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

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell

Rating: 4 stars

The Iskat Empire is at the heart of a solar system where they rule several of the terraformed planets through a system of treaties and intermarriages. An important renewal event is coming up that will rebind them to the wider galaxy, but Prince Taam has died in a flyer crash, so his widower, Jainan, is quickly rushed into a political marriage with one of the emperor’s more disreputable grandchildren, Kiem, in a bid to keep things running. But then it turns out that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and Jainan is a possible suspect. The newlyweds must solve the murder and prevent interplanetary war.

This was a fun story of an interplanetary empire in crisis, with a strong romance at its heart. Kiem is thrown right into the arranged marriage on the first page, with no warning and he and Jainan spend the first half of the book circling each other warily. Kiem because he feels Jainan must be grieving, and Jainan because he wants to fulfil his duty but thinks he’s not good enough for Kiem. It’s a punch the air moment when they finally fall into each others’ arms.

The story is told from both Kiem and Jainan’s points of view. We, the audience, are seeing inside Jainan’s head and slowly coming to the realisation that Jainan’s former marriage may not have been as perfect as it seemed, and screaming that Kiem should be able to see this. But, of course, he doesn’t have our luxury of being able to follow his partner’s thoughts on the written page.

Maxwell teases the conspiracy at the heart of the novel for quite some time, and it’s fun to see it slowly be exposed, along with the wider galactic civilisation and how Iskat and its empire fits into that.

A lot of fun, with some great secondary characters as well, particularly Kiem’s aide, Bel, who’s properly of the non-nonsense, hyper-organised variety. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even though I did find myself repeatedly rolling my eyes and yelling “just talk to each other” at the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356515885
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

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

Timeless (Parasol Protectorate, #5)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot going on in the fifth and final book of the Parasol Protectorate series. We have a bit of a time jump since the last one, so that Alexia’s daughter, Prudence, is now a toddler, with the ability to strip a supernatural of their powers and take them for herself, at a touch. Something that plays havoc in a household with a vampire adopted father and a werewolf biological father, and can only be undone by her mother’s preternatural touch. Into this chaotic domesticity comes a summons from Queen Matakara of the Alexandria hive, and reputed to be the oldest living vampire. But before they can set off, a werewolf is attacked and murdered, leaving Alexia to sort it all out.

As I say, there’s a lot going on here. We have two major parallel strands: the investigation into the murder in London, carried out by Professor Lyall and new pack member Biffy, while Alexia’s version of travelling incognito is to take an entire acting troupe with her, led by her best friend Ivy Tunstall! There’s a lot going on in Egypt, and I wish we’d had more time to spend with the Alexandria hive. The intrigue here was all swept up and dealt with far too quickly. I sort of wish that the whole London plot had been abandoned in favour of more here – the idea of the Alexandrian queen being over five thousand years old and the sort of thoughts that such a creature might have deserved to be given more time.

Alas, we didn’t get any of that, in favour of a balloon ride down the Nile, and a bunch of politics going on in London with the Kingair pack (although I did like the quietly blooming romance that went on there). And, of course, in between all the supernatural shenanigans, we’re reminded that the true monster is Man, as Alexia’s sister, Felicity, causes unwarranted mischief, fuelled purely by jealousy. I would have been happier if she’d got what was due to her, although for someone with her mentality, maybe her punishment is just.

I don’t think this is quite the banging end to the series that I’d hoped for, but then I also don’t think the series entirely recovered from the misstep at the end of the second book. Ivy’s ending just left me shaking my head a bit, although I did appreciate Conall’s proposal for saving him from alpha madness towards the end of his life.

All in all, I think I preferred Carriger’s Finishing School series over this one, although that might be because I read them first. Still fun, and I’d still read other work set in the same world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499871
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

Heartless (Parasol Protectorate, #4)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

After a wobbly couple of middle books, this fourth volume of Alexia’s adventures is back on firmer ground. This time, a ghost warns the Maccons of a threat to the queen, which sends Alexia off investigating (including into her husband’s past), while avoiding multiple attempts on her life, due to an ongoing vampiric fear over her baby, and dealing with the tribulations of being eight months pregnant.

The incident where Conall had thrown his wife out has been papered over and quietly forgotten and the two are as much in love as they ever were. I still don’t entirely believe that such a major breach of trust could have been forgiven and forgotten so thoroughly, but I guess that’s love.

This book keeps the sharper Ivy Tunstall that we had in the last one, and we finally have the formal creation of the Parasol Protectorate, even if it’s only as a sort of joke. We also deal with the fallout of Lord Maccon having to have made former drone Biffy into a werewolf and have a somewhat ill and distracted Genevieve, which causes Alexia more than a degree of worry.

There’s a lot of plot to juggle here, which Carriger manages well. Jokes at the expense of the Scots are limited to references to visible knees, although there’s a lot of waddling and other references to Alexia’s infant-inconvenience, as she calls it. Not that it seems to stop her, she gets into an awful physical situations for someone so pregnant.

