Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Fairies by Heather Fawcett, published 10 January 2023.
It’s the autumn of 1919 and professor Emily Wilde of Cambridge has travelled to the far north to research faeries. She’s a curmudgeon and manages to aggravate the locals within days of her arrival. Not ideal, since she’s the definition of the well-off city girl not used to fending on her own. Pride and pure stubbornness outweigh comfort; she’d rather freeze than ask someone to show her how to chop firewood. Still, she makes a friend among the local smaller fae. Then her colleague and rival, the handsome Wendell Bambleby, arrives and pushes his way into her research. The both of them soon discover dark fae magic afoot and have to help the villagers rescue fair maidens and exchange a possible changeling. The research mission then turns into rescue missions; especially after Emily gets it into her head to help a trapped local high fae.
The novel reminded me of Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series and Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series. Strong female academic at the helm of the story. Some kind of romantic entanglement with the male sidekick. Getting into scrapes and out of them with wits and female guile.
I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.
K.J. Parker is one of the a-bit-under-the-radar authors we at Sceptical Reading have grown to like quite a bit. And in A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, his mix of humour and cleverness works its charm again.
It is the third and final instalment in Parker’s The Siege trilogy and follows Felix, a translator stuck in another country while his home is conquered.
But what would a Siege book be, without an outsider / unlikely hero saving not only his own, but everyone‘s bacon? And that‘s exactly what happens. Again. But let me tell you, the formula does not get old. This time, the whole world is the playing field. It really makes you appreciate the power translators may wield.
Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang, published 23 August 2022. Yes, the title is a mouthful, but in keeping with the story and definitely one of the reasons I wanted to read this dark academia alternate history/historical fantasy.
The tower of Babel, the heart and centre of the Royal Institute of Translations, is also at the heart of this fictional early Victorian era story. Like the TARDIS it is bigger on the inside, housing more than eight floors of libraries, laboratories and lecture rooms. It is the centre of silver-working, engraving translations into bars of silver to cover all aspects of a certain word or topic, so that nothing gets lost in translation, for magical effect.
The story is told from the POV of Robin Swift, who is a half-Chinese orphan brought to Britain by Professor Lovell, a member of Babel, when he was about ten years old. He’s been learning languages since to prepare him for enrolling at Oxford University.
At Babel, Robin learns that silver-working is Britain’s main tool for its industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Which is why the secret society Hermes is trying to tear down Babel, because it enables the British Empire to keep colonising and exploiting other countries. That Hermes is doing so at all costs, resolving to violence, is what makes Robin waver about whether he’s doing the right thing over and over. What is Robin willing to sacrifice for the greater good? Will he resort to violence or find a different way to stop Babel?
What I liked about the book is that despite it being a dense read, it is a page-turner. It was easy for me to get immersed in the story and sympathise with the characters. The writing is easy to follow and I enjoyed reading every footnote and agreed with Kuang’s assertions about translations and the hard work of linguists.
Yet, the main message of the book, colonisation is bad, made for a tough read from about the half-way point of the book. It is being ham-fistedly hammered home at every opportunity and I found myself rolling my eyes more and more often.
Furthermore, and this is already hinted at in the subtitle, Hermes doesn’t shrink back from the use of violence. Violence that would be seen as terrorism these days. I’m not a big fan of ‘the ends justify the means,’ which is why it took me nearly two weeks to actually finish the last part of the book. This is not due to the writing suddenly lacking, it is just because the questions Robin faces and the decisions he faced made me uncomfortable. However, that was supposed to be the book’s purpose, to make you think while enjoying a good story.
A Restless Truth by Freya Marske, expected publication 01 November 2022.
The sequel to A Marvellous Light, the first book in The Last Binding trilogy, is set on an ocean liner travelling from America to Great Britain. This time Robin’s sister Maud is in the spotlight, she’s working ‘undercover’ trying to find the second piece of “the Contract”. [“The Contract” is a fae artifact made up of three magical items that allow the user to syphon magic from other magicians.] That’s why she’s accompanying an elderly lady, and her rather rude parrot, who supposedly has this second piece. But before Maud can find out anything, the elderly lady is killed using magic.
It’s clear that Maud needs help solving this ‘locked room mystery’. Fortunately for her Lord Hawthorne is aboard and grudgingly agrees to help her. She makes further allies in Violet Debenham, a magician and actress who’s wreathed in scandal, as well as the young writer Ross, who carries a suitcase of scandalous material. The group has to find out where the piece of the contract is hidden while also trying to avoid attracting the attention of the murderous magicians hiding among the passengers.
I truly enjoyed this LGBTQ+ historical fantasy/mystery/romance. It was a real page turner and, although I solved the mystery of where and what the second piece of the Contract was fairly early on, I enjoyed how the four amateur detectives puzzled it all out. Tiny note at the end: the cover is gorgeous!
