Meru (The Alloy Era, #1)

By S.B. Divya

Rating: 3 stars

Jayanthi is a young woman living in a post-capitalist world where humans now live in tune with nature and the world around them, and try not to extract resources and abuse it. Her parents are post-humans, known as alloys, who are anthropologists who have chosen to live on Earth, but she’s fascinated by the new habitable planet Meru that has been discovered and which could support a human colony, except that humans are prohibited from doing so by their ancient compact with the alloys. But Jayanthi gets permission to travel to Meru as part of an experiment to see if she can live there without contaminating the planet. She travels with an alloy pilot named Vaha, someone who is still living with zir parent’s disappointment in zir.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. I veered between finding this future world utopian and dystopian. A world with high technology and nobody going hungry, but where ambition is discouraged and humans are prevented from most space travel and the sorts of scientific experimentation that might lead to new discoveries and having their name recorded for posterity in the repository of knowledge that they call the Navid. Genetic manipulation is commonplace, using a combination of designing and randomness (which is how Jayanthi ended up with sickle cell disease), although it seems that alloys have much more control over this than humans do.

I didn’t really find Jayanthi that compelling a character. Her motivation seemed a little all over the place. Vaha is much more interesting to me. Zie spent zir whole life disappointing zir parent, who eventually abandoned zir in disgust, something which is shocking to the reader, and which left Vaha with a crushing inferiority complex. Putting these two together leads to a rather weird romance, which is almost buried under all the politicking. Throw in an amnesia plot and it feels a bit soapy.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The world-building, the relationship between the human and alloy societies, the people who live on the edges of the society. But for all that, it didn’t entirely work for me. I struggled to put myself into the mindset of this human society where everything is considered conscious and worthy of protection, even non-living things. I couldn’t really work through the implications of that mindset. It feels like you’d spend your life metaphorically hunched over, trying not to take up any space, and apologising for every step.

An interesting constructed universe, but I’ll not be jumping to seek out the sequel.

Book details

Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 5 stars

Found family, check. Romance, check. Cosy, check. This book ticks pretty much all my boxes at the moment – there’s even an Northern Irish love interest! I thought I’d enjoy it from the description, and it turns out that I adored it!

Mika Moon is a witch who follows The Rules. She keeps her head down and doesn’t get too attached. She even only sees other witches once every few months, for a few hours. She’s repeatedly told by her guardian that it’s the only way for witches to be safe, and she’s become used to being lonely. And then she’s asked to tutor three young witches, and unwillingly finds a group of people who she can trust and open up to. Not to mention the glowering, but handsome, librarian who’s dragged kicking and screaming into unwillingly admitting a mutual attraction.

I loved Mika as a protagonist. I love the trope of a closed off person, unwilling to love and be loved, finding a person or persons who will love them unconditionally. Here, Mika meets not only librarian Jamie, but Ian and Ken, a couple who have been together for decades, and Lucie, the mother hen of the group, as well as the three children who she comes to care for immensely. Mika finding her place in the family made my heart grow three sizes.

What peril there is in the book is very mild, with almost nothing bad happening. The main antagonist is a lawyer (sounds about right), and the racist, homophobic gammon is set against the beautiful diversity of Mika and her new family. There’s never any doubt as to who’s going to come out on top, and a lot of satisfaction in seeing how he’s dealt with.

It may be too saccharine for some, but there’s enough darkness in Mika’s childhood and early life to balance that for me, and make me feel she really deserves the life she ends up with.

Book details

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

David Balfour is newly an orphan at seventeen. A message from his late father directs him to seek out his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws to make his fortune. Said uncle, however, betrays him and sees him on a ship bound for slavery in the Americas. Through a series of unlikely events, David makes it back to Scotland with his new companion Alan Breck Stewart and begins a journey across the highlands to reclaim his inheritance.

I didn’t know much about this book before I saw an absolutely stonking theatrical production put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. I adored that and was inspired to seek out the original text, which didn’t disappoint (mostly). It’s a cracking read, well-paced, full of adventure, and male bonding. Despite having lived in Scotland for well over half a lifetime, I confess I don’t know its history hugely well. But I did, coincidentally, just read up a bit on the Jacobite rebellion not long before reading the book, which provided invaluable context.

