The Angel of the Crows – Katherine Addison

angel of the crows cover

“When I left London in 1878, I intended never to return.”

I’d never heard the term ‘wingfic’ until the afterword of this novel, where the author informs us that The Angel of the Crows ‘started’ life as wingfic of Sherlock Holmes. Started? It’s well written, it’s pleasurable enough to read, but AotC is absolutely a fan fiction retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – with added supernatural elements.

It does work, in the main. This is a world filled with angels – Nameless, or named after a building they patronise – as well as werewolves, vampires, and many more. Our Great Detective is a semi-outcast angel, explaining his social awkwardness and obsession with solving mysteries as something to do. His new flatmate and our narrator is Dr JH Doyle, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan where he was almost killed by a Fallen angel. We get to read about their meeting and growing friendship, against the background of some very familiar mysteries.

And that’s my main problem: it’s not a mystery when you’ve read the original or seen countless adaptations. The first case is not only completely familiar, but the supernatural elements barely seem to affect anything. That does change as the cases continue – the Hound of the Baskervilles has a different mood in a world where werewolves and hellhounds are part of society! – but it takes its time to expand the ‘new’ bits of the world. Throwing in the Jack the Ripper case was, shall we say, a bold choice and not one I’m sure could be resolved enough to bring any satisfaction – and missed opportunity not to show a link with the paranormal elements.

The real meat of the tale is the relationship between Holm- urm, Crow and Doyle, and that’s done well, with a few twists along the way. I would have liked a lot more exploration of the unique factors of the world: what’s the real difference between vampires and haemophages? Are hellhounds born or made? What precipitated the angels being on Earth, and what are the different kinds really about? It’s all background, not wholly explored for the reader, which felt like a missed chance to focus on perhaps more interesting elements?

Overall, I did enjoy the read but it’s not without its limitations and frustrations. That the author is passionate about the topic is clear, and that in itself makes for a decent read. Still, I wasn’t expecting fan-fic, however well written, and I think this will go down as quirky rather than standing out. I could perhaps see a sequel that expands the more novel elements – and I’d read that in a flash.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 30th May – 22nd June 2020

My rating: 7/10

Chosen Ones – Veronica Roth

chosen ones cover

“The Drain looked the same every time, with all the people screaming as they ran away from the giant dark cloud of chaos but never running fast enough.”

Ten years ago, a group of teenagers saved the world from The Dark One, a shadowy figure wielding terrible magical powers. The discovery that magic was real had started to shake the world, but it still looks a lot like ours. More shaken were the lives of these five teens, drawn together by a shady government department willing to believe a prophecy. They might have succeeded in their task, but at what personal cost?

Our main character is Sloane, perhaps the most overly damaged by her experiences. She’s prickly and unfriendly and I can see why some might not warm to her as a lead. However, I liked her antisocial attitude, it felt refreshingly likely. The hints at darkness in her past are perhaps a little drawn out, but don’t disappoint in the reveal, and do make her subsequent actions make a lot more sense.

The first part of the book deals with everyday lives for these half-unwilling celebrities (one at least is a full-on ‘influencer’ on the back of her fame!), continuing to deal with the aftermath. It wasn’t the most action-packed section, but I’ve always been a fan of world building. However, part two – still heavy on the world-building – takes a swerve I didn’t see coming. This is not quite the story part one seems to be taking you down!

The action levels do pick up as the book progresses, and the larger divergences from ‘our’ reality are done very well – out there, but logical progressions from a point where magic seemed to be released into the world. The big denouement didn’t feel particularly well set up, it sort of arrived from next to nowhere with a detached flashback, but it didn’t ‘ruin’ the rest of the story, so fine.

Chapters are interspersed with memos and newspaper articles, and I know at least one person who hated these – I quite liked the ‘verity’. Well, apart from the opening one: it’s done in the style of a hugely sexist reporter, and had I picked this up for a browse in a shop I probably would have put it straight back down – I get that it was a character speaking, but the tone was just icky and beyond.

