Without A Summer

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kowal’s Glamourist History series to date, and I’m pleased to say that that streak continues with the third in the series. This one is about prejudice, something that you don’t necessarily initially notice because it’s our series heroine and PoV character, Jane, who holds the prejudice.

Jane and Vincent are back from the continent, and after a period staying with her parents, they travel to London for work, and take Jane’s sister, Melody, with them, hoping to introduce her to eligible young gentlemen in the capital. But while there, they get caught up in a plot that goes to the highest echelons of government.

We encounter many forms of prejudice, and now that I think about it, not a small amount of pride as well, and the book clearly lays out the harms that it can do when your view of a person is predisposed to find the worst in their every action. We have the eligible young man that attracts Melody’s eye, eligible in every way except that he’s Irish and Catholic. And we have the distaste that Vincent’s father has for him and his profession. And caught up in all this are the innocent coldmongers, who are unable to ply their trade in the year without a summer, being used as pawns in a larger political game.

One thing I consistently like about these books is the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Much of the romance we see in media relies on the artificial drama of misunderstandings taken out of context and tearful reunions. The Vincents communicate constantly, and even when revelations from Vincent’s past come out, they’re able to talk them through and not let them drive a wedge between them. It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship portrayed here.

The worldbuilding continues to delight, with more details about the different types of glamourists, in particular the coldmongers. There was also a throwaway line referring to George III as the King of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie and Ireland”, which is intriguing and I hope is covered more in future books. The magic, however, is mostly set-dressing (ironic, since that’s what the Vincents spend much of their time doing), and it’s the character interactions that are the real draw.

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Toccata System:

By Kate Sheeran Swed

Rating: 4 stars

Part of a SFWA StoryBundle, I really bought the whole thing for this, and it was totally worth it. Starting with a space station AI that raises a daughter to be an assassin to kill a man who spurned her, it picks that up and runs with it.

Interstellar travel is mentioned in the series, but this story is all set in the Toccata star system, in the planets, moons and space stations that inhabit that system. Each of the three novellas that comprise this series take different PoV characters, the first being Astra and the AI SATIS who raises her. SATIS sends Astra to kill Conor, the son of the man who turned her programming, years before, but Astra discovers that Conor, a genius in his own right, has a device that can jam AIs – Astra could be free of her tyrannical ‘mother’.

The second and third books see the fallout of Astra’s attempts, but focus on different PoV characters. Something I wasn’t expecting from a space opera was a Phantom of the Opera story. The second novella in the series is a clear homage to that, with opera divas with masks (well, veils), secret passages behind mirrors and setpieces involving chandeliers. This one also deals with cyborgs and the prejudice they face. It’s never clear just why this prejudice evolved, and I guess there’s not much space to get into that in a short-ish story like this one, but it would have been interesting. Still, humans have never found it difficult to divide people into Us and Them.

I’ve had a lot of fun in the Toccata system. The bonus short story also in this omnibus edition deals with Fay and how she ends up with SATIS, deepening her character considerably. I’ve signed up to the author’s mailing list to get another short story in the same universe and while I was on her website, I found details about Swed’s other work. Both her superhero series and new space opera sound like something worth reading.

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The Red House Mystery

By A.A. Milne

Rating: 4 stars

I had been completely unaware of A. A. Milne’s work beyond Winnie the Pooh until a chance reference to this on, of all places, File 770. I was intrigued and when I found out it was out of copyright and available on Project Gutenberg, I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s a locked room mystery, with our amateur detective, Anthony Gillingham, wandering on to the scene by coincidence, just after the death of the brother of Mark Ablett, the owner of the titular Red House. We follow Anthony as he gets to grips with the people and the events, with his friend Bill as the Watson to his Holmes.

The book had actually kicked off from the point of view of the housemaid, and I’d wondered if we were going to going to get something more understanding of the household staff, but after that first chapter, they are left far behind. Although incidentally, I do think there’s an interesting story to be told from that angle – after all, in this period, who notices the servants? I had high hopes of the film Gosford Park for this, but it was more interested in the upstairs/downstairs social shenanigans than the mystery angle.

