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15. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This is the book that Facebook kept trying to sell me, and it sounded relevant to my interests. I wasn't entirely convinced so I got it from the library.

It's a fairytale set in the far north of late medieval Russia during the rule of the Mongol Horde. In the glossary and author's note, she admits to taking some liberties with dates - not that you'd notice; medieval Russia is pretty damn obscure. I don't know much more about Russian folklore but this has the right feeling about it. Again, the author is not claiming authenticity.

It's about a young noble girl growing up in the northern woods. There are portents surrounding her birth, and she grows up being able to see the household and nature spirits that protect the people, animals and crops in the area (which everyone acknowledges exists but nobody else can see). That is, until her father remarries and her religious fanatic stepmother sees them and believes they are demons; she has an equally fanatic priest brought from Moscow. There follows a struggle for the survival of the village.

It's also about growing up, family, expected social roles and fanatacism.

It comes very close to being one of those books that is just so magical you can't put it down, but for reasons I can't put my finger on, didn't quite achieve that. It's still a captivating story that I enjoyed immensely, and I highly recommend it.

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4. Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson

Second book in the Valhalla Saga. I reviewed Swords of Good Men a couple of years back. It was just OK for most of the way through but then got really interesting at the end.

This book picks up shortly after the battle at Stenvik which closes the first novel, and follows the two protagonists as they deal with having become immortal in their different ways. Odin takes an interest. Meanwhile, the sinister healer heads to Trondheim to find the source of the northerners' power.

This book is much better. It's still got multiple POV characters and strands, but it doesn't jump between them in as awkward a way as the first book did. The parts set in the north (land of the Sami, magic, and weirdness even to the Norsemen) are very good indeed. Nothing profound here, just good fun.

Now I can get on and read volume 3, which I somehow managed to acquire before this one, and has been sitting around waiting for me for ages.

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1. Fight Like a Girl edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall

(Usual disclaimer applies - this book had the best launch event ever).

A collection of fantasy/SF short stories by women, about women in combat situations. The settings range from hard SF to traditional fantasy & everything in between. All the stories are well written, but some grabbed me less than others (hard SF and high fantasy being not generally my thing, nor are protracted fight scenes). Not that it's all about fight scenes. I enjoyed the Lovecraftian horror one a lot (predictable) but Gaie Sebold's at the end is by far the best. All The Feels, as the young people say.

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58. The Sea-Stone Sword by Joel Cornah

Joel (creator of The Milliverse, if you do Twitter) is published by the same publisher who publishes Joanne Hall, so I picked this up at the Grimbold Books stall at BristolCon.  It was recommended because I'd run out of Sebastien de Castell and it has "swashbuckling" in the description.

It's about a young boy's quest to become a hero, or is it a villain?  Where does one end and the other begin?  It's a concept I can get behind, there's pirates, sapient penguins, dinosaurs and dragons, so what's not to love?

Unfortunately it's a bit of a mess - the pacing is odd, so parts just fly by and others drag.  It could have done wiht much tighter editing.  Some of the characters are believable and others not so much.  Parts are told well and other bits are questing-by-numbers.

It's a first book, though, and I've got the sequel as well.  I'll give it a chance to see if the writing and editing have tightened up.  Also I want to know more about the penguins.

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55. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

I first became aware of Lavie at last year's Nine Worlds and at read The Violent Century this year, which was OK but didn't do a lot for me.

At this year's Nine Worlds he was on the "How to Idea" panel and spoke about the genesis of this novel, set in an alternative 20th century where the Nazis were expelled from Germany in 1933 in a Communist takeover and Hitler ends up just about making a living as a private eye in London.  Needless to say, I had to visit the Forbidden Planet stall immediately after the session to buy the book.

I was not disappointed.  It's grim and violent and deeply, darkly funny.  Even though it's excellent it should have been difficult going, but it really wasn't - I read it in 4 days.  There is a real mystery (or 3) which are straight out of Raymond Chandler.  Oswald Mosley figures prominently.

