The Memoirs of Lady Trent – Marie Brennan

The first two books in this series are covered in an earlier review.

After a wait for Voyage of the Basilisk (acquired through inter-library loan), I devoured the last three books of this series. The setup for the twist in Within the Sanctuary of Wings was sufficiently obvious through that I had spotted it mid-series. Especially once Isabella married.

But whatever the lack of surprise, it is more than made up for by the fast-paced adventures, foolishness and the Victorian woman willing to risk her family life in order to make scientific discoveries. The “science” is good fun, and the weaving in of other disciplines adds depth. Regular readers may recall I was quite taken by a drive to discover a lost language, and the Temeraire series which is another non-traditional “dragon history”.

If fast-paced fantasy novels are your thing, then these are good reads, and Isabella makes a fabulous heroine, always ready to try something foolhardy and usually win out. At a fair few points I could only bring myself to keep reading in the knowledge that as the writer of her own memoir, she surely couldn’t die in this adventure.

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A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents – Memoirs of Lady Trent – Marie Brennan

As a lover of both science writing and fantasy, especially that not set in pseudo-medieval worlds, this appealed to me instantly when recommended, and was promptly ordered from the library. Lady Trent is a wonderful character, a wilful daughter of the aristocracy when scientific careers are only permitted for men, and finds her own way to happiness.

There are wild dragons, but in England they are tiny insects for a young girl’s imagination to be captured. But as she grows into a woman, she has a systematic study of the sparklings rather than just a habit of watching them. But as a woman she cannot (yet) speak in the scientific societies, but instead has to carve her own, more difficult route.

These books are wonderful for their dragons, Isabella’s passion, the science and the feminist journey. I am ordering book three as soon as I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile. For some reason that one is missing from the library set, so I can’t get hold of it that way.

The Temeraire Series (9 titles) – Naomi Novik

I first started the Temeraire series some years ago, but ran out of momentum on book 6 (The Tongues of Serpents) which had a very weak ending. But on this reread I felt driven to continue on through the rest of the books, which return the series to the high standards of the series start.

Set in Napoleonic times, dragons are as important to the defence of Britain as its’ navy is, and Temeraire is a large and talented dragon, so obviously forms a key part of this. But he is not given just this simple role, but instead we learn about more of his talents as he undergoes character development and finds his own place in the world. His companion Laurence has similar struggles as he makes life-changing moral decisions and deals with love, the war and friendship on firstly the terms of others, and gradually his own terms.

Each book moves around the world, although some settings are returned to, and the cast around Temeraire evolves as life for a deployed member of His Majesty’s Service continues. I like the imaginative way that dragons become part of the Napoleonic era without displacing true history too much, and how they do not instantly solve problems but instead present new ones. But the best subplot is the one around dragons’ personhood, set against a backdrop of the abolition of the slave trade by parliament. This beast that can destroy ships and kill soldiers without effort has far more interest as a political being than as a warrior.

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

The King’s Justice is a short and punchy novella, with the mysterious character “Black” who turns up in town shortly after an unsolved murder. But this book is not really about that murder, but about the balancing of forces and the understanding of who makes up “The King’s Justice” and how they become who they are.

“Very well,” begins Black. “You are aware, I hope, that you are both charlatans.”
The priests stare…

As so many fantasy novels are, it is in a pseudo-medieval setting. My only complaint is the origin of the enemy, but at least that is not gratuitous, but rather necessary to explain how he has access to magic that the King’s Justice doesn’t.

Well worth reading

Wicked – Gregory Maguire

I am a big fan of musicals, including Wicked, and wanted to revisit the novel that inspired the musical.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West does not have the same plot as the musical, but the same starting premise. Elphaba is given a stronger destiny, and Galinda more socially constrained in the novel. Not to mention the stronger political tones with genocide and murdering dissidents.

This is a full story of a life, starting with a difficult childhood, and an escape to university which is more complex than expected, and full circle being reached again with family links. She has life-long friendships throughout this in the flawed but loving Nanny and Boq, her partner-in-crime. But fundamentally it is about the life of a woman who faces discrimination and battles it to try and be a force for good in the world.

Maguire’s reimagining of Oz manages to be magical and political. He weaves together complex characters with a range of motives, each of them flawed, but so many driven by a higher purpose or destiny.

And of course, it being Wicked, we need a video. I’ve had a good few weeks of concerts recently, and have heard Defying Gravity at both Idina Menzal’s world tour and at an orchestral performance sung by Ashleigh Gray.

