Hilda and the Black Hound

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 5 stars

In another delightful slice of whimsy, this time Hilda befriends Tontu, a house spirit who’s down on his luck and she has to find out what’s causing havoc in the town of Trolberg and if it’s related to the sightings of the mysterious creature stalking the streets.

This volume does have David and Frida from the animated TV series in it, but more in passing than as characters in their own right, which is a bit of a shame, but that does allow the spotlight to remain on our favourite blue-haired adventurer herself. With her trademark sense of adventure, and moral compass pointing firmly at ‘kindness’, Hilda is a wonderful character and Pearson tells a delightful and heart-warming tale. Sure to delight children of all ages (including this forty-something).

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171072
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2017

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 5 stars

This Holmes-inspired story wears its influences very clearly on its sleeve, even siting its angelic detective at 221 (not 221b!) Baker Street. In a world where angels are tied to individual buildings, or have Fallen, and wreck devastation on whole countries, Crow is unusual (unique?) in that he is free to wander the city of London and offers his services as a private consulting detective as the Angel of London as a whole. Into his world comes Dr Watson Doyle, wounded by an attack of a Fallen angel in Afghanistan, and Doyle soon ends up helping Crow in his investigations.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! As I say, it wears its influences clear on its sleeve, and most of Crow and Doyle’s adventures are clearly based on the first three Sherlock Holmes novels, with a few based on the short stories. Into the mix is also added Jack the Ripper, as Crow searches, increasingly desperately, for the famous killer.

There’s a pretty wide fantasy element to the world that Addison has created here. In addition to angels, most other creatures of folklore and fantasy are present as well, from werewolves and vampires to hell-hounds and fetches. I love how all of these have integrated into society and are just part of everyday life. We don’t get a huge amount of detail – although vampires make a fairly robust appearance – but they’re just there, as part of the world.

Crow is a much more sympathetic and, indeed, empathetic character than other versions of Sherlock Holmes – especially the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation, where he explicitly calls himself a sociopath. This iteration has an irrepressible curiosity about humanity (Crow regularly watches Doyle eat, as an activity that he can’t partake in) and while eccentric, is a pleasure to spend time with.

Dr Doyle is also an interesting creation, coming back from Afghanistan with multiple secrets. At least one of those took me entirely by surprise. At some point, I’m going to have to reread the book to see if there’s any clues left for the observant reader that I had missed.

Some people might complain about just how close the mysteries are to the Conan Doyle canon, with added supernatural elements, but I actually really enjoyed that. My memories of the Holmes stories aren’t that strong, so it’s nice seeing how Addison works in the additional elements to them and the end is also usually a surprise. There’s a lot of Easter eggs for the Holmes fan to find here.

Another of Addison’s supernatural elements that I really liked was the idea of how the angels are tied to their habitations and how their names reflect that, and that to lose that involves returning to the realm of the Nameless – angels without distinct personalities that Crow implies have a sort of hive mind, without any distinct self-awareness. It’s a fascinating idea, and while Addison doesn’t really do much with it, other than describe it, if there are more Crow and Doyle books to come (which I fervently hope there are), that’s certainly somewhere that she could go.

So while the stories that Addison tells may be familiar, her detective is wonderful, and the world she’s created is intriguing and I loved every minute I spent in it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089101
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

A Master of Djinn (Dead Djinn, #1)

By P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 5 stars

It’s early 20th century Cairo, where magic was released back into the world a generation earlier by the Soudanese inventor and mystic, al-Jahiz, who promptly disappeared. A rich Englishman and his secretive brotherhood are found murdered, and a man claiming to be al-Jahiz is roaming Cairo and claiming responsibility. Agent Fatma es-Sha’arawi works with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities and is called on to the case.

I’m quite glad I read the first short story set in this world – A Dead Djinn in Cairo – before this. It would probably work fine on its own, but this book does reference the events of that story, and Siti, a core player here, is first introduced to Fatma in the short.

To cut to the chase, I loved this book. Firstly, Cairo feels real and distinctive. I’ve read a few books recently set in “exotic” locations and they never felt distinctive or different. Many of them could be set in Anyville, Genericshire. Whereas Clark makes Cairo come alive and makes me feel that I’m definitely not in London, or New York, which is a big win, in my book.

I loved our protagonist, agent Fatma, as well. The youngest graduate of the academy, who dresses not in Ministry uniform but in sharp Western-style three-piece suits, complete with bowler hat and swordcane. I picture her as a young John Steed, only, you know, female and Arabic. It’s not just Fatma’s dress sense that’s sharp – her wits and her eyes miss little. Here, she’s partnered with rookie agent Hadia, and while we get a bit of the grumpy mentor/rookie stereotype, thankfully that melts away quickly, as Hadia works hard to prove herself. With endless stories stories about endless cousins, and a wit to match Fatma, Hadia is a fun character. And then there’s Siti, Fatma’s lover, and worshipper of Hathor, one of the ancient Egyptian gods. She’s another great character and some of her secrets get revealed during the course of the story.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the emotional maturity of the characters. When secrets come out, there are no shouting matches and nobody storms off. There might be hurt and mistrust, but they don’t just walk away from each other, they stay and work it out. After having read a few YA novels recently with the emotions turned up to eleven, and where people refuse to talk about their feelings, it was refreshing change.