The Girl with the Dragonfruit Tattoo by Carrie Doyle, expected publication 31 January 2023.
I admit, I requested the ARC for this book solely because of the cover and title. Going in blind meant I didn't know that this was the third book in a cosy mystery series. Fortunately, it works as a standalone, even though the novice reader might miss out on some references to previous stories.
I didn't like the main character Plum, a travel agent with no police training. Why would the police send her onto a yacht where there's a murderer on the lose?
1/5 Harpy Eagles
Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn, expected publication 31 January 2023.
This is a slow building romance that took me a while to get into. At first I thought it was the usual, small town girl returns home with her tail between her legs and then falls for the town baddie, whom she actually can't stand -enemies to lovers- romance. About a third into the story it really picks up.
I've read previous books by Clayborn. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that her MCs could be the people next door. They have to work through the issues in their lives, coming out stronger more stable people and a stronger couple in the end.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Death and Croissants by Ian Moore, published 01 July 2021.
British ex-pat Richard has a B&B in the Loire Valley in France where there might have been a murder. He, his guests and his cleaning lady set out to unravel the mystery.
It's a cosy mystery with quirky characters and a lot of obvious clichés used for comic relief. The story takes some twists and turns that have no more obvious reason as to give the reader more time with the quirky characters.
To sum it up, a perfect palate cleanser after a more 'substantial' read, but too cosy and quirky for me to actually enjoy.
2/5 Harpy Eagles
One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig, published 27 September 2022.
I did not finish reading this book.
1) I think it was marketed wrongly. I thought I was going to read an adult Gothic horror fantasy, but it read more like a Young Adult Gothic romance fantasy.
2) The characters are supposed to find twelve specific Providence Cards, which enable the wielder with certain magical abilities. This will then help to overcome a magical plague that leaves children infected with dark magic which causes them to degenerate and die. [That's how I understood it. The premise might be more or less difficult.]
3) The MC, Elspeth, was infected 11 years ago. She's been living with a demon in her head since then. She keeps repeating that using the demon, called the Nightmare, makes it stronger, and she won't let it overpower her mind. But as soon as she gets into a spot of bother she begs the demon to help her.
4) The characters have no urgency to find those magical cards. Instead they have the 'usual' enemies-to-lovers insta-love romance that takes over the plot.
That's when I bowed out. I read a few reviews and apparently the last bit of the story gets more action, but ends in a cliffhanger that will hopefully be resolved in the next book.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran, expected publication 03 November 2022.
Lily Albrecht is a bookseller of antique and rare books. When one of her colleagues dies she takes over a commission to find an occult tome called "The Book of the Most Precious Substance" and sell it for a six to seven figure price to the anonymous buyer.
Lily and another rare books selling colleague set out to find the buyer and find one of the few remaining copies of the 17th century book. A book about sex magic, granting the user a large boon when used correctly - or something like that.
So far this sounds good. Bookish people trying to find an occult book. And here's where the book becomes repetitive. The two fly to a city in the US or Europe to meet up with a book collector who might or might not have the book and sell it to them. They stay in a fancy hotel. Go out for an expensive -and described in detail- dinner with the book person. Find out details about the book. Go back to the hotel to have awkward sex.
Not one sex scene is as sexy and erotic as the cover blurb makes you think it might be. Nor is the book as thrilling. The story is repetitive with a very predictable outcome that makes up the last 10-12% of the eARC. It all reminded me of that late 1990's film, "The Ninth Gate" with Johnny Depp; though not in a good way.
Hello. My name is TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle and I am a book addict.
That might not have needed to be pointed out, but it’s good to admit to it sometimes. I love buying books, I love hoarding books, but do I read the gems on my shelves?
This week I decided to actively read at least one book off the TBR shelf, which led me to actually read two novels by the same author, Naomi Novik.
Spinning Silver – a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin (gah, I hate the English spelling). Although I liked the Slavic touch of the story, I didn’t like the many POV in the book. Some characters were written so similar to each other that it always took me a moment to get into the story again. Also, some POV were introduced and then dropped without further notice, which made me wonder whether I had missed some pages. That and the feeling of the story of these three women somehow getting nowhere made me skim most of the second half of the story. I just didn’t care for what would happen. I might have liked the book ten years ago, but my tastes have changed. I hadn’t had the book lying around for a decade though.
I had a similarly hard time with Novik’s Uprooted. Again, I liked the Slavic fairy tale-ish background to the story, but the dragon character verbally abusing the young woman and then seemingly suddenly the two characters are head over heels in love with each other? Just didn’t gel with me.
I was wondering whether it’s the author and her writing style that I don’t like. No that’s not it. The writing is good. Actually, I’ve read the two Scholomance novels by Novik and liked them. In fact, I have the third book of the trilogy on my TBR. I’m assuming it’s the fairy tale retelling I struggle with; they don’t really work for me most of the time.
