Scales and Sensibility (Regency Dragons, #1)

By Stephanie Burgis

Rating: 4 stars

Elinor Tregarth is trying to be model poor relation, but her awful cousin and uncle don’t exactly make it easy, and her aunt just closes her eyes and never disagrees with anyone. But when she finally snaps and ends up kidnapping (rescuing, really) her cousin’s pet dragon (all the most fashionable ladies have one this season, don’t you know?), it sets off a chain of events that culminates in her trying to impersonate someone she doesn’t know while helping the man she’s just met and fallen in love with try to marry her cousin.

The author describes this as a rom-com. I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe it. Romantic, definitely, but it’s more a farce than a comedy. Maybe a comedy of errors, with many misunderstandings, double-crossings and blackmail. It was also oddly stressful to read, as I nervously read on to find out what disaster would befall Elinor next!

While I don’t entirely buy the whole idea of love at first sight, the book still sets it up well as Elinor and Benedict start falling for each other, even as Elinor is still desperately trying to set him up with her wealthy cousin. Old tropes, but old for a reason.

I initially thought this was going to be similar to Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent books, with added romance. But although the dragons were initially thought to be natural creatures, magic soon makes an entrance, although it’s fairly subdued.

Burgis says in the note at the end of the book that she’s planning on giving each of Elinor’s sister’s their own book in the series, and my mind immediately went to the idea that there has to be one final book at the end where they all team up to form a giant mecha-dragon to save the world! But leaving aside giant robots, I’ll definitely be looking out for the next in the series to find out how the other Tregarth sisters are coping.

Book details

ISBN: 9798450717692
Publisher: Independently Published
Year of publication: 2021

An Ancient Peace

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Out of the military, Torin Kerr now leads a small band of ex-marines and others in a freelance capacity, doing the work that the Justice department can’t be seen to be doing. And now Military Intelligence wants them to find the long-lost homeworld of the H’San, now a peaceful race and one of the founders of the Confederation, but then a warlike race, who left large caches of weapons behind, and stop grave robbers from starting a new war.

This is a fun book that keeps up a good pace. I love a bit of competency porn, and no-longer-Gunnery-Sergeant Kerr is a great example as she charges through every obstacle with a combination of careful, intelligent thought and brute force. I’d hoped that now that she’s out of the military, we’d get some characterisation for the group around her, as usually characterisation was a surefire indication that they were going to die. But other than Alamber, who they rescued at the end of the last book, there’s not much of that around. Still, this is military SF and there’s a satisfying amount of explosions and punches to make up for it.

As the war ramps down in the series, the politics of the situation is starting to take its place, to some degree. There was a little of that here, with the Human’s [sic] First nationalist organisation appearing (and yes, that misplaced apostrophe gets snarked on a lot) and a coda at the end connecting some dots that hadn’t been before. There’s tension between the elder races who have “evolved beyond violence” and the younger races that they recruited to do their fighting for them. I’m looking forward to seeing how the situation plays out over the course of the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169766
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2015

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, 2)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

The empire of Teixcalaan is at war with an alien species. Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, Mahit Dzmare, has returned home to her station not quite in disgrace, but still finds herself under threat. When Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus sends back home for someone to try to communicate with the enemy, former attaché Three Seagrass jumps at the opportunity, and she brings Mahit with her, jumping from one frying pan to another as she swaps the politics of her home for that of the fleet.

I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did its predecessor, but there was still a lot to like here. While not musing so much on the siren call of a dominant culture, it looks more at communication, mirroring the way that Mahit and Three Seagrass communicate (or fail to) with the attempts to communicate with the aliens. As well as these two main protagonists, we also have the PoV of Eight Antidote, the heir to the Empire, as he learns about war and politics, back on the homeworld, and what it means to be the future emperor. He’s also an eleven year old child, but he has to grow up a lot and very quickly if he’s going to prevent the war from expanding to fill all the space it can.

The big themes in this book involve not being able to go back home (although more because Mahit wants to avoid having her skull carved up, than for any metaphorical reasons). I think the idea that she has changed enough that she’s rejected by her home would have been a strong strand on its own, without needing the element of physical threat, but maybe that’s just me.

