BooksOfTheMoon

Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane Ellsworth is an accomplished, but plain, young woman in Regency England. Her father has put aside enough money to ensure good dowries for her and her sister, but she isn’t sure that she’ll ever find a man to marry her, no matter her dowry, or how good her ability with glamour is.

This book wears its Jane Austen influences on its sleeve. From the very first page, it riffs on Pride and Prejudice, inviting the reader to note the similarities and differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the existence of magic in this world, in the form of glamour – the power of illusion, of drawing it from the ether and forming it into shapes, sounds and even smells. Jane’s ability at glamour incites jelousy in her sister, Melody, as much as Melody’s beauty does with Jane, although Melody, the younger sister, is more willing to show it.

I’m a great fan of Pride and Prejudice, and this homage to that world, while adding its own magical twist delighted me. It captured the spirit of Austen’s work very well, although at times the writing didn’t entirely feel authentic. Although that can be forgiven given that this is Kowal’s debut novel. Although the worldbuilding is broad, it’s done well and gives you the information you need.

We get everything we expect in a Regency novel, and then some – we get a ball, gossip, jealousy, a wayword younger sister and even a duel! Jane is a delightful protagonist (I mean, she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, but then, who is?). It’s fun trying to figure out which of the men in the novel will be the Mr Darcy to her Lizzy. Will it be the charming neighbour? Or the childhood friend? Or maybe the new glamourist hired by their aristocratic neighbour?

This was a lot of fun as a homage to Austen’s work and I’m really curious to see where it goes next. The world is really interesting, so now that we’ve had the homage, I look forward to something more off the beaten track.

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Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)

By Rachel Caine

Rating: 3 stars

I picked this up mostly because I’m a big fan of books (obviously!) and libraries, and I also love Genevieve Cogman‘s Invisible Library series, so I thought another series of books about a magical library (sorry, Library) would be right up my street. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Jess is the son of a London book smuggler in a world where owning books is illegal. The Great Library of Alexandria never fell in this world, and there’s lots of books, that people can access, but they just can’t own them. And even after reading the book, I’m really not entirely sure why. The printing press was independently invented several times over in this world and has been suppressed by the Library each time. I still don’t entirely understand why the Library would want to do that. Jess is sent to study at the Library, as part of a cohort of postulants, all competing for the few available positions.

This is a book about power and how it leads to complacency and corruption. The hierarchy of the Library is happy with how things stand and will do anything to preserve the existing structures. They also value books and knowledge over people, sending Jess and his fellow students into a war zone to retrieve the original books held at a library, while not being able to help the people at all.

We have some well-known archetypes in Jess’s fellow students, including the technical expert, the arrogant aristocrat and the genius student, and it’s as much about how they bond as a group as it is about the corruption of the Library.

I must confess that at the first mention of a war currently going on between the Welsh and English, I sort of laughed, since being attacked by the Welsh seems about as threatening as being savaged by a puppy, but when Jess et al are dropped into the middle of that war, it’s anything but funny. Still, it does raise questions about the world – apparently the English never totally subjugated the Welsh in this world. What does that mean for Scotland and Ireland? Was there ever a United Kingdom? A British Empire? How has the Library’s influence altered history?

But despite the likeable protagonist and interesting setting, I’m not sure I’ll continue with the series. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction and especially in the middle of a global pandemic I find myself craving lighter, fluffier fiction. Also, there are five books in the series. A trilogy I could maybe have handled, but I don’t think I can bring myself to slog through another four books set in a world I don’t enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780749017224
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Year of publication: 2015

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

Hilda and the Midnight Giant

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 4 stars

The second Hilda comic (it’s really too short to be called a graphic novel) sees Hilda encounter the Elves that live around her home in the wilderness (once she signs the paperwork, at least) and a giant giant who’s waiting for someone.

Beautifully drawn, in a simple but engaging style, and very sweet, this is an adorable comic. Suitable for children of all ages, including ones in their forties.

Book details

ISBN: 9781909263796
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2016

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

By A.J. Fitzwater

Rating: 3 stars

The author says in the introduction to this linked collection of short stories that joy is political, and they certainly set out to prove that here. Cinrak is a dapper, lesbian, poly, pirate, unionised capybara. She’s kind and understands the importance of family, especially family that you choose.