This was a lot of fun and has set up some interesting changes in the in-world status quo. I look forward to the next, and final, book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500096
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

Blameless (Parasol Protectorate, #3)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up from where Changeless left off, this volume starts with Alexia having basically lost it all – she’s left her husband’s house, after being rejected by him upon finding out she’s pregnant; lost her royal appointment; and is forced to move back in with her family. Said family are all awful human beings (other than her stepfather who has no personality at all, other than hiding behind a newspaper) and she eventually resolves to leave and travel to Italy to find the mysterious Templars, who may be able to prove her innocent. Oh, and the vampires now also want her dead, and her friend Lord Akeldama has disappeared.

There’s a lot going on here, but the core is the relationship between Alexia and Conall. The former pulls together what’s left of her life and relationships, while the latter gets drunk for several weeks to get over himself. Is that supposed to be an attractive quality? And while Alexia starts to forgive him almost immediately, I can’t see how they can possibly go back to having the same relationship as they did before. Surely a vital trust has been breached now? The end of this book would suggest not, and I’m not sure if that makes me think less of Alexia. Or maybe that’s just love; I don’t know.

Beyond the confines of that relationship, we have a travelogue across Europe, in a variety of means of transport, in the company of the delightful Genevieve Lefoux and the mysterious Floote, who first appeared as butler to Alexia’s family, and who appears to be very much more than that. I love the character of Genevieve, so am delighted to spend more time with her, also being one of the few characters who have remained fairly steady throughout the series (so far, at least). Speaking of which, Ivy has a fairly small part here, having eloped at the end of the last book, but she appears to have had yet another personality transplant. She’s much less silly and frivolous than she was in the last book, having been put in charge of Genevieve’s hat shop, while the erstwhile inventor accompanies Alexia. I like this version of Ivy much more than the one in the previous book but don’t want to get too attached in case she changes again in the next one.

All in all, I’m not really sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the adventure romp, and the world-building, but I’m honestly not sure I believe in the central relationship of the series any more. That’s not going to stop me from reading the next book, of course.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499734
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Changeless (Parasol Protectorate, #2)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 3 stars

The second book of the Parasol Protectorate series sees Alexia, now Lady Macoon, have to investigate a plague of humanity that affects London’s supernatural population. A quest that sees her follow her husband north to Scotland, and the pack of werewolves he once abandoned.

This was mostly fun, but I did have some issues with it that I didn’t have with the first book. Firstly, the whole Scot-bashing thing is wearing a bit thin. It was bad enough in the last book with just Lord Macoon in London, but much of this is set in the Highlands and I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes.

Secondly, Alexia’s relationship with her best friend Ivy is just weird. This was something that I’d seen mentioned in a review of the last book, but which I didn’t really agree with at the time (I put the whole “ugly hat” thing down to being an in-joke between old friends). Here, I honestly can’t see much of the way of affection between the two women, and their friendship is stated to only be four years old. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt since Alexia does go from crisis to crisis throughout the book, but it’s still odd, and doesn’t leave me thinking well of either woman.

And then there’s the treatment of empire. It’s an interesting and clever notion to use werewolves as the shock troops of the British empire, enabling it to conquer a quarter of the world. Here, a major plot driver is the return of the Kingair pack from active duty in India. There’s nobody here that even suggests that the imperial project is a bad thing, or acknowledges that atrocities that must have been carried out in its name. This might be something that I wouldn’t have noticed when I was younger, but I’ve become much more sensitive to it as I’ve got older, and although yes, the upper classes of the period especially would have had their wealth based on empire, I feel the author should have acknowledged the pain that it caused to the colonised nations.

On the plus side, it was fantastic to see Genevieve Lefoux and Sidheag Kingair make appearances, since they were characters I was very fond of in the Finishing School books. And it looks like Genevieve may well have a role to play in future books in the series.

The relationship between Alexia and Conall Macoon is genuinely wonderful, having a strong bond, and very healthy respect for each other that isn’t overly sentimental. Which makes the ending all the more shocking. I will be very disappointed if the next book turns into one of my least favourite tropes: that of misunderstandings caused by wilful lack of communication, but I’m going to get to it as soon as possible.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499741
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

I came to this series after reading Carriger’s Finishing School series which I enjoyed a lot. This is set in the same universe, maybe a generation later. You can tell it was written earlier as some of the world that was fleshed out by the time of Finishing School was still a bit vague in this one, but Carriger already has a good sense of world-building, and her prose is a pleasure to read.

Our protagonist is Alexia Tarabotti, a young woman with the ability to cancel out the powers of supernatural creatures, such as vampires and werewolves, by touching them. The polite term of this is preternatural, but the less polite call her soulless (as opposed to the supernatural, who have a surfeit of soul). At the start of the book, she’s attacked by a vampire (without even introducing himself!) and she’s forced to kill him. This leads her into contact with Lord Maccon of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and himself a powerful werewolf, who has to investigate. As Alexia investigates further, she gets sucked into a plot that could shake the Empire to its core.

