#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts

#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr RobertsWild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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A gorgeous debut, laced through with magic, following four generations of women as they seek to chart their own futures. Evangeline Hussey’s husband is dead―lost at sea―and she has only managed to hold on to his Nantucket inn by employing a curious gift to glimpse and re-form the recent memories of those around her. One night, an idealistic sailor appears on her doorstep asking her to call him Ishmael, and her careful illusion begins to fracture. He soon sails away with Ahab to hunt an infamous white whale, and Evangeline is left to forge a life from the pieces that remain.
Her choices ripple through generations, across continents, and into the depths of the sea, in a narrative that follows Evangeline and her descendants from mid-nineteenth century Nantucket to Boston, Brazil, Florence, and Idaho. Moving, beautifully written, and elegantly conceived, Wild and Distant Seas takes Moby-Dick as its starting point, but Tara Karr Roberts brings four remarkable women to life in a spellbinding epic all her own.

My Review:

He said “Call me Ishmael” – and she did. But that is not where this distaff perspective on Moby-Dick begins.

It begins with Evangeline Hussey reinventing herself for the second time. The first time was when she ran away from a past we never see and found herself on Nantucket Island as the whaling industry was nearing the end of its heyday. She marries an innkeeper and intends to settle down for the rest of her life making chowder.

But Evangeline has a gift. She has just a bit of magic, a spark that allows her to do two things she’s going to rely on and fight against in the years to come. She can see through the eyes of people she knows, and she can make people believe and even DO what she wants. Through her gift, she sees that her husband’s small boat has capsized and he has drowned at sea, but she enforces the belief among the townspeople that he is just away on a business trip and will be back sooner or later.

It’s a lie she continually reinforces because she knows that his family – who have lived in Nantucket for generations – mightily disapprove of her and her marriage, and that they will take the inn away from her if they can. It’s the only home she knows and she can’t let that happen, so she lies and MAKES people believe it – for so many years that the lie reinforces itself.

Until Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at her Try Pots Inn, just before they sign up for Captain Ahad’s ill-omened and ultimately ill-fated voyage on the cursed Pequod. The story that Ishmael eventually tells in Moby-Dick.

But before the Pequod set sail, Ishmael and Evangeline had a brief dalliance that resulted in a child. A daughter born with no knowledge of her father but an even greater portion of her mother’s gifts.

Wild and Distant Seas is the story of Evangeline’s legacy, both her gifts and the endless pursuit of the missing Ishmael that she bequeathed to her daughter, her granddaughter, and even her great-granddaughter as they journey endlessly and fruitlessly, until at last one of them finally finds her way home.

Escape Rating B: Wild and Distant Seas is a story that is constantly in dialog with its predecessor, Moby-Dick. At points it hews close, and at others it is at more than a bit of a remove, but the great white whale is always swimming in the background.

And this is the point where I confess that I never read the damn thing. Yes, I know it’s considered to be one of the ‘Great American Novels’ and a literary classic, etc., etc., etc., but I was never forced to read it in high school and had no inclination afterward. It’s somewhere between a complete sausage fest and a boys’ own adventure (even if in the same way that Lord of the Flies is a boys’ own adventure) and the American literary canon is just full of those.

So part of my interest in Wild and Distant Seas was that it gives a distaff perspective on a story that otherwise doesn’t have a female perspective in it AT ALL. Considering how many men never came home from the whaling industry, a story about what happened after that was itself an interesting possibility for historical fiction, even if this book also has a bit of a literary fiction vibe to it.

What makes the story work is that it is absolutely NOT Ishmael’s story, as the original was. Instead, it’s the story of his absence and the lengths that absence drives Evangeline and her descendants to in pursuit of the truth of their origins. He’s a gaping hole in each of their histories that they are all trying to fill.

As each of the women in Evangeline’s line tell their stories, the other thread that links them is their use, misuse and abuse of the gift that they’ve inherited from her. Each of them is capable of bending others to their will, none of them are able to resist the impulse to use that power, and all of them ultimately realize that their gift has cost more than they’ve ever gained from it, which brings them, at last, back to their point of origin.