Overall, I think it’s a shame so many people are taking a dislike to this for not being Divergent. I enjoyed that series, but I far prefer the non-YA tone here (although there are bits where it leaks in ;)) and the darker story. It’s not perfect, but I hope Ms Roth continues to write for adults – in fact, I believe there are supposed to be sequels to this, which intrigues me. The story is pretty complete, but yes, I can see there is a new world to explore…

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 45 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: The Chosen Ones book 1
Read from 4th-15th June 2020

My rating: 8/10

Artemis Fowl (2020)

artemis fowl poster

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12-year-old genius, who’s about to find out that his father (Colin Farrell) might not be all that he seems. Can he use his over-sized brain to rescue Fowl senior when he’s kidnapped? More to the point, can he do so when it turns out dad’s stories of fairy folk and magic aren’t exactly stories…

I’ve read a couple of the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, and found them entertaining enough. That I’m not a huge fan of the books might have allowed me to enjoy this lacklustre adaptation a little more than I might otherwise, but it’s still got more flaws than not.

Where to begin? Production values were obviously high from the House of Mouse, so it does look pretty good – Fowl Manor is a house to drool after. The fairy world isn’t quite as impressive, and we spend so little time there that if you haven’t read any of the books it all might feel a bit baffling.

And yet, if you have read the books then I suspect you’re going to be either disappointed or just a bit perplexed at some of the translations on screen. We are pointedly told that Artemis is a genius, but very little of that comes through in his behaviour, and absolutely none of the ‘criminal mastermind’ that the books and movie poster led you to expect. Dom Butler doesn’t get enough backstory, but then again, neither do any of the other characters.

I’m not sure any of it quite hit the mark. Things are just so bland, poorly introduced, and never quite capturing a sense of why I should really care. None of the cast stood out well, but Dame Judi Dench has an awful ‘Oirish brogue’ and the huge misstep of actually, pointlessly, announcing “Tawp o tha murnin'” for absolute cringe value.

It’s not unwatchable, but it is a large amount of “couldn’t you have done any better with the material?” and overall felt largely pointless and oddly dull. Shame – and, advice is to swerve.

Released: 12th June 2020 (streaming)
Viewed: 12th June 2020
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 4/10

The Ash-Born Boy – VE Schwab

ash-born boy cover

“Once, long ago, there was a man and a woman, and a boy, and a village full of people. And then the village burned down.”

I wasn’t wholly enamoured with The Near Witch, but this short prequel story fleshes out one of the characters to the point that I wish I’d read it first. ‘Cole’ gives a brief telling of his tragic backstory in TNW, but here we get to see how his not-so-normal life came to the end that leads him to Near.

Written just a year after TNW, the improvement in the characterisation and writing style is already apparent. Finally, I find myself caring a little about some of the players.

However, I still can’t wholly recommend this book, or say I enjoyed it. It’s well written, it’s a great little story, but I find the world that contains Near and Dale unpleasantly dark and cruel. Fear of witchcraft is one thing, but torturing a teenager – ‘cutting to the bone’, holding him down forcefully enough that his wrist is broken. No, no no – sorry, but this felt… icky. Added to the back of a book where the rapey would-be-suitor has no punishment and practically a happy ending – urgh, not for me.

So. Decent short story. If you’ve read The Near Witch this is worth dipping in to; if you plan on reading TNW you might even want to start with this to give one of the characters more oomph. But for my tastes, it’s just got a nasty streak for the sake of it that I can’t appreciate at all.

eBook: 61 pages / 9 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: short story prequel to The Near Witch
Read from 14th-15th May 2020

My rating: 6/10

The Near Witch – VE Schwab

near witch cover

“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”

Lexi lives in the village of Near, on the edge of the wild moors. She’s grown up on tales of the Near Witch, and also with a great deal of freedom not usually allowed to girls. However, following the death of her beloved father, it seems that her uncle Otto is determined to force her into the mould of a respectable young woman, however much it chafes. Then there’s Tyler, a nice enough boy, but he’s assuming too much about Lexi’s future.

And then one night Lexi spies a stranger outside, a form that seems to blow away with the wind. The next morning the village discovers one of their children is missing…

I’m a huge fan of VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, but this is an earlier effort and it rather shows. It’s not bad, by any means, but there’s a little too much cliche, some repetitive language, and a pacing that just seems off – every time our main character heads home for bed the tension is wrecked.

Then there’s the main character herself. One of the things I loved about ADSoM was the strong female character, and Lexi just isn’t. I mean, she thinks she is, she has moments, but she’s rather buffeted about by events and I lost a great deal of respect when the whole ‘instalove’ obsession with a boy she’s literally just met kicks in. It really doesn’t help that she’s fighting against horrible sexism, and some male behaviour that had me wanting to throw the book across the room.