That sounds quite dense, but the book is really readable and a lot of fun to read. It’s as much comedy of manners as it is investigative thriller. And it’s also really rather sensual, and quite sexy too, which I wasn’t expecting, after the very chaste Finishing School books. Alexia and Lord Maccon share a mutual attraction and there’s quite detailed descriptions of Alexia discovering the joys of kissing. And the thing about attraction to a werewolf is, that when he changes back from wolf to human, he’s naked. And, oh, Alexia has to hold on to him to use her powers to keep him in human form. How awful. Let’s just say she doesn’t stop her hands from roving.

There’s a lot of scope to explore the world that Carriger has constructed here, and I’m looking forward to following Alexia as she steps into that wider world. I just hope that, after a lot of Scots-bashing in the first book (Lord Maccon is Scottish and there’s a lot of jokes about how uncouth the Scots are), there’s less of that in future.

Book details

Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Keeper of Enchanted Rooms (Whimbrel House, #1)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

This is a delightfully comforting read, which I enjoyed a lot. The book tells the story of Merritt Fernsby, who inherits a haunted house, and Hulda Larkin, of the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms who’s been trained in taming such houses. She comes to keep house for him while learning the mysteries of the house and the two slowly start falling in love. And in the meantime, there might be a greater threat out there than a house that can trap you in the cellar.

I love a story of found family, and the staff who come to work Whimbrel House start to become more than just co-workers. It’s especially poignant for Merritt, whose biological family are estranged from him. There’s a rather soapy twist later, although it does work in the context of the story and what we know of the characters.

The magic system is quite interesting, with multiple distinct school of magic, and the idea that magic is genetically recessive has become diluted over the centuries, so now there’s an organisation that tries to match people with magic together to try and increase the amount available. But this doesn’t entirely sit well with the idea that there are loads of magical devices around – from communication stones to magic-propelled boats. Surely if magic were that rare and diluted, such items would be incredibly rare, and not used in municipal transport!

Also, there’s the idea of each school of magic having a negative affect on the caster – where shapeshifting can result in (temporary) physical mutation when returning to your own shape; or psychokinesis can result in physical stiffness etc, but it’s never really played through and never really seems to affect the plot, even during a magical duel. But this is a fairly minor point that didn’t really bother me that much.

This book is happily standalone, but there is a sequel coming, which I’m quite looking forward to. It was a lot of fun and a nice, easy read.

Book details

The Wonder Engine (Clocktaur War #2)

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 4 stars

The second half of The Clocktaur Wars is different to the first, but equally as good. The first book was the journey to Anuket City, with a side quest in Slate and Caliban falling in love but not saying anything because they’re idiots. The second book deals with what they find when they get there. They have to figure out how the clocktaurs are being created (hint: the clue’s in the title) and how to stop them. And at the same time, Slate has to stop the chickens she hatched the last time she was in the city from coming home to roost.

There’s a lot more of Slate and Caliban mooning at each other, something which is obvious to not just the reader, but everyone around them, except, maybe Learned Edmund. Speaking of the scholar, I think he became my favourite character over the course of the story. Starting off as a misogynistic prig, it’s easy to forget how sheltered he’s been for his, very young, life. Being out in the world opens his eyes and helps him grow as a character. He doesn’t just accept Slate as the leader of the group, but that women can make great artificers (everyone loves a good index) and gets fascinated by Gnole society, particularly the interplay between their pronouns and their castes, which was something that I’ve not seen before and really liked.

The one thing that I thought didn’t entirely work was the Grey Church and the threat from Boss Horsehead. I never really bought into Slate’s terror of the man and what he might do, and the whole sequence sort of petered out. The best bit of it was really Brenner fighting to stop Caliban from doing something stupid. I thought that worked really well and led up to the climax, with a really good twist that I was not expecting at all, that hit me right in the feels.

I really liked Grimehug and the Gnoles. When we first encountered him in the first book, he was accompanying the clocktaurs. I assumed that meant that he was part of the opposing army and wondered why the group didn’t sit him down and interrogate him. It turns out he was following them, rather than accompanying them, and we get a lot more on the Gnoles and their society here. I’m almost as interested as Learned Edmund to find out more about them.

The world is interesting, and you learn as much from what isn’t said as from what is. Names, for example, seem to have power. You never find out the name of the city that sent the group, it’s always just referred to as “the capitol” or “the Dowager’s city”. And gods seem to have titles, or descriptions, rather than names: The Dreaming God, The Many-Armed God, The Forge God, etc. I know there’s more books set in the world and I wonder if that will be expanded on later?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its likeable characters and an intriguing world. I look forward to reading more in the same setting.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

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