Husband Material by Alexis Hall, published 02 August 2022.
The sequel to Boyfriend Material is not just as good as the first book, it's better. Knowing the characters already, it's seeing them grow and struggle and overcome obstacles, which makes it so much better. There were lots of LOL moments for me, but just as many moments where I empathised with both main characters and their struggles.
Hall clearly knows how to write stories and how to play to the strengths of the English language.
Caveat: The structure of the book kind of made the ending obvious, but it's the best ending for Oliver and Luc.
5/5 Harpy Eagles
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall, published 18 May 2021.
Yes, another Alexis Hall book. I read this first book in the Winner Bakes All series in preparation for the upcoming sequel, Paris Daillencourt is about to Crumble (publishing day 18 Oct 2022).
Does Hall know how to play with tropes? Yes! This novel features a love triangle, which is extremely well-executed; compared to all those cringe-y YA love triangles. Furthermore there's a sesquipedalian eight year old, witty banter and lots of cake since the love interests meet at a national baking competition.
Eventually though this is a story about personal growth and standing up for yourself.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole, published/released 19 December 2019.
An A.I. hotty who has to figure out his humanity, a woman suffering from PTSD following an accident, and an interesting (though not entirely unexpected) twist towards the end of the story.
This audiobook-only sci-fi romance story was more interesting than I had expected. I thought this would be far more sizzling romance than sci-fi, but the SF parts of the story were well thought through.
The dual point of view narration by Regina Hall and Feodor Chin is enhanced by the addition of a whole cast of narrators.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
Grand Theft Astro by Scott Meyer, published 29 July 2021.
The Audible Originals audiobook-only story is about Baird, a thief, who, on her latest heist, had been infected with a virus that has no cure yet. She has seven days to live. Her 'handler' tells her that in order to ensure a proper medical treatment Baird not only has to steal certain components of the cure, she also has to remain in stasis while she's not actively stealing. While in stasis she's being transported to her next place of 'work', which often takes several years.
So far I was on board, if a bit sceptical about how gullible the protagonist is; accepting and relying on all information necessary provided by the handler only.
Then the book seemed to turn to middle-grade level without being for that audience. While scoping out the places Baird has to rob, she's told everything about how the security systems work by the security people themselves. The way she then executes her heists is supposed to be funny/comical; I thought not. But that might be me.
I gave up after the second heist. It read too much like an underdeveloped middle-grade book with way too much tell and very little show.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
Belladonna by Adalyn Grace, published 30 August 2022.
The audiobook of this YA gothic/paranormal fantasy novel was good. The narrator, Kristin Atherton, did a good job giving each character a distinct voice. Especially Death's voice was rather sultry.
To be honest, I might have bailed on the book had it not been for the audiobook. Why would I have bailed? It was a bit too long-winded for my taste. There was too much woe-be-me by the main character, Signa. And the mysteries were, given I had paid attention from the start, obvious to me. Add jarring anachronisms and I'm normally out. So kudos to the narrator.
If you liked Kingdom of the Wicked, you will certainly like this book. After all, it's a story of romance between a not-so-mere mortal and Death.
A.J. Hackwith’s The God of Lost Words, first published 02 November 2021.
This is the last book in the Hell's Library trilogy. Even days after finishing it, and I savoured it slowly, I am still what the title says: lost for words that is, not a God/dess; just in case you were wondering. It's the perfect ending to the trilogy. Claire, Hero, Brevity, and Rami are trying to save the Library from falling into the clutches of Hell's demons. The dream team have to outsmart Malphas by showing a united force to be able to save the Library of the Unwritten, or face obliteration.
Hackwith poured her love for her characters and books into this story. She wrapped up this truly unique trilogy nicely, giving it a fitting ending.
5/5 Harpy Eagles
The Drowned City & Traitor in the Ice by K.J. Maitland, published 01 April 2021, 31 March 2022 respectively.
It's 1606. James VI/I sits on the British throne. Daniel Pursglove sits in his majesty's prison suspected of performing witchcraft.
On the anniversary of the foiled Gunpowder Plot a huge tidal wave destroys large parts of Bristol. Enter Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to the king, who offers Daniel a chance to win his freedom. Daniel is to go to Bristol to find one of the members of the Gunpowder Plot who managed to escape arrest and is now recruiting Jesuits.
Unfortunately, the pace of the book is rather slow, and the verbose descriptions -although creating a wonderful atmosphere- slog down the story further.
Just one year later, 1607, and paranoid Kind James sends Daniel to infiltrate a Catholic household that is said to be full of supporters of the pope; among them the traitor Daniel already pursuit in the first book. Soon the bodies start piling up and Daniel is determined to uncover the killer, in a house where no one is who they pretend to be.
