Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 2

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of this delightful manga picks up directly from where the first left off: with the four apprentices having been teleported to an unknown destination and facing a dragon. They have combine their skills (which Coco is painfully aware that she’s lacking) to escape.

We learn more about Coco’s fellow apprentice, Agott, in this volume, and what drives her, and we learn more about the world that Coco inhabits. The book is a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t seem all that substantial. It’s an intriguing world with some great characters. I look forward to reading more of Coco’s adventures.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632368041
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2019

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

Coco has been obsessed with magic ever since she was given a picture book on it as a child. But witches are born, not made, so she’s resigned to a life without wonder, until a series of accidents brings the witch Qifrey into her circle and she sees something that changes her life forever.

I’m not really familiar with the manga canon; it was a friend introduced me to Witch Hat Atelier, and I’m rather glad that he did, because I’ve really enjoyed this charming little manga. Coco is a delightful protagonist, bubbling over with enthusiasm and her joy at everything in the magical world is infectious. I’ll definitely look forward to reading more about Coco and her world.

Apart from a few pages right at the start of the book, the art is mostly black and white, but is beautifully drawn. It’s got that distinctive manga feel to it and is great fun to read. There were one or two scenes where I found the action hard to follow, but for the most part it’s pretty clear.

Also, from now on, I’m going to refer to my bedroom (aka my home office) as my atelier for as long as I’m in lockdown!

Book details

ISBN: 9781632367709
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2019

False Value (Rivers of London #8)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Following the dramatic events at the end of the last book, Peter is nominally still suspended, but with fatherhood impending, he needs a job, so he joins security for the Serious Cybernetics Corporation, a new startup by one of the less-flashy silicon valley tech bros. Peter settles down fairly quickly, but soon realises that there’s something strange, and possibly magical, going on up on the top floor of the building.

It’s odd seeing Peter outwith the support network of the Met, but he’s still got his informal network to rely on, and he’s now moved in with Beverley. The police are still very much involved, and Nightingale, Guleed et al make their appearances.

And, of course, it only lasts long enough to tell us that Peter’s currently working under cover.

As others have noted, there’s an awful lot of Hitchhikers’ references in this book, but while others found it irritating, it seems to me that it’s appropriately over the top for a silicon valley tech startup that’s wanting to appear to be “hip” and “cool” (for nerdy values of “hip” and “cool”).

This book finds Peter more aware of Beverley’s status as a goddess, and getting a bit worried by things that happen around her, and the actions that she feels she needs to take. Maksim, for example, until now, has mostly been played for humour, but Peter’s now worrying about free will and whether it’s ethical for Bev to put her influence over him, and others she comes into contact with. It’s not easy dating a deity, and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes in future volumes.

No Lesley May in this one, but the magical world has been expanded again, this time with more details of American magic, and especially the Librarians (no, not those Librarians). There’s also been some seeds planted for the future, and possibly a new nemesis coming up.

All in all, a worthy entry to the canon. But you can’t just drop in the suggestion that the London Underground possible has its own genius loci and then walk away like that. I’m outraged. Outraged, I tell you!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473229761

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I approach every NK Jemisin story I read with trepidation that is mostly undeserved. The reputation of the Broken Earth books casts a long shadow, and to me, the author has the kind of reputation that meeting her would lead to me cowering, in the submission position, while backing away as politely as possible. This reputation, if it exists outwith my head, is undeserved, if this collection is anything to go by. Yes, it has the (deserved) anger of a black woman who has finally found a voice, but there’s joy and playfulness in there too. Stories such as L’Achimista, about a chef given a chance to prove her greatness, after a fall from grace; and The City Born Great, telling of the birth of the soul of the city of New York are beautiful and joyful.

There’s conversation within the genre, with responses to Heinlein and Le Guin and there’s dread, pain, death (and other anthropomorphic personifications) and, of course, hope.

I wish that Jemisin had provided a few words on each of the stories. I always enjoy hearing the context in a which a story was written, to help foster a deeper appreciation, but although it’s something Asimov did a lot, and did well, I’m not sure how common it is these days.

I’ve encountered a few stories before in other forms (often in audio form on Escape Pod and its siblings), but there was only one story which I skipped entirely because it was difficult enough first time round (Walking Awake, where alien Masters possess human bodies like puppets, if you’re wondering). And despite my memory, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a fantastic story and a great way to round off the collection. Oh, and this story also has the most memorable metaphor in the whole book: “blue sky hard a cop’s eyes”. Ouch.

