A Basket of Magical Reviews

A bundle of reviews for fairytales, magic and romance!

Half a Soul (Regency Faerie Tales Book 1) by Olivia Atwater

It’s difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you’re a young lady with only half a soul.

Ever since a faerie cursed her, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear, embarrassment, or even happiness-a condition which makes her sadly prone to accidental scandal. Dora’s only goal for the London Season this year is to stay quiet and avoid upsetting her cousin’s chances at a husband… but when the Lord Sorcier of England learns of her condition, she finds herself drawn ever more deeply into the tumultuous concerns of magicians and faeries.

Lord Elias Wilder is handsome, strange, and utterly uncouth-but gossip says that he regularly performs three impossible things before breakfast, and he is willing to help Dora restore her missing half. If Dora’s reputation can survive both her ongoing curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world… but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

This is a really sweet Regency romance, with a lovely dash of magic and danger, plus a protagonist who is not so much plucky as mostly oblivious (but with a firm sense of morality, which at least usually lands her in the right sort of trouble) and a romantic entanglement that is firmly in the Mr Darcy camp of stubborn and unexpected. It’s an easy and fun read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

It reminded me a lot of Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series (highly recommended if you like Regency politics plus magic and a fierce dose of feminism) and the next one in this series is Ten Thousand Stitches, which follows some of the same characters.

The Seventh Bride by T Kingfisher

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

An easy read, but The Seventh Bride is a fierce and different take on a mix of fairytales, with a lovely blend of many tropes; the unexpected bride finding out that her husband-to-be isn’t what she thinks he is, and that she is trapped in a strange house.. and then turning all of her ingenuity to how to free the others, trapped with her. Some of the wives are horrifying (more for what has been done to them, than the wives themselves) but the allies and friends that Rhea finds along the way are sweet, and the relationships between the wives, Crevan and allies are all very different. A fun and unexpected read.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

When Nora Fischer stumbles, quite literally, into a magical world where everyone is glamorous and life is one long party, she’s immediately captivated. What she doesn’t realise, because everything is such fun, is that there’s a darker side to her new friends. In fact, it’s only after she agrees to marry the charismatic, masterful Raclin that she discovers she’s a prisoner in this new world.

If Nora is to escape, then she has just one hope: the magician Aruendiel. And if she can also persuade him to teach her the art of real magic, then she might just be able to return home. Is that what she wants, though? Aruendiel has a biting tongue, a shrouded past and no patience, so there’s no way Nora could be falling for him… Is there?

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from this book, but it wasn’t what I got. I’m not entirely sure what I got, though, so there’s that. It reminded me a little of Thomas Covenant (although thankfully without the horribly rapey bits, which was nice…) and I think I was expecting more dramatic fantasy? More cute, more romance, more flair?

This is quite plodding in places, and quite pedestrian – which honestly does fit with the world, because once Nora is out of the control of her new friends, she realises that their lives are mostly illusion, and she’s actually in a medieval-style world – and that doesn’t lend itself to anything dramatic. Especially as magic isn’t the big fantasy gestures, but is hard work (and again, that makes perfect sense for the world.)

Nora herself is a modern, educated woman pushed into a place where woman aren’t expected to be educated (or intelligent, really) unless they can do magic – so she promptly pushes to learn magic, partly for status and partly for attempting to get home. Her story and character development is interesting, and the other characters are interesting, but…

I dunno. The book just fell a bit flat for me, I think. I didn’t love the story, although I ploughed through it. I don’t have any particular desire to pick up the next one. I suppose I feel that this one could have been cut in half quite happily, and then we might actually see more of whether Nora’s desire for Aruendiel goes anywhere.

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

In Regency England, Jane Ellsworth of Dorchester is a woman ahead of her time.

Not only is she highly skilled in the manipulation of glamour – plucking strands from the Ether to create genteel magical illusions – she’s also ambitious for her art, and dreams of being recognised as a glamourist of note in her own right, as men are permitted to.

