Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

Imagine a little corner of England, a village snuggled away from the hustle and bustle, where modern life has been kept at bay for centuries. It’s not that technology doesn’t exist here – in fact, thanks to the highly intelligent population and the university, much of the modern world’s tech is actually developed here – but the pace of life is still ‘ye olde worlde’, somehow. Not that the people necessarily know this, as outsiders are discouraged, and learning any history prior to 1800 is outright banned.

Why would such a place need to be hidden away? What’s so wrong with teaching history? When two newcomers – a history teacher and a new lord of the manor – arrive, both seem destined to wrap themselves in yet more mystery, as they struggle to figure out this strange, other-worldly place.

My first praise for Rotherweird is that it’s a wonderfully original book, quite unlike most of the fantasy stuff out there. There are layers upon layers of mystery, and no way to guess where most of it is going – lovely!

If I’m being picky, I did find there were perhaps a few too many point-of-view characters, which I felt got a little confusing at times. Everyone has such weird names, too. The author is also clearly a very intelligent chap (he’s a lawyer by day-trade), and there were points where I felt I was playing catch-up on the clues and reveals, which took away a little from the impact.

However, overall this is just a fantastically weird and immersive world, which was amazing amounts of fun to visit. There’s a strong dose of humour throughout the writing, and some excellent mystery-building to keep you reading ’til the end. I particularly liked the historical interludes between each section, slowly revealing a little more of the enigma.

Delighted to read interviews that suggest this is the first part of a trilogy – thoroughly looking forward to seeing what’s next for the odd population of Rotherweird!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / ~60 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: Rotherweird trilogy, book 1
Read from 15th-29th May 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“Shadow had done three years in prison.”

Shadow Moon is due to be released from prison, sustained over the years of his sentence by thoughts of home and his wife, Laura. But when tragic news reaches him, he allows himself to be caught up in the schemes of the odd and disreputable Mr Wednesday. Soon employed as a driver and general aide de camp, Shadow meets strange people, witnesses improbable events, and generally experiences the weirdest shit he’s never thought of.

And meanwhile, ‘Somewhere in America’ (as the between-chapter interludes are called), other powers seem to blossom. From an embodiment of every fertility goddess statue you’ve ever seen, funeral home directors who are part of a long tradition, and a middle eastern ifrit working as a taxi driver… America is a melting pot of cultures. Almost every part of the world has sent people to its shores over the centuries, and in this book the question is: did they bring their gods with them? We are aware of the Norse gods, for instance, but when the first Vikings came to the Vinland shores and offered sacrifice, did they call across the oceans? And when the explorers left, what then of these American gods?

This was my second reading of American Gods, spurred by the upcoming TV series and getting my hands on the extended anniversary edition. It had a lot to live up to, as my memories of my first read were hugely positive – in fact, I’d touted this as easily my favourite Neil Gaiman book (although as a friend pointed out, his books are all so different that ‘favourite’ can mean many different things). Alas, those high expectations made for a slightly less than ideal reread. It’s still a good book, but…

I think my main issue was the pacing, probably not helped by the reintroduction of however many thousand of previously edited out wordage (nothing fundamental changes, some scenes are just more fully fleshed out). Which, to be fair, shouldn’t be a complaint – and indeed wasn’t on the first reading. However, having remembered only the highlights, I was a little frustrated with the diversions.

Overall, though, American Gods is a book of some quite brilliant ideas. The gods of the piece, old and new, pose questions for both faith and cultural mixing, as well as the differences in modern life. I think I was wanting something just a little more concrete, and this is not that: this is ideas, and a meandering story (I do wonder how they’ll tackle some of this in the TV adaptation!), and very much something that will stick with you. It might still be my favourite work of Gaiman, through all that.

eBook: 674 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2001
Series: American Gods book 1 (followed by Anansi Boys)
Read from 10th April – 6th May 2017 (reread)

My rating: 8/10

Children of Thorns, Children of Water – Aliette de Bodard

“It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.”

It would make sense to have read House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, before requesting this between-first-and-second-book short from NetGalley. But, I’d read the opening of the original, liked the premise, but been a little put off by the reviews, so what better way of giving the writing style and story elements a chance?

I love the premise here: in a futuristic yet olde-worlde Paris (huzzah for slightly different locations than the ‘norm’), the survivors of a war in Heaven are divided into Houses vying for power over the shattered city. Scavengers ‘loot’ the bodies of Fallen Angels – literally, as in, stripping the flesh off of fingers, to mine for magic. Ick.

Without wanting to give too much away – you might be more inclined to read things in the proper order, after all! – Children of Thorns shows two applicants to one of the great Houses, masquerading as ‘houseless’ ones to infiltrate a rival power. The application process is perhaps a little unusual, but when strange magical eddies start to swirl, the test becomes more global…

I can see how this would lead into the next book, The House of Binding Thorns. Indeed, this was released as a bonus for pre-ordering the second installment, and was previously not available in any other way.

I was reasonably impressed. There’s a darkness here, and also enough of a difference from most fantasy-type fiction to pique my interest. I’m fully planning on allowing my to-read list to groan some more, and start back at the beginning!