I do think it slightly ran out of steam towards the end. By the time David sees Alan away on the ship to France and turns away to go to a bank, I was just sort of left bemused. Like there were a few pages missing, maybe? But no, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that’s where the book ends. Seems like an odd note to end on, but the main body of the book is a great fun read, that still works into the 21st century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780439295789
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2002

Heir of Uncertain Magic (Whimbrel House, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

In the second book in this series, Hulda has to deal with people from her organisation’s parent company come over to appoint a new director, a post she’s being considered for, along with one of the gentlemen who come over. While this is going on, Merritt is getting settled into his newly disenchanted house, with its former spirit, Owein, now happily inhabiting the body of a dog. Merritt is trying to get used to the magic that he suddenly discovered at the end of the last book but he’s struggling to control it, and is also avoiding confronting his family over the revelations that the man he called his father, and who threw him out of his family home, isn’t.

This one felt really quite soapy in a lot of ways. The whole family thing with the stepfather feels right out of Days of our Lives, and then you’ve got the moustache-twirling villain who’s trying to take over BIKER, and the shadow of the first book’s Big Bad looms large. But despite that, it’s a lot of fun, I do enjoy the characters (very intrigued to find out more about Baptiste’s past – he’s obviously more than just a chef) and the romance between Hulda and Merritt is almost painfully sweet.

The idea of magic having negative consequences for its wielders was a bit more prominent here than in the previous book, especially near the start when Merritt was unable to control his ability to understand animals and plants, which robbed him of his own voice. I still think it could have been embedded more into the world and be more of an issue for magic users, but it is what it is.

I thought that this was the second of a two-book series, but there’s a third on the way, and since I enjoyed this so much I’m definitely going to pick it up.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

Through a Darkening Glass

By R.S. Maxwell

Rating: 3 stars

Ruth Gladstone is studying at Cambridge University in 1940, but an unexploded bomb persuades her to evacuate, along with her grandmother, Edith, to stay with her great aunt Vera in the tiny village of Martynsborough. There, she makes friends with another evacuee, Malcolm, an injured soldier, and they join forces to investigate the mysterious wraith that seems to be haunting the village.

It took a while for me to get into this book. There were some issues of American English that threw me out of what should be a very English story (“pants”, “first floor = ground” etc) and a few things that didn’t entirely feel right. Once we got to Martynsborough, it did very much have the somewhat caricatured feel of the pub scene from American Werewolf in London or “a local shop for local people” with the locals being comically unfriendly to Ruth. But it settled down, as she started to get to know people, and the mystery of the wraith starts to come to the fore, as well as the separate mystery of Edith and Vera and the “terrible thing that happened that day, long ago” were quite intriguing.

The relationship between Ruth and Malcolm builds slowly, complicated by Malcolm’s wife, who’s withdrawn into a state of “shellshock” and isn’t really communicable any more. I wondered how that would be resolved – and after the end of the book, I’m frankly none the wiser, which is a bit disappointing.

Speaking of the end of the book, the whole interlinked set of mysteries was unravelled very quickly in the last few chapters. I would have liked more time to unpack some of that, especially the revelations that resulted from Edith and Vera’s mystery.

Of the supporting cast, Maude was my favourite. The Cambridge geology post-doc whose room that Ruth ends up staying in after the unexploded bomb meant she had to leave her own, and who comes to stay with them in Martynsborough later. She bucks everybody up and tramps around the countryside in her trousers, looking for interesting rocks. On the opposite end of the scale, we have Warren, Ruth’s fiancĂ©. He’s a wraith himself for the first chunk of the book, haunting Ruth in his absence. Then he turns up, and we get to see this awful character for ourselves. He hangs around for just a chapter or two, whining, and is eventually sent packing. The whole thing is very weird and I’m not entirely sure that it added anything to the story.