I quite enjoyed these gentle stories, but I didn’t find them entirely satisfying. There was a lot of gaps between them, so we go straight from Cinrak stepping on a pirate ship for the first time to her being a captain in her own right, to her wooing the queen. I enjoyed the message of the book and its gentleness and insistence that love is love and that everyone deserves to be loved and respected for who they are. Oh, and that unions are a good thing.

And despite being called Cinrak the Dapper, we never really got much description of her wardrobe (other than her being fond of bow-ties). There’s a lot of world-building in few words, but sometimes the stories felt a little vague. Enjoyable, fairly fluffy, and making an important statement, but it didn’t gel quite as much as I’d hoped.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea

By T.J. Klune

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not sure this is a book that I would have found on my own, but I got a recommendation from a Glasgow in 2024 online conversation on anthologies. This book isn’t an anthology, but one of the people involved, Ann VanderMeer, spoke very highly of it.

I must confess that it didn’t start entirely promisingly for me. Our protagonist, Linus Baker is a bureaucrat. He’s a case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, reviewing orphanages for magical children to make sure that they’re suitable and up to code. He lives by the Rules and Regulations and prides himself on not getting too close to any of the people he reviews, as that Wouldn’t Be Proper. In the evenings he comes home to his cat, and listens to his records. But his latest assignment sees him sent to Marsyas Island where the rules break down and regulations are more like recommendations.

I found Linus (sorry, Mr Baker) frustratingly wet and somewhat incompetent at first. He’s given the files for the children of the orphanage and told not to read them until he gets off the train at his destination. He reads the first one, and then fails to read the others until after he’s he’s surrounded by the children, being shocked and surprised by their abilities again and again. Something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d got over himself and just read the damn files.

Still, he does grow on you, as do the kids at the orphanage. And its master, Arthur Parnassus. The latter isn’t quite presented in a sunbeam, in soft focus, when we first meet him, but he might as well be. The romance between him and Linus is signposted a mile off. It’s awkward and you roll your eyes a bit, but it’s sweet.

This is a story of found family, and love, but also fear and xenophobia. Marsyas is an island, and the nearby village on the mainland fears and resents the orphanage. In this, they’re encouraged by the government, with signs reading things like “See something, say something”. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor for the post-9/11 era, but it makes its point.

I was pretty much won over in the end. It has issues (lack of subtlety being the main one), but it’s a sweet and wholesome book, with a lot of charm.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250217318
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2020

Minor Mage

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 4 stars

Oliver is a very minor mage. He only knows three spells, and one of those is to control his allergy to his armadillo familiar. He’s also just twelve years old. But none of that stops the people of his village from sending him on a quest to bring the rain to a drought-ridden plain.

Oliver is a very sympathetic protagonist. He’s well aware of his own limitations, and he tries as hard as he can to overcome them. This results in a perceptive, introspective boy, balanced by a sarcastic armadillo (the armadillo is such fun!). He has several adventures on his journey to find the cloud herders, including encounters with bandits, cannibalistic ghuls and a minstrel with a somewhat unique talent.

It’s a very fun story that moves at a good pace, with lots of action, but which keeps us centred in Oliver’s head and reminds us that whatever else he is, he’s still a child, who was put in a terrible position by a frightened mob. Regardless, he’s resourceful, and uses his two useful spells in very clever ways to get out of predicaments on his journey.

A key sign that I enjoyed this was that, unusually for me, I’d love to read more of Oliver’s adventures.

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street #2)

By Natasha Pulley

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up a couple of years after The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Thaniel and Mori are living together fairly happily (albeit with Thaniel in fairly constant fear of anyone finding out that his relationship with Mori is more than just tenant and landlord), with their adopted daughter, Six, when Thaniel, a civil servant in the Foreign Office is posted to Tokyo as a translator. The whole family goes out together, where Thaniel finds himself in the middle of a plan that Mori had kicked off years before and meets the eponymous Mrs Pepperharrow. But events spin out of control and even Mori’s foresight might not be enough to get him out of trouble.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. Mori’s tangled web is impossibly complicated; Japanese prime minister Kuroda is violent but competent, a former friend of Mori, who now wants to use his clairvoyance for the Japanese state. Mrs Pepperharrow is a bit of an enigma to start, but we get flashbacks to her past, and her connection to both Mori and Kuroda.

