The Blind Dragon: A Tale from the Canon of Tarn

By Peter Fane

Rating: 3 stars

When I started reading this book, I wondered if I’d stumbled into something mid-series, as there was an awful lot of stuff just thrown at you, as if you should know about the civil war in this kingdom and what the political situation was. But from looking around online, this is Fane’s first novel, although I get the impression that he’s been building and telling stories in this world for a long time. Just regarding the physical book, when I picked it up, it looked like a good hefty, 450 page tome, but when I opened it, the whole thing is double-spaced, so it would probably be about half that size if it was more traditionally formatted.

The book tells a coming of age story, as Anna Dyer, an apprentice to the dragon riders of Dávanor has to overcome treachery from within her duchy with the aid of the newly hatched, blind dragon Moondagger, with whom she forms a bond.

The book keeps up the pace, with lots happening on a very frequent basis, but I’m not sure we really get enough time spent getting to know Anna to fully appreciate some of the more emotional beats in the story. The book is also very violent, with faces being bitten off, entrails ripped out and more. Maybe I’m just getting old, but that, and the culture of honour and violence that Anna (a fourteen year old girl) is embedded in seemed a bit over the top to me. But then I’m also at a point where swearing fealty to nobility and the feudal system seems like a terrible idea. As Monty Python so memorably put it: strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

Looking beyond that, though, despite a Surfeit of Capitalisation, the book is well-written and kept my attention all the way through. Coming out the end, I feel that I better understand the world. I was amused that in the chronology at the end, despite having a 12,000 year history, about 10,000 of those are just marked at “the plague years”. Sometimes I feel that writers throw around big numbers like that with abandon without really pausing to think about them. Science fiction is really bad for that, but fantasy can be too. I’d remind you that the whole of recorded human history, is barely 6000 years. We have literally no experience with any single organisation stretching half that length of time, never mind the tens of thousands that this book is bandying around.

Fun enough, although despite the book literally being called “The Blind Dragon”, the dragon’s blindness was barely a feature, beyond the first few pages, throwing in a magical workaround in passing. As I say, an entertaining way to spend a few hours, but I’ll not be looking out the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781944296025
Publisher: Silver Goat Media

Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

David Balfour is newly an orphan at seventeen. A message from his late father directs him to seek out his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws to make his fortune. Said uncle, however, betrays him and sees him on a ship bound for slavery in the Americas. Through a series of unlikely events, David makes it back to Scotland with his new companion Alan Breck Stewart and begins a journey across the highlands to reclaim his inheritance.

I didn’t know much about this book before I saw an absolutely stonking theatrical production put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. I adored that and was inspired to seek out the original text, which didn’t disappoint (mostly). It’s a cracking read, well-paced, full of adventure, and male bonding. Despite having lived in Scotland for well over half a lifetime, I confess I don’t know its history hugely well. But I did, coincidentally, just read up a bit on the Jacobite rebellion not long before reading the book, which provided invaluable context.

I do think it slightly ran out of steam towards the end. By the time David sees Alan away on the ship to France and turns away to go to a bank, I was just sort of left bemused. Like there were a few pages missing, maybe? But no, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that’s where the book ends. Seems like an odd note to end on, but the main body of the book is a great fun read, that still works into the 21st century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780439295789
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2002

The Bronzed Beasts

By Roshani Chokshi

Rating: 4 stars

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really have that high expectations of this after the other two books in the series, but I think it may have been my favourite of them. Despite a huge eye-roll at the way the last book ended, this one picks it up and runs with it. Séverin appeared to betray his friends and ran away with Ruslan, the patriarch of the Fallen House to become a god, but he left a secret message with Laila, which she immediately destroyed after waking up, in a fit of pique. So now his friends don’t have the clues he left them.

Of course, they figure it out anyway and the story is mostly Séverin trying to redeem himself against the anger of Laila and Enrique; Hypnos was all too willing to forgive, and Zofia understands what he was trying to do. So after the gang gets back together Séverin spends most of the time (when he’s not smugly solving mysteries) making big puppy dog eyes at the others.

The big bad didn’t really feel all that much of a threat, the main plot driver was the quest to find the maguffin (it’s no less a maguffin for being a location rather than an object). There’s some great sequences en route (I think the big wall on the island, after the lake was my favourite) but it didn’t really feel to me that the characters got that much development. Poor Hypnos, once again, gets hardly any time in his head (although he did get at least one PoV chapter this time) despite being one of the more interesting of the group. Laila is mostly just angry and brooding, and a driver of the plot rather than an active participant. As usual, Zofia and Enrique were great fun (is anyone else getting a bit of a Parker and Hardison from Leverage vibe from them?), although there was no single moment as great as Zofia on the glass stag from the last book.