But the way each of their stories is told is through their first person perspective, with the torch of story passing from one woman to another when they each first use their gift, making each of their stories about the price they pay for that use.

Which, oddly enough, brings the story back to Moby-Dick and the price of Ahab’s obsession, in more ways than one.

In the end, as the story shifted protagonists and perspectives, I found some of their journeys more compelling than others, and I empathized more with Evangeline’s adult perspective than I did the learning period that her descendants inevitably went through. So ultimately I have mixed feelings but this turned out to be a fascinating way to explore a classic from a sideways point of view.

A- #BookReview: Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson

A- #BookReview: Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby OlsonMiss Percy's Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons (Miss Percy Guide, #1) by Quenby Olson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Miss Percy Guide #1
Pages: 397
on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Miss Mildred Percy inherits a dragon.
Ah, but we’ve already got ahead of ourselves…
Miss Mildred Percy is a spinster. She does not dance, she has long stopped dreaming, and she certainly does not have adventures. That is, until her great uncle has the audacity to leave her an inheritance, one that includes a dragon’s egg.
The egg - as eggs are wont to do - decides to hatch, and Miss Mildred Percy is suddenly thrust out of the role of “spinster and general wallflower” and into the unprecedented position of “spinster and keeper of dragons.”
But England has not seen a dragon since… well, ever. And now Mildred must contend with raising a dragon (that should not exist), kindling a romance (with a humble vicar), and embarking on an adventure she never thought could be hers for the taking.

My Review:

At first, Miss Percy seems like a rather quiet and retiring sort of person, and her book seems like a rather quiet and cozy sort of book. Both of these things are true – and both of them are not.

Miss Percy is quiet because it has become the only way she can survive as a disregarded, disapproved of and constantly overseen and overworked spinster in the household her sister rules with an iron fist.

The meek, mild mouse of a woman is not the person Mildred Percy aspired to be when she was an adventurous child. It’s not even the person she planned to be when she chose to stay at home and nurse her ailing father.

It’s just what happened along the way of putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day as an unmarried gentlewoman of no independent means whatsoever. It was the safe and easy path.

At least until her Great-Uncle Forthright died and left her a trunk full of bits and bobs and papers and oddments, the detritus of a scientific mind and an adventurous life. A life that he has, wittingly or not, passed to the great-niece he remembered as a free-spirited girl three decades gone.

But surprisingly, and delightfully come again, while dragging the trunk of legacy secretly away from her sister’s overbearing presence and opinions, and straight into the brawny arms of the local vicar, Mr. Wiggan – an unmarried man of a certain age not too far at all from her own.

A man of God Mr. Wiggan may be, but he also possesses every bit of the same spirit of discovery and adventure that her late, great-uncle did, as well as a willingness to help her investigate that legacy.

Which turns out to include, not just books and papers, but also a well-wrapped, deeply hidden, curious looking rock. A rock which hatches into an equally curious dragon.

And thereby hangs a tale of adventure, discover, and even romance of Miss Mildred Percy’s own, as Mildred’s – and Mr. Wiggan’s – efforts to save and protect the little dragon burn away the shyness and diffidence that have held both of them back.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I saw it on a list of cozy fantasies, and it seemed like the perfect book for a chilly winter weekend. And it was calling my name rather loudly, with occasional puffs of smoke for emphasis.

While of course I fell in love with the little dragon – just as Mildred does – I stayed for Mildred, very much in the way that I got so thoroughly stuck into all of the protagonists in the Never Too Old to Save the World collection. Because Mildred had become convinced that her time was passed and that she had no choice but to cover under her sister’s thumb, raise her sister’s children, and take up as little space as possible in a household where she was forced to live on the tiniest amount of sufferance possible.

The little dragon, with his puffs of smoky breath and occasionally sparky sneezes, lit a fire in Mildred that had been banked so thoroughly that the embers sputtered A LOT before they finally caught. And caught Mildred up in the radical idea that, at forty years of age, she still had plenty of time for adventures if only she could just bring her courage to the sticking point, defy her sister, and seize the days yet to come.

