A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

Mona is a teenage girl with the very specific magical ability to work with bread. From telling it not to burn, to making gingerbread men dance, Mona is the very definition of a minor wizard. But she’s happy being a baker, working with her Aunt Tabitha, and using her magic to help her. Until the other wizards of the city start disappearing, until soon she’s on the run for her life. And then, she’ll be the only thing standing between her city and an invading army.

I loved this little novella. It was charming, but with enough of a hard edge to make it worth savouring. Mona is a great protagonist, whose actions feel believable all the way through (up to and including the giant gingerbread golems). She doesn’t want to be doing this, she’s a teenage girl, and she’s (rightly) angry that all this has fallen on her shoulders. Why wasn’t the duchess stronger? Why didn’t other people speak out? Why was it left up to her?

But despite it all, she rises to the occasion (pun very much intended). With obligatory Little Orphan Boy (Spindle) at her side and with the help of her familiar – a sourdough starter called Bob (really, it’s scarier than it sounds) – she fights bigotry, rogue wizards and bureaucrats (as well as the aforementioned invading army).

The world is well-developed, without any big infodumps and the writing is clear and a joy to read. I’d love to read more of Mona’s adventures, but that would require her to be a hero again, which would make her angry, and she might set Bob on me.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

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

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

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

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


By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

In my head, this and Dodger are sort of a set, since they were written at roughly the same time and are both YA books. But while I read the latter years ago, I’ve never quite got around to Nation, until now. But goodness me, I’m glad I did! Mau is on his way back from the Boys’ Island, having completed the task that will make him a man, when a tidal wave destroys his island Nation and everyone he knew, leaving him alone. But it also wrecked a ship, leaving a single survivor: a teenage girl who was voyaging to join her father who is governor of a British colony in the “Great Southern Pegalic Ocean”. Together, they welcome other survivors from the seas and try to build something good.

There’s a lot to unpack in this novel, and I think it will need reread at some point. At this point in his life, Pratchett had a lot on his mind, and some of those themes find their way into the book: what it feels like when your expected future has been taken away from you; religion and its purpose in the world; what it means to be a nation. Mau and Daphne are great protagonists, very different from each other, but complementary to what the other needs at this moment. I am reminded of Granny and Tiffany in Daphne, while Mau has shades of Vimes’ anger and determination.

The book is set in a sort of alt-hist Victorian era, with a British Empire, but other aspects of the world are different. And the shades of the past elders talk (although whether they have anything worth listening to is another matter).

Sometimes there’s not a huge amount of subtlety in the metaphors, such as when the British mutineers show up. They’re there pretty much to bang you over the head with the idea that that “civilised” and “savage” are defined by actions, not in dress or technology.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated a lot of its themes. While I wasn’t hugely fond of most of the Discworld novels written in his later life, between this, Dodger, and the Tiffany Aching books, his YA work sparkled.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552557795
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2009

Lumberjanes: To the Max Edition, Vol. 6

By Shannon Watters

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth volume of the rather marvellous Lumberjanes starts with Molly feeling like she wants the summer to last longer. So much so that she makes a deal with a mysterious voice in a waterfall. Inevitably, it goes horribly wrong and the Roanoke girls end up in the thick of it, ably assisted by councillor Jen and the usual supporting cast. Although is nobody going to say anything about what happened when Rosie got magically aged up?

I feel really sorry for Molly, she seems so happy at camp, but her home life is obviously difficult. I expect we’ll be seeing more of that, as well as whatever seems to live in the waterfall and has it in for the Lumberjanes.

The second arc in the book consists of the Roanoke girls in a bit of a funk after their last adventure and Jen leading them on a search for the mythical jackalope. They encounter a traveller with her own set of fantastic beasts, and learn about her her history. Emmy seems like a fun character and I hope we meet her again. The final story in the volume is a single issue story of Zodiac cabin starting up a camp newsletter and the trouble caused by people reading their horoscopes. It’s a light, fun little story to round off the volume.

I think this is a well-balanced volume, with the quieter, more character-focused back half balancing out the action-heavy first arc. I love all the characters by now and I look forward to see where the story goes. At some point, I’m going to need to binge-read the story-so-far in order to remind myself of the wider goings-on though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684154944


By Diana Wynne Jones

Rating: 3 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Diana Wynne Jones book, and I’d forgotten how convoluted that her plots could get. This one involves an interstellar empire, a powerful machine called the Bannus, hidden on Earth and turned on when it shouldn’t have been, that draws a web of intrigue around itself, leaving Ann, Mordion and Hume to try and sort it out.

I had to read the first few pages of part two several times over to try and make sense of how it followed on from what had come before. That was what reminded me of Jones’ twisty plots. This one’s quite timey-wimey as well, with time being all over the place, as a side-effect of the field that Bannus creates, meaning that it’s not a book that you can read thoughtlessly. Don’t let the relatively straightforward language, and the youthful protagonist fool you, it might be YA, but you need to keep your wits about you.

I confess that there were bits that did pass me by. I think the book could do with a reread soon after the first read, while it’s still fresh in my mind, but I also don’t think I’ll do that. It might gain from it, but I don’t care enough to go to the effort.

It’s an enjoyable book, as long as you concentrate, with some interesting twists and turns. There is enough of the wider worldbuilding to keep me interested (and wish for more) while the main story is quite tight. Importantly for me, while Jones isn’t always great at endings, this one comes together well at the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780749718480
Publisher: Mammoth
Year of publication: 1994

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