Within the Sanctuary of Wings (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #5)

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 5 stars

And so the memoirs of Lady Trent finally reach their conclusion, taking in scaling her world’s version of the Himalayas, massive revelations about the ancient Draconean civilisation and lots more tales of derring-do. From the first chapter, I was drawn in, having forgotten just how much I adore Lady Trent’s narrative voice, as a possibly unknown species of dragon draws her to a terribly remote mountain range half way around the world. With her go her indefatigable comrade in arms, Tom Wilker, and her husband Suhail. All great characters, but neither they, nor the mountaineers who come with them, get as much to do this book as companions have in previous volumes, which is a shame, because I really like Suhail and especially Tom. But these are, of course, the memoirs of Lady Trent, and it’s her adventures that drive the book forward.

The big revelation half way through this book changes the entire series and I’m now itching to go back and re-read the others in light of this (of course, I’ll have to get them back from whoever I’ve been foisting them upon this week; I’ve become an enthusiastic pusher of dragon memoirs!). The volume is as charming and bewitching as the others. Any fan will enjoy this (although if you’re not [yet] a fan, this is most definitely not the place to start) and Isabella’s drive is as strong here as it was when she was just a novice, trying to establish herself as an independent scientist outwith the shadow of her male colleagues and relatives.

Although the politics drive the story to some degree, as they have done in all the books, it’s Isabella’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge that drives the story forward. I can’t wait until my niece is old enough to read these, because if there’s a better (fictional, at least) role model than Isabella, Lady Trent, for any young woman, especially one with an interesting in the natural world, I can’t think of them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781783297788
Year of publication: 2017

The Goblin Emperor

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 5 stars

Edit 2021-03-07: Okay, since I’ve now read this book for the third time, I’m going to have to admit that I like it more than just four stars, so I’m changing my score from 4 to 5 stars. While I still acknowledge the book’s flaws, the familiarity of multiple rereads helps deal with that, and I love the characters.

Original review:

The emperor and his first three sons are killed in an airship “accident”. His youngest son, of mixed goblin/elven heritage is thus recalled from exile to take his place as the new emperor. However, Maia is young and hasn’t been educated in the ways of court intrigue, never mind groomed for the throne, but he’s got to learn fast, if whatever killed his father doesn’t claim him as well.

I really enjoyed this book. There’s not a huge amount in the way of plot, but the characterisation is great, and courtly intrigue really does hold the attention. Addison doesn’t shy away from Maia’s mixed race heritage, and the sort of bigotry that he faces because of it, but it’s not to the fore. The fact that he’s barely an adult and is untutored in how to rule is much more of a problem, but he manages to find allies early on. From the messenger who brings him the news to his personal bodyguard, not everyone is out to get him, and it’s a joy to see him tentatively reaching out and building these relationships. The book is very much about the loneliness of power and a repeating motif is how the emperor can’t have friends, and how the young Maia copes in that situation.

I also really liked the setting, which has a steampunk vibe to it, with airships and pneumatic tubes to deliver mail. There is magic, but it’s kept very low key, with a sleeping cantrip here, and a spell to talk to the dead there. Interestingly as well, there are no humans in the book. The kingdom is elven, and goblins feature, as well as at least one other, unnamed, race, but no humans.

One thing I found frustrating, however, was the large vocabulary of made up words: names, places and titles. I can understand what the author was doing with her world-building, but it’s just frustrating, especially as the glossary at the back isn’t exactly complete. I actually had more sympathy for a related complaint: that of the size of the cast. It’s really huge, and trying to remember who everyone is and what their relationship is to another character can be tiring. However, in this case, we’re thrown into the same situation as Maia, and at least there’s the glossary to fall back on (although it’s not exactly helpful to say that rank A is the chief of the Z and then not define Z, or give someone’s familial relationship, but not their relationship to Maia).

Book details

ISBN: 9780765365682
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
Year of publication: 2014

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

After rereading The Colour of Magic after a very long interval, I moved straight on to The Light Fantastic and what struck me very quickly was how marked the difference between the two books is. TCoM is an amusing lightweight fantasy pastiche; TLF is a Discworld novel. It’s astonishing to me just how much the three short years between the two novels has done to hone Pratchett’s art. This book made me laugh out loud several times, started the regulars towards their more familiar characterisations and introduced Pratchett’s famous footnotes.

I had re-read The Colour of Magic out of curiosity and, to be honest, at times it did feel like a bit of a slog. I just picked up this one out of a sense of duty as the two books have always been very connected in my head, and I hate not finishing a book, but devoured the whole thing quickly. The writing, humour and style all felt much lighter, much more like the Pratchett I remember and love.

