Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

ninth house cover

“By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.”

Alex Stern has a secret. It’s driven her to dark places in her life, but now she has the chance at a new life, a fresh start. Her special skills have caught the eye of the Lethe society, a secret group in Yale University, tasked with watching the other secret societies. Each of these not only spawns rich and powerful alumni, in fields from Wall Street to Hollywood to Washington, but uses occult arts to get there. Reading entrails to predict the stockmarket, glamours and potions – how far can things go before backfiring?

I’ve adored Leigh Bardugo’s work since stumbling across Six of Crows, and with this she makes her first foray into adult fiction. And it is most definitely not YA: it’s dark and gritty, and a few scenes bear possible ‘trigger warnings’ – the attempted rape of a pre-teen had me put the book down for a little bit, not least because the trauma comes across strongly in the writing.

It’s still very worth it, however. Bardugo is herself a Yale alumni, and the sense of cliques within cliques, of a whole town thrown that bit out of whack, really adds to the story of Alex’s attempts to learn about the occult, train to be the watcher, as well as keeping up with her studies. As for a social life – well, she’d settle for just not alienating her roomates completely!

The story is told in flashbacks, building a huge sense of mystery. What dark things happened to Alex before we meet her? And the other major players? Layers of mystery kept me absolutely gripped, and that’s even before we get to the murder…!

Very recommended, with that once warning: it gets dark. But I am delighted that this is the first in a new series – I want more!!

Hardback: 450 pages / 32 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Alex Stern book 1 (woo! More to come!! 🙂 )
Read from 19th October – 9th November 2019

My rating: 9/10

Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain cover

“‘Tell me what you think you saw.'”

Following on immediately from the events in Revenger, usual warning that even mentioning characters that made it to the sequel can be a kind of spoiler. And my opening lines are definitely book 1 spoilers…!

Okay with that? Then read on!

Having won and renamed The Revenger, the Ness sisters are free of Bosa Sennen – or, are they? Did Adrana’s time being groomed as her successor leave its mark or did Arafura’s rescue come in time? And what of Fura – she had to change to beat the galaxy’s biggest evil, does that leave an even bigger mark? The two have clearly grown up – it’s tough to remember they’re supposed to be 18-ish, even more to remember Adrana is the elder – and their objectives have changed. Not wholly through choice, though, as escaping the shadow of Bosa is harder than they thought…

I’d reread Revenger in preparation for this, and as such it came as a bit of a surprise to find the first person narrative switching from Fura to Adrana. In fact, I found it so hard to switch mental gears, that I put the book down and read something else first!

It is clear from the story why the viewpoint had to change, but it takes a while to feel not-weird. Whether that was my brain adjusting, or the writing developing a more distinctive tone – not sure.

It also helps immensely when the action gets going, and by the time the crew land on-world the descriptions of the decaying, corrupt place were spot on.

Overall, there are enough mysteries to keep you guessing – with a few more explanations for some of the world-building, like the genesis of the Congregation (they did *what* to Earth, Mars, et al?!) – but none more so than wondering about the motivations of the characters.

Still, as enjoyable as this was, for me it doesn’t live up to Alastair Reynolds’ other work. The difference is writing for (I believe) more a YA audience, and something in the tone just didn’t work as well for me. I will look out for the third volume of the trilogy, though, as I’m intrigued enough to see where the Ness sisters end their story…!

Hardback: 488 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Revenger book 2
Read from 1st September – 10th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

The October Man – Ben Aaronovitch

october man cover

“In late September, as the nights close in, a strange madness possesses my father.

After seven books following PC Peter Grant in London, Ben Aaronovitch takes a slight detour with this novel. we are introduced to Tobias winter, Peter’s German counterpart, sent to the town of Trier to investigate – you guessed it – somewhat strange goings on.

A body has been found in a field belonging to an old, but small vinery. It’s coated with mould – a fungus of the same kind used to deliberately infect the grapes to make a sweeter wine. The vinery is close to the river Kyll, and indeed the current owner’s grandfather would leave offerings to the river goddess… sound familiar?

Like the previous novella in the series (The Furthest Station), I enjoyed the way the shorter format kept things focused on the one story. It still has many twists and turns, not being quite as tight as I expected, but still intriguing.

Tobias Winter is basically Peter Grant with a few different words in his vocab. Taking any section without specific identifier, I think the narration would be indistinguishable from Grant’s street smart, slightly sarcastic tone. Which is no bad thing, but still.

While I overall enjoyed the story a great deal, I think introducing new characters, new location, and a new organisation is perhaps a bit much to ask for a sub-200-page novella.

Still very worth the read, though, for fans if maybe not newcomers to the series. It is interesting to see the Rivers of London series branching out, and I’d love to see even more – but, I think perhaps it’d only really work if the voice was as distinctive as the new region?

Hardback: 180 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: PC Peter Grant / Rivers of London book 7.5
Read from 25th-30th July 2019

My rating: 8/10

Outer Order Inner Calm – Gretchen Rubin

outer order cover

I’ve been a fan of Gretchen Rubin since The Happiness Diary, and so her take on the current mania for decluttering – something I’m in need of doing rather a lot of post-move! – was always going to intrigue me.