The Obernewtyn Chronicles (7 titles) – Isobelle Carmody

I was lent this series by a friend with a shared interest in young-adult fantasy series to entertain me as I recuperated from an episode of ill health that left me with a month to rest. They more than half-filled the box, but thankfully started as quite slim paperbacks that didn’t look as intimidating as the Red Queen does, with this paperback coming in at over 1100 pages.

The chronicles all stand well as individual books, but make a compelling longer arc as well. However as each book moved on, I felt increasingly like Elspeth had primarily been set an artificial quest rather than facing external issues until very close to the end. She also spends much of her time dependent on her guardian’s protections rather than her own skills and planning, to the extent that I wanted to read the guardian’s book as her story sounded much more interesting.

Even with a dreamworld linked to the real world, we also seemed to spend too much time there, and it was very much a revelations-style dreamworld. If I wanted to read a drugged nightmare then I would have started with a different type of book!

However the general world-building is brilliant, a genuinely post-apoplectic world where all modern technology has been lost into legends. How earlier miracles were worked is gradually being uncovered, and bigotry is challenged. Wars are fought, peace is negotiated and promises are (mostly) fulfilled.

Obernewtyn is a lot of lightweight escapist dystopian future fantasy. Worth reading for the world-building, as long as you aren’t looking for something that stands up to a critical read.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn – read by Paul English

I had this as an audiobook, read chapter-by-chapter as I took the train to and from work. Each day I lost myself in a mythical Japan, where Shikanoko finds his powers and influence within the Islands rises and falls. A strongly mythical setting, magical powers are real, and as important for influence as military powers. Spirits truly haunt, and fate plays a strong part in the direction of the characters.

This last part was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Used to more active protagonists, heroes who fate repeated drops into the right place and time, again and again seem to lack decisiveness, and makes the novel more of a blocking piece than dependent on the characters.

But I will read the rest of the Tale of Shikanoko, to discover what happens to all these intricate, well-written characters.

Fool Moon: Dresden Files 2 – Jim Butcher

There’s not all that much to write about book 2 in a fast-paced series. Only that Butcher manages both continuity and pan-series arcs as well as an original and compelling plot. Dresden is a wonderfully flawed hero, trying to do good, but coming up against his own issues that make it all much harder. I’m hopful that these will be worked on through the series, as his understanding of them is already increasing.

The “Moon” title is a dead giveaway as to the supernatural theme of this book, but even here Butcher manages some originality, and I love Dresden’s tendency to go away, research and write a report for his client. No simple “turn up and do the fun stuff” for him – he’s working the same as everyone else who deals with the public sector in this millennium.

The twist at the end is satisfying, and I look forward to seeing this cast of characters in the next book: currently heading my way on order.

Storm Front – The Dresden Files 1 – Jim Butcher

I’ve been aware of the Dresden Files before, but had never felt particularly pulled to them, until I read a Butcher short story a few weeks ago. I ordered it in the library reservation system, although have been disappointed to be unable to order Fool Moon (book 2) so Abe books has come to the rescue.

The Dresden Files is a take on the sterotypical consulting detective theme, with the additional twist of said detective being a practicing wizard in modern-day Chicago. Gritty and real, unlucky in love and hopeless at actually paying his rent, Harry Dresden is a hero it is easy to feel drawn to. He has the wit, the insight and the abilities to get through a fiendishly unlucky set of circumstances when all he really wants to do is pay (last month’s) rent.

The writing is compelling, drawing me into this world where so much criminality is down to other-worldly forces. The dark side of human nature is battled against as day becomes night, but we know all along that Dresden is somehow going to solve the case. For starters there are another 15 books for him to appear in!

As I mentioned at the start, I loved this enough to buy book 2, and am glad I have the whole series ahead of me.

The Man who Rained – Ali Shaw

The cover of this set the tone nicely – is a nice “chick lit” with a fable woven beneath it. Elsa is taking the normal “running away” approach to life, and settles  in a small town. But of course it is not an ordinary small town, and it takes a few chapters before we discover how unusual it is.

This is hardly deep literature, but covers both the bright and dark sides of the human spirit. We see displays of love and of jealousy, of loyalty and a brutal mob.  The human side alone is powerful. Then the magic is imaginative, running with the idea of spirits (mischievous or otherwise) which have local powers.

I loved how Shaw drew all the threads together for the ending, giving very satisfying conclusions to all the parallel subplots running through the novel.