First and foremost, however, a lady of quality must marry well, and alas Jane’s ambitions do not extend to her romantic prospects. Compared to her beautiful sister Melody, Jane feels invisible to suitors, and is resigned to a life of spinsterhood.

But when her beloved family comes under threat, Jane uses her magical skills to put things right, which attracts the attention of professional glamourist Mr Vincent . . . and unwittingly wanders in to a love story of her own.

Another Regency romance with magic, and I loved this one! Full of wonderful characters, well-realised situations, romantic drama… the perfect cosy sofa read. I really loved the way glamour was described and explained as well; it lent some nice depth to Jane learning more about her ‘hobby’, and made the relationship between her and Mr Vincent more complex than just that of a suitor realising the spinster sister was actually interesting. A really well-written and fun read.

I think the sequel is Glamour in Glass, and it’s on my list to pick up!

A Sci-fi of Reviews: Dec 2021

It’s a bundle of cuteness and romance this time, with a battle or two mixed in… cute sci-fi, here we come!

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

It has been eight centuries since the beacon system failed, sundering the heavens. Rising from the ashes of the collapse, cultures have fought, system-by-system, for control of the few remaining beacons. The Republic of Chaonia is one such polity. Surrounded by the Yele League and the vast Phene Empire, they have had to fight for their existence. After decades of conflict, Queen-Marshal Eirene has brought the Yele to heel. Now it is time to deal with the Empire. Princess Sun, daughter and heir, has come of age.

In her first command, she drove a Phene garrison from the beacons of Na Iri – an impressive feat. But growing up in the shadow of her mother – a ruler both revered and feared – has been no easy task. While Sun may imagine that her victorious command will bring further opportunity to prove herself, it will in fact place her on the wrong side of court politics. There are those who would like to see Sun removed as heir, or better yet, dead. To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.

I was a bit worried that this would be hardcore sci-fi, but it’s not; there are battles, but it’s very focused on the characters, and the relationships between everyone. The main core is Sun, along with her companions – I really loved how the relationships (both old, from her long-time companions, and new from ones introduced to the mix) changed and developed. I also really enjoyed the political fights, and the way that the choices and decisions influenced everyone else – and how Sun’s own choices made her character develop. It’s a really well-paced, well-written book with lots of interesting (and cute!) characters, and I’ve got the second (Furious Heaven) on my wish-list!

Space Opera by Cathrynne M Valente

Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix–part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet, mouths, larynxes, or faces. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty, if a new planet has produced some savage group of animals, machines, or algae that claim to be, against all odds, sentient? Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.

This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny–they must sing.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have been chosen to represent their planet on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of Earth lies in their ability to rock.

Hum. Ok, I have to admit I didn’t get on with this. It is very HitchHikers, and is very good – and if you’re into that style of writing (quite jerky, but also very weird, in an amusing way) then I’m sure it’s great. But it’s not my sort of thing. I did read (well, skimmed) all the way through and if you like the first chapter, then I’d say it’s worth the read.

The Seven Brides-to-be of Generalissimo Vlad by Victoria Goddard

A promise is a promise… Portia MacArthur is possibly the best courier in the galaxy. Severely scarred from a training accident, she prefers the solitude of space to social interactions, especially ones involving her family. Vlad Millington, new Generalissimo of the Kinrod Syndicate, is a noted rake of galactic fame about to choose his bride. When Portia and Vlad were ten, she promised him she would be there on the day of his betrothal with a fleet of spaceships. Nothing-not social disgust, not her brother’s idiocy, not a mysterious interstellar predator, not even the black hole in the centre of the galaxy-will stop her from keeping that promise. She just hopes Vlad’s still worth it.

A short novella by my current favourite author (The Hands of the Emperor! SQUEEEE) but a standalone from any of the other series. A lovely short read, and a sweet story – I really like Portia’s solution to the spaceships! I do agree with another reviewer, though, that it would have been really good to see more of the other brides; what is their background? Why are they there? And what happens next?