There’s no overt backlash against The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Marie Kondo (indeed, the book is mentioned near the end), rather this is a gentle “Some things work for some people, but what you want is what will make YOU happy.” This is unsurprising: her last book was The Four Tendencies, all about different personality types reacting to things very differently.

There is some good advice to be had in these pages, but to be honest I was a bit disappointed by the presentation. It’s not a narrative, just a collection of snippets and quotes that I felt like I’d read most of it already on her blog. And while the advice is perfectly fine, indeed very good in some instances, the brevity and style just made me feel like this was a low-effort money spinner, which was unexpected.

I’m not sure what else I wanted from the topic. It’s actually good that the subject matter isn’t drawn out just to make a bigger book. And yet… I dunno. Perhaps if anything had felt like more of a useful tip rather than a random musing on organisation?

As a collection of tips and a few motivational quotes, it’s fine. In terms of actually being inspired to go declutter – meh.

Hardback: 208 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 24th-30th March 2019

My rating: 6/10

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping cover

“His name was Richard Williams and he worked in public relations.”

Peter Grant’s ‘thing’ with London spirit, Mr Punch – teased since the earlier books introduced him and had him do horrible things to partner, Leslie – is coming to a head. Or, at least, taking a different path. What’s going on with Abigail’s talking foxes? And will the Folly’s magicians finally catch up with the Faceless Man aka Martin Chorley?

Seven books – plus a novella – into the series is obviously not the place to start with this, and I’d thoroughly recommend the earlier books anyway! In fact, I think this one is good but not the strongest of the series. Somehow, with the feel of so many things coming to a head after a couple of books’ worth of teasing, it didn’t quite feel as climactic as I expected.

It’s still a fun ride, but you are expected to know about Peter’s past – both training in magic, and his relationship with (I kid you not) a river – which aren’t given any explanation here. In some ways its nice for an author to treat his long-time readers with this kind of respect, but on the other hand, it just made some of this feel… flimsy? Insubstantial? Like a middle chapter, in some ways.

While the story progresses mostly at a reasonable pace, the lack of depth was a little disappointing. I still loved it and will read any further Rivers of London books, eagerly, but with this one it remains that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Hardback: 406 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Peter Grant (Rivers of London) book 7
Read from 12th-18th February 2019

My rating: 7/10

The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

labyrinth index cover

“As I cross the courtyard to the execution shed I pass a tangle of bloody feathers.”

Reading the latest few Laundry Files books in quick succession has worked really well, as they form an ongoing story leading us to the state we find ourselves at the start of The Labyrinth Index – look away now if you’re not up to date, and mention of events in book 9 are going to spoil any of 1-8 for you!

Still here? Grand 🙂 So, having signed a deal with the lesser of two dark horrors, Britain is now under New Management. And His Highness has decided priority one is to deal with the puzzling amnesia that seems to be affecting the US when it comes to their… urm.. presid… wait, what was I saying?!

After most of the early books were told from the point of view of Bob Howard, I admit I didn’t take too well to the change. The author’s first attempt at writing from a female view, Mo’s, felt a bit off to me. Switching to Alex in the previous book, The Delirium Brief, worked better, but I was concerned that going back to female with Mhairi might throw up similar issues. Thankfully not: Mhairi is spiky and no-nonsense, and even the ‘inner thoughts’ portion of her journal (for, all the Laundry Files books are technically journals…!) isn’t too whiny.

Story-wise, the shift to the US for this mission gives the book a little more self-contained feel, despite the ongoing story. It’s still not a good place to start – go back and get all the interesting back stories! A lot of the cast is used in brief, support-only roles, so it’s nice to know who they are rather than just a collection of random faces.

Overall, this is Laundry on fair form. Looking forward to the next book, and finding out how all of these end-of-times events play out!

Hardback: 354 pages / 11 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Laundry Files book 9
Read from 7th-27th January 2019

My rating: 8/10

Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand cover

“Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name.”

Mehr is a pampered if illegitimate governor’s daughter, a virtual prisoner by dint of her gender in the culture she lives in, and a hated reminder of father’s first love and thus enemy of her stepmother. She is also a half-caste, and the half that comes from her mother is not blood that is seen favourably in the Empire. The stories say that the Amrithi are descended from the desert spirits, the Daiva, and hold power in their blood. And it seems as if the immortal head of the Empire’s religion might be taking notice of those like Mehr…

Much as I enjoyed this book, I think perhaps the desert setting and South Asian-inspired fantasy has been a bit too prevalent in my reading of late (although still not as cliched as the Tolkien-esque fantasy of the past half-century, natch!), as I did spend part of this book feeling like I’d read it before. Which is a shame, because otherwise it’s pretty good.

I was a little put off by the themes of women as second class, ‘delicate’ flowers, and even more so by the forced marriage to a complete stranger – however obviously that all turns out. As ever, the teen romance-y type stuff left me pretty cold.

The Daiva also reminded me of too many other things, but in fairness they were well handled. The magic of dance was at least a bit of a different approach, and I genuinely liked the concept of an Empire built on subverting the dreams of gods.

Overall, though, this was an engrossing enough read, just didn’t quite hit the spot with me for reasons not entirely its own fault. Possibly had been over-hyped, too, when in reality I found it a decent, slightly above-average YA offering.

Paperback: 432 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Books of Ambha book 1
Read from 30th December 2018 – 6th January 2019

My rating: 7/10