So, just as the little dragon hatches from his shell, we follow along with Mildred as she cracks open her own. She might not have been willing to step out of her comfort zone just for herself, because her whole life has taught her that’s not her place, but she will take on all comers to keep the dragon safe – no matter how much she shakes in her boots as she fights her battles on his behalf.

As much as I was enjoying Mildred’s hesitant steps towards adventure, the tone of this book teased me for multiple chapters as I settled in for this cozy winter read. Because it reads a bit like Pride and Prejudice – not in the plot, but in the setting, the characters and the writing style. Particularly as Mildred’s sister, Mrs. Diana Muncy, reads very, very much like a smarter, meaner version of Mrs. Bennet from Jane Austen’s classic romance and comedy of manners.

I got so deeply into the story that it took me halfway through before the dragon’s name dropped the clue-by-four on my head – just as the villains attempted to throw the creature from a second-story window. (The dragon has wings, so things did not go AT ALL according to their dastardly plan.) They named the dragon Fitz, after, of course, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Making the ‘pocket’ description of Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care & Feeding of British Dragons – you guessed it and I’m chagrined at how long it took me to – Pride and Prejudice and Dragons!

Which is not played for nearly as many over-the-top laughs and innuendos as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So, if you think Pride and Prejudice was a good story that just needed more dragons, this cozy fantasy is a delight from beginning to end.

Certainly this reader was utterly delighted by the whole saga, which means that I’m doubly pleased that Mildred’s, Fitz’ and Mr. Wiggan’s adventures are far from over. The next book in this charming cozy fantasy series, Miss Percy’s Travel Guide to Welsh Moors and Feral Dragons, is already out and rapidly clawing its way up my virtually towering TBR pile for the next time I’m in the mood for a cozy fantasy with more dragons!

Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Vows (Huntsmen, #2) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #2
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Following the events of the high-stakes and propulsive Uncanny Times, Rosemary and Aaron Harker, along with their supernatural hound Botheration, have been given a new assignment to investigate…but the Harkers believe it’s a set-up, and there’s something far more ancient and deadly instead.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker have been effectively, unofficially sidelined. There is no way to be certain, but they suspect their superiors know that their report on Brunson was less than complete, that they omitted certain truths. Are they being punished or tested? Neither Aaron nor Rosemary know for certain. It may be simply that they are being given a breather or that no significant hunts have been called in their region. But neither of them believes that.

So, when they are sent to a town just outside of Boston with orders to investigate suspicious activity carefully, the Harkers suspect that it is a test. Particularly since the hunt involves a member of the benefactors, wealthy individuals who donate money to the Huntsmen in exchange for certain special privileges and protections.

If they screw this up…at best, they’ll be out of favor, reduced to a life of minor hunts and “clean up” for other Huntsmen. At worst, they will be removed from the ranks, their stipend gone—and Botheration, their Hound, taken from them.

They can’t afford to screw this up.

But what seems like a simple enough hunt—find the uncanny that attacked a man in his office and sent him into a sleep-like state—soon becomes far more complicated as more seemingly unrelated attacks occur. The Harkers must race to find what is shadowing them, before the uncanny strikes again, and sleep turns into murder—and the Huntsmen decide that they have been compromised beyond repair.

But their quarry may not be the only uncanny in town. Botheration and Aaron both sense something else, something shadowing them. Something old, dangerous…and fey.

My Review:

If the idea that the Harker family is somehow involved with the things that go bump in the night feels familiar but you can’t quite remember why, it’s because it IS familiar. Jonathan Harker got himself mixed up with a famous vampire in a little place called Transylvania a mere couple of decades before we first met Aaron and Rosemary Harker in the first book in the Huntsmen series, Uncanny Times.

