BooksOfTheMoon

Without A Summer

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kowal’s Glamourist History series to date, and I’m pleased to say that that streak continues with the third in the series. This one is about prejudice, something that you don’t necessarily initially notice because it’s our series heroine and PoV character, Jane, who holds the prejudice.

Jane and Vincent are back from the continent, and after a period staying with her parents, they travel to London for work, and take Jane’s sister, Melody, with them, hoping to introduce her to eligible young gentlemen in the capital. But while there, they get caught up in a plot that goes to the highest echelons of government.

We encounter many forms of prejudice, and now that I think about it, not a small amount of pride as well, and the book clearly lays out the harms that it can do when your view of a person is predisposed to find the worst in their every action. We have the eligible young man that attracts Melody’s eye, eligible in every way except that he’s Irish and Catholic. And we have the distaste that Vincent’s father has for him and his profession. And caught up in all this are the innocent coldmongers, who are unable to ply their trade in the year without a summer, being used as pawns in a larger political game.

One thing I consistently like about these books is the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Much of the romance we see in media relies on the artificial drama of misunderstandings taken out of context and tearful reunions. The Vincents communicate constantly, and even when revelations from Vincent’s past come out, they’re able to talk them through and not let them drive a wedge between them. It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship portrayed here.

The worldbuilding continues to delight, with more details about the different types of glamourists, in particular the coldmongers. There was also a throwaway line referring to George III as the King of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie and Ireland”, which is intriguing and I hope is covered more in future books. The magic, however, is mostly set-dressing (ironic, since that’s what the Vincents spend much of their time doing), and it’s the character interactions that are the real draw.

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Scales and Sensibility (Regency Dragons, #1)

By Stephanie Burgis

Rating: 4 stars

Elinor Tregarth is trying to be model poor relation, but her awful cousin and uncle don’t exactly make it easy, and her aunt just closes her eyes and never disagrees with anyone. But when she finally snaps and ends up kidnapping (rescuing, really) her cousin’s pet dragon (all the most fashionable ladies have one this season, don’t you know?), it sets off a chain of events that culminates in her trying to impersonate someone she doesn’t know while helping the man she’s just met and fallen in love with try to marry her cousin.

The author describes this as a rom-com. I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe it. Romantic, definitely, but it’s more a farce than a comedy. Maybe a comedy of errors, with many misunderstandings, double-crossings and blackmail. It was also oddly stressful to read, as I nervously read on to find out what disaster would befall Elinor next!

While I don’t entirely buy the whole idea of love at first sight, the book still sets it up well as Elinor and Benedict start falling for each other, even as Elinor is still desperately trying to set him up with her wealthy cousin. Old tropes, but old for a reason.

I initially thought this was going to be similar to Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent books, with added romance. But although the dragons were initially thought to be natural creatures, magic soon makes an entrance, although it’s fairly subdued.

Burgis says in the note at the end of the book that she’s planning on giving each of Elinor’s sister’s their own book in the series, and my mind immediately went to the idea that there has to be one final book at the end where they all team up to form a giant mecha-dragon to save the world! But leaving aside giant robots, I’ll definitely be looking out for the next in the series to find out how the other Tregarth sisters are coping.

Book details

ISBN: 9798450717692
Publisher: Independently Published
Year of publication: 2021

Tea and Sympathetic Magic

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Rating: 4 stars

There’s very little to this short novella of an eligible young lady trying to not get married to the most eligible bachelor in the land, and teaming up with a handsome spellcracker to save him from kidnap and being magicked into marriage. It’s very fluffy, but a lot of fun. It’s part of the magical Regency romance genre but very knowingly pokes fun at that genre.

I’m not sure I can take any book that’s set in a place called the “Teacup Isles” seriously, but then the author doesn’t really take it seriously either. Although despite it all, the book never mocks the genre but lovingly sends it up. I like that because it’s in an alternate world, although it liberally borrows from the British Regency period, it isn’t bound by it, and so things that don’t fit in that period (for example, same-sex relationships) are present and don’t feel out of place.

Great fun, with a protagonist I liked. A great antidote to 2021.

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Year of publication: 2020

Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are newlywed, deeply in love, partners in work as well as life and with the favour of the Prince Regent. Life looks good as they go on honeymoon to Belgium to see one of Vincent’s old friends and colleagues. But this is a Europe only just coming out of war. Napoleon may be conquered but he has many allies on the continent. The Vincents find themselves amongst all this, and worse, when Vincent is captured, leaving Jane as the only one who can save him.

I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey and this continuation of the Vincents’ story was just as enjoyable. The blurb for the book played up the kidnapping, but in actual fact, that was a relatively short section towards the end, with most of it being spent focusing on their life together, Jane finding herself pregnant, and her increasing worry about being cut of of Vincent’s life.