So 4.5 stars, rounded down. A fantastic collection, with just one or two stories that just didn’t gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512549
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2018

Runemarks (Runemarks, #1)

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 4 stars

I read and enjoyed Joanne Harris‘s Loki books, and this more or less picks up from those. It’s five hundred years after Ragnarok and Maddy Smith is a teenage girl with a ‘ruinmark’ on her hand. All knowledge and stories of the old world are forbidden by the Order, but such things are far away from Maddy’s valley. She leads a normal life until something happens that changes it forever, and she finds herself entangled with the old gods, order, chaos and everything changes.

Maddy is an engaging character, and it’s fun to watch her learn about the gods and demons and how to use the power within her. I also enjoyed the wider world-building, especially the idea that Ragnarok isn’t the end of days, but is something that is cyclical and just repeats in different forms.

The Order is sort of interesting, although they initially seem to be just your typical totalitarian government, controlling the population by controlling knowledge and through fear. But they also have the Word; something even the gods fear.

The chapters here are short and punchy. The dialogue is engaging and each character feels different, with even the secondary ones getting something to do, and feeling important in their own way. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and the story feels complete in itself as well. You could certainly read this on its own without having read the Loki books, and although I know there’s a sequel, you could leave this book quite happy without actually reading it (although I probably will).

Book details

ISBN: 9781473217065
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

A Conspiracy of Truths (A Conspiracy of Truths, #1)

By Alexandra Rowland

Rating: 3 stars

An elderly master Chant (a Chant being a storyteller/sociologist) finds himself accused of witchcraft and is caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with an indifferent advocate. He finds himself caught as a pawn between the rulers of the nation and must elevate himself to player to keep his life and liberty.

This was a decent story about the power of stories and I found it enjoyable, but I don’t think it’ll be hugely memorable for me. Chant (although Chant is a title more than a name, so I feel it should be the Chant, but the book never gives him the definite article) is crotchety and opinionated, with a sharp tongue (as you would expect from someone who needs to tell and learn tales for his livelihood). The politicking early on in the book where he told people whatever it was he thought they wanted to hear and which might earn him some little comforts in prison almost turned me off entirely. Thankfully, this didn’t go the way that I feared, but I nearly put the book down permanently at that point.

There’s a lot to like here though. Women seem to have complete equality with men, serving in pretty much all walks of life. Chant’s apprentice Ylfing is gay, but this isn’t a Thing, but is just accepted as part of life. He just happens to make puppy dog eyes at every cute boy he sees. Chant finds this exasperating but it sounds about right for a teenage boy.

The characters are fairly well defined. Chant himself, obviously, but also Ylfing (a sweet, innocent boy), Chant’s advocate, Consanza, and some of the rulers that Chant is entangled with. They have their own personalities and feel different enough from each other.

The book is very much about the power of story though and stories themselves are scattered throughout the book. Stories are used as metaphors, for comfort and just to pass the time. As someone who loves stories myself, I appreciate that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534412811
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Year of publication: 2019

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities, #1)

By Robert Jackson Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

The Holy Lands of the Continent were protected by their Divinities; invincible, world-conquering, until one man rises up in the land of Saypur and kills the gods, ending the rule of the Continentals. Generations later, the consequences of this are still being played out, and when there’s a murder in Bulikov, the former city of the Divinities, it sets off a chain of events that threaten the fragile equilibrium.

I loved this book. It’s complex, with no black and white tale of oppressed and oppressors. The history of the Continent’s long and bloody rule of Saypur is remembered as fiercely as the current Continentals see their own poverty and desolation. There’s a spiral of hatred that feeds on itself, something that feels very real and is deftly portrayed by Bennett.

I got to thoroughly like Shara, our protagonist (not to mention Sigrud, her, er, secretary, who doesn’t say much, but his actions speak volumes). Shara is quiet, small, very intelligent, with a passion for history. Something that comes in useful in a city that is practically nothing but history.

The worldbuilding is neatly done as well, with a drip-feed of information early on filling us in on the fact that the Continentals aren’t allowed to talk about their dead gods and aren’t allowed to know much about their own history. There’s a chapter later on that fills in a lot of history about the gods and how they were killed, which on the one hand feels like an infodump, but it’s filling in information for the other characters too, rather than an “As you know, Bob…” sort of thing, so I’ll let the author away with it.

The Divinities loom large in this book, despite being (mostly) absent from it. The god of Order, Kolkan is particularly interesting, with his many edicts and hatred of any kind of pleasure. I’m not sure if it’s intended as a criticism of the sterner sects of real-world religions, but that’s certainly my reading of it.