Still, it’s interesting to see how a person’s writing can grow so much. The story has some interesting elements, although it’s hard not to wonder how much more ‘oomph’ V could have injected into it if writing now.

Kindle: 320 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: none
Read from 4th-10th May 2020

My rating: 5.5/10

Dolor’s Legs – Frances Hardinge

dolor's legs cover

“A tale told by an old woman while she washed her clothes in a spring.”

Having just finished the wonderful Deeplight, it was lovely to pick up this short story set in the same world. It’s not linked to the events in the main book, but rather a little tale from the past involving one of the hideous sea gods, Dolor the many-legged. And oh, the explanation for the name is not what you might think!

It’s a very brief story, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was anything other than ‘nice’ to read – until the sort-of twist at the end where suddenly it was a beast of a whole different colour! Much like the main book, it has a lot to say about human psychology, it just manages it in a few sentences after a bit of almost misdirecting background.

You don’t need to have read Deeplight (but it’s great, so why wouldn’t you?!), this would stand alone albeit without any context, but I think it’s meant more as a lovely bonus for those who have read and enjoyed the larger tale.

Wondering now if there’ll be more short stories, or a sequel – either would be great, based on this! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: short story
First published: 2020
Series: Deeplight
Read on 4th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

Deeplight – Frances Hardinge

deeplight cover

“They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south.”

Frances Hardinge has a wonderful skill with words, and an amazing ability to create strange new worlds. The Myriad is amazing: islands recovering from the pre-Cataclysm event, the war of the gods. And what gods! Behemoth sea creatures, capricious and cruel, living in a fearful ‘undersea’. Exposure to this strange not-water leaves people ‘marked’ with strange mutations, but people risk it to recover god remains, sold for huge sums for their amazing properties.

Orphans Hark and Jelt make their way in the world scavenging, and swindling traders come to the islands. The pair are like brothers; Hark owes his life to Jelt’s care when he might have starved as a young child. Now, however, Jelt’s recklessness is in danger of causing a rift between the two – not least when his latest scheme lands Hark in deep trouble. So when Jelt ends up in even straits, Hark’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test…

As we find out about the old gods and the islands of Myriad, the story revolves around the relationship between Hark and Jelt. It questions how much we owe our friends and family. I was screaming at how badly Hark is used and made to feel at points! A subplot mirrors the theme, between a fearsome gang leader and her deaf daughter. I was impressed with the way the disability was handled in the book, too.

Absolutely recommend this. It’s full of secrets and darkness. It’s hugely inventive. And it hits all the emotions along the way.

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 21st April – 3rd May 2020

My rating: 9/10

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski

last wish cover

“She came to him towards morning.”

Witchers. Genetically modified monster hunters. The Last Wish is a series of stories following Geralt of Rivia, no longer quite human, enhanced by training and potions into the perfect assassin.

I perhaps foolishly bought the whole series (it was on offer!) before starting this book, and then struggled to get much into it. Then I decided to give the TV show a go, and having those visuals really helped, and second attempt I enjoyed the book a lot more.

It still stayed ‘enjoyable’ rather than ‘wow’. Events are set out in a series of short stories, linked by a framing tale. However, while interesting, that didn’t help me with grasping time lines or getting a good sense of the characters – hence, I think, the need to in effect have the two attempts at the story. If you’ve already seen the adaptation, or perhaps even played the games, you might not have the same issues.

And the stories will be pretty familiar if you’ve seen the show: most are straight adaptations. However, some things are subtly (or not) altered, which makes for some interesting changes in motivation, for example.

If it sounds like I’m saying the TV show is better than the book, that’s not wholly what I’m driving at – simply that my grasp of the story was improved with the duel approaches. Certainly, I feel that this book is merely a starting place, and it’s clear that a lot more of the world and the life of Geralt is yet to be discovered. In fact, I’m wondering now if the advice to start here, with the chronologically earlier stories, was a bit of a mistake and if I should have jumped in with the first published volume, or first full book (not short stories).

While I’m not completely sure I would have picked up the rest of the series based on reading this, I’m kind of glad that I already have them and thus will keep going. I think this world will benefit from a slightly deeper immersion.

