Queens and Pirates (Girl Genius The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne #5)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

The battle for Paris is over – the old Master is dead but his daughter has broken through and stepped into his place. Almost her first action is to exile Agatha and the others who recently came to her city, while she rebuilds its fortifications. Agatha finally accepts an invitation to come to England to try and study and discover what she can about the temporal stasis field that holds her own city in its grasp.

Although I read Girl Genius online, I often struggle to keep the story straight in my head, since we’re only getting three pages a week. Here, we have nearly a year’s output in one place, and I can read it in an afternoon, making it much easier to keep track.

In the Foglios’ imagination, England is a wondrous, sunken island (is it even still an island if it’s under water?), ruled by an incredibly powerful, undying god-queen, who has had her own reasons for forging England into an empire that almost rivals that of the Wulfenbachs (although from a parochial point of view, I wonder what happened to Scotland and Ireland).

As the title nods to, this volume focusses on the queens (Albia and her mostly lost equals) and pirates. Most prominent amongst the latter is the always-wonderful Bangladesh Dupree. Here she gets to face off against an uber-assassin and help kidnap her own boss. She’s nearly as much fun as the Jagermonsters – high praise indeed.

Even after 18 volumes, the story is fresh and engaging. Agatha and her entourage are so much fun, and it’s funny enough that I was laughing out loud on multiple occasions. Roll on the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856694

Spellmaker (Spellbreaker Duology, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up directly from where the first book leaves off, the second volume of this “duology” deals with Elsie’s spellbreaking ability becoming public. Bacchus Kelsey, the young master spellmaker who’s well on his way to falling in love with Elsie, persuades the justice system to let her go and that they are, in fact, engaged to be married. Of course, Elsie now thinks that Bacchus has thrown away his future life and happiness for her freedom. Hilarity ensues.

The misunderstandings and Elsie’s obsession with everyone leaving her can be frustrating at times, but it’s all the sweeter when (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say) they’re resolved and expressions of love are exchanged. The rest of the plot proceeds, with the villain, now known to be Master Lily Merton, continuing her spree of killing (or trying to kill) spellcasters for the magic they leave behind when they die. The mystery of the stranger who Elsie meets in the first book is unravelled and we find out how it ties in to what Merton wants.

And honestly, if she was less psychotic, I’d be very sympathetic towards Merton. She really does have a zeal towards social justice, it’s just that she doesn’t mind murdering and enslaving to do so. I would have liked to get to know our other characters a bit better than we did. We found out at the end of the last book that Elsie’s employer, Mr Ogden, isn’t a low-level physical spellcaster as she’d thought, but a master-level rational (affecting minds) caster. I would have loved to find out why he had hidden this over the years – it’s known that has abilities, but he pretends his powers are very different to what they are, but why would he do that?

And then the new characters, Reggie and Irene, get welcomed into the group with a nod, but get very little character development. I would especially have liked to see more interaction between Reggie and Elsie. And Irene accepts all the events that she gets caught up in with equanimity. I’d love to know more about her character and why she’s so eager to be involved. Oh, and it’s sort of hinted that Elsie’s spellbreaking powers are different or possibly stronger than most spellbreakers, but this isn’t really explored in any great depth.

While I appreciate fantasies that don’t feel the need to bloat into multi-volume doorstoppers, I do think that this story would have benefited from a bit more depth (although that could still be the after-effects of binging Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle). Still, the complaints are fairly minor: the story moves at a brisk pace, with revelation piling upon revelation. The major characters are well-developed and likeable, and it’s a fun story to read. While I can see that this is a good point to leave the story, I’d love to spend more time with Elsie and Bacchus.

Book details

ISBN: 9781542022576
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2021

Triggernometry (Triggernometry #1)

By Stark Holborn

Rating: 4 stars

“Mad” Malago Browne is tired of life as an outlaw and is trying to be a respectable woman in a small frontier town. But when her old partner, Fermat, comes to her with a plan for one last job, she’s sucked back into her old life. The two of them round up a posse and go to rob a train…

This is a fun little novella taking place in an interesting “weird western” universe, where maths is nearly illegal and those who wield it are master gunslingers, using their mathematical knowledge to aid their fighting skills.

You have to wonder how it would be possible to build an (early) industrial civilisation if maths is as shunned as this book portrays; even basic arithmetic seems frowned upon, but that’s not really the point. There’s cool gunplay, double-crosses (in fact n-crosses) and, I think, a lot of in-jokes. I suspect several of the names referred to real mathematicians, but that’s not my field and Lovelace was the only one I recognised.

It’s cool that the specialisations of the mathematicians helped them in different ways: Browne’s field is geometry, and she uses this to calculate the best angle to fire a weapon to make it ricochet and cause most damage. The others, likewise, have their specialities, although given how short the story is, we don’t really have time to explore them in any great depth.

A fun idea and a good implementation. I think I’ll probably look out the sequel too.