In some senses, the weak link here is Thaniel, our protagonist. He’s a bit of a wet blanket, really, moping around the place, somewhat lovelorn. He’s even got the dying of consumption down pat. When he gets out of Tokyo for a bit and does some espionage he’s a bit more fun, but he’s often quite passive – in contrast to Mrs Pepperharrow, who is a ball of quivering anger and who doesn’t hesitate to take action.

The secondary characters don’t get a huge amount of characterisation, other than Six, who’s got a sideways way of looking the world. We might say today that she’s on the autism spectrum. I enjoy reading her when she’s on the page.

It’s a twisty and complex book where things don’t slot into place until the very end, but satisfying for that. The emotional arc is especially so, with a character having a late revelation that explains a lot about their behaviour (once again: the moral of the story is to be emotionally honest with your loved ones and we wouldn’t be in this mess). Definitely worth your time (although do read Watchmaker beforehand, you’ll get much more out of it if you do).

Book details

ISBN: 9781408885147
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

What Abigail Did That Summer : A Rivers Of London Novella

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

It’s the summer holidays and Peter Grant’s cousin Abigail has been left unsupervised. She finds herself getting involved with a mysterious old house and a bunch of disappearing and reappearing kids. Oh, and the militarised talking foxes seem to have taken a liking to her.

I enjoyed this long-ish novella. Abigail has been around for a while now, as a secondary character, but this puts us properly in her head. Set at around the same time as Foxglove Summer (Peter is away chasing unicorns in the country), I must confess that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the timeline between the novels, comics and novellas (thank goodness for the Follypedia) but this is before Abigail becomes a proper junior apprentice to Nightingale. It seems to be her first encounter with the foxes as well. Speaking of the foxes, I like them a lot. They seem to think they’re a spy unit of some kind, although we never find out (yet, at least), what their overall mission is. But for whatever reason, they take a shine to Abigail and hang out with her and help her locate the missing children.

One issue with the book is that I never entirely believed that the narrative voice was that of a thirteen year old girl, even a precocious one who’s well on her way to taking her Latin GCSE early. There was a lot of Peter’s snark, and quite a lot of his knowledge of architecture as well. There’s a few “yoof” slang thrown in, but I still don’t quite buy it.

That’s a fairly minor quibble though. This is a great fun novella, that deepens Abigail’s character, and gives her some secrets and leverage of her own (can’t wait to find out what comes of her contact with Simon’s mum). Nightingale is present, albeit as very much a background character, and the other recurring cast don’t appear at all. This is pretty much all about Abigail, although Simon is interesting, and Simon’s mum is terrifying.

This scratches my Rivers of London itch for the moment, but I’m very much looking forward to the next full novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473224346
Year of publication: 2021

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)

By Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 stars

Everyone talks about the kids who go away to magical lands and have adventures. Nobody asks what happens when they come back. Miss West understands though. She was one of those children, back in the day, and now she’s set up a school to help them try to reintegrate back into society, when often they want nothing more than to return to the worlds that spat them out. Nancy is one such girl, returned from the Halls of the Dead, and her parents can’t deal with how she’s changed, so they send her to Miss West’s school. But instead of the sanctuary she was expecting, she finds death and danger.

The Problem of Susan aside, nobody ever wonders about those who are ejected and can’t return to the places they come to think of as their true homes, and what that would do to them. Miss West does know, and she is kind and understanding. She tries to protect them, and prepare them – both for this world, and for what to do if they do get a chance to return.

This is a great book for diversity, with our protagonist making clear early on that she’s asexual (not aromantic), and one of the few close friends that she makes is a trans boy. It’s very much a book about being who you are, and being accepted (or not) for it. Children and teens are still children and teens. Some lash out because they’re hurting, others are just mean. McGuire paints a sympathetic portrait of a young woman who feels like she’s lost everything and wants desperately to get it back.

This is also a nicely standalone book, although it does a good job of worldbuilding, leaving lots of space to tell more stories (and, indeed, there are several more books in the series). A good execution of a great idea.

Book details

Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2016

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