Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries (Emily Wilde #1)

By Heather Fawcett

Rating: 3 stars

I picked up this book because I was writing a review of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches and in the “you may also enjoy” box were two other books that I had very much enjoyed, as well as this one. And, conveniently, it was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I’d take the chance.

I should have enjoyed the book more than I did. It’s got everything I love – an academic protagonist, an interesting fantasy world, a slow-burning romance, but, for some reason, it just didn’t quite gel for me. Maybe it was the Cambridge background, where terms not used in British academia kept cropping up (we don’t have tenure, and Professor means something very different here than it does in North America. That bothered me much more than magic or a woman happily accepted in academia in what feels like the early 20th century.

I did quite like our protagonist, Dr Emily Wilde, though. She’s a bit monomanical, focused on her career and learning about the faeries of her world. She’s read widely and would be considered the foremost expert in the field, if it wasn’t for her youth, and the sexism (although this is downplayed in the book). The book sees Emily head to what seems like their version of Iceland to investigate their fae, known as the Hidden People, which haven’t really be documented. She’s quite disgruntled when her colleague, the suave and handsome Wendell Bambleby turns up, with a pair of postgrad students in tow.

I’d probably consider Emily to be somewhere on the spectrum, since she’s very intelligent, but not really good with people, and she manages to offend her hosts on her very first evening, without really realising what she’s done.

Something I like about the book is that it not only makes it clear that Emily is both very intelligent, but that people around her, including fellow academic, Wendell, acknowledge and respect that intelligence. There’s no dismissing and sneering just because she’s a woman. I’m also a sucker for found family, and after the misunderstanding in the village is sorted out, this plays out quite strongly.

I think I should maybe read the book again at some point, since I may just not have been in the right mood the first time around.

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The Blind Dragon: A Tale from the Canon of Tarn

By Peter Fane

Rating: 3 stars

When I started reading this book, I wondered if I’d stumbled into something mid-series, as there was an awful lot of stuff just thrown at you, as if you should know about the civil war in this kingdom and what the political situation was. But from looking around online, this is Fane’s first novel, although I get the impression that he’s been building and telling stories in this world for a long time. Just regarding the physical book, when I picked it up, it looked like a good hefty, 450 page tome, but when I opened it, the whole thing is double-spaced, so it would probably be about half that size if it was more traditionally formatted.

The book tells a coming of age story, as Anna Dyer, an apprentice to the dragon riders of Dávanor has to overcome treachery from within her duchy with the aid of the newly hatched, blind dragon Moondagger, with whom she forms a bond.

The book keeps up the pace, with lots happening on a very frequent basis, but I’m not sure we really get enough time spent getting to know Anna to fully appreciate some of the more emotional beats in the story. The book is also very violent, with faces being bitten off, entrails ripped out and more. Maybe I’m just getting old, but that, and the culture of honour and violence that Anna (a fourteen year old girl) is embedded in seemed a bit over the top to me. But then I’m also at a point where swearing fealty to nobility and the feudal system seems like a terrible idea. As Monty Python so memorably put it: strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

Looking beyond that, though, despite a Surfeit of Capitalisation, the book is well-written and kept my attention all the way through. Coming out the end, I feel that I better understand the world. I was amused that in the chronology at the end, despite having a 12,000 year history, about 10,000 of those are just marked at “the plague years”. Sometimes I feel that writers throw around big numbers like that with abandon without really pausing to think about them. Science fiction is really bad for that, but fantasy can be too. I’d remind you that the whole of recorded human history, is barely 6000 years. We have literally no experience with any single organisation stretching half that length of time, never mind the tens of thousands that this book is bandying around.

Fun enough, although despite the book literally being called “The Blind Dragon”, the dragon’s blindness was barely a feature, beyond the first few pages, throwing in a magical workaround in passing. As I say, an entertaining way to spend a few hours, but I’ll not be looking out the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781944296025
Publisher: Silver Goat Media

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 4 stars

Having read, and adored, Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, I went looking for more works by her and found this children’s novel available in my local library. It’s very different in style and tone to Witches, fitting much more into standard portal fantasy territory, albeit with the added twist that the girl who goes through the portal, the eponymous Kiki Kallira, has fairly crippling anxiety.

At the start of the book, Kiki is out with her friend Emily and Emily’s sister and friends to the fair. A chance remark makes her realise that she can’t remember if she locked her front door on the way out, which leads her immediately to a worst case scenario (burglars have broken in and killed her mum) and she can’t stop until she leaves her friend and goes home to check. This is a strong opening, showing us just how baked in Kiki’s anxiety is, and that it’s not your everyday worrying, but something deeper. Later, Kiki finds a world that she’d drawn in her notebook coming to life and she has to go in to stop the demon who she created to terrorise it, helped only by a group of rebel kids.

Kiki has to deal with all the traditional problems that a portal fantasy protagonist has, and with her anxiety on top of that, for extra fun. There was a twist towards that end that I should probably have seen coming, but I was having too much fun with the plot to be self-aware enough of what was going on.

I don’t read much children’s fiction, but I found this very readable, with extra points for an Indian protagonist and Hindu mythology folded into the plot as well. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, and even as a middle aged man, I found Kiki well-realised and easy to relate to. I’ll be looking out for the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444963441
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Year of publication: 2021

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

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

Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

I think I was definitely too hard on this book originally. Having re-read it for the first time in over a decade and a half, I laughed out loud a lot more than I did first time round. Maybe it’s just the events of the last decade, but I no longer feel that the themes are heavy-handed, and the plot whizzed along.