The world of Cairo in the early 20th century, with djinn and other magical creatures is fascinating too. Egypt is a world player now, having overthrown the British, with djinn help, and Cairo rivals Paris and London as world centres. We also get glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere – other native magic traditions are helping colonised peoples around the world to throw off their colonial overlords, and the world is changing.

I can’t wait to read more set in the same world, and look forward to meeting agent Fatma, and her fabulous suits, again soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356516882
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

The Untold Story

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 5 stars

In the last Invisible Library book (for now, at least), Irene and her merry band of followers are back on the trail of the traitor Alberich – a trail that leads to the door of the Library itself, and a conspiracy therein. I have loved these books since the first time we met Irene, hard at work stealing books and I think now, eight volumes in, Irene has become one of my favourite fictional characters of the century so far.

I love Cogman’s writing, which is pacy, exciting and humorous. Every time I sit down to read one of these books, it feels warm and comforting, with just the right amount of danger, to give it a bit of spice. This book had the core cast working together well, and although Catherine hasn’t been around for as long as Kai and Vale, she’s got a solid place in my heart already.

Vale was always my favourite supporting cast member, and while he doesn’t get to shine quite as much as he did in earlier books, he did get possibly my favourite line of the book: “You must surely know by now, Winters, that a leader’s authority is limited to giving her followers orders that they will actually obey.” My heart swelled three sizes at that, as he, along with the others, made it clear that they’re not going to let her go into danger alone.

It’s always difficult to end a long-running series, but this brings the mysteries and concerns that have been bubbling about the Library to a satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader on a high. I’d love to see more adventures for Irene in future, but in the meantime, I hope she can relax with a cup of tea and a good book.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529000634
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2021

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 5 stars

Remembrance is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories thanks, in no small part, to this novelisation, which I read many years before I ever saw the TV serial. It was on the strength of the memory of this book that many years later, I started reading Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, which are thoroughly enjoyable reads.

This novelisation manages to add extra depth to the story that couldn’t be conveyed on TV, and makes it feel more epic – especially the battle scene between the two Dalek factions. We also get flashbacks to Omega, Rassilon and The Other doing their work with the Hand of Omega back on Gallifrey, which makes it feel more epic. It also fleshes out Mike Smith and George Ratcliffe, and gives them back-stories tied to the War, and makes the Fascist connections that were implicit in the serial explicit. This is neatly compared to Ace, who grew up in the multicultural London of the 1980s.

Not exactly what I might have expected from a Doctor Who novelisation, but welcome nonetheless. A great novelisation of a cracking Doctor Who story.

Book details

ISBN: 9780426203377
Publisher: Target Books, Carol Publishing Corporation
Year of publication: 1990

Comet Weather (Comet Weather, #1)

By Liz Williams

Rating: 5 stars

The four Fallow sisters are all dealing with the fact that their mother, Alys, is missing, maybe dead, in different ways. But now a comet is coming, and all four are drawn back to their ancestral home in the depths of England, helped by the star spirits and the ghost of their grandfather.

I rather loved this somewhat dreamy and somewhat spooky story of four sisters who aren’t quite the same as other people. All very different from each other, and with two of them having had a major row at the start, the book nonetheless shows us how deeply they care for and respect each other, and how they are able to lean on each other when there is trouble.

The book is set in the present day, but unlike a lot of modern fantasy, it shies away from the great urban centres. London does feature, but much more important are the wilds of Somerset, giving this a very different feel to other primary world fantasies set in the present. All four Fallow sisters are protagonists, with rotating chapters from each sister’s point of view, often quite short, but enough to engage your interest and to create clear pictures of the personalities of all: steadfast Bee, who remained in the family home after their mother disappeared; single mother and fashion designer Serena, living in London; Stella who’s DJs around the UK and the Mediterranean; and Luna, who lives in a horse-drawn wagon, following the Gypsy Switch around Britain.

The story emerges organically, with the mystery of Alys’ disappearance, the mysterious Stare siblings and the Behenian stars all playing a part. The magic feels organic, coming out of the landscape, and the history of the land, without much formalisation.

I feel the end of the book feels a bit rushed, and there’s still several mysteries left unsolved. I feel I sort of missed something going on with Nell, their American cousin who’s visiting and seems oblivious to everything going around her. I don’t know if the sequel will answer those questions, but I just want to spend more time with the Fallow sisters and in Williams’ glorious writing. I’ve already got it ordered.

