A Witch’s Guide to Fake Dating a Demon

By Sarah Hawley

Rating: 4 stars

Mariel is prophetised to be the most powerful witch in generations. But instead she’s a laughing stock, looked down upon by everyone, including her overbearing mother. But she loves gardening (nature magic is something she’s actually good at) and baking. Trying to summon some flour, she accidentally summons a demon, who is then tied to her until she makes a soul bargain she doesn’t want to make. But Ozroth the Ruthless has his own secret shame, and it’s not long until the two unwilling housemates become something more.

This is a delightful paranormal romance set in a sunny world full of magical creatures that sit alongside unmagical humans. When we meet Mariel she’s a bit of a mess, with no self-esteem, despite the attempts of her best friend Calladia (who’s great fun, but has serious anger management issues). But their friendship and love is real and strong, and Hawley draws parallels with both their mothers and the sort of rivalry and bitterness that passes as friendship between them.

We switch PoV between Mariel and Ozroth as they try to figure out a way out of their predicament, and Ozroth helps Mariel realise her true strengths and stand up to the people who have been belittling her. When the big showdown with her mother comes, it’s a punch the air moment.

I was wondering what would trigger the inevitable third act falling-out between them, since there were no big secrets or anything. When it came, it was actually triggered by an external agent, and didn’t particularly last long. It felt like it was there because it was expected rather than the author particularly wanted to do it (Mariel learns something and immediately believes the worst, which didn’t really fit with the woman we’d come to know over the preceding 300 pages or so). I was glad for the quick resolution of that and we could get back to dealing with what passed for the Big Bad of the book and the happy ending.

It’s a warm-hearted, funny, and sexy book (although I think it works best as a standalone, and after reading the sample of the sequel at the back, I’ll probably not be rushing out to pick it up).

Book details

ISBN: 9781399608893
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2023

A Thousand Recipes for Revenge (Chefs of the Five Gods, #1)

By Beth Cato

Rating: 3 stars

Ada Garland is a rogue Chef (the capital letter is important!) who’s been lying low for nearly two decades, but now someone has found her and is trying to kill her and her old comrades. Princess Solenn has travelled to the neighbouring kingdom to be married to solidify an alliance. But someone tries to poison her fiancĂ©, something she detects as her own powers awaken. From there’s it’s a race against time to find the poisoner and who’s threatening Ada, and what the relationship between the two women is.

I wanted to like this more than I did. But I can’t really put my finger on why it grated at times. It’s got a lot of stuff I like – an interesting magic system, in this case based around food; intrigue; and good characters, but it just never entirely gelled for me. It seems to be a secondary world fantasy, except that the map at the front shows France and the surrounding countries with some of the names changed. As with so many of these books, Britain (sorry, “Albion”) is the bad guy. And while I’m not going to argue that Britain doesn’t deserve that label in our world, it would have been nice to show us something to indicate why that is so in their world’s version of it (other than it being a lazy shorthand for “moustache-twirling villain”). There are no actual characters from Albion, so you’re just left with second hand accounts.

I didn’t really believe that Solenn was a sixteen year old girl, either. While her fiancĂ© definitely behaved like a fourteen year old (which he was), Solenn never felt like a teenage girl, but seemed to behave like someone much older. I did like Ada though, who is an older woman, and one of her key priorities is to ensure that her grandmother, who’s slowly succumbing to dementia, is safe. I also liked the complex relationship she had with her family – her grandmother (a Chef herself) took care of her and there’s a strong bond there, and it’s contrasted with her mother, who mostly saw (and sees) her as a means to an end, without any real love.

There’s a couple of massive twists just over half way through which change everything, and the gods of the series title make an appearance, which goes about as well as gods turning up usually does. The book pretty much just ends, finishing on a pretty massive cliffhanger, but the book didn’t engage me enough to want to pick up the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781662510298
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

Assassin’s Orbit

By John Appel

Rating: 4 stars

The setting of this book is a post-Earth society, where there was a nanotech plague on Earth and only those nearest the space elevators were able to escape and build a new civilisation in the stars. In the present, Ileri is about to hold a referendum to join the Commonwealth when the assassination of a government minister threatens to blow the lid on an already tense situation. Private investigator Noo is asked to work with police commissioner Toiwa and they end up working together with spy Meiko to solve it, and in doing so, they uncover a possible threat thought long defeated.