I think maybe the different plots were wrapped up a little too neatly, and too easily by the end of the book, but that’s not something that bothered me as much as it might have done. There’s a solid ending, but also lots of space left open to tell more stories, both about Mahit and Three Seagrass, and also in the wider universe that Martine has created. I’d read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001648

The Secret Museum

By Molly Oldfield

Rating: 3 stars

I had two principal thoughts while reading this book – firstly a degree of sorrow that these wonderful things exist but nobody can get to see them; and second it sort of felt like the author was quite smug in that she did get to see them.

The essays that go along with each object are interesting enough, but, to my mind, quite forgettable. Sometimes Oldfield does focus on the object, going into details about it and how it makes her feel, but often there’s a degree of padding and general fluff. And, quite often we have to rely on the author’s descriptions since photographs of the object are either too small to make out much detail or, in some cases, absent entirely. The pictures are squeezed into the margins, when, to my mind, they should be given pride of place, which is a poor design choice (not necessarily the author’s fault) and the book suffers for it.

The objects themselves are an eclectic bunch, ranging from a Gutenberg Bible, through the whole interior of a warship and Queen Victoria’s dentist’s tools to the original draft of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. I do somewhat envy Oldfield’s access to be able to see all of these, but I do wonder how valuable this random collection of items is in the era of the Internet.

An interesting coffee-table book to browse, but by no means essential.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007455287
Publisher: Collins
Year of publication: 2013

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain #4)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 4 stars

I marvel a little at how far this series has come. It started as a somewhat poor Tolkien clone, but has very much found its feet since then, and Taran Wanderer is an action-light, but substantial piece of work. Here, Taran is restless to know about his heritage, and feels that before he can ask Princess Eilonwy to marry him, he has to find out if he is of noble blood. I mean, I could have have told him that it really doesn’t matter (and, indeed, several characters do tell him that), but he has to go on his journey and discover that for himself.

He’s accompanied on his journey by the always faithful Gurgi (who always has a rhyme or two to hand) and they run into the king who would be bard (or is it bard who would be king?) Fflewddur Fflam. The dwarf Doli turns for a bit, but Eilonwy is conspicuous by her absence. She’s a great character and the book is all the more dreary for her absence.

This is a slow, thoughtful book. There are no big battles, and the main antagonists are a bunch of mercenaries, who are the sort of common evil who just take because they can and are more powerful than the people around them. Not Dark Lords, just unpleasant people.

Taran has to go the long way around to find himself. In the process, he discovers his own capacity for, if not cruelty, then the thoughts of it. But the difference between him and the brigand Dorath, is that he is ashamed of these feelings and strives to become a better person.

I have no idea what I would have made of this if I’d encountered it as a child. As it is, I’m glad to have read it now, when I can appreciate some of its more complex thoughts and feelings.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006714989
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1979

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

By Ken Liu

Rating: 3 stars

This is the hardest kind of book to review, because while I really appreciated it, I mostly didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, these stories are great speculative fiction. The science fiction stories often take that platonic ideal of extrapolating a single idea and asking, “what if…?”. Unfortunately, Liu often takes that extrapolation into directions that I really struggle with. The strongest iteration of this is in Thoughts and Prayers about how the memory of a young woman who died in gun violence can be weaponised, and how the defences to that can be as bad as the assault. Haunting, powerful and I wanted to take a shower after it.

A number of the stories are pretty grim and, to my mind, unnecessarily depressing. I loved the idea of The Message where a xenoarchaeologist and his newfound daughter explore alien ruins against a deadline, trying to figure out the meaning of a monument before it’s destroyed by terraformers. It was a neat tale with a clever idea and a strong emotional thread, that had a sting in the tail that soured the whole thing for me.

There’s a specific trilogy here, in The Gods Will Not Be Chained, The Gods Will Not Be Slain and The Gods Have Not Died in Vain, which were written for a apocalypse-themed trilogy of anthologies. But others in the collection touch on similar themes and some could be read to be set in the same universe, telling a grander future-history of the Singularity, the people who choose to remain behind and the directions post-humanity chooses to go after it.

