Bookshops & Bonedust

By Travis Baldree

Rating: 5 stars

I adored Legends and Lattes when I read it last year, and while I was a bit worried about this prequel, it totally hits the same spot. In this one, Viv is just starting her adventuring career, and is merrily swinging her trusty sword when a wight stabs her in the leg, requiring several weeks of rest and recuperation. Her comrades deposit her in a sleepy seaside town while they continue their quest, and Viv ends up making the acquaintance of the local bookshop owner, Fern, in her personal quest to avoid boredom.

Given that we know Viv’s eventual destination, we know from the start that the friends that she makes in the little town of Murk will only be fleeting, but that doesn’t make it any the easier, for Viv or for the reader, to leave Fern, and Maylee, and Satchel and the others behind. But like Viv, we make the most of the time we spend with them.

As with its predecessor, this core of this book is in the relationships that the protagonist forms while she’s in town. With Fern, the bookshop owner, with whom she becomes firm friends; with Maylee, the baker, with whom she starts a shy romance; with Iridis, the watch leader, with whom she forms a mutual respect. And then there’s Satchel. I wasn’t expecting the bonedust of the title to be literal, but there’s a talking, book-loving skeleton right there.

There’s more magic in this book than the last one too. One criticism of Legends and Lattes was that it was a book about starting a small business wrapped in a thin veneer of fantasy. Well between Satchel, the book, and Varine (a necromancer and villain of the piece), I don’t think that can be said about this one, even if Viv does spend more time wielding a paintbrush than a sword.

The afterword talks about the book that Baldree had intended to write, a mystery story set in the same world, but with different characters. That didn’t work out this time, but it sounds like a story that I’d love to read.

In the meantime we have this. It’s cosy, a delight to read, and with a somewhat bittersweet ending, as Viv does, after all, leave Murk to continue the adventuring career that ends with her starting Legends & Lattes, twenty years down the line. We know where she ends up, but I loved this little window showing us one of the events that made her into the person she becomes.

Note: I got an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book details

ISBN: 9781035007387
Publisher: Tor Books

The Harbour Lights Mystery (Shell House Detectives #2)

By Emylia Hall

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in this modern mystery series takes place the winter after the previous book, with Ally and her young friend Jayden having established a bit of a name for themselves in the local area as the Shell House Detectives. A fiery chef is murdered in the nearby village of Mousehole (which is apparently an actual real place, as is Tom Bawcock’s Eve, around which the action takes place) and although the Shell House Detectives don’t want to get involved, the fact that the murdered man may turn out to be their friend Saffron’s absent father brings them into it.

I continued to enjoy the friendship between recently widowed older woman, Ally, and new father Jayden as this adventure tests the boundaries of that friendship. There wasn’t nearly as much Gus as I would have liked, as Ally struggles with any potential feelings she may or may not have for him. Mullins still really tries to be a “loveable rogue” while still being just a bit of a dick (but getting better at not being so). We see a bit into Jayden’s marriage and seeds are obviously being planted for future storylines there.

The murder itself and its solution is a bit of a damp squib, and gets solved pretty much by accident, without any active work from either the protagonists or the police. But then this series seems to be much more about the characters than the crimes. It’s about Ally coming out of her shell; Jayden’s deep love of fatherhood; Saffron’s grief; and the relationships between all of them. There’s a few too many side characters, each with their own PoV chapters, but it’s still a very pleasant read, and I’ll probably dive into the next one too.

Book details

ISBN: 9781662505140
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Year of publication: 2023

Tea Set and Match (Tea Princess Chronicles, #2)

By Casey Blair

Rating: 4 stars

Following on from the events of the first book, Miyara, now a (provisional) tea master has to take part in a tea tournament to prove herself, while at the same time dealing with her sister, who arrives to deal with the aftermath of the treaty with the dragons. But there turns out to be more at stake than just her future. While I had some minor issues with the lack of conflict in the first book, after some further reflection and after finishing this one, I think that’s a feature rather than a bug. The whole tea master thing is about diplomacy, compassion and service, and Miyara has the emotional depth and self-awareness to be able to put the principles into practice without having to resort to conflict and violence.