Book details

ISBN: 9781912950454
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

Mona is a teenage girl with the very specific magical ability to work with bread. From telling it not to burn, to making gingerbread men dance, Mona is the very definition of a minor wizard. But she’s happy being a baker, working with her Aunt Tabitha, and using her magic to help her. Until the other wizards of the city start disappearing, until soon she’s on the run for her life. And then, she’ll be the only thing standing between her city and an invading army.

I loved this little novella. It was charming, but with enough of a hard edge to make it worth savouring. Mona is a great protagonist, whose actions feel believable all the way through (up to and including the giant gingerbread golems). She doesn’t want to be doing this, she’s a teenage girl, and she’s (rightly) angry that all this has fallen on her shoulders. Why wasn’t the duchess stronger? Why didn’t other people speak out? Why was it left up to her?

But despite it all, she rises to the occasion (pun very much intended). With obligatory Little Orphan Boy (Spindle) at her side and with the help of her familiar – a sourdough starter called Bob (really, it’s scarier than it sounds) – she fights bigotry, rogue wizards and bureaucrats (as well as the aforementioned invading army).

The world is well-developed, without any big infodumps and the writing is clear and a joy to read. I’d love to read more of Mona’s adventures, but that would require her to be a hero again, which would make her angry, and she might set Bob on me.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 5 stars

Now living on Preservation and working security for Dr Mensah, Murderbot is currently assigned to a survey team. It successfully gets them away from pirates on the survey planet, but as they return home to Preservation, they’re attacked by an unknown vessel. Murderbot and Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena are captured and taken to an unknown system. Our friendly rogue SecUnit is miffed when it reboots after being knocked out, but that’s nothing compared to how it’ll feel once it finds out what ship it’s on.

I love the narrative voice that Wells uses for MurderBot. It’s self-assured, snarky, and vulnerable, all at once. It’s a joy to read, whether it’s describing violence against things that are trying to harm MurderBot’s humans, or trying, and often failing, to avoid having feelings that aren’t related to media.

This being a full novel rather than a novella, we have more space to let the characters develop. We get to spend a bit more time with Arada and Overse, as well as getting to meet new characters, like Amena, who has a knack of getting under MurderBot’s skin to some degree and understand its feelings. It also leads to a more complicated plot, including the welcome return of ART, from Artificial Condition. I did struggle at times to keep track of the various lost colonies and who was from what polity and what they all wanted. But it was totally worth it, and I’ll be reading it again at some point. Now that I know what happens, I can focus on the details on the next read (well, that’s the theory at least, Wells keeps the whole thing ticking over at a breakneck pace, without much in the way of chance to catch your breath, so I suspect I’ll be just as desperate to read the next chapter next time round too).

If you’re already a fan of MurderBot, you’ll love this. If you’re not, technically you could read this without reading the preceding novellas, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s best if you get to know MurderBot, Mensah and the other humans and it cares about, and, of course, ART. Then, by the time you get here, you’ll be a fan of MurderBot.

And now that I’m finally finished this review, I can go back to enjoying my media…

Book details

ISBN: 9781250229861
Year of publication: 2020

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

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

I was in two minds about whether I wanted to read this as soon as I got it. On the one hand, I’ve adored every Wayfarers book so far, but on the other, this is the last book in the series and when I finish it, it’ll be over. But I’m really glad that I did, it’s a fine way to end a wonderful series.

Three disparate aliens all stop at an interstellar hub, between legs of their journey, and while they’re there, an accident traps them there for a while, and these three strangers, and their host, end up getting to know each other better than they had intended.

In the same way that the previous book in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was mostly a book about humans, this one is mostly a book about aliens. One human does have a cameo part, and Ashby (captain of the Wayfarer, of course) haunts the book through his partner, Pei Tam, who’s on her way to see him when she gets stuck. The other aliens are Roveg, an arthropod Quelin, and Speaker, a bird-like Akarak, with Ouloo, a Laru, as their host, along with her child, Tupo.

The others all start the book wary of Speaker, which confused me until I remembered that the pirates who attacked the Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet were Akaraks. We learn more about them in this book, and why they have a right to be as angry as they sometimes seem, although Speaker is adorable. I think the exiled Roveg is possibly my favourite character though. He designs virtual environments (sims), is jovial, and is a bit of an aesthete.

The themes are typical of the Wayfarers series: optimistic and humanistic (if that isn’t a chauvinistic term for a book about aliens). We know that the interstellar civilisation of the Galactic Commons isn’t perfect – their treatment of the Akaraks and the ongoing war between the Aeluons and the Rosk is proof of that, and it’s no spoiler to say that although Pei is a cargo captain, the cargo that she mostly carries is weapons. But on an individual level, people are people and most of them just want to do the right thing. This is summed up best by Ouloo, at the end of a tense scene between two of the others.

This is a slow-burn of a book, that builds its relationships slowly as the three visitors who start off regarding the others as aliens start to see them as people on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. It didn’t have the instant appeal of Small Angry Planet but it’s a lovely book and one that I will definitely return to. I’m sad that Chambers is wanting to leave the Wayfarers universe behind, but I’m excited to see what she creates next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473647664
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2021

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