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

Years ago, Old Earth sent forth sisters and brothers into the vast dark of the prodigal colonies armed only with crucifixes and iron faith. Now, the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are on an interstellar mission of mercy aboard Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, a living, breathing ship which seems determined to develop a will of its own. When the order receives a distress call from a newly-formed colony, the sisters discover that the bodies and souls in their care – and that of the galactic diaspora – are in danger. And not from void beyond, but from the nascent Central Governance and the Church itself.

A short-novel or long-novella (the next one, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, is out in Feb 2022) which focuses on the slightly motley crew of nuns who travel the stars to bring faith and healing to colonies. The focus is very much on the trials and decisions that they make, and the faith behind it; and how faith might warp and change out in the void, or how a central authority might try to control it. It’s a good read, and the characters – and their choices – are all interesting; I’m not sure if the next one is on my TBR, but this one is worth a read if you’re into the slightly more philosophical-concept sci-fi – and living ships.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

The Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties – so when Prince Taam, key figure in a political alliance, is killed, a replacement must be found. His widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with the disreputable aristocrat Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control. But Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and when Jainan himself is a suspect, he and Kiem must navigate the perils of the Iskat court, solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war . . .

Well, this is frankly adorable. The sci-fi setting is a good backdrop for the political scenery that makes this relationship so good and interesting, and the tensions – and interweaving problem/solutions – between Jainan and Kiem are wonderful. The characters themselves are brilliant; both complex and flawed, and both bouncing off each other in a series of misunderstandings/understandings/tropes that work perfectly. I absolutely loved this, and it’s a very sweet story. It also looks like there might be a further two (!!) in the series, which would be fabulous!

Book Review: The Hands of the Emperor

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

An impulsive word can start a war.
A timely word can stop one.
A simple act of friendship can change the course of history.

Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth, the god.
He has spent more time with the Emperor of Astandalas than any other person.
He has never once touched his lord.
He has never called him by name.
He has never initiated a conversation.

One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.

The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.

Where do I even start with this?

IF YOU LOVE THE GOBLIN EMPEROR AND NEED MORE POLITICS/ROMANCE/TANGLED INTRICACIES/COURT MANNERS IN YOUR LIFE, GET THIS BOOK.

This is also highly recommended for anyone who liked The Curse of Chalion or A Memory Called Empire, or wished GRRM’s stories were a bit less sprawling and murderous and just a bit nicer.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chancellor putting his head on the line to suggest that his Emperor, the Radiant and Illustrious One, might like to take a holiday.

(The Emperor does not Do holidays. Or emotions, really. Or anything beyond huge works of magic, overseeing court functions and occasionally wrangling committees.)

And the Emperor says yes.

The slight issue with this, of course, is they then have to navigate how that all works, when you’ve got a bunch of rituals (and some small issues like; if the Emperor touches anyone, it could mean death) and strictures and prohibitions and courtly ceremonies and… he just wants to go snorkelling?

This is a story about an Emperor going on holiday, and the friendships that come from that; and how those friendships change both the people involved, and change the world.

And underneath, there are some absolutely wonderful undercurrents. It’s a story about political change and how one person, in the right place, can move mountains. It’s a story about culture and self, and how to carry it with you, and what you give up when you leave or return. It’s a story about family and friends and assumptions and bias, and what we value, and learning to value others and ourselves. It’s a story about racism and prejudice and navigating cultural differences and change alongside personal and political change. And it’s a story about friendship, and love, and how connections make the world.

In short; it’s a book that I have read and re-read, alongside The Goblin Emperor. It’s absolutely huge (969 pages in print!) but also keeps the story very tightly told; it’s just long, rather than being complicated, and it never feels boring or slow. It’s about people, and it’s so sweet and good while also taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions – and all over the Empire in terms of cultural expectations! There are a wonderful set of characters, from the main quartet around the Emperor to Cliopher’s (very large) family, to the Princes and politicians, to the scholars, to those lost and gone but not forgotten. It’s a beautifully-told story, and is absolutely on my favourites list.