Book details

Publisher: Rattleback Books
Year of publication: 2020

Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker Duology, #1)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Elsie Camden is illegal. She’s an unregistered magic-user, with the ability to break spells that others cast, without being able to cast her own. She works for a stonemason by day, but for an organisation that she calls the Cowls by night, helping dispel magical wards so that others can do the Robin Hood thing and stand up for the poor against the powerful rich. When powerful magician Bacchus Kelsey catches her on one of her excursions, he agrees not to turn her in if she helps him. What starts out as blackmail quickly turns into something more respectful, on both sides.

I shouldn’t have read this historical fantasy immediately after finishing Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle. I fear that’s broken me, as I kept wondering where the full chapter describing the economic basis of the magic system was, or the multi-page potted history of the Caribbean. This book is much leaner – coming in at under 300 pages. Once I dragged my head out of Stephenson mode, I appreciated the cracking pace that Holmberg kept up throughout. She drops enough worldbuilding and personal history to keep you interested, but not enough to get in the way of the plot.

Elsie is a fun character, although I did find myself rolling my eyes a bit at the slow-burning romance that builds up, but that may be me getting cynical in my old age. I also really enjoyed the found-family with her employer, Mr Ogden, and the other servant, Emmeline – something which has taken the place of her biological family, which disappeared mysteriously when Elsie was a child.

Bacchus is also interesting as a character – he’s an outsider, with an English father but a continental mother, and grew up in Barbados, where he has holdings. He’s in England to apply to the magical college for his mastership, and to ask for access to a spell that he hopes will help him in his own life, but he finds his way barred. Nobody comes out and says it, but his heritage is a big part of that. His interactions with Elsie smoulder and the pair make a good team once they overcome their differences.

The one thing that didn’t quite feel true to me was the setting and the social interactions that went on. Again, this may be a hangover from just having finished the immensely detailed Baroque Cycle, but the Victorian London didn’t quite spring to life for me, and the society and the way people interacted and spoke to each other also felt a little off. But that’s a small matter, and the characters and plot more than made up for it. I’ve already got the next book and look forward to finishing the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781542020091
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2020

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy, #1)

By Katherine Arden

Rating: 4 stars

This Russian-inspired story reminded me quite a lot of some of Naomi Novik‘s work, particularly her Eastern European-inspired novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. It had that same sort of dark fairytale feel to them, with the shadow of the forest threatening danger and winter as a major player.

Vasilisa is the last-born child of her mother, who was the child of a witch, and the power runs through her veins. She can see the spirits that inhabit her home and lands, and she can see things best left unseen. But amongst these, she has to live the life of a young noblewoman, and avoid the eye of the Church, and the new priest, who is determined to Save his new flock.

Vasilisa (or Vasya as she’s known) is a very likeable character. One who wants to just be allowed to live, without being forced to be bride, either of a man nor of Christ, which seem like her only options. But she is resilient and strong and knows she’ll find a way. You’re with her and willing her to find it all the way through. The other characters are drawn well as well, from Vasya’s frightened stepmother, to her solid and dependable ageing servant, Dunya, who raises Vasya and tells her and her siblings the old stories to keep them alive.

Arden studied Russian literature and spent a year living in Moscow. And all that really shows in the little details in the book. It’s a book that feels perfectly standalone; I can see how there’s space for sequels, but I enjoyed it a lot on its own and I don’t know if I want to read any more in the world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785031052
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 2017

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005

The Best of C.L. Moore

By C.L. Moore

Rating: 4 stars

Although I knew the name CL Moore, I was unfamiliar with her work and thought she was a New Wave writer, not Golden Age, so it’s been interesting to read these stories, all written in the 1930s and 40s. We think of much of the work of that era to be very plot-oriented, with little in the way of emotional underpinning or characterisation. I don’t think that can be said of Moore’s work, judging by this sample. Although the characters perhaps aren’t emotionally developed in the modern sense, they are much more vividly drawn than in much of the work of Moore’s peers of the era.

Shambleau is the work that made Moore’s name, introducing the character of Northwest Smith and the woman that he saves from an angry mob who turns out to be more dangerous than he thought. My favourite story in the collection is probably the final one, Vintage Season, in which a man rents out his house to a group of strange foreigners. This story is based around a trope that modern readers will readily identify, but which was startlingly original at the time (the author notes in the afterword that she thinks it may be have been the first story use this particular trope). It’s handled well, with a little sting in the tail.

There’s a surprising (to me, at least) amount of theology in the book. Not only is there the very direct Fruit of Knowledge about those first days in the Garden of Eden, but Daemon discusses the concept of the soul and The Bright Illusion has two gods fighting on an alien world, and a man who wonders about an afterlife.