Because the times they live in are very ‘uncanny’ indeed, the Huntsmen their family has always been a part of have a very long tradition and there are vampires in Europe. Not in America, not so far, at least not yet. But still, the idea that an uncle or a cousin got themselves mixed up in that other uncanny business is not all that far-fetched once the reader gets themselves fully immersed in the Harkers’ not-quite-urban-fantasy, not-exactly-alternate-history version of 1913 New England where the ‘automotive’ has just started sharing the streets with horse-drawn carriages, the Great War seems to have already begun in Europe, and the ‘uncanny’ things that populated Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow have put down long, deep roots in the local landscape.

And occasionally slip into nearby houses and offices to practice their mischief. Or commit murder.

That’s what sends the Harkers, brother and sister, on a covert mission to Boston to investigate what might be an attack by an uncanny. The organization that monitors and dispatches the Huntsmen have asked/ordered/voluntold the Harkers that one of the organization’s financial backers has called in some favors, that the man wants a discreet investigation of his brother-in-law’s mysterious illness/fainting fit/possible attack, in order to placate his wife and get back to his business.

It’s a far from ideal situation, and both the Harkers know it. The Harkers feel like the organization no longer trusts them after the events in Uncanny Times, and that they’re being sent on this mission without information and with their hands tied behind their backs because its a test that someone wants them to fail.

And they could be right on all counts. But that doesn’t change the mission, only make it a whole lot more difficult to resolve – with that desired discretion or without.

Not that discretion is even possible while there’s something uncanny watching and waiting for them to make a mistake – the kind that either gets the all killed, or the kind that exposes all their secrets to a world that is absolutely not ready. Or both. The way that the Harkers’ luck tends to run – bet on both.

Escape Rating B+: So far, at least, the Huntsmen series still feels like it’s part of the ‘Weird West’ tradition. It obviously isn’t, not with the ‘automotives’ [sic] on the streets and the Great War looming on the horizon, but it still feels that way, like it would fit right into The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny collection coming out in a couple of weeks.

(Although, come to think of it, the author DOES have a series that is explicitly set in the Weird West, titled The Devil’s West and beginning with Silver on the Road. I think I just saw it shooting up the virtually towering TBR pile, chased by one of the Harkers’ specially-prepared bullets.)

With the first book in the series, Uncanny Times, I liked the idea of the story and the series more than the story I actually got. Although I loved the Harker’s hellhound Botheration and still do. He stole every scene he was in and does in this book as well. (Don’t worry, Botheration is a Very Good Boy and is just as fine at the end of this adventure as he was at the beginning – which is very.)

His humans, however, are a bit closer to the end of their tether than either of them realizes when this case gets wrapped up. Although it does, in spite of the roadblocks put in their way by both the organization and the favor-calling client and benefactor.

One of the things that makes this series work is that Rosemary and Aaron Harker are both of their time and place AND a bit outside it at the same time, making them excellent investigators of both the human and the uncanny aspects of the case. Even as they push at the boundaries more than a bit. Which is both the cause of their ‘outsiderness’ and its result.

That’s part of why I enjoyed this story more than the first, because we get a much fuller picture of the Harkers, their skills and their capabilities, we know more about what makes them who they are, and we see more of why the organization doesn’t exactly trust them but can’t afford to assign them to the equivalent of working in Siberia without proof of something. Not that some folks aren’t looking for that something, and haven’t been for most of Aaron’s life.

At the same time, the heavy lifting of setting up the world and the series has already been done in that first book, so this one is able to sink its teeth into the case from the very first page – and that they drive off in Aaron’s rented ‘automotive” gets things going that much faster, while Rosemary’s dislike of the speed, the dust, and Aaron’s relative inexperience driving the thing adds a bit of lightness to what is otherwise a rather dark story of obsession and possession.

I came back to this series for Botheration, but I stayed because the setting is getting more and more interesting as it goes, and the case was filled with plenty of twists and turns and still-fresh-from-the-water red herrings. All the while, Rosemary and Aaron’s different but equally jaundiced perceptions of their world grounded the story in characters that I could not merely empathize with but actually share the frustrations of along the way.