There is also a sequel – The Return of Fitzroy Angursell – and it’s a wonderful sequel; I bought it straight after finishing Hands and plunged straight in, and it’s both a wonderful change of pace and an excellent continuation (plus I did almost scream when I figured the name out, and then had to go and re-read Hands with new knowledge in mind!) It is shorter, but there are more stories about the characters; The Bride of the Blue Wind follows Pali, and Stargazy Pie is set in the same universe.

Book Review: Scales and Sensibility

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

A regency heroine with a dragon curled on her shoulder - Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie BurgisSensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope. And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures…

However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.

This is billed as “a frothy Regency rom-com full of pet dragons and magical misadventures” and it absolutely, wonderfully, lives up to every aspect of that. It’s completely delightful fluff, and is the perfect book for curling on the sofa – with shoulder-dragon if you have one, or a cat if you’re not quite at the pet dragon level of society yet. I spent a very contented afternoon with a cup of tea, and got lost in a Regency world where dragons are the latest thing – but also, when you’re a penniless poor relation and depending on your rather spoiled cousin for support, a rather troublesome thing. Certainly when it comes to said cousin mistreating said dragon, and you just happen to lose your temper and storm out…

…and then bump into a dishy fortune-hunter trying to court said awful cousin. And that, of course, comes with additional problems, alongside the perfect solution – which, as expected, just causes more chaos. Add in some rather interesting visitors, a very sweet but also slightly clueless tiny dragon, a whole heap of misunderstandings and a large dash of romance… and it’s the perfect read. It’s also the first in a series, and while this one wraps up Elinor’s story, the second and third are promising to follow her sisters – and I am definitely looking forward to them!

ARC courtesy of the author, although I had already pre-ordered myself a copy based on the first chapter alone! You can follow Stephanie on Patreon, with sneak peeks of writing and a book club. This is also the author who wrote Thornbound – which, if you haven’t read, is absolutely as good!

A Basket of Reviews: Shorts & Anthologies, July 2021

A selection of short stories, anthologies and novellas wot I has been reading recently.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built – Becky Chambers (Monk & Robot Bk 1)

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend. One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honour the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of ‘what do people need?’ is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

The first in what sounds like a new series of novellas, set in an Earth where the robots gained consciousness and – left us, heading out into the wilderness. The world left behind sounds adorable, actually – craftspeople and families, and tea-monks who travel around with their kettles & cups & blends, offering a cup of tea and listening ear to anyone who needs one. (I definitely want a little pedal-powered caravan to travel in, even if it does end up hung with a whole variety of drying herbs and stuffed to the gills with tea blends.) But then the tea monk decides to go off the beaten track, and meets a robot, coming to check on humanity…

There’s a lot of talk in the novella; a lot of philosophical musing, and explanations of misunderstandings, and dialogue between two cultures that have diverged, but want to learn. It’s very sweet and very cute, and it’s going to be interesting to see where the next one goes!

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler (novella)

Kas is a junior academic on a research mission to old Earth. When a con-artist tricks her into wagering a huge sum of money she doesn’t have on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth politics and state-sponsored battledroid prize fights.

I really enjoyed this! It sounds like it was originally going to be a short story, but I’m glad he expanded it into a novella. I loved the characters, the mix of cultural backgrounds, the misunderstandings, the GIANT ROBOT FIGHTS – and it’s wrapped up in a cute romance. Who could want more?

Beyond the Dragon Gate by Yoon Ha Lee

Former Academician Anna Kim’s research into AI cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet.

This is a novella from Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit and Phoenix Extravagant (and, disclaimer, a Rebellion author.) I loved Ninefox – once I got past the “what the hell is happening” feeling of the first three chapters – and also enjoyed Phoenix, so I picked this up on a “let’s give it a try!”

It was… ok. It feels like a proof-of-concept, almost; a short story that’s somehow novella length, and I really wanted more to happen, or to see more of the world, or… well, just something more. So – a good short, but not really worth the read.

Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells

Set just after Exit Strategy, the fourth novella in the series. It’s a cute, short story from the perspective of Dr. Mensah, who is one of the key players in the first novella (and now someone who is… well, isn’t exactly friends with Murderbot, because Murderbot doesn’t have friends: friends involve Feelings and having to pause the latest downloaded drama) and who is currently trying to sort out her emotions around the events of the first few novellas. Murderbot is assisting by asking for assorted ridiculous weaponry, which… actually seems like quite a good coping mechanism! Cute and sweet, but very short, and definitely only to be read in the context of the series.

Alias Space by Kelly Robson

This is a lovely, varied collection of speculative fiction short stories by award-winning writer Kelly Robson – and the collection has the added bonus of a short passage by Robson after each story, giving more background on the story and adding interesting context to each. The stories range from sci-fi to horror to historical fiction to fantasy, and all have an interesting thread to them; there’s certainly nothing here that’s boring!

The collection starts with Two-Year Man, a world where those allowed to fight for longer are the higher-ranking (hence two-year man; a lowly janitor). But the titular janitor cleans a genetics lab, and finds unwanted babies in the trash – those thrown out because they’re wrong, or broken, or defective – and he takes them home. Intervention, later in the anthology, also deals with the theme of children – the lovely idea of childminding taken up by those who really want to, and how a creche would work with worlds spread across the solar system. How do you mix the latest child-minding science and psychology with the fact you’re raising new people, with all their foilibles and flaws? And what happens to a society that hates children, but then realises that they need them? I’d actually read this before as part of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity’s End anthology, but it’s just as good the second (or third, or fifth) time around.

The titular story, Alias Space, is one of three loosely-connected stories. In the first, The Desperate Flesh, the manager of a retirement home for lesbians is trying to stop it being demolished by the city, but there’s the small issue of the residents’ penchant for strip tease… and in the second, Alias Space, strip tease dancers elbow themselves room in a city festival. The third, Skin City, puts a futuristic spin on the strip-tease concept; an artist breaks copyright law in an effort to get their forbidden love to talk to them! It’s a fun interlinked trio, all exploring different aspects of a common theme.

La Vitesse is the first of the fantasy stories: what if dragons started invading, and became a nuisance species? And if you’re a school bus driver, that means trying to figure out how to escape a fire-breathing terror that wants to rip your bus open… and that also means figuring out how to connect with your grumpy fourteen-year-old who’s definitely got her own opinions on how to drive a bus, and what good ice cream is. The other major fantasy story is a longer novelette, Waters of Versailles, and is set in eighteenth-century France; an inventor is enchanting the Court with new water closets, but the secret to how he does it is closely guarded – and his problems expand from how to keep his courtly patrons happy to how to keep the water-controlling nixie happy!

Plunging back into sci-fi is Two Watersheds, a scientist in VR exploring how invasive lichen can be managed while dealing with her own personal problems. A Study In Oils is probably my favourite in the book, and is a really interesting exploration of art, murder and intent; an athlete accused of murder (despite murder being semi-legal during a game…) goes to a remote village to try to escape people hurting him as a punishment; he loves creating art, and the story explores what art means to him, especially in the context of his actions and their own context of the game and society. The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill is also a very hard-hitting story about choices; a raped & murdered girl ends up being saved by an alien parasite, and has to explore the consequences of both of those. (Robson’s note on this story is particularly interesting as well!) And We Who Live In The Heart is another hard-hitting story that deals with choices and murder; humans have made habitats in huge, whale-like creatures… but they are still learning the biology, still learning how to live, and when you add human choices & relationships into the mix (and in particular, love and revenge) then it gets complicated – and interesting.

There are a number of mixed genre stories, too, which mix into the scifi. What Gentle Women Dare strays into historical fiction, with a street walker’s life, and her choice when she’s offered a devil’s bargain… So You Want To Be A Honeypot is a slightly-unfocused, very fun spy thriller, following a cohort of trainee spies as they take their first assignments and get used to life, and get used to being able to make their own choices. And the final story in the collection, A Human Stain, is a wonderful gothic horror: a governess comes to remote castle to look after a child, but there are many mysteries surrounding it… and she finds it is more terrifying – and beguiling – than she had thought…

A very mixed and very interesting collection, and well worth a read.