I didn’t see this book’s tagline of The Golden Girls meets Babylon 5 until after I’d finished it, but it suits it remarkably well. All the major protagonists are older women, but all still active players in their field. There’s also a lot of diversity in the wider cast of the book which I really enjoyed reading. The world-building is expanded slowly and organically, without any big infodumps, and makes for a fascinating setting, that I would happily read more stories in. And although this book was pretty standalone and ended satisfactorily, there’s definitely hooks for sequels, which I would be happy to read.

The fact that the characters are not all twenty-somethings makes it feel like they’ve really earned their depth, and you can feel that experience in their actions as well. They are parents and grandparents, but rather than mellowing over the years, they’ve retained their passion and anger.

I really rather enjoyed the way it started as a crime story and the way that the scoped widened and it became more of a thriller as the book went on. Overall, this is a fun space opera with a well-rounded and diverse cast of characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089156

Gobbelino London & a Collision of Catastrophes (Gobbelino London, PI Book 7)

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

Gobbelino and Callum’s adventures come to an end with an appropriate bang in this final book in the series. Old friends and enemies make an appearance, the duo (okay, trio – can’t forget Green Snake) are left to rely only on their own resources, and there’s an apocalyptic finale, where practically everyone from the series plays their part (my personal favourite is Tristan’s OAP army). Secrets are revealed, friendships made and solidified and Gobs remembers some of his mysterious past while Callum reveals more of his.

I enjoyed this final book in the series. It’s a decent capstone to everything that went before, pulling together a whole bunch of different plot threads and characters from previous books. Given the kind of book, and kind of series this is, the end was never really in doubt, but there was a lot of drama along the way, as every ally and contact that the duo have made throughout the series gets stripped away, before the final act Big Boss fight.

There’s a set of four short stories that are available for free that follow on from the book, forming a series of epilogues. I can see why Watt decided to split those off, but I think it would have worked as part of the book itself, but maybe that would have led to the Lord of the Rings style “too many endings” problem.

Watt does say that Gobs and Callum may return in the future, and I hope that they do, they’re a fun pair and I’ve come to care about them and their various found family.

Book details

ISBN: 1738585441

Mystery at Movie Manor

By Stuart McPherson

Rating: 4 stars

Three kids are filming a movie at an old manor house in the Highlands of Scotland when strange and nefarious events start to happen. Teaming up with some local kids, the gang take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on.

This felt to me like an old fashioned children’s book, in the vein of Enid Blyton (albeit with 100% less “swarthy foreigners”). The kids are all likeable and they get up to good old fashioned shenanigans. As is typical in these sorts of books, adult authority is mostly just not present, and is ineffectual when it is, leaving the kids to just get on with things (in between filming). At times the fact that it’s a debut novel shows, but it’s mostly a rip-roaring tale that trundles along at a good pace and is a lot of fun.

Note: I know the author and got an ARC of this book, but this hasn’t influenced my review.

Book details

ISBN: 9781805146285

Gobbelino London and a Menace of Mermaids (Gobbelino London, PI #6)

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

The penultimate Gobbelino London book moves the action from Leeds to Whitby, to which Gobs and Callum flee after the events of the previous book, where Gobs was nearly sucked into the Inbetween by something in their flat. The sea air hasn’t been as relaxing as they’d hoped though. Despite getting employment on a pirate themed cruise ship popular with hen and stag parties, they can’t keep out of things. They run into their friend Emma who tells them that Gertrude (aka Reaper Leeds) has disappeared. Things escalate from there, to include Black Dogs, Kraken-worshipping rats, merfolk (although they’re always referred to as mermaids, even the male ones), non-binary parrots, and sea witches.

The Watch reappear and once again makes an attempt on Gobs’ life. Honestly, it makes me wonder if pre-emptively drowning all cats, just to make sure that we can get rid of the Watch, is such a bad idea. This organisation is thoroughly rotten to the core, and we still have no idea why they’re harassing Gobs so much, having ended each of his previous lives.

The books are starting to feel quite serious now, and the whimsical touches from the past sits somewhat uncomfortably with that. Doily-loving grim reapers, cross-dressing trolls, and theatrical pirate captains feel at odds with apocalypses, drug-running, and extra-judicial attempted killings. I’ve enjoyed this whole series, this book being no exception, and I really hope that Watt can stick the landing in the final book.