I was sort of unsure about the Sally/Angua plot, and jealousy is really not a good look on Angua. I’d actually have liked to be in Sally’s head a bit, to see what it’s like trying to fit in in a Watch where everybody knows that the Commander hates your kind.

But other than the aversion to vampires, Vimes in on top form here, trying to solve a crime in order to prevent a war in his city. One thing I did notice though is that although the book makes a lot of Vimes being incorruptible, he’s not averse to using his power to get home in order to read to his child. Admittedly, it’s not Vimes himself that does this, but he certainly doesn’t discipline Carrot for misusing authority on his behalf.

Few grumbles aside, this is a very enjoyable mid-period Pratchett with Vimes doing what Vimes does best, and some great character work (A. E. Pessimal is a work of genius).

—- Original Review (2008) —-
I enjoyed this book but it felt very much like “New Pratchett”. There were bits that made me smile, but few that made me laugh out loud. It also felt like it was hitting you on the head a bit with the themes of the book, namely politics and Getting On With Each Other. Also, it does feel a bit like a summary of lots of other Guards books. Like I say, I still enjoyed it though, it just wouldn’t be first on my list to Pratchett books to lend to someone.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552152679
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2006

Mary Poppins

By P.L. Travers

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve wanted to read this for a while now, and after finding that the version that the library had was an abridged version decided to just buy a copy. It’s an odd book, the nanny of the book is a very different Mary Poppins to the one portrayed by Julie Andrews. She’s crabid, cross and vain, always stopping to admire her reflection in shop windows. She doesn’t come across as someone that her charges could love at all. I honestly don’t know what a child of today would make of Mary.

As well as the stories familiar from the Disney film, we also see Mary take the children to a creepy sweet shop; they encounter a reverse zoo, where the animals admire the humans in cages; and they encounter a star who comes down from the sky to go Christmas shopping for her sisters.

I can see why Travers might not have liked the Disney film, given how different the character of Mary is to her own creation, and it’s been interesting to read the original. It might have stuck with me if I’d read it at a more formative age, but coming to it as an adult, it’s just an interesting historical footnote.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006753971
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1998

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

By Megan Bannen

Rating: 4 stars

Hart Ralston is a marshal, tasked with protecting the realm of Tanria from humans and zombies alike. Mercy Birdsall is an undertaker, taking quiet pride in her work. These two people hate each other, which is unfortunate, given how much of Mercy’s work comes from the marshals, including Hart. After yet another bruising encounter, Hart finds himself penning a letter to just “a friend” and, on a whim, posts it. Much to his surprise, he gets a reply, and a warm postal friendship soon builds up. No prizes for guessing who’s at the other end, or that sparks will fly when the anonymous “friends” eventually meet in person.

I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, and this one is a delight. We enter the story when Hart and Mercy are long-established enemies, and only gradually find out the history to this. To be honest, the initial argument doesn’t show either of them in a good light, and I don’t really see how a minor misunderstanding turned into such a big thing. But that’s something that does happen, doesn’t it? You’re having a bad day, and a small thing irritates and leaves a bad impression for the next meeting and before you know it, that initial grit has turned into an pearl of mutual hatred.

As well as our title characters, Hart is given an apprentice, Pen Duckers, who helps pierce the protective armour of loneliness that he’s put around himself. Partly because the people he cares about have died, and partly because he’s a demigod and doesn’t know if he’s mortal or not. The idea of everyone he cares about getting old and dying is too much for him to bear, so he’d rather not build up relationships at all.

Mercy, on the other hand, has a loving, if squabbling, family, but is struggling to hold the family business together, as her father gets older, and her brother shows no interest. It doesn’t help that everyone seem to think they know what’s best for her without actually asking.

The book certainly doesn’t stint on the lovers part of enemies-to-lovers! When Hart and Mercy eventually get together, there are some very steamy scenes. I thought it was very well done, but it’s one to look out for if you’re of a, shall we say, delicate constitution?

I really liked the secondary world setting, although with the initial setup being what it was, I could never get the look and feel of a steampunk Wild West out of my head (although I still have no real idea what an “autoduck” is). But this is a world where the Old Gods were overthrown and the New Gods look upon us with kindliness; where same sex relationships and women working outwith the home are mundane; where the anthropomorphic animal messengers of the Old Gods now act as posties; and where Gods (Old and New) have relationships with mortals, relationships that sometimes end up with children.

A delightful cosy story where the closest thing to a Big Bad isn’t a supervillain or Dark Lord, but is just a crooked businessman. I can’t, for the life of me, remember where I saw the book and thought that it sounded like fun, but I’m really glad that I did.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356518664
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Year of publication: 2022

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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Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 4 stars

After watching the film Isle of Dogs recently, a friend recommended that I watch Fantastic Mr Fox, also by Wes Anderson. I did so, having not read the book since I was a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, so I went back to the source material.

The book is very slight (I read it in half an hour, over lunch) but as much fun as I remember. Mr Fox feeds his family by stealing from the villainous farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. They eventually have enough of this and try to dig him out and this is the story of how he and his family cleverly fight back. The farmers are delightfully awful, and Mr Fox is, indeed, fantastic. Not classic Dahl, but enjoyable fun nonetheless.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140326710
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 1988

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