The second book in this series couldn't hold my attention to the end. I kept skimming pages, because of the slow pace. The writing is good, but too descriptive for my taste.
Books are perfect to travel to different places and different times; I don’t need to tell you this, I know. My recent reading took me to Edinburgh in the 19th century. Both books not only had the setting in common, both books also dealt with the study of the human body and the supernatural. Now that I think of it, both even offered a spot of romance.
The first novel was Anatomy by Dana Schwartz. The cover hooked me, the blurb got me:
Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.
Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.
When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.
Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.
But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.
Well, this should have been my jam – apart from it being a YA novel: Gothic tale, a mystery, a romance. It wasn’t. But it sure has a great cover.
It’s the autumn of 1817, our teenage heroine, Hazel, is a smart red-head who lives in a castle. She’s read every medical book in her father’s library and knows how to distinguish the humerus from the femur, but doesn’t know that becoming a female physician – that is a woman who’s a medical professional – is not in her future. And no, before you think something along the lines of, but this girl will use her strong will to show the patriarchy what’s what, forget it. She’s the kind of girl who’s flabbergasted when she find out that her future husband will determine whether she might practice medicine, given that she first has to be allowed to study and pass the exam. Basically, we have a 21st century girl in a 19th century setting.
Jack is a dull character. He snatches bodies out of graves and sells them to anatomists. He has a crush on an actress. He snatches bodies out of graves… Oh, I said that already. Well, you get the picture.
The pacing of the novel is off. The blurb is a summary of the first 40% of the book. The mystery was a no show until about 75%. Then we get the story going, wrapped up, and a potential sequel hinted at in the remaining quarter.
While I was waiting for the (not really baffling) mystery, I realised a lot of inconsistencies with the time and place of the story: Word of mouth goes round about a teenager performing medical procedures alone in her house – but no authority cares. A pregnant woman in labour is walking for hours to get to Hazel instead of finding a midwife near her. A policeman treating Hazel like he has no care in the world about her socially higher standing. Anachronistic language and no distinction in speech between the different social classes. I could continue. There was so much more. Just thinking Edinburgh, late September, sunrise and sunset times, and my hackles rise again. Dear author, how much research did you really put into this book?
One more thing about the romance: Hazel and Jack hiding in the grave of a mutilated body and kissing and falling asleep with said body only feet away – so romantic.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
The second novel that brought me to Edinburgh was set at the other end of the century. It’s Craig Russell’s Hyde, a retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson story.
Edward Hyde has a strange gift-or a curse-he keeps secret from all but his physician. He experiences two realities, one real, the other a dreamworld state brought on by a neurological condition.
When murders in Victorian Edinburgh echo the ancient Celtic threefold death ritual, Captain Edward Hyde hunts for those responsible. In the process he becomes entangled in a web of Celticist occultism and dark scheming by powerful figures. The answers are there to be found, not just in the real world but in the sinister symbolism of Edward Hyde’s otherworld.
He must find the killer, or lose his mind.
A dark tale. One that inspires Hyde’s friend . . . Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is always a problem for me to write a long review about a book that I enjoyed.
Hyde is a dark-ish character. He’s not the monster Stevenson painted, but works for the Edinburgh police force. He’s been hiding his episodes since his childhood, recently they have become more severe. So severe, that Hyde fears he might be the brutal killer himself. Coming out of his “spells,” he finds himself close to the murder victims too often for it to be coincidence.
The occult dark part was a tiny bit predictable for me. I have read similar stories and knew who the puppet master pulling the strings was early on. This did not diminish my enjoyment of the story, though.
Russell played with the original duality of Stevenson’s story, but gave it a different twist. Setting, characters and plot development made sense. Add a few cameos and they made me overlook the few inconsistencies.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the books that has been sitting on my shelves for some time. Patiently waiting. Or more likely silently judging me. Like most of its kind, it turned out to be a “Why did I wait so long” kind of book.
Set in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, it is alive with really effortless world building. Because it does not hide the fact that it is kind of Italy but different, everything already feels kind of familiar when you enter the story.
It boasts a big cast of characters, changing perspectives frequently. Sometimes storytelling like this can really annoy me, but in this case it made every aspect more interesting. While parts of the story are told by a first person narrator, he is not necessarily the main character of the story. I’m not even sure there is one. Instead, complex political and personal relationships take the main role.
The writing style was compelling, and at times even a bit self-aware. It felt like the author was winking at you, right before dismantling typical storytelling tropes.
Ultimately, this is a book about the ways people both glorious and seemingly unimportant can shape history. Its place is somewhere between fantasy and historical fiction. But the fantasy elements are more an underlying feeling than, you know, dragons. It still scratches the high fantasy itch. With this book, Guy Gavriel Kay has immediately become an author I need to read more of. Seems like historical fantasy, if we want to call it that, is right in my wheelhouse.