An enjoyable enough WW2 thriller, with very mild supernatural trappings. It’s got some enjoyable characters but I’m glad that I got it through the Amazon Prime First Reads programme, since I’ll probably never read it again.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

At Amberleaf Fair

By Phyllis Ann Karr

Rating: 4 stars

The toymaker Torin has just had his marriage proposal rejected in favour of that from one of his best friends. His day gets worse, however, as his brother, Talmar, the High Wizard, falls ill, and then his friend’s marriage token goes missing, and Torin is the prime suspect. He has to work to clear his name, all the while worrying about his brother, and his own future marriage prospects.

I really enjoyed this book – in the afterword, the author calls Torin’s world “The Gentle World”, and I very much agree with this characterisation. The whole book is really gentle – nothing really bad happens at all. People are still arrogant, proud and impetuous, but there seems to be no real malicious intent in any character.

It took me a while to get into the flow of it, but once you do, it’s a pleasure to read. The narrative is split between Torin, the storyteller Dylis, and the judge Alrathe and it’s it’s fun to read to build up a picture of the world that the characters inhabit as they go about their lives. There were hints within the text that got me wondering, and again, the afterword confirmed that this is a far-future Earth, rather than secondary world fantasy, albeit one where Clarke’s Third Law is in full swing.

A lot of the book is focussed on Torin’s choice to break from generations of his family to be a toymaker, not a magic-monger. This decision is being tested by his brother’s illness and Talmar’s desire to have Torin come back into the “family business” if he dies. Torin spends a lot of the book agonising over this decision, of how he wants to spend his life, versus what others expect of him. That, not the theft, is the greatest intrigue for me, and I had great sympathy for his plight.

This is a good comfort book. It’s got a gentle mystery, romance and everything is All Right In The End. Delightful.

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The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 3 stars

I was listening to the rather good Empire podcast when one of the hosts, the historian William Dalrymple, mentioned in passing the short ghost story The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes as one of the best short stories he’d ever read. This piqued my interest and I googled it, to find it in this collection, which was also available for free on Gutenberg. Now, ghost stories aren’t my favourite genre by a long way, and that, combined with Kipling’s attitude towards India and the Indians, meant that this book received a lukewarm reception at best.

There’s only five stories in the collection, of which, four are set in India, with the last being set in London, which an Indian connection. The first two stories didn’t do an awful lot for me at all. The title story has an unpleasant man who has an affair with a married woman and when he breaks it off, she dies of a broken heart, but comes back to haunt him. The second, My Own True Ghost Story sees the narrator starting off by complaining that he’s never had a ghostly experience of his own, before promptly having one.

The third story is the one that brought the book to my attention – The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes. I found this one pretty unengaging to be honest. The Indians are carictures and the narrator is unsympathetic. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind when I read it, but I’m amazed by Dalrymple’s praise.

It’s the last two stories that redeemed this collection for me. I’m not sure what The Man Who Would be King is doing in a collection of ghost stories, but it’s a great story of hubris and downfall, while “The Finest Story in the World” has a writer being given a glimpse of history, which he has to try to cultivate to let him write the eponymous story. This one, I enjoyed quite a lot, as the narrator’s young friend is revealed to be unconsciously in touch with his previous lives, which the narrator tries to use to write his story, all without letting him know what’s going on, and being subjected to his bad poetry. It’s tongue in cheek and shows some levity that is otherwise absent from this collection.

I’ve read some Kipling that I’ve enjoyed, but my agnosticism towards ghost stories in general, and Kipling’s attitude towards Indians means that the stories here mostly didn’t work for me. The last two really helped pull up the average though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781406923988
Publisher: Hard Press
Year of publication: 2006

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries #1)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This novella introduces us to Sub-Inspector Ferron, a detective whose latest case involves a person who has been literally turned inside out. And the only witness is a genetically engineered cat who’s been wiped (and ends up re-imprinting on Ferron). Set in a future India, we get brief, tantalising glimpses of a fractured world as Ferron and her lieutenant, constable Indrapramit, try to find out who could have killed the victim, and what their motive could have been. At the same time, she has to deal with her overbearing mother, and there are rumours of unusual activity in the region of the Andromeda galaxy.