NetGalley eARC: ~34 pages
First published: April 2017
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 1.5
Read from 13th-15th April 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Red Sister – Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

Given away by her mother, sold into a pit fighting ring, and saved from the gallows by a nun – at 8 years old, Nona’s adventures have only just begun! Taken into the convent for training in fighting and ‘magic’ and poisoning, she’s not safe from external politics or threats from her classmates.

I’ve said it before, fantasy fiction can become quite ‘samey’ if you read a lot of it – and it’s therefore a double joy when you pick up something really really good, and this is.

Mark Lawrence – another author I really should have discovered earlier, it seems! – has created an immersive and intriguing world. With hints of a sci-fi ancient history, the planet is near ice-bound, with only sunlight reflected off the ‘focus moon’ keeping a 50-mile-wide corridor free for habitation.

Into this setting is set a school days tale as far from Mallory Towers as you could imagine! It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the characters are children – or nuns! – as the wider intrigues thicken around Nona and her classmates. Caught between the challenges of deadly school lessons and mysterious goings-on outwith the convent, there’s no shortage of action or blood or high drama – all written with great style.

There’s a nice framing technique used in the prologue, epilogue, and mid-way break, using a ‘flash forward’. To be honest, I sort of guessed some of the ‘reveals’, but it really didn’t matter. And while there’s a lot of completeness to the story told here, the scope for continuing the story is appreciated.

Recommended for fantasy fiction fans.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages / 41 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 1
Read from 27th March – 9th April 2017

My rating: 9/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – various

There’s something entirely enticing about a themed short story collection, especially when the theme is one as intriguing as djinn (or jinn, or genies). Although I’m not overly familiar with most of the authors included here – bar Neil Gaiman, with an American Gods excerpt, Claire North, and KJ Parker – the range of approaches towards this shared theme would itself be worthy of the read. Luckily, you also get a bunch of really great stories!

My one complaint (let’s get it over with!) would be the limitations of the short story format: on more than one occasion I wanted the story to continue, or felt that it ended just a little too abruptly.

Otherwise, I loved the range here, from the very traditional through to myriad modern and even a sci-fi futurist twist on the old rub-a-lamp, get-three-wishes story. My favourite, Sami Shah’s Reap, was actually very dark, combining the Middle Eastern myths with the more familiar modern view we tend to be shown by the media of the region, i.e. spy drones and terrorist surveillance. Not necessarily two things you might have put together, which makes for quite a gripping tale.

Not all of the stories are set in ‘traditional’ locales, but most are which gives a lovely exoticness (from my chilly Northern European perspective!) to the proceedings. I also really enjoyed the stories told from the djinn’s point of view – and more so when it wasn’t always obvious from the get-go. Djinn are eternal tricksters, after all!

Word of warning: this is not for children! At least two of the stories feature sexual content I’d suggest was at least 15+.

Overall, while a lot of fun to read, I think I appreciated this even more for the insight into writing styles and ideas. Recommended for both readers and writers!

NetGalley eARC: ~356 pages / 21 short stories (curated by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin)
First published: 14th March 2017
Series: none
Read from 7th- March 2017

My rating: 8/10

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

“It was the middle of an ice storm, the wind howling across the frozen moat to hurl hailstones against the walls of the castle and its tightly shuttered windows.”

As the younger sister, Princess Anya has few desires beyond being allowed to study in the castle library. But, of course, things never quite go to plan, and when Anya promises her big sister that she will find a way to turn her more recent beau back into a prince (after the Duke, their stepstepfather (their stepmother having remarried after the death of the King), turns him into a frog) she soon finds herself on a Quest with a capital ‘Q’!

Can she find the ingredients needed for a reverse transmogrification potion? Can she avoid capture by the evil Duke, determined to claw his way fully onto the throne? Accompanied by the most loyal of Royal (and thus talking, of course!) dogs, Ardent, plus a few other companions she finds along the way, Anya is determined to do her best.

I really wanted to love this book. I mean the title, the name of this blog – surely a match made in heaven? I knew going in that it was aimed at younger readers, but other books aimed at a similar age – I’m thinking Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series – have swept me up, and I adored the author’s more famous works, Sabriel, Lirael, etc. Alas, Frogkisser! slants younger still, and I just couldn’t quite engage with it at all.

I found the whole thing perhaps a little too long for what it was, and several of the elements felt more distracting from the meat of the story rather than adding to it. For instance, there’s a whole set of characters based around other fairy tales, but with a ‘twist’ – and it didn’t just fall flat for me, but felt a little forced and silly. The supporting cast all tend to be quite daft and one-dimensional, too, and while some of that is obviously on purpose, it just lacked even the tiniest hint of sophistication that my too-grown-up brain was perhaps unfairly demanding.

On the plus side, Anya is a lovely character: strong and determined and intelligent, but with all the flaws that make her human and ‘real’ and not just a perfect wish-fulfilment character. I’d love a generation of little girls – and boys! – to admire Anya rather than most Disney-esque heroines. And of course, in this book, it is very much the Princess rescuing the (Frog) Prince – there’s always room for that!

So, while not quite my cup of tea, this is a sweet little book. The language is perhaps a little more advanced than the age group it seems aimed at, but again, no bad thing to have a heroine with a love of learning in a book that perhaps teaches a bit as it entertains.

NetGalley eARC: 389 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 22nd February – 1st March 2017

My rating: 6/10, with the acknowledgement that I am several decades over the target audience age o_O