The rules of this world are that women can’t do glamour when they’re pregnant. It’s not clear if that’s a solid rule, or if it’s something with some flexibility (like not drinking alcohol), but Jane sticks to it and starts to fear that because she can’t be her husband’s creative partner any more, he’s stopped valuing her. Kowal does a good job of setting up Jane’s fear and the reasons for it, but I never entirely believed it, seeing Vincent with somewhat clearer vision, even through Jane’s eyes.

The period setting is good. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last book, but this one had me sucked right in. Kowal’s writing is noticeably improved, even between her first and second novel

I’m now fully invested in Jane and Vincent’s life and can’t wait to dig into the next book.

Book details

Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2013

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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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

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

By Graeme Simsion

Rating: 3 stars

Having decided he wants to get married, Professor Don Tillman creates a very detailed questionnaire that he intends to use to weed out the unsuitable from his dating pool (which is most people). And Rosie definitely doesn’t fit the bill. But inevitably, as they spend more time together, they’re drawn closer.

Even after a few days of thinking it over, I’m not really sure what to make of this romantic comedy about a neuroatypical man looking for love. While the author usually shows affection for his protagonist, I can’t help shake the feeling that just occasionally, he’s inviting us to laugh at Don, rather than at the absurd situations he finds himself in. And that makes me uncomfortable. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard boy-meets-girl story of the kind I usually actually quite enjoy. But the fact that the protagonist was on the Autism spectrum and that the author didn’t really deal with that bothered me.

I mean, I guess that could have been the point – just because someone is on the spectrum doesn’t mean they’re so different that they don’t want to find love, and that the ASD was beside the point, but I feel that it should have come up somewhere. There’s a sequence near the start where Don, a professor of genetics, researches and delivers a talk about Aspergers (covering for a friend) but he never seems to associate it with himself. This can only be a deliberate authorial choice, but I don’t understand the point he was making.

The other characters don’t get much in the way of characterisation. Love interest Rosie feels a bit like a manic pixie dream girl with daddy issues. There’s the philandering friend and the dean who’s more obsessed with keeping the money coming in than academic rigour. These characters do get a certain amount of re-evaluation by the end of the book but I still struggled to sympathise with anyone in it.

I feel I’ve been a bit negative in this review, but I did smile, and even laugh occasionally. As I say, the core trope that the book fits into is one that I like, but this implementation was flawed.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405912792
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

Rating: 5 stars

This is a remarkably sweet and uplifting book for a story that starts with genocide. The planet of Sidira is destroyed, leaving only small groups of survivors. One of these groups is resettled on the planet of Cygnus Beta, a world that prides itself on welcoming all those who seek refuge. A government civil servant, Grace Delarua, is seconded to help the new settlement. When the colony decides to scour the planet looking for those with genetic heritage from their world, to help rebuild their society, Grace is assigned to travel with a group, including Dllenahkh, one of the Sidiri leaders.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to this book, it’s mostly a travelogue through various societies on Cygnus Beta, having minor adventures en route. It’s the characters that shine through. The warmth with which they’re portrayed is delightful, especially given the awful nature of the event that brought them there. The Sidiri are known as an intellectual and thoughtful people, not prone to burst of emotion (I pictured them as slightly more laid back Vulcans) and the dry wit that Dllenahkh shows, and his surprisingly tender romance with Delarua is a pleasure to read.

This also feels very much like a book for our times, showing us an example of how a society should handle those in need of refuge: with grace and open arms. In a world where more and more countries are turning their backs on their fellow peoples, we need to be reminded of the alternative. Where the host encourages those who come to them to develop and grow and become they best they can be, while those who take up that offer in turn grow into their host culture, while maintaining their own traditions.

The focus here is very much on Cygnus Beta, with only minor hints being dropped in about the wider galactic society and the four peoples (including Terrans) who make up humanity as a whole. The world-building is nicely done, and slides neatly into the story.

This isn’t a flashy novel, but it’s one that I found has worked its way into my heart without me really noticing. I cared about the characters and their relationships, which, to me, means the book is a success.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780871684
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2014

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By John Cleland

Rating: 3 stars

I must confess that when I picked this up (on the basis purely of a positive review I’d read), I knew it was supposed to be risqué but I was convinced that a book written in the middle 1700s couldn’t be that risqué. I was wrong. Fanny has a homosexual experience within the first dozen pages and goes on to meet and enjoy men in pretty graphic fashion fairly soon afterwards.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, it’s not that people haven’t been having, thinking, drawing, talking and writing about sex since the start of our species, I just wasn’t expecting it in written and published form in this period.

The book is in epistolary format and can be quite frustrating at times, with lots of long, run-on sentences and nested clauses (not helped by the Gutenberg text I was reading having quite a lot of typos). I sometimes found it difficult to tease out meaning from them. But if you can work through that, it’s enjoyable enough. While not explicitly naming genitals or acts, your euphemism vocabulary will certainly grow, and it can be quite fun spotting the more outrageous metaphors.

I also like that although there’s a moral at the end where Fanny disclaims her past, it’s not a moralistic book in that nothing bad happens to her. She’s allowed to enjoy sex and still get her happy ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 1748

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