I enjoyed the deepening relationships with her friends and introducing her sister as someone she rubs against the wrong way added a bit of spice. I really enjoyed the mature relationship she has with Deniel, where they are able to talk about their feelings before misunderstandings get blown out of proportion (something that bugs me in a lot of stories). I do wonder at someone so young being this poised, but that didn’t stop me really enjoying the story.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Miyara’s story wraps up (I hope we’ll see more of Lorwyn and Entero).

Book details

Year of publication: 2022

A Coup of Tea (Tea Princess Chronicles, #1)

By Casey Blair

Rating: 4 stars

Miyara is a princess of the ruling house. When it’s her turn to take part in the ceremony that will dedicate her to the service of her people, she realises that she doesn’t know how to serve them, so takes the other option, and leaves. She finds herself in a faraway city, on the edge of the Cataclysm where she gets work in a tea shop. For the first time, she starts to make friends, and maybe even find love, while still trying to find her path in the world and how to serve more than just tea.

As I was reading this charming cosy fantasy, I kept comparing it to The House Witch which I’ve recently as well. They’re both cosy, humorous fantasies, but this one tops the other substantially in my mind. Even though it was originally written as a web serial, it feels tight, well-written and very easy to read. I kept wanting to read “just one more chapter”, which is always a good sign.

I was listening to a recent episode of the Octothorpe podcast as I was reading this, where one of the hosts spent a while discussing another cosy fantasy, Legends and Lattes, as it was a Hugo Award finalist for 2023. One of her major complaints about that book is that there was no real conflict. The protagonist didn’t have to overcome anything. I couldn’t help thinking about that when reading this as well. Despite leaving the palace literally barefoot with not a penny to her name, Miyara falls on her feet. She finds someone to take her in, makes friends, gets a job, finds love, and even negotiates a major treaty without any real obstacles. Even when it seems that she’s failed at something, that gets turned around later. I can understand the sort of book that is, and, in fact, that’s very much part of the appeal to me, but from a literary standpoint, it does fall down.

But I liked the characters, and the vaguely matriarchal setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading it and have already started on the sequel.

Book details

Year of publication: 2022

Central Station

By Lavie Tidhar

Rating: 5 stars

For me, books often fit into two moulds – either heavy plot driven where I skim the actual words in my excitement to find out what happens next, or slow and lyrical, where the plot is almost secondary to the language, which has to read slowly and savoured. For me, Ray Bradbury was a master of the latter form and whenever I find books of that type, it’s always to Bradbury that I compare them. And Central Station passes that test with aplomb. I was hooked within the first few pages and despite there not being much of a plot, that feeling stayed with me throughout.

In some ways, the book is a love letter to the great science fiction and writers of the 20th century. There’s references to CL Moore’s Shambleau; Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind; Larry Niven’s Louis Wu and several others (and how many did I miss through not recognising the reference?). But the book is more than just nods to great writers of the past, it takes all those threads and weaves something beautiful from them. Central Station itself – a giant spaceport built between the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa – is a wonderful creation that will stick in the memory long after you put the book down.

The world-building is deft, slotted in between the glorious language as we explore the Station, the city and the characters who inhabit it. There’s Boris Chong, who’s returned from the Up and Out (itself such a Cordwainer Smith phrase) as his father is ill, with a sort of memory cancer; there’s Kranki, a lab-grown boy who’s more than the sum of his parts; and Carmel, a data vampire, drawn to Central Station by something she doesn’t understand. And that’s only a handful of the many characters that Tidhar makes us care about, in a fairly short book.

We see into their lives and how they cross and intersect both in the physical and the digital realms, through the ubiquitous network known simply as The Conversation. Everyone gets a node implanted at birth and it’s part of them as they grow. Those who don’t have one (like Miriam’s brother) are considered disabled, and lesser. Many things have changed in the future, but fear and distaste of those different to ourselves is still very much part of humanity and its digital descendants.

It’s not an entirely perfect book, I would have liked a stronger plot to weave these characters together, but I enjoyed my time spent with them all and would definitely add Central Station to my list of fictional megastructures to visit, given the opportunity.