But putting that to one side and taking it as it was, I enjoyed this a lot. There was enough information revealed to the reader at the same time as the protagonist that I could keep coming up with the same sort of theories that Anthony was and although it was fairly clear who the murderer was fairly early on, the how and the why were left to the final chapter, as in any good whodunnit.

I enjoyed Anthony as a protagonist. He was a fun character and I sort of wish that Milne had written more stories with him. The idea of someone getting an inheritance and then using it to take on all sorts of careers, keeping them up for as long as he wanted, tobacconist and waiter being but two of his former professions, and having the security to move on when it stopped being fun. I think many people would envy that. It also helps that he’s a really nice chap too.

So an enjoyable whodunnit, well told and set in the heart of the Edwardian period (or the modern day, as it would have been at the time). He’s not written an awful lot of other novels, but off the back of this, I’d definitely be interested in seeking some of his others out.

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Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Year of publication: 1999

Gobbelino London & a Scourge of Pleasantries

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

Gobbelino London is a talking cat, something his human, Callum didn’t blink an eye at. Now they’re a PI team trying to eek out a living between the human and Fay worlds in Leeds and have a new case on their hands which will see them in somewhat more peril than they expect for a case that involves finding a missing book.

As much as I like whimsy and fluff, I found Watt’s Beaufort Scales books a little too twee for my tastes, but I enjoyed this an awful lot. While I’m much more a dog person than a cat person, who doesn’t love a snarky talking cat? Watt sketches out a surprising amount of world-building in a fairly short book, and left me with quite the unease at the Watch and some of their shadier practices.

This book told a satisfying story in its own right and also set up a bunch of stuff for future instalments. I liked Gobbelino and Callum, as well as the awesome Queen-Empress (or was it Empress-Queen?) of the rats, Susan. It was a lot of fun and I’ll definitely be picking up future volumes in the series soon.

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Year of publication: 2020

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.

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Elder Race

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tchaikovsky. I love many of his ideas, and he’s a great writer, but he tends to take his work in a much darker direction than I enjoy. After Bear Head and (especially) Cage of Souls, I thought I was done with him. And then I read the description of this novella, and here we are again. Except this time, it turns out I quite enjoyed it.

It’s a story of Lynesse, the fourth daughter of the queen, always getting underfoot and and in the way, who decides to take action against the rumour of a demon stealing people’s minds when her mother won’t. She invokes the ancient pact with the last wizard of the Elder Race, whose tower is nearby. Except Nyr isn’t a wizard, he’s an anthropologist (second-class), who’s observing the locals while he waits for relief from an Earth that’s gone silent.

The book is told in alternate PoVs between Lynesse and Nyr, as we see how the young woman from a medieval culture sees the product of a science millennia in advance of her own – truly a wizard from Clarke’s point of view, and how the still-young Nyr tries desperately to fit the fact that he’s helping her, while not expecting there to actually be a demon of any kind, with his breaking of the Prime Directive.

At the same time, Nyr is in the throes of very deep depression – he’s used suspended animation to sleep away over three hundred years, and still no relief has come from Earth. The loneliness and lack of purpose are crushing, so he relies more and more on technology that disassociates him from his emotions, so that he can function. And that, of course, comes with its own problems. And while he’s going through all this, he’s learning about this young woman, Lynesse, who awakened him and dealing with the deep communication barrier, not just of language, but of culture and understanding. More than once he tries to tell her that he’s a scientist, not a magician, but all she hears is “I’m not a wizard, I’m a wizard”.

The threat they end up facing is quite icky, with a reasonable amount of body-horror. We don’t learn as much about it as I would like, but it’s not that kind of book. While being in the quest format, it’s much more about cultural communication and misunderstanding, and dealing with mental health issues. Internal issues, not external.

So Tchaikovsky gets a pass with this one. I’ll still be approaching his work with caution though.

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Publisher: Tordotcom

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

By P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 4 stars

I finished Clark’s A Master of Djinn recently, and, having already read the two short stories in the same universe, turned to this to satisfy my Cairo-based, djinn-filled adventure craving. This novella features agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his new partner Onsi (who he gets on with, without any grousing, unlike Fatma), as they try to deal with a haunted tram car, and what seems like an easy job turns out to be anything but.