There’ll always be sadness, however, in opening a Discworld book and seeing the first line of the bio: “Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead.” :-(.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552128483
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1986

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 3 stars

Despite Julie Andrews’ opinion, sometimes the very beginning isn’t the best place to start, with Exhibit A being the Discworld. Despite it being the first novel about a flat world carried through space on the back of four giant elephants standing on the shell of a turtle, I wouldn’t exactly call The Colour of Magic the first Discworld novel. So much of the tropes, language and humour that I associate with the Discworld are missing from this book that it would be better to call it a prototype, at most.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, but at this point in his career, Terry Pratchett is still a journeyman and the book feels like that. It’s been many years since I had last read it, and I must admit that I enjoyed it more this time round than previously. That’s because The Colour of Magic is very much a pastiche of classic fantasy, and I hadn’t actually read much classic fantasy at that point. I hadn’t read Fritz leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, H. P. Lovecraft’s horror or even Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, all of which are lovingly represented and gently pastiched here. Now that I have read all those authors and more I can appreciate what Pratchett was doing much more than I could when I read this as a callow youth.

In some ways, it’s impressive how much of the Disc is already formed in this early novel, with Ankh-Morpork (complete with [a, if not the] Patrician), the countries of the Circle Sea, Rincewind and the counterweight continent all present, ready to be fleshed out more fully in later books. But the book does very much lack the laugh out loud humour that characterised Pratchett’s golden age for me, and the writing is yet to gain the confidence and sparkle that would make Pratchett one of the most admired writers in Britain and beyond.

So an interesting book for its place as the book that started it all, but I still wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for Discworld newbies.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552124751
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1983

Prologue To Analog

By John W. Campbell Jr.

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that it was only after reading the introduction to this collection of stories from the last decade of Astounding Stories that I really understood the new name for the magazine: Analog. It had never occurred to me that it was Analog in the sense of analogous, but I’d always read it as continuous/opposite of digital. I must say that this makes much more sense!

Turning to the stories themselves, we have a number of excellent ones. The anthology kicks of with an Isaac Asimov warning tale about what happens when scientists get too fixed in their thinking, which a fun wee story. Next up is Pandora’s Planet, about an alien invasion that goes horribly wrong, and the hope for forging a new future. There’s a lot of humour in this one, as the aliens are baffled by the fact that they’re having so many problems with their new world. Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg then deliver Sound Decision, a grim story about a space rocket that malfunctions on a return from Mars to Earth (somewhat reminiscent of Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) and J. F. Bone shows us a military man with the courage to stand up to the entire chain of command to do the right thing.

The last few stories are perhaps less interesting, although Ralph Williams gives us an interesting spin on the old question of what would happen if humanity was just gifted a matter duplicator (his intriguing answer: not an awful lot) in Business as Usual, During Alterations.

However, for me, the stand out story of this collection has to be H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual. I really enjoyed this story of the first archaeological team on Mars, excavating the remains of the dead Marian civilisation, not just for the story but for Piper’s treatment of women. Not only is his protagonist a woman (of some intelligence and determination), but his space force has female officers as well, all of which are introduced matter of factly, without making a fuss about it. Nowadays, of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less, but this was written in 1957, a period when, especially male writers, routinely ignored women in their stories, or, if they were present, were just wives of (or prizes for) the hero. I also like the story as its focus isn’t on the military or obvious heroics, but the hero is an archaeologist puzzling over the Martian language.

So a good read for any fan of SF’s Golden Age, with (to my mind) at least one stand out contribution.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586022559
Year of publication: 1962

The Beast of the Rails (The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne Volume 1)(Girl Genius, #14)

By Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

In the fourteenth (fourteenth!) volume of the Foglio’s epic Girl Genius series, our heroine, Agatha Heterodyne, has escaped from the time-locked Mechanicberg and is trying to get to Paris, where she hopes to learn enough to free her city. The logical way to get there is by train, but these aren’t just any trains. They’re run by a monastic order, who have their own views about the sanctity of the timetable, and have the firepower to back them up.

The introduction to this volume says that it would make a good jumping on point for new readers, but I think that’s crazy talk. We’re thirteen volumes into an ongoing story with well-established characters and a pretty damn complex plot (besides, the whole thing can be read for free online).

The story is as fun as ever, as we rejoin Agatha, Gil, Martellus and the rest of the cast, each with their own, complex stories, motives and machinations. There’s not nearly enough Jägers in it for my taste, but then I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jägermonsters. Now, roll on the next volume! (You see what I did there…? ‘Cos they’re on a train…? I’ll get me coat…)

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856618
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Year of publication: 2015

The City of Lightning (The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne Volume 2)(Girl Genius, #15)

By Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

In this volume of the long-running webcomic, we see the conclusion of the fight against the Beast of the Rails that formed the cliffhanger from the previous volume (and gains Agatha an awfully cute new clank), before the gang makes it to Paris to try and find something that might help free Mechanicsburg from its time stasis bubble. We also find out why Gil is behaving even more strangely than usual and get some insight into the machinations of The Other across Europa.