But because Lavie is Israeli and the direct descendant of Holocaust survivors, it's not just an alternate world, it's a world dreamed up by Shermer, a prisoner in Auschwitz who was a pulp novelist before the war.  And it's also about how the English feel about refugees and immigrants today.

This is the blackest black humour I've ever read, and it's very good indeed.
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54. Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell

Book 3 in the Greatcoats series.  I have reviewed the first two recently.

I am definitely not the best person to write a critical review.  Regular readers will remember how much I love the series in general and the main character Falcio in particular.

This book continues to be action-packed with a duel in nearly every chapter, and Falcio discovering new enemies coming out of the shadows right, left & centre.  This time it's the religious orders, who were pretty irrelevant in the series up till now.  The gods and saints are being killed and the Greatcoats have to figure out why as well as stop the perpetrators. Falcio gains some new allies in this one, but continues to pay an extremely high price for fighting for what he believes to be right.

De Castell doesn't kill off characters often, but when he does it really packs an emotional punch.  This book has All The Feels and I loved it very much.

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51. Transtories edited by Colin Harvey

I picked up this collection at a previous Bristol Con and have just got round to reading it in time for this year's. The late Colin Harvey was involved with the Bristol SFF scene but I never met him; the only person I know who has a story in here is Joanne Hall.

This is a collection of stories linked only by each being based (loosely) around a word beginning with "trans". It's an ecclectic and uneven collection (at least for me).

It stars out well with a story by Aliette de Bodard, The Axle of Heaven. I'd heard good things about her and off the back of this I bought one of her books in the recent big Hodder ebook sale.

Transference by Jay Carlsberg was interesting and thought-provoking, as was Transthermal by John Kenny. Jo's offering, The Snake on His Shoulder, was good fun (locking the devil in the bell tower is always fun right?). I also enjoyed Shopping for Children by Susanne Martin, set in a future where having children the natural way is no longer possible. Silver by Rob Rowntree was an interesting concept but had more domestic violence than I really want in a steampunk adventure. Rainbows & Unicorns by Cody L Stanford is brutal and heartbreaking but really, really good. Oh, for the Touch Tentacular by Jonathan Shipley, about a student trying to earn a living on an alien world where the sapient life forms are sauropod and concepts don't translate particularly well, was funny.

The rest didn't do much for me. I've discovered this month that stories set in post-human universes tend to make me bounce right off (the Stross book excepted), and two of the stories are that exact kind of thing.

In other words, it's like many collections - the good stuff is good indeed, but a lot is pretty disposable. Can't fault it for the variety of the stories - at no point did it all start to get same-y.
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47. Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

The Greatcoats, book 2. I reviewed book 1 recently.

This one is even better - lots of swordfights, lots of smart-assery, but it's more elegantly plotted, and All The Feels are turned up to 11 as more and more sacrifice is demanded of the heroes to complete their quest (which may in fact be a non-quest, as there is debate as to the character of their late king). Massive betrayals, but also some redemption.

The only other fictional characters I feel about like I do Falcio are Harry Dresden and Jant from The Year of Our War. But it's not just the character, I love everything about this book.

The only social media de Castell does is Twitter - does this meant I have to open a Twitter account just to tell him how I feel about this book? Damn.
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40. Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

I became aware of Sebastien at last year's Nine Worlds on a random panel (when I the one I had intended to attend was full). He writes "swashbuckling fantasy" which intrigued me but not enough to buy his books, even though he's witty, charming and Canadian. I knew that he was attending Nine Worlds again this year and the last time I was at the library his first book was there, so I grabbed it.

Anyway, I loved it. Yes, there is a sword fight in almost every chapter. Yes, the main character is a smartass whose two companions can be equally charming and/or annoying. Yes, if you are a goth the aesthetics are spot on (the disgraced order our heroes belong to is called The Greatcoats). But there are also All The Feels, and when it gets dark it gets really, believably dark and visceral and just awful. Although there are times when I think he came up the visual first and built the world backwards from there, it holds together really well.