A nice idea in the book is that now that the Divinities are dead, real world physics can assert itself. The world is moving out of a period where everyone (on the Continent, at least) lived through the miraculous intervention of the gods, and now they’re developing motor cars, the telegraph and photography. It’s not quite steampunk, but is definitely a society that’s moving towards industrialisation.

A very interesting, complex book with a lot of ideas. And one that can be pretty much read standalone as well (although I certainly intend to look out the sequels). Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848667983
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2015

Travel Light

By Naomi Mitchison

Rating: 4 stars

Baby Halla’s stepmother, the new queen, wants her gotten rid of. Her nurse takes a bear’s form and escapes to the forest with her, where young Halla is first raised by bears and later by dragons. When she loses her dragon benefactor she must choose between dragon-ish hoarding and travelling light. She makes her choice and travels to human lands where she has many adventures.

I’ve not read much Naomi Mitchison, although I very much enjoyed her Memoirs of a Spacewoman. This is a very different book, but it has the same somewhat gentle, and slow-paced feel to it. I enjoyed it quite a lot reading it now, I think I would have enjoyed it more reading it in my youth, and I think I would enjoy it even more if I were a young woman.

Despite the suggested interference in her fate by the Norns and by the All-Father, Halla is still a spirited young woman who is active in controlling her own life. This is a lovely, if short, fantasy novel, with an active female protagonist that deserves to be better-known.

Book details

ISBN: 9781931520140
Publisher: Peapod Classics
Year of publication: 2005

The Raven Tower

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 4 stars

The country of Iraden has been protected by the god known as The Raven for centuries. Now war is coming to Iraden, the Raven’s Lease is dying and the Lease’s Heir returns to the capital to take his place. Alongside him comes his aide, Eolo, and their world will crumble and change around them.

This is a really interesting book. It’s told in a strange combination of the first and second person. I’m not normally a fan of the use of the second person, but because of the way the narrative is being told here, it’s not immediately the reader that is the “you”, but the narrator telling a story in the present tense to Eolo. It’s interesting and clever and I find it works. I also really like the narrator and their story – they are a god, one of many that roam this world. The magic system of the world is really interesting as well: the gods have magic in that they can only speak the truth. If they say something that wasn’t true before, their words will make it so (if they have the power, otherwise it could kill them).

The narrator weaves their own story with that of Eolo and his master; and, I must confess, that I found the epic story of gods across the ages more interesting than petty power-broking and politicking in the present. At least, until the two stories started to converge.

Because it’s Ann Leckie and it’s expected to be mentioned, there is some playing with gender, although it’s limited to Eolo being a trans man, and being pretty universally accepted as such.

I certainly enjoyed the book (I must confess I still don’t understand the implications of the turning of the stone) and would welcome an expansion of the universe, although it seems that the story here is pretty self-contained and complete.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356507026
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

The March North

By Graydon Saunders

Rating: 3 stars

I got this book recommended to me by a friend as the opposite of grimdark fantasy. I enjoyed quite a lot of it, but I did have some trouble with it at times. For a start, I understand the book was self-published, which is all very well, but I do feel like the author could have done with an editor at times; many passages felt obtuse and I had to read them several times before I had a decent idea of what they meant. Something else that I found grating was the deliberate refusal to provide genders for characters. I have no problem with this in principle, but please use constructs like “they/them” or one of the other sets of adjectives. Repeatedly using the characters’ names in a sentence to avoid he/she just felt clunky. It also didn’t help that Saunders is very fond of archaic or jargonistic language. I’m really glad that I was reading on a Kindle, so I could consult the built-in dictionary (which I found myself doing more frequently than I would have liked). Expanding one’s vocabulary is all very well, but it did start to feel like hard work at times.

Speaking of hard work, Saunders really throws you in at the deep end and leaves you to sink or swim. There’s no hand-holding going on here. We start with a military man of some kind expecting (sorcerous) visitors to his area and rapidly go on from there to repealing a military invasion from another country. What the Commonweal is, what a Standard-Captain is, or the focus, or the Shape of Peace are things you’re left to figure out for yourself. There’s no harm in making the reader work for their story, but this, combined with the editing issues I mention above mean that it took a while for me to get through this book. I still don’t know if I’ll go on to the others in the series.

But despite that, my friend was right: I did enjoy the shape of this story, in which an egalitarian, democratic nation exists in the midst of its more traditional fantasy neighbours. Where extremely powerful (basically immortal) sorcerers, who used to behave like Dark Lords in the past, agree to bind themselves into the nation for the greater good. In a world filling up with strongmen and “leaders” whose only goal in power is to stay in power, it’s good to have examples to look up to.

Book details

ISBN: 9780993712609
Publisher: Tall Woods Books
Year of publication: 2014

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