So a fascinating look back into a different era of the genre, and to see how Moore’s writing contrasted with that of the men around her. She brought emotion into a genre that was, at that time, staid and with mostly cardboard characters. The stories themselves, while coloured by their time, are well worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345247520
Publisher: Random House Inc
Year of publication: 1976

Snuff (Discworld, #39)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

At the insistence of his wife, Commander Vimes reluctantly agrees to take a holiday with his family to the country. Of course, as everyone knows, a policeman can’t get his suitcase unpacked before there’s a crime that demands to be solved. And the crimes here are so big that the law can’t keep up.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve not been hugely fond of the later Discworld books, but this one was remarkably fun. Vimes might be getting on a bit, but he’s still practically vibrating with righteous anger. He’s very different from the Vimes we met way back in Guards! Guards!, and now struggles to find somewhere to point his class angst, given that he’s joined the very class that he once railed against. He has, to some degree, come to terms with the fact that he now moves in vaulted circles and his word causes tremors in the money markets as much as to the criminal classes.

It’s fun watching Vimes be Vimes, running around being cleverer than his enemies think he is, but his utter confidence, and, I suppose, that of the author, in the police and the law, is… well, a bit less self-evident than once it was. And he spends a lot of time bullying and steamrollering people around him, leveraging his position and his wealth to do so. And yet, when the crime is as awful as what goes on here, you’re cheering Vimes on all the way.

The goblins are interesting as well. Even in a city as diverse as Ankh-Morpork, they’re vilified, and as for the country, where They Do Things Differently, well, let’s just say that Vimes is justified in getting angry. In the city, when Angua and Carrot find a goblin to talk to, they find an eager second generation immigrant, wanting nothing more than to put his own heritage behind him in the name of fitting in and making his way in the world as it is. That’s sad, but also something that I can sympathise with, and relate to.

It’s nice to read a book where the police are the good guys, always standing up for justice, without being beholden to power or money. I guess that’s one of the points of fiction – to show us a better world. Maybe one day, our real-world police forces, whether that’s in London, Minneapolis or Glasgow will be equal to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552166751
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2012

The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, #2)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

It feels like Quicksilver, the first book in this series, was just an (extended!) prologue, establishing the setting and characters, as we finally start getting some plot in this one. This one interleaves the stories of Jack Shaftoe, last seen being taken as a slave on the high seas, and Eliza, the woman he rescued, ironically enough, from slavery. After Jack somehow gets better from syphilis, he joins with a diverse group of fellow slaves, escapes, steals a vast horde of treasure and goes on the lam. Eliza, meanwhile, loses and regains her own fortune, becomes a duchess twice over, has a child kidnapped, gets her revenge, takes several lovers, as well as helping free a young woman from slavery (and the scene with Bob and Abigail is among my highlights of the book).

We occasionally drop in on Daniel Waterhouse and other characters from the first book, but not very often or for very long. This is very much Jack and Eliza’s book. I’ve always liked Eliza, right from the moment we met her in the last volume, and nothing here changes that. She continues to show the strength of character and flexibility of mind that’s a joy to read. I was never hugely fond of Jack, meanwhile, in the last book, but he’s grown on me here. He still makes awful decisions, but he’s charming and genuinely wants to do the right thing, when he can.

Stephenson still piles in the words. He gleefully discusses, in great detail, various complex financial machinations and how they can be used for mischief, most of which I still don’t understand, and don’t think it’s worth the hours of my life to go back and reread in greater detail. But for all that, it’s remarkably readable. Although part of me wonders how much that’s through being inured to it by reading Quicksilver first.

I definitely want to know where the story is going next, but I think I’ll take a break and read something a bit lighter (and shorter) before tackling the conclusion to the series. I still don’t think it’s science fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410690
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd
Year of publication: 2005

Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 8: Catalysis

By Thomas Siddell

Rating: 5 stars

Gunnerkrigg Court continues to be, as far as I’m concerned, the best comic on the web. Volume 8 of the collected series collects chapters 69 to 77 and deals with Annie’s return from the forest after her meeting with Loup, only to be confronted with, well herself. It covers the two Annies having to get to grips with each other and their relationship with others around them, as well as Kat’s ongoing work (the robots and their growing religion, with Kat the centre of it continues to be intriguing and not a little creepy).

Reading Anthony’s interactions with Forest-Annie after her return is so much more poignant in light of current events in the comic. I hated Anthony so much when he first came back into Annie’s life, but we’ve had windows into his soul since then and now I pity him more than anything.

I love the characters in this series, and I love the way that the two Annies start to have their own distinct personalities and how they work out the problems between themselves and become stronger. And Kat, dear Katerina, bending time itself to her will to save her friend, but not able to talk to Annie about her own doubts and fears. The characterisation is so good, but Siddell keeps the balance between plot, character and humour perfect, sometimes using no more than a glance or a single panel to convey so much.

Also, wow, showing the Tick-Tock birds, right back in volume one, and then dealing with the resolution of that seventy-odd chapters — and fourteen years — later! That’s some impressive planning going on there.

So yeah, a great ongoing story, loveable characters (gossipy Cvet is my favourite new character in this volume) and constantly maturing art. Absolute brilliance.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684156658
Publisher: Archaia
Year of publication: 2021

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