So if you like tales of the Weird West – even though this isn’t quite – or historical urban fantasy – which this most definitely is – or just like exploring a world that isn’t quite ours but is just enough like ours to really, seriously get into, take an ‘automotive’ trip to early 20th century Boston with the Harkers and their very good, and very large, boy, Botheration. It’s a wild ride from beginning to end – and not just because of Aaron’s driving!

Review: The Star and the Strange Moon by Constance Sayers

Review: The Star and the Strange Moon by Constance SayersThe Star and the Strange Moon by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 480
Published by Redhook on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the author of A Witch in Time comes a haunting tale of ambition, obsession, and the eternal mystery and magic of film.
1968: Actress Gemma Turner once dreamed of stardom. Unfortunately, she’s on the cusp of slipping into obscurity. When she’s offered the lead in a radical new horror film, Gemma believes her luck has finally changed. But L’Etrange Lune’s set is not what she expected. The director is eccentric, and the script doesn’t make sense.
Gemma is determined to make this work. It’s her last chance to achieve her dream—but that dream is about to derail her life. One night, between the shadows of an alleyway, Gemma disappears on set and is never seen again. Yet, Gemma is still alive. She’s been transported into the film and the script—and the monsters within it—are coming to life. She must play her role perfectly if she hopes to survive.
2015: Gemma Turner’s disappearance is one of film history’s greatest mysteries—one that’s haunted film student Christopher Kent ever since he saw his first screening of L’Etrange Lune. The screenings only happen once a decade and each time there is new, impossible footage of Gemma long after she vanished. Desperate to discover the truth, Christopher risks losing himself. He’ll have to outrun the cursed legacy of the film—or become trapped by it forever.

My Review:

The Star and the Strange Moon is a story about hunger, greed, obsession, the power of movies to make magic and, surprisingly, the power of magic to make movies.

This timeslip story has two beginnings, as timeslip stories often do. At first, neither the reader nor the characters have any clue what one will have to do with the other – which is what fuels the obsession and powers the whole journey, both magical and mundane.

In 1986, a woman sees a photograph on a wall and pretty much loses her damn mind. Not that she hasn’t been heading that direction for quite some time, after nearly two decades of brief fortune, lost fame, failed hopes, and entirely too much sex and drugs and, as it turns out, not nearly enough rock and roll.

Her son, all of ten years old, has been the adult in their nomadic existence for seemingly all of his life, taking care of his mother as she drives them from one brief, often catastrophic singing gig to another, making sure she doesn’t kill herself with booze or drugs and talking her down from whatever figurative ledge she’s climbed up to this time.

But something about that photograph on the wall rips away his mother’s last grasp on sanity or reality or normalcy or all of the above in a way that both changes and makes Christopher Kent’s young life – even if, at age ten – he has no idea what who the woman in that photograph was or what any of it means.

The perspective then switches to the woman in the photograph, Gemma Turner, back in 1968, when she was a formerly up and coming actress and the current ‘old lady’ for a rock singer on the cusp of either greatness or being thrown out of his own band. Gemma wants out and away, so she takes the only acting job offered, to star in a horror movie for a French New Wave director who may be a genius director but has no clue about the conventions of the horror genre he plans to both break and break into.

One night, in the middle of filming L’Etrange Lune in a tiny French village, Gemma Turner disappears in the middle of a shoot – literally in the middle of a shot while the camera is recording it all. She wakes up in what appears to be a real-life version of the set of the movie, complete with its ‘strange moon’, in what seems to be 1878, in the person of the character she was portraying.

A character who is soon to be drained to death by a vampire. Unless, somehow, she can change the script.

Meanwhile, back in the so-called real world, her disappearance turns into a mystery that swallows the life of everyone the movie or the woman ever touched. Including, eventually and inevitably, the life of one Christopher Kent, who has no idea who Gemma Turner was or what she might possibly have ever done to his mother.

It will become Christopher’s obsession – and his life’s journey – to find the answer to ALL the mysteries that have grown up around Gemma Turner’s disappearance. It’s a discovery that will break him, make him, and enthrall him to the very end.