It’s not big or deep, but it’s a lot of fun. Agent Fatma doesn’t show up here, except in a cameo in the epilogue but Hamed and Onsi are great, and complement each other’s strengths well. Siti also shows up, although in a much more passive capacity than we’re used to, but it’s great to see her, and just to spend more time in the world.

This is a djinn-fueled world, where the European powers are losing their colonies because of the return of magic, something which the “scientifically-minded” Europeans reject, and so get their buttocks roundly prodded by the “superstitious natives”. It’s petty of me, but it makes me cackle to read.

I hope Clark writes more stories set in post-al-Jahiz Cairo. They’re an absolute joy to read.

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Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2019

The Man in the Brown Suit (Colonel Race #1)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Anne Beddingfeld is a newly orphaned, but adventurous young Englishwoman, who witnesses a man falling to his death in the London underground. This leads to somewhat more adventure than Anne bargained for and a trail that leads to South Africa and maybe even true love.

I hadn’t realised that this book didn’t star one of Christie’s famous detectives, but Anne was an awful lot of fun. The story is told in the first person as her memoir of the affair, with some chapters being “extracted” from the diary of an MP that Anne happens to encounter.

Anne’s fellow travellers on the ship that takes her to Africa are a varied bunch, each well drawn and with their own characterisation, letting the reader put them into their own mental map of the plot. I especially liked Mrs Suzanne Blair, the society lady that Anne takes into her confidence; and Guy Pagett, the rather prim secretary of MP Sir Eustace Pedlar – he reminds me of that wonderful PG Wodehouse creation, The Efficient Baxter.

The identity of the mastermind behind the whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, the whole thing was deftly put together, with all the clues and red herrings that you’d expect from the Queen of Crime. While I was a bit disappointed not have Hercule Poirot solving the mystery, Anne is a delightful character and I couldn’t stay mad at her for long.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007151660
Publisher: HarperCollinspublishers
Year of publication: 2002

Tea and Sympathetic Magic

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Rating: 4 stars

There’s very little to this short novella of an eligible young lady trying to not get married to the most eligible bachelor in the land, and teaming up with a handsome spellcracker to save him from kidnap and being magicked into marriage. It’s very fluffy, but a lot of fun. It’s part of the magical Regency romance genre but very knowingly pokes fun at that genre.

I’m not sure I can take any book that’s set in a place called the “Teacup Isles” seriously, but then the author doesn’t really take it seriously either. Although despite it all, the book never mocks the genre but lovingly sends it up. I like that because it’s in an alternate world, although it liberally borrows from the British Regency period, it isn’t bound by it, and so things that don’t fit in that period (for example, same-sex relationships) are present and don’t feel out of place.

Great fun, with a protagonist I liked. A great antidote to 2021.

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Year of publication: 2020

The Z Team

By Chris DeSantis

Rating: 3 stars

To be honest, this book wasn’t quite what I was expecting – I was expecting a found family story where the whole crew pulls together against external threats, but captain Dash Anderton’s biggest threat is his own crew. It’s not a spoiler to say that they mutiny – we start the book in media res in the middle of the mutiny, before jumping back to show the events that led up to it, which takes about half the book, and then the consequences.

I liked DeSantis’s world-building, in which he drops in details about how his galactic community (the Commonwealth) works, mostly without resorting to infodumps. There were a few biggies in there too, which weren’t expanded upon, but may be in future volumes – such as the idea that Earth has been cut off from the rest of the interstellar community after the “channel” that led to it collapsed; and that there are now subspecies of humanity.

Something else that was interesting here and which I’ve not really seen elsewhere, other than in MilSF, is the distinction between flight and ops crews – here it’s the ops crew that mutinies, while the flight crew stick together.

Dash, his pilot Gaius and medic Wesley form the flight crew and the book mostly follows them as characters, with Dash as our main PoV, while Wesley has his own secrets as he’s on the run, followed by a trio of bounty hunters.

It was a decent story, but I don’t know if I’ll look out for any sequels.

Book details

Publisher: TriWorld Publishing LLC
Year of publication: 2021

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