Kindle: 288 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1993
Series: The Witcher book 0.5
Read from 15th-25th March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – Tan Dun (2000)

crouching tiger ost

A year after Chinese wire-fighting first made it to American big screens in a big way (in The Matrix), the Western cinema viewing world was wowed with something it hadn’t really encountered before. Familiar martial arts movies had been the kind that starred Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, high on the action and testosterone, with or without laughs. But then in 2000 we were treated to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a gorgeous, dream-like movie that added in a huge dollop of myth and fantasy. The scene that perhaps best sums it all up is the fight in the bamboo – with clever wire work allowing the actors (or stunt doubles) to dance impossibly across the thin, bendy stems. And, oh, that colour palette!

There have been several other movies that hit the box office in similar form, such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), but the score to CTHD remains my favourite. This review had to wait until I rewatched the movie, as I could remember very little of the story – I just knew I loved those heart wrenching strings. And then, oh, of course – CTHD is a love story! It’s so obvious, all the melancholic yearning in the score. But then we have so many staccato drums and sharp, stabbing dangerous sounds representing the fight scenes. But on screen, those fights scenes are as much a dance, and the music enhances them beautifully.

Yo Yo Ma’s cello haunts through everything, but the use of more traditional Chinese instruments ties the score perfectly to the early 19th Century setting. I’m not sure what instrument does the stabbing, rising-tone alarm, but it gives one piece a huge sense of urgency. And then it’s back to the cello, always, and that sad, yearning tone that matches so much of the onscreen tale. I’d truly forgotten how sad the movie was!

If I have any complaints it’s that this is a very truncated form of the score, and doesn’t follow the same order as the movie. That perhaps explains why I don’t mentally ‘walk through’ any of the movie when listening. Still, it’s utterly recommended – not your usual Hollywood score, this brings something different and magical, moods from wistful to triumphant.

My rating: 9/10

Genre: martial arts / fantasy / romance
Released: 2000
Length: 0:49:43
Number of tracks: 15

Track listing:

  1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  2. The Eternal Vow
  3. A Wedding Interrupted
  4. Night Fight
  5. Silk Road
  6. To the South
  7. Through the Bamboo Forest
  8. The Encounter
  9. Desert Capriccio
  10. In the Old Temple
  11. Yearning of the Sword
  12. Sorrow
  13. Farewell
  14. A Love Before Time (English)
  15. A Love Before Time (Mandarin)

The Geeky Bartender Drinks – Cassandra Reeder

geeky bartender cover

“Since, well, birth, but more publicly since I started The Geeky Chef in 2008, my passion project has been making recipes for fictional or unusual foods from books, TV, movies, and games.”

I think I’ve just found my new favourite cocktail book! Inspired by geek culture, this features ‘potions’ and cocktails from a range of video games, books, and tv shows. For example, the author’s take on Shimmerwine as mentioned (just mentioned, briefly!) in Firefly. Or Giggle Juice from Fantastic Beasts. Romulan Ale, of course! Or just your generic red/blue/green potion from any number of games. Each recipe begins with a note about the inspiration, and the humour evident in these is worth the read by themselves.

I love love LOVE the presentation – the usual glasses, etc, but also flasks and potion bottles. The book opens with a set of tips and tricks to make the presentation really zing, from rimming the glass to actual ‘special effects’ (e.g. edible glitter), and the photography is excellent in capturing the sense of the magical about all of these.

Moonglow potion - purple liquid in potion flask

I hugely appreciate the approach, which is very much as simple as possible, not too many expensive bells and whistles. So, minimal required kit, and not too many outlandish ingredients – just outlandish inspiration! Sections are wonderful titled Magical Elixirs, Sci-Fi Spirits, etc, and a Comedic section that’s a bit less SFF. There’s even a set of non-alcoholic options, which are equally imaginative.

Much as I love cocktails, I’ve never felt quite so inspired. I soooo want to host my next board game night (yes, yes, I am a giant geek!) and impress everyone with some pretty concoctions. I think little inner 6-year-old me who sort of wanted to be a witch and make potions has found an outlet…!

Recommended – it’s huge amounts of fun and looks so good!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 sections
First published: 5th May 2020
Series: related to the Geeky Chef cook books
Read in April 2020

My rating: 8/10