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.

Book details

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

Year of publication: 2016

Spellmaker (Spellbreaker Duology, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up directly from where the first book leaves off, the second volume of this “duology” deals with Elsie’s spellbreaking ability becoming public. Bacchus Kelsey, the young master spellmaker who’s well on his way to falling in love with Elsie, persuades the justice system to let her go and that they are, in fact, engaged to be married. Of course, Elsie now thinks that Bacchus has thrown away his future life and happiness for her freedom. Hilarity ensues.

The misunderstandings and Elsie’s obsession with everyone leaving her can be frustrating at times, but it’s all the sweeter when (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say) they’re resolved and expressions of love are exchanged. The rest of the plot proceeds, with the villain, now known to be Master Lily Merton, continuing her spree of killing (or trying to kill) spellcasters for the magic they leave behind when they die. The mystery of the stranger who Elsie meets in the first book is unravelled and we find out how it ties in to what Merton wants.

And honestly, if she was less psychotic, I’d be very sympathetic towards Merton. She really does have a zeal towards social justice, it’s just that she doesn’t mind murdering and enslaving to do so. I would have liked to get to know our other characters a bit better than we did. We found out at the end of the last book that Elsie’s employer, Mr Ogden, isn’t a low-level physical spellcaster as she’d thought, but a master-level rational (affecting minds) caster. I would have loved to find out why he had hidden this over the years – it’s known that has abilities, but he pretends his powers are very different to what they are, but why would he do that?

And then the new characters, Reggie and Irene, get welcomed into the group with a nod, but get very little character development. I would especially have liked to see more interaction between Reggie and Elsie. And Irene accepts all the events that she gets caught up in with equanimity. I’d love to know more about her character and why she’s so eager to be involved. Oh, and it’s sort of hinted that Elsie’s spellbreaking powers are different or possibly stronger than most spellbreakers, but this isn’t really explored in any great depth.

While I appreciate fantasies that don’t feel the need to bloat into multi-volume doorstoppers, I do think that this story would have benefited from a bit more depth (although that could still be the after-effects of binging Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle). Still, the complaints are fairly minor: the story moves at a brisk pace, with revelation piling upon revelation. The major characters are well-developed and likeable, and it’s a fun story to read. While I can see that this is a good point to leave the story, I’d love to spend more time with Elsie and Bacchus.

Book details

ISBN: 9781542022576
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2021

Triggernometry (Triggernometry #1)

By Stark Holborn

Rating: 4 stars

“Mad” Malago Browne is tired of life as an outlaw and is trying to be a respectable woman in a small frontier town. But when her old partner, Fermat, comes to her with a plan for one last job, she’s sucked back into her old life. The two of them round up a posse and go to rob a train…

This is a fun little novella taking place in an interesting “weird western” universe, where maths is nearly illegal and those who wield it are master gunslingers, using their mathematical knowledge to aid their fighting skills.

You have to wonder how it would be possible to build an (early) industrial civilisation if maths is as shunned as this book portrays; even basic arithmetic seems frowned upon, but that’s not really the point. There’s cool gunplay, double-crosses (in fact n-crosses) and, I think, a lot of in-jokes. I suspect several of the names referred to real mathematicians, but that’s not my field and Lovelace was the only one I recognised.

It’s cool that the specialisations of the mathematicians helped them in different ways: Browne’s field is geometry, and she uses this to calculate the best angle to fire a weapon to make it ricochet and cause most damage. The others, likewise, have their specialities, although given how short the story is, we don’t really have time to explore them in any great depth.

A fun idea and a good implementation. I think I’ll probably look out the sequel too.

Book details

Publisher: Rattleback Books
Year of publication: 2020

Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker Duology, #1)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Elsie Camden is illegal. She’s an unregistered magic-user, with the ability to break spells that others cast, without being able to cast her own. She works for a stonemason by day, but for an organisation that she calls the Cowls by night, helping dispel magical wards so that others can do the Robin Hood thing and stand up for the poor against the powerful rich. When powerful magician Bacchus Kelsey catches her on one of her excursions, he agrees not to turn her in if she helps him. What starts out as blackmail quickly turns into something more respectful, on both sides.

I shouldn’t have read this historical fantasy immediately after finishing Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle. I fear that’s broken me, as I kept wondering where the full chapter describing the economic basis of the magic system was, or the multi-page potted history of the Caribbean. This book is much leaner – coming in at under 300 pages. Once I dragged my head out of Stephenson mode, I appreciated the cracking pace that Holmberg kept up throughout. She drops enough worldbuilding and personal history to keep you interested, but not enough to get in the way of the plot.

Elsie is a fun character, although I did find myself rolling my eyes a bit at the slow-burning romance that builds up, but that may be me getting cynical in my old age. I also really enjoyed the found-family with her employer, Mr Ogden, and the other servant, Emmeline – something which has taken the place of her biological family, which disappeared mysteriously when Elsie was a child.

Bacchus is also interesting as a character – he’s an outsider, with an English father but a continental mother, and grew up in Barbados, where he has holdings. He’s in England to apply to the magical college for his mastership, and to ask for access to a spell that he hopes will help him in his own life, but he finds his way barred. Nobody comes out and says it, but his heritage is a big part of that. His interactions with Elsie smoulder and the pair make a good team once they overcome their differences.

The one thing that didn’t quite feel true to me was the setting and the social interactions that went on. Again, this may be a hangover from just having finished the immensely detailed Baroque Cycle, but the Victorian London didn’t quite spring to life for me, and the society and the way people interacted and spoke to each other also felt a little off. But that’s a small matter, and the characters and plot more than made up for it. I’ve already got the next book and look forward to finishing the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781542020091
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2020

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy, #1)

By Katherine Arden

Rating: 4 stars

This Russian-inspired story reminded me quite a lot of some of Naomi Novik‘s work, particularly her Eastern European-inspired novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. It had that same sort of dark fairytale feel to them, with the shadow of the forest threatening danger and winter as a major player.

Vasilisa is the last-born child of her mother, who was the child of a witch, and the power runs through her veins. She can see the spirits that inhabit her home and lands, and she can see things best left unseen. But amongst these, she has to live the life of a young noblewoman, and avoid the eye of the Church, and the new priest, who is determined to Save his new flock.

Vasilisa (or Vasya as she’s known) is a very likeable character. One who wants to just be allowed to live, without being forced to be bride, either of a man nor of Christ, which seem like her only options. But she is resilient and strong and knows she’ll find a way. You’re with her and willing her to find it all the way through. The other characters are drawn well as well, from Vasya’s frightened stepmother, to her solid and dependable ageing servant, Dunya, who raises Vasya and tells her and her siblings the old stories to keep them alive.

Arden studied Russian literature and spent a year living in Moscow. And all that really shows in the little details in the book. It’s a book that feels perfectly standalone; I can see how there’s space for sequels, but I enjoyed it a lot on its own and I don’t know if I want to read any more in the world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785031052
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 2017

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005

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