The ending was interesting and somewhat unexpected. Other reviewers didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t actually mind it too much. It definitely had more melancholy than I was expecting, but still, a good conclusion to the series. I don’t think it’s one I’ll reread but I don’t regret my time spent with it, and it went out on a high.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250144614
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year of publication: 2022

The Silvered Serpents

By Roshani Chokshi

Rating: 3 stars

So it turns out that my worries about this being too grimdark for me and make me nope out of the series, a la The Kingdom of Copper, didn’t come to pass. While I rolled my eyes as Séverin’s descent into full emo-dom (all he needed was some black eyeshadow), he, and the rest of the crew, never became so unlikeable that I didn’t want to spend time with them.

So in this volume, the crew, aided by the Matriarch of House Kore of France and the Patriarch of House Dazbog of Russia are searching for a book called The Divine Lyrics, which the Fallen House thought could be used to become gods, and which Séverin secretly wants to use to undo his mistakes, and maybe even bring Tristan back from the dead. Yeah, he’s deep in the ‘denial’ and maybe ‘bargaining’ stage of grief at the moment. Tristan’s death has changed the dynamic amongst the crew as a whole. They are sadder and less united than ever, but they’ve got to pull together for this one last big heist.

Despite Séverin’s overblown angst, the character I possibly felt most for was Hypnos. He’s trying his best to fit in and be part of the group, but they never see him as one of them. And neither, it seems, does the author, who never gives us chapters from his point of view, unlike the others. I hope this changes in the next book, since it feels like Hypnos has earned his place in the group by now. And despite his surface layer of charm and easy manner, I get the feeling he’s someone who’s deeply insecure and needs to be part of something bigger than himself.

I didn’t feel Laila got an awful lot to do in this book. She was there mostly to both angst towards Séverin and be a source of angst for him. I hope she gets to be more active in the next book. Zofia and Enrique continue to be my favourite characters, although even they don’t escape the veneer of gloom that has overlaid the group, with the former looking much more towards her ill sister back in Poland, and the latter thinking about revolution and freedom for his native Philippines. Although Zofia does provide one of the best images in the whole book, as she charges to the rescue, atop a stag made of ice with a flaming sword in her hand. It’s magnificent!

In the last book, Matriarch Delphine of House Kore was nothing more than a shadowy antagonist, who, for unknown reasons, stole Séverin’s inheritance. Here, the author tries to show us a different side to her – after the bombshell in the epilogue of the first book. I’m not sure she entirely succeeds. While she believes that she did what she did to protect Séverin, I don’t really understand how. And I still don’t understand why she appears to have sacrificed herself near the end of the book. I read the passage several times, but it still didn’t make sense to me.

With time ticking away until Laila’s nineteenth birthday, and the prophesied date of her death, the last book has a lot of plot to play with, but also a lot to tie up.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250144584
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year of publication: 2021

The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves, #1)

By Roshani Chokshi

Rating: 3 stars

In Belle Époque France, at the end of the nineteenth century, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is bitter that his inheritance as the heir to one of the great hidden powers of France was stolen from him. Then he is offered a change to recover his heritage, and he gathers his unlikely band together to pull off the heist of a lifetime.

So this book wasn’t about “getting the gang together” for the heist, as I thought. At the start, they’re already a well-oiled team, having “acquired” many artifacts in the past. Each of them has a reason for being where they are and doing what they do. Whether it’s engineer Zofia who doesn’t understand people, but does understand numbers, and has a debt to pay; or historian Enrique, whose mixed heritage leaves him an outsider wherever he goes, and who hopes that if Séverin gets what he wants, it will offer him an in. And then there’s Laila, dancer and baker extraordinaire, searching for a hidden book and hoarding her own secret.

It wasn’t until I came to review the book on GoodReads did I see that it’s classed as YA, which sort of explains a few things. Firstly, the characters are all young: in their late teens or early twenties, and second, there are so many strong emotions flying around. It was somewhat exhausting to read, but then I’m a guy in his forties now, when things are a little more sedate than when you’re a teenager and have All The Feels.

I’m a bit worried by the ending, that this might be a case where the rest of the trilogy delves into miserablist territory. I had that with City of Brass, and never made it past the second book because of how miserable it was and how much I hated all the characters. Given the end here, I’m a bit worried that might happen here too (although I hope I could never hate Zofia or Enrique). I’m still going to give book two a go though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250144553
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year of publication: 2020

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 book. 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

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