really enjoyed this book a lot. Although I’ve shelved it as ‘fantasy’, the only fantastic elements are that it’s not set in our world, and that there are dragons. And even the dragons are very naturalistic, with organs that generate their unique breath. Isabella even helps to dissect and record the details of them more than once.

The worldbuilding is rather marvellous as well. It’s set in what we would describe as an early Victorian period, and it seems that the country that Isabella comes from is probably analogous to Britain during that period. There are details thrown in (such as hints that iron ore isn’t common in this country, leading to militaristic endeavours abroad) in a casual way that that provides information without breaking up the flow of the story.

I enjoyed Isabella’s voice in this memoir as well. Both the youthful nineteen year old new bride who manipulates her husband into taking her on the expedition and the wiser, at times querulous voice of the elderly Lady Trent (as she becomes at some point) adding asides and her own commentary.

Some other reviews have had problems with the narrator’s voice and the trouble she had with just one servant in this remote village, where the expedition was taking place. This doesn’t bother me one bit, because even for an adventurous young lady, a noblewoman of the period would have felt like that, and Isabella tries her best to overcome that.

One word of warning, dragons aren’t really make a huge presence in the story and when they are, it’s from a naturalistic, scientific point of view. I love the idea of treating dragons in that way and having a pseudo-Victorian naturalist try to analyse them, but if you’re after lots of flaming and adventure then maybe this isn’t for you.

Book details

ISBN: 9781783292394
Publisher: Titan Books (Titan Entertainment Group)
Year of publication: 2013

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