And the reader right along with him.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I adored the author’s earlier book, The Ladies of the Secret Circus, with its blend of history, mystery and magic, and The Star and the Strange Moon looked like it was in the same vein.

Which turned out to be true a bit more literally than I imagined, adding to the mystery of the story and my compulsion to finish it because there were bits that started to sound just a bit more familiar than I expected.

They are not the same story, although they do have similarities in their blending of forgotten history, secret realities, hidden magic and family obsessions. Nor do you need to read one to enjoy the other.

But both stories have the same origin. Or at least the same originator, the demon prince Althacazur and his endless and frequently appalling attempts to keep his eternity from being boring. Althacazur turns out to be the ‘man’ behind the curtain, rather like the Wizard of Oz, only Althacazur is a real magical being with all too real and horrific powers.

I want to say he’s not important – and he’s not important to what makes this story compulsively readable and so much fun. So even though the events are all his fault, he’s not all that important in the grand scheme of things, as contradictory as that seems.

What makes this story work is its combination of Christopher’s obsession to learn what the mysteriously missing Gemma Turner has to do with the sad progress of his mother’s life, set against Gemma’s story of taking control of her own destiny in a way that would not have been possible in the time and place to which she was born.

Christopher’s story is a story about hunting down clues, investigating theories, and giving over his own life in the present to solve a mystery in the past. Gemma’s story is about learning to make lemons out of lemonade and accepting that even if she can’t go home again, she can make a home where she is.

That Christopher’s solution to the mystery takes him down a road that runs more than a bit parallel to Outlander isn’t exactly a surprise by the time he gets there. But it does make for a fitting and delightful end to a lovely twisty turny story.

Which now has me more than a bit curious about the author’s first book, A Witch in Time, and whether Althacazur has been entertaining himself with humans even more than we’ve seen in The Ladies of the Secret Circus and The Star and the Strange Moon. I’ll have to find out while I wait for the author’s next book to magically – or demonically – appear!

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya Marske

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya MarskeA Power Unbound (The Last Binding, #3) by Freya Marske
Narrator: Josh Dylan
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, gaslamp, historical fantasy, M/M romance
Series: Last Binding #3
Pages: 432
Length: 16 hours and 7 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A Power Unbound is the final entry in Freya Marske’s beloved, award-winning Last Binding trilogy, the queer historical fantasy series that began with A Marvellous Light.
Secrets! Magic! Enemies to. . .something more?
Jack Alston, Lord Hawthorn, would love a nice, safe, comfortable life. After the death of his twin sister, he thought he was done with magic for good. But with the threat of a dangerous ritual hanging over every magician in Britain, he’s drawn reluctantly back into that world.
Now Jack is living in a bizarre puzzle-box of a magical London townhouse, helping an unlikely group of friends track down the final piece of the Last Contract before their enemies can do the same. And to make matters worse, they need the help of writer and thief Alan Ross.
Cagey and argumentative, Alan is only in this for the money. The aristocratic Lord Hawthorn, with all his unearned power, is everything that Alan hates. And unfortunately, Alan happens to be everything that Jack wants in one gorgeous, infuriating package.
When a plot to seize unimaginable power comes to a head at Cheetham Hall―Jack’s ancestral family estate, a land so old and bound in oaths that it’s grown a personality as prickly as its owner―Jack, Alan and their allies will become entangled in a night of champagne, secrets, and bloody sacrifice . . . and the foundations of magic in Britain will be torn up by the roots before the end.

My Review:

This series, The Last Binding, has always been a story about power, wrapped inside a bit of pretty fantasy romance and steeped in the verbal byplay of a comedy of manners. But at the heart of all the fluff and froth, of which there has been a delicious amount, is a core of cold, hard steel.

The question has always been whose, whose power, whose needs, who decides who are the many and who are the few, and who gets to wield all the power at the foundation of British magic.