If I hadn't just read Guns of the Dawn, this would easily be the best book I read this year. I bought volumes two and three at Nine Worlds.
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36. Spark and Carousel by Joanne Hall

Disclaimer: Jo is one of the BristolCon mob so I spend a fair amount of time in the pub with her.

I keep going to Jo's book launches but as my to-read pile has its own room, I hadn't got round to actually reading any of her books yet. Also, she writes more traditional fantasy than tends to be my thing. I mean, this one's set in a city, but it's a city at a late-medieval level of development.

I was pleasantly surprised. While it's not exactly up my street, the writing is good enough and the plotting tight enough to keep me interested. While there is magic and clearly a hierarchy and structure of magic use, this is incidental to the story rather than something the whole story is based around. The characters are interesting. The world is pretty grim but not without joy and hope. The black magic was creepy as hell.

The rest of her books have just been bumped up the queue, and there's a new one out next month.
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35. Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I've encountered Adrian on many a panel at cons, and people I trust rate his work. However, he writes doorstops that are mostly part of a very long multi-part series so I've been wary. One of the latest, though, while still a doorstop, is a stand-alone and appealed to me more than the series, so I picked it up while I was at Books on the Hill.

In an alternate world whose level of development is somewhere between the Napoleonic and First World Wars (the weaponry is the former, but they have trains), two neighbouring nations are at war. One country is so screwed (but telling the citizens that victory is just around the corner, and people believe it) that they have a draft of women, one from each household. The thing that tells you this is a fantasy novel is that there are Warlocks, but they're not very effective in war.

Most noble families send a servant; however Emily Marshwic believes in honour and duty so she goes herself. By virtue of her elevated station in life she is immediately made a junior officer. Because of her belief in honour and duty, and because her brother was killed there, she volunteers to go to the less desirable of the two fronts.

Naturally, everything she thinks she knows and believes is tested to breaking point. She is fighting in a swamp, using outdated methods because their country has honour, against a country who just do what needs to be done to win. Her only outlet is that she is able to write freely to the corrupt mayor of her home town, without being subject to the censorship that the army writing home contends with.

The war ends and follows her home in an awful (but predictable) way.

I have no words to express how much I loved this book: the characters, the pacing, the plot. I usually get very bored with long battle scenes, but even these were fascinating to read. The end was absolutely perfect, which I very rarely say at the end of a good long book.
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29. The Vagrant by Peter Newman

I really wanted to like this book - I've met Pete at a few cons and he seems like a great guy. However, this book just wasn't for me. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world where the earth split open eight years previously and released all kinds of demonic creatures which either killed or tainted most of the human population.

It's the kind of fantasy which involves a lot of traveling, which I always find tedious. The main character, the Vagrant, is traveling with a baby, and a goat (for milk for the baby). The Vagrant does not speak, which is an interesting challenge for a writer. The best character in the book is the goat (it's not just me).

I'm not sure whether it's because I was particularly brain fogged when I was reading it, but I couldn't keep straight the different types of monsters, demons, knights, etc.

I'm not saying it's a bad book - certainly there were scenes that I really enjoyed, but it just wasn't my kind of fantasy.
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21. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Numerous horror/thriller writers that I rate, including Stephen King and HPL, have written about this being great and an important foundation text in the genre.

They're not wrong. Very late Victorian, but really, *really* creepy all the way through. I can see how it influenced HPL - something comes in from Elsewhere, and all the gory stuff happens off stage.

It's very short - so short I was reluctant to count it, but I'm reading War & Peace, so there. Definitely worth the effort.
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18. The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Last month's book club book.

It was OK, I guess. Neither trashy enough to be a good romp nor good enough to be really interesting. Plus it pissed me off so much at the beginning with the woo about twins having a special kind of connection that it's a miracle I stuck with it.