Book details

ISBN: 9781616962142

The Fire’s Stone

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

A thief, a wizard and a prince studiously avoid walking into a bar. Not the setup to a joke, but the basis of this thoroughly enjoyable fantasy novel. Aaron, our thief, gets caught trying to steal the royal emerald but saved by the prince, Darvish. They are both then sent on a quest to recover a magic stone that stops the volcano that the city is built on from rising up and swallowing it whole. En route, they team up with Chandra, the wizard and Darvish’s unwilling political fiancé. It’s a good, old fashioned quest, with added alcoholism (hence the studiously avoiding the bar) and a burgeoning romance between Aaron and Darvish.

Chandra is a very powerful wizard, but she’s also a sixteen year old girl, with all the turbulent emotions that come with that. She hides behind her status as a “Wizard of the Nine”, using arrogance as a mask for her fear and pain. Aaron is the son of a clan chief, fleeing his own pain by locking his emotions tight, and fighting the internalised homophobia of his ancestral religion. Darvish is the third son of the king, with no power and no position at court. He drinks to take the edge off his own pain. And together this motley D&D-style adventuring party fight crime steal (back) jewellery and figure out their emotions.

The story moves at a good pace and the protagonists are (mostly) sympathetic. I’m pleased that I figured out who the traitor was, despite the misdirection. I think the central macguffin is daft – who thought it would be a good idea to build a city on a volcano and then suppress the forces of nature using an eminently portable bauble?? – but there’s still a lot to enjoy. I came to this from Huff’s “Valour” MilSF series and while this is very different, I enjoyed it a lot.

Book details

Siren Bridge (The Oleander Jones Saga Book 1)

By Jean Marie Ward

Rating: 4 stars

This is a fun little novella about a master con artist who’s hired to steal a jewel and finds herself in hotter water than she thought. I loved the weird western setting although the whole Heart Lock thing was really a bit creepy and it was odd that nobody seemed to have an issue with two people being made to fall in love with each other by magical means. I’m glad that the Falchion Apprehension lot seem to be better people than the Pinkertons that they’re based on, and there’s a nice setup at the end for Ollie’s future adventures and the Falchion boss. I would definitely read more of Ollie’s adventures.

Book details

The House Witch

By Delemhach

Rating: 3 stars

I noticed this just clicking around on the Kindle Unlimited homepage and the cover caught my eye. It sounded interesting, so I thought it was worth a go. *mumble* hundred pages later and I’m still not sure. I think the book definitely has problems – it needs a better editor, for a start. There were chunks that desperately needed tightening, and on the sentence level, some of it scanned weirdly or didn’t entirely make sense. But on the story level, I mostly enjoyed it. Finlay Ashowan has joined the palace staff as the royal cook, while trying to hide the fact that he has magic based around the home that might not let him shoot fireballs from his fingers, but does let him do the famous cleaning scene from Fantasia (except without the getting out of control).

There’s a sort of enemies to lovers romance that goes on with one of the noble ladies and a slow-burning plot about upcoming war with a neighbouring country. On the domestic front, Fin has to learn to allow himself to open up and make friends, and that it’s okay to rely on others.

Some of the story beats that I was really ambivalent on were the knights that were demoted to kitchen assistants for being boorish and threatening a kitchen maid. That’s one thing, but the thing that left me scratching my head a bit is how they very quickly became fast friends with said maid as part of Fin’s found family. It feels like there should have been a middle stage. There’s also a very modern set of values about the characters in the book, which feels a bit odd coming from what is a fairly stereotypical fantasy-medieval setting. But it’s secondary world, so I’m happy to believe that this world is more socially enlightened than we were at that stage in development.

I got to the end of the book and still don’t know if I want to read the second one. On the one hand, I want to know what happens, but on the other, I did feel reading it was a bit of a slog, and I can probably guess the overall shape of the plot. So while it left me with some warm and fuzzies, there were enough issues that I don’t think I’ll actually read the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781039410244
Publisher: Podium Publishing

Powered by WordPress