Because there really is a crisis coming, not just to British magic but to the world as a whole. That crisis, based on timing, is World War I. So the looming threat on the horizon is all too real. The problem is that too many at the pinnacle of power have decided that they are the only people capable of wielding that power, and that anyone who stands in their way is to be cut down. Permanently – and all too often with malice aforethought.

That they’ll frankly be doing their enemy’s work for them doesn’t occur to any of them. That no one has had even a thought to how the power was intended to be held and wielded doesn’t even cross their minds.

But it does cross the minds of our ragtag group of, let’s call them questioners of whether any ends justify the means that are being gone to. Especially as ALL of them have been the victims of those means in one way or another.

A Power Unbound begins by answering the questions raised early in A Marvellous Light, the questions about how and why Jack Alston, Lord Hawthorn, lost his magic and his twin sister in the first place. The questions about just how long this nefarious plot has been going on, and just how early it sunk to its terrible depths.

Depths which are displayed on the grandest stage possible for all the magical world to see, as no one bats an eye as long as they get to keep their own power. But magic itself has a say, and it has finally found agents through whom it can be said.

Their world will never be the same. Nor should it be.

Escape Rating B: I am all over the map about this story, because it is such a wild mixture of historical fantasy, power tripping and political shenanigans, mystery, romance and comedy of manners. Whether any reader will fall in love with the series probably depends on which parts of the melange they are in this thing for.

Which is where all the reading mileage is going to end up varying. A LOT.

I got into the first book, A Marvellous Light, for the magical and political skullduggery. It begins as a murder mystery and then dives into the murky depths of magic and politics and starts the whole series on its meditations about power and its ultimate corruption. A marvelous queer romance also occurs during the course of that story, but it never took a backseat to the magic and the mystery.

But the balancing act between the romance and the magical mystery tour started to tip in the second book in the series. I did enjoy A Restless Truth for its shipboard antics and the way it moved the search for the Last Contract two steps forward and one step back, but it felt a bit like the romance got a bit in the way of the parts of the story I was there for.

From my perspective, A Power Unbound got a bit too bound up in the romance between Jack and Alan for the first half of the book. A reader who is in this series for its romances will probably feel a lot differently, but for this reader it felt like the story was spinning its wheels in endless setup as Jack and Alan teetered on the knife edge of ‘will they, won’t they’. In the first half of the story the romance was at the center of the story rather than the magical mystery political pot boiling over and scalding our entire band of heroes, and I had hoped for the reverse.

At about the halfway point, which is where I switched from audio to text because I needed the story to just get on with it, the pace picked up, the amount of feces hitting the oscillating device increased dramatically, the plots on both sides got ever more convoluted, Murphy’s Law rained all over everyone, and the whole thing galloped towards an epic conclusion that was not quite the one that anyone expected but was absolutely perfect as a way of bringing the runaway plot train to a satisfying stop.

(For anyone considering the audio, the narrator did an excellent job, I just wanted the whole thing to move along faster than audio naturally or even unnaturally does. I do listen to audio because I love the voices. Mickey Mouse’s voice is another thing entirely – although it would have been hilarious for the sex scenes, it would absolutely have set the wrong tone.)

I find myself back at my earlier statement. How much a reader will love A Power Unbound will depend on which parts of the story that reader is here after. If you’re here for the romance, this one is a delight. If you’re here for the magical power and politics contest, the second half is fantastic but the romance-centered first half gets in the way of figuring out all of the whos and why they done what they done. (The whos are mostly obvious, but the whys are considerably less so.)

No matter which side of that divide you fall on, anyone who has fallen for this marvelous cast of sinners with the occasional saintly impulse will be thrilled by the epic, world-shattering ending!

Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather

Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina RatherA Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, historical fantasy, horror
Pages: 161
Published by Tordotcom on October 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born: some with eyes made for the dark, others with webbed fingers and toes better suited to the sea.
Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness—she herself was born marked by uncanniness. Having hidden her nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. As a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, Sarah learns to reach across the thinning boundary between her world and another, drawing on its power to heal and protect the women she serves.
When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who would use the magic of the Other World to gain power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.