The trip to Colorado and the interactions with Tesla's assistant are the best part.
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16. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

A future where people are socially stratified by how much colour they can see. That's the tag line but it's a lot more nasty and dystopian than that. I can't believe I once thought that Fforde would be too twee for my tastes.

The worlds of his Last Dragonslayer and Tuesday Next books are pretty dark, this is far worse. Repression, institutionalised bullying at every level

And it's still a marvellous page-turner. It's really funny, and while you'll probably figure out part of the twist less than 1/4 of the way through the book, I just wanted to know what would happen next. The ending, though - ouch.

There are supposed to be more in the series, but he's since put out the entire Last Dragonslayer series and last time I caught up with him at a con he was working on something else, so it doesn't look good.
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4. Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

A lovely little novella from Tor to keep us from rioting while awaiting the new Shadow Police novel.

A small Gloucestershire town is divided over the proposal for a new supermarket. One of the village's older inhabitants sees the plans, realises that this will unleash things from other worlds, and decides to fight back.

It starts out as superficial and silly as it sounds, but then gets darker and very, very good indeed.
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3. The Secrets of Drearcliffe Grange School by Kim Newman

Kim Newman takes on the boarding school story, with spooky and nefarious stuff going on, in a slightly alternate world where there are people with Unusual abilities who are useful to the government but socially frowned upon.

I really struggled with the first half (or maybe third) - Newman channels St Trinian's which, from my limited exposure, is one of the most vile concepts on the planet.

Eventually there is less jolly hockey sticks and inter-war posh people slang and more spooky stuff, and it gets a lot more interesting and genuinely creepy rather than the cartoon quirkiness of the first half/third. I tore through the last 100 pages. The ending is just - confusing - though.

Not one of his better efforts and frustrating because there was a really malevolent story at its core which got buried.
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1. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Regular readers may remember that I had resisted Fforde's works for a long time because I thought they'd be too whimsical for me until I heard him speak at various events over the past couple years. I've giggled my way through his young adult Last Dragonslayer series, and after his appearance at BristolCon I gave the first of his Thursday Next series a go.

It's set in an alternate world (where Swindon is still a boring place that everyone leaves at the first opportunity; let's keep things believable) where there are rifts in time, mythical animals and resurrected extinct ones, Wales is a socialist republic, and literature is taken so seriously that there is a thriving black market in bootleg manuscripts etc so that there is a division of Special Operations to deal with literary crime. The protagonist's uncle has invented a Prose Portal that can insert people into their favourite story.

The characters all have ridiculous names. My inner 12 year old giggled every time Jack Schitt was mentioned.

I loved it. Too often this sort of work sacrifices plot for the sake of humour, but this is meticulously thought out (Fforde would probably strenuously deny this) and has a real page-turner of a story at its heart.

It's a really dark world, too. The Crimean War has never finished and Thursday Next is a PTSD'd up veteran of a disastrous campaign.

I will definitely be following up the rest of the series. I'm still not sure I'm ready for his Nursery Crimes series though.
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34. The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The second in his Last Dragonslayer series for young adults. I read the third one first (got charmed by him at an event & bought the book he was pimping), then the first one, so this one nicely fills in the middle.

I so wish I'd had these books when I was a kid. They are funny (my favourite line: "Reader, I punched him"), peppered with little bits of wisdom, and have a strong female main character. The setting is a post apocalyptic UnUnited Kingdoms which are, frankly, unpleasant and where underprivileged kids have to grow up fast.

I read the whole thing on the bus to and from London on Saturday. There's even an unexpected touching bit at the end, but maybe that was because I was tired.
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44. A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin

I'm finally caught up! After the slow-down that was A Feast For Crows, this was properly exciting again, particualrly the final third.

As I said on FB, up till now I have been firmly on GRRM's side when it comes to the over-entitled fans demanding more! now!. I'm trying hard not to become one of them, but I really want to find out what happens next!


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