There’ a lot packed into this novella. The world-building of the future that it’s set in is impeccable and very deftly handled. Throwing in parrot-cats, breakdown of nation states, immersive virtual reality and much more, while keeping us grounded with Ferron and Indrapramit. In amongst all this, the actual murder actually gets a little lost. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t figure out who did it (I never do), but I still don’t really think I understand the why of it and what actually happened. But then, does it really matter, with such a wonderful world, and the intrigue of a signal from the stars?

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A Narrow Door

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 3 stars

Rebecca Buckfast (and living in Scotland, I’m sorry, but I can’t take her seriously with a name like “Buckfast”) has finally made it to the top – she’s now head teacher at St Oswald’s, formerly a boys-only grammar school, she introduces girls to the school, hoping that they will come to stride through the wide arches, not have to quietly enter through a “narrow door”, the way she did. Becky has secrets in her past, and when confronted, she settles down to tell elderly Latin master Roy Straitly her story, as she rediscovered it herself.

I found this book very readable, which is interesting, given how much I disliked most of the characters. Most of the book is in the form of Becky telling the story of what happened 17 years previously, when she was a young teacher at a different, nearby private school, King Henry’s. Becky’s brother, a student at King Henry’s, disappeared when she was a young child, something which affected her parents dreadfully, and which Becky herself found so traumatic that she buried the memory so deeply, that it’s only twenty-odd years later that they start to re-emerge.

Between her own trauma, her overbearing boyfriend, Dominic, and the missing brother, there are layers upon layers of secrets and lies, which get peeled back, one at a time, all being told the ailing Straitly, who was, I felt, the most relatable character in the whole book. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll end up like him – a ghost haunting the halls of my University, mumbling about people and departments long gone, yet tolerated, even treated fondly by the new guard.

Apparently there are other books about St Oswald’s, featuring Straitly, but this is perfectly standalone and I hadn’t read any of them before reading this one, and I was able to follow what was going on, although some events were mentioned in passing that I assume were expanded upon in the other books.

It’s a very well done thriller, which kept me turning the page to find out what happens next. All the twists and turns were unexpected (to me) and all believable. As I say, I didn’t like many of the characters, but it was a well told tale. Recommending for breaking the glass ceiling, by whatever means necessary.

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Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

I came to this series after reading Carriger’s Finishing School series which I enjoyed a lot. This is set in the same universe, maybe a generation later. You can tell it was written earlier as some of the world that was fleshed out by the time of Finishing School was still a bit vague in this one, but Carriger already has a good sense of world-building, and her prose is a pleasure to read.

Our protagonist is Alexia Tarabotti, a young woman with the ability to cancel out the powers of supernatural creatures, such as vampires and werewolves, by touching them. The polite term of this is preternatural, but the less polite call her soulless (as opposed to the supernatural, who have a surfeit of soul). At the start of the book, she’s attacked by a vampire (without even introducing himself!) and she’s forced to kill him. This leads her into contact with Lord Maccon of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and himself a powerful werewolf, who has to investigate. As Alexia investigates further, she gets sucked into a plot that could shake the Empire to its core.

That sounds quite dense, but the book is really readable and a lot of fun to read. It’s as much comedy of manners as it is investigative thriller. And it’s also really rather sensual, and quite sexy too, which I wasn’t expecting, after the very chaste Finishing School books. Alexia and Lord Maccon share a mutual attraction and there’s quite detailed descriptions of Alexia discovering the joys of kissing. And the thing about attraction to a werewolf is, that when he changes back from wolf to human, he’s naked. And, oh, Alexia has to hold on to him to use her powers to keep him in human form. How awful. Let’s just say she doesn’t stop her hands from roving.

There’s a lot of scope to explore the world that Carriger has constructed here, and I’m looking forward to following Alexia as she steps into that wider world. I just hope that, after a lot of Scots-bashing in the first book (Lord Maccon is Scottish and there’s a lot of jokes about how uncouth the Scots are), there’s less of that in future.

Book details

Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

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