Book details

ISBN: 1738585417

The Exorcism Engines (Girl Genius, #20)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 20 (20!) of Agatha’s adventures see us under the sea, with a big confrontation between Agatha and her mother, as well as finally getting Gil free of his father’s influence. Albia shows us some of what she can do and the deep dwellers come to the surface. In amongst all this, there’s time for some quieter moments too. Unexpectedly poignant is Oggie’s revelation about being married while being a Jagermonster, and the story he tells about his wife. And Airman Higgs finally comes clean about who he is to Agatha.

I’m really impressed at how well the plot coheres, despite how long-running the series is. Running a strip three days a week for decades at this point must make it difficult to keep track of. And I do always enjoy these paper collections that let us catch up with the story and read a year’s worth of story in an afternoon.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856731
Publisher: Airship Entertainment
Year of publication: 2022

Gobbelino London & a Worry of Weres (Gobbelino London, PI #5)

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

The fifth book of Gobbelino and Callum’s adventures focus on werewolves. Or ‘weres’ as the book insists on calling them, even though there’s no evidence of any other were-creatures than dogs/wolves. Ms Jones, the sorcerer that everyone is so afraid of, has gone missing, leaving just a message with Gobs to ensure that her boyfriend, the dentist Malcolm Walker, is safe. Which would be fine, except that he’s gone missing.

What follows is more ramping up of tension, lots of running around getting into scrapes as the intrepid PI and his human do their usual bumbling around. This time, they’re accompanied by two of the cats rescued in the previous book – Pru and Tam – who get to watch the PI process in real time bemusement. Oh, and there’s Green Snake, who seems to be better at actually detecting than either of his partners.

It does feel like we’re building up to something here, as the Watch are seeming ever more corrupt, and the one Watch-cat they can trust, Claudia, is still missing in action. There’s also the magician, Ifan, and what he’s up to and the possibility that necromancers are still around, and maybe working with the Watch.

This book ends with a sort of resolution and a partial cliffhanger as Gobs and Callum have to flee from Leeds. I’m looking forward to seeing what mischief G & C London can possibly get up to at the seaside.

Book details

ISBN: 9780473629779
Year of publication: 2022

The Elephant and Macaw Banner

By Christopher Kastensmidt

Rating: 4 stars

This fix-up novel collects a number of short stories and novellas that the author has written in the same setting, featuring van Oost and Oludara. It starts with Dutchman Gerard van Oost travelling to Brazil and freeing Oludara from slavery. Together they form a “banner” and aim to travel the country killing monsters and gaining glory. The stories tell of their adventures battling creatures of Brazilian folklore and the friends and enemies they make along the way.

The stories are generally fun and interweave Brazilian folklore into them quite well. It’s a good introduction to the sorts of strange creatures and mythical beings from that culture. I don’t know the culture well enough to know how accurate these are and what are pure inventions of Kastensmidt, but it’s nice to see something different from the monsters of classical European tradition.

An enjoyable read with characters that you grow to admire and care for. It’s especially nice to see van Oost’s religious prejudices repeatedly challenged and to see him grow as a person throughout.

Book details

ISBN: 9781911486312
Publisher: Guardbridge Books
Year of publication: 2018

Gobbelino London & a Melee of Mages (Gobbelino London, PI #4)

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

Following on from the adventure with the unicorns, Callum and Gobbelino now find themselves engaged by a magician, but when they arrive, they find the house empty and an angry sorcerer in the walls. Worryingly, Claudia, Gobs’ contact in the Watch, has gone missing and it’s possible the necromancers who were involved in the plague of zombies from a few books back may be involved. G&C London to investigate!

While the mages may be in the title, it’s cats that take centre stage here, as Gobbelino and Callum poke around. Nine cats are needed for something occult, and there are nine here, including our favourite feline PI. Pru, the hairless cat from previous books reappears as do several others, including a cat who thinks he’s in the military because his humans are veterans, a pair of brothers who talk like they’re California surfer dudes and a silent she-cat big enough to scare a Cerberus. It’s a lot of new characters to get your head around (and that’s not to mention the new human characters too). The story feels a bit more cluttered as you try to keep on top of the different layers of plotting, but Watt manages to keep a through line for the important stuff, amongst the pensioners of the apocalypse, maybe-dead sons, and the continuous undertone of corruption in the Watch.

As always, the snarky cat voice and the clear love between Callum and Gobbelino are a joy to read. The author has recently put the whole series on Kindle Unlimited, so I’ll be binging the rest of it in quick succession, I think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838326555
Publisher: Kim M. Watt
Year of publication: 2021

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