The weakest story, to my mind, was probably A Chase Beyond the Storms, mostly because this was an excerpt from a novel, and not even the first novel, but the third in a trilogy, which meant that it was mostly incomprehensible for someone who hasn’t already read the first two books. My favourite story, on the other hand, is probably Seven Birthdays that follows a single life, starting before the Singularity and following it, post-upload into the far future.

There’s no doubting that Ken Liu is a powerful voice in science fiction in this period, both through his translations of other people’s work into English, and as this collection shows, in his own right. But having read the nineteen stories in this book, and having had a good selection of his work, I don’t think he’s a writer that I’ll be actively searching for. He’s good, but I didn’t enjoy most of what I read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838932060
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2021

Strange Practice (Dr. Greta Helsing, #1)

By Vivian Shaw

Rating: 4 stars

Dr Greta Helsing (the family dropped the ‘van’ some generations ago) is a London GP, but alongside all the usual travails of this profession, she’s got additional problems to deal with – her patients are all supernatural creatures. Whether that’s vampires with sunburn, ghouls who suffer from depression or mummies with joint problems, Greta has to do her job, and also prevent them from being noticed by the rest of the world. What she doesn’t need is London’s current serial killer taking an interest in her patients, and perhaps in Greta herself.

I really enjoyed this book – it was a huge amount of fun. I really liked Greta as a protagonist. She’s constantly tired, purely human but dedicated to her patients and her art. She wants to solve problems and help people, but the “Rosary Ripper” is enough to put a dent in anyone’s day.

We’re introduced to a number of different supernatural characters here. The ones that get the most attention are probably Lord Ruthven, a vampire whose most urgent problem is usually just staving off the boredom of the ages; and Fas, who’s got a really bad lung problem and nobody really knows his background.

The books reminds me of both the Athena Club books by Theodora Goss, in that it portrays creatures that are traditionally thought of as ‘monsters’ in a sympathetic light, and the Incryptid series by Seanan McGuire, for the modern setting and humans working to protect the supernatural. It blends these elements well, and I really want to know more about the history of both Ruthven and Fas, as well as get a wider view into Greta’s world.

There was a bit of deus ex machina towards the end, but nothing that hadn’t been hinted at prior to the fact, and certainly not enough to in any way spoil my enjoyment. I’ll definitely be looking out for Greta’s future adventures.

Book details

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

This collection brings together a number of stories about Peter Grant and others with knowledge of magic in his world. These have mostly be reprinted elsewhere and I’ve read most of them before, although it’s still nice to have them all in one place.

The book is ordered by putting the Grant stories together at the front and the others at the back. I preferred to mix them up, so I tend to alternative a Peter story with a non-Peter story. Of the Peter stories, King of the Rats was a bit disappointing, as it stopped just as it was getting interesting. I’ve got a vague feeling that more of that story might have been covered in one of the novels, but after eight books and counting, I’m finding it hard to keep track. Much better was A Rare Book of Cunning Device, seeing Peter chasing something deep in the stacks of the British Library, and introducing the rather marvellous Elsie ‘Hatbox’ Winstanley. Aaronovitch teased a future short featuring her and resident Folly library Harold Postmartin, which I think would be an awful lot of fun.

Of the non-Peter stories, Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby was probably my favourite, dealing with the aftermath of Peter and Beverly’s, er, excursion in the river Lugg. It was one of the few stories that I hadn’t read before as well. There were three flash pieces amongst the non-Grant stories as well, which Aaronovitch calls ‘Moments’. I’ve recently discovered that these tend to be available online and you can find links to all of them on the Follypedia.

Not an essential volume, by any means, especially if you tend to get the Waterstones editions of the books, which usually have a short story at the end (most of the ones in this collection started off life as Wasterstones exclusives), but spending time in Peter Grant’s world is always fun and the stories do help round out the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781625675095
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
Year of publication: 2020

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