So lots of intrigue, humour, lovely artwork but not enough Jägermonsters (there’s rarely enough Jägermonsters). It’s getting harder to keep the whole story in your head at once, which isn’t surprising given how long long the comic has been going for, but it does make you wonder if there’s any end for the story planned, and how far away it might be.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856632
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Year of publication: 2016

Escape from Baghdad!

By Saad Hossain

Rating: 3 stars

Dagr and Kinza are two very different people, thrown together in the mayhem that is post-invasion Baghdad. Dagr is a professor of economics while Kinza is a low-life. Losing everything from their old lives, they get along now selling small scale arms they get from an American soldier, Hoffman. Then fate drops Hamid, a senior member of the Saddam regime, into their laps and the two some decide to try to get out of Baghdad to Mosul, where Hamid claims is a hidden treasure.

This is an odd book. Part gritty war story, part fantasy, part Da Vinci Code-esque thriller. It certainly doesn’t skimp on showing the horrors of war, including atrocities committed by Americans as well as the various rebel factions. And yet, as the person who loaned me the book commented, at times it had the feel of an Ian McDonald book, (no bad thing, both of us are fans of Mr McDonald), for me especially the sequences involving the old Mother Davala, and the impossible home in which she lives.

For me, the plot involving a secretive sect after a mysterious artefact that could hold the secret to immortality was almost less successful than the characters, as we follow the bewildered professor, the psychotic cut-throat and the charming soldier as their lives get even harder than usual in wartorn Baghdad. It’s those sections, that examine what war can do to an individual, a community and, ultimately, a society, that are the strongest for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9781939419248
Publisher: The Unnamed Press
Year of publication: 2012

Now We Are Ten

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

I don’t usually buy books based on the publisher, but NewCon is very much The Little Press That Could, and 10 years of success seemed worth celebrating, especially when they got a pretty good set of writers together for the anniversary collection. Right, from the start, this is a strong collection with a story from Genevieve Cogman that does not go how you’d expect from the author of The Invisible Library series. Ian McDonald’s Women’s Christmas is a nice slice of life, with an SF background and good characterisation in a small space while Nancy Kress’s Pyramid has you wondering all the way through until the final reveal and suddenly you have to go back and read the whole thing again, in a new light.

The rest of the collection is mostly just as strong. I must confess that I didn’t really get Rachel Armstrong’s Zanzarra Island or Jack Skillingstead’s Licorice, but other highlights for me were Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Dress Rehersal (with a neat conceit and a great last line); Peter F. Hamilton|25375’s Ten Love Songs to Change the Word, which left me with a lump in my throat; and E. J. Swift’s Front Row Seats to the End of the World, about redemption and love at the end of days.

So a strong collection and here’s to another ten, and more, years of a great wee press!

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935194
Publisher: Newcon Press

Midnight Days

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

This graphic novel collects six of Neil Gaiman’s early comics work for DC. Of the six stories in the collection, there are three that are from different aspects of Swamp Thing, one Hellblazer, one Sandman and a little framing story for another collection.

I’m not hugely familiar with Swamp Thing so I perhaps didn’t get as much out of those stories as someone more familiar with the mythos. The first, Jack in the Green shows a Swamp Thing somewhere in England when the Black Death is sweeping the land as he tends to a dying friend. Even without knowing much about about the character or history, you can relate to that. The second Brothers is an odd little story that does rely more on DC/Swamp Thing continuity, telling the story of a living puppet who falls to earth from a satellite. Even without knowing the history though, there’s enough human stories – with hippy Chester and his damaged partner Liz; and with bitter government agent Gideon Endor – to hold interest. Shaggy God Stories on the other hand, seems to be an interlude between two big stories and I don’t think I got an awful lot out of it.

Moving away from Swamp Thing, the next story in the collection Hold Me which is a touching Hellblazer story, where John Constantine encounters a dead man who just wants someone to, well, hold him. The penultimate story, Sandman Midnight Theatre sees the single meeting between Dream of the Endless and Wesley Dodds, another character to bear the name ‘Sandman’. Set on the eve of WW2, Wesley Dodds is drawn to England after the suicide of an old friend, and finds himself investigating the Order of Ancient Mysteries, who still hold Morpheus in a glass box. The collection is finished off with a little framing story for a horror anthology called Welcome Back to the House of Mystery featuring the Cain and Abel who live in the Dreaming. Very much more cartoony in tone than the rest of the book, it’s an odd choice to finish the volume, but not necessarily an inappropriate one.

The art throughout is lovely, Gaiman can always find good artists to work with him; the painted, appropriately dreamlike, art for Sandman Midnight Theatre especially drew my eye. A lot of this is fairly early work by Gaiman so it isn’t always the most polished, but it all has heart and the storytelling confidence that marks his work. Even if you’re not familiar with the characters within, the stories are (mostly) able to hold their own.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401265014
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of publication: 2000

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