My Review:

Sarah Davis, widow and apprentice midwife, knows all too well that some babies are born who are not meant to live in this world, because she was nearly one of them. But in London in the winter of 1675, when this story takes place, there has been a sudden epidemic of babies being born who are not meant to live in THIS particular world, but rather, a different one where their horns or tails or fur or fangs or even gills would not be the least bit strange or embarrassing for their families. Or otherwise instantly fatal.

It’s not really surprising that this sudden and vast increase in strange and frequently stillborn babies results in accusations of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. (The Salem Witch Trials are still 18 years in the future at this point.)

Actually, from the descriptions of some of the babies, I’m not sure we’d avoid bandying about accusations of witchcraft if it happened TODAY. Demonizing women for their pregnancies or the causes or the results thereof is just as pervasive today as it was in the late 17th century – or any other.

But Sarah is a midwife. She is also, herself, one of those strange children, but when she was born such children were not nearly so common, and her strangeness was one that could be easily snipped away. Literally. She was born with a tail, and an ability to touch on something that her fellow midwives refer to as the ‘Other Place’.

In other words, Sarah has magic. Many of the midwives have a bit, but Sarah has a lot – she just can’t consciously tap into it.

Sir Christopher Wren, very much on the other hand, has money and influence. He has an education and is a well-known scientist as well as an architect. And his wife Faith is very near to term with their second child. A child who was conceived for the sole purpose of opening a gate between this world and that ‘Other Place’ in order to fix the overlap or incursion between the worlds that is causing conditions in both this place and the ‘Other’ to go so very much askew.

Wren believes he’s using Sarah for her power. And he is because he can and he believes he’s right to do so because he knows best. He isn’t and he doesn’t.

Sarah, on the other hand, knows enough. Maybe. Hopefully. Just possibly. Enough.

Escape Rating A-: You remember that Year’s Best collection of Dark Fantasy and Horror that I reviewed last week? A Season of Monstrous Conceptions would have fit in perfectly because it sits right at the haunted crossroads between the two. I went into this book expecting it to be firmly on the Horror side of the fence, and that’s the way it started out, but it crawled over into that crossroads and just a little over to the Dark Fantasy side and planted itself there with its too many eyes and too sharp teeth and crashing worlds and glared at me until I felt sorry for it and realized that I liked it a whole lot more than I ever expected.

This ‘season’ takes place as alchemy was giving way to chemistry. Folk medicine and midwifery, both the practice of women, was being supplanted by trained doctors and surgeons, exclusively male provinces. Magic was fading and logic was taking its place.

This story sits at that juncture. On the one hand, the events taking place are utterly eldritch but clearly quite real. The evidence of babies born with compound eyes, gills and multiple limbs, sometimes all in the same poor creature, is hard to dispute, but it’s not the only thing going wrong in this winter of 1675.

What makes the story interesting revolves around the disparate potential solutions. The magical midwives know it’s happening, believe their magic can fix it, but don’t know quite enough of the science of how the multiverse works to get their fix quite right.

Wren has all the scientific knowledge necessary, as well as the flexibility of mind to accept otherwise unpalatable solutions, but the magic the midwives use is a trade secret he has no access to. His science is just enough to tell him that it’s not enough, either.

Sarah is our point of view character because she stands as the knife edge of balance between all the various factions and forces. She wants to believe that Wren sees her as an intelligent and capable person in her own right, instead of just someone he can use. She already knows that the midwives are using her. She’s caught between the magic she has and the training she gets that does not know how to help her access it. She sees that things are going horribly awry but can’t fix them on her own.

In the end, it’s Sarah’s choices that define both her course and her solution. Watching her use her power but not letting it or anyone around her use her, and her own personal why of it all, makes her a terrific perspective on this story and makes this story a surprising and creepy and often surprisingly creepy delight from beginning to end – just perfect for this Halloween week.

Review: A Thousand Recipes for Revenge by Beth Cato

Review: A Thousand Recipes for Revenge by Beth CatoA Thousand Recipes for Revenge by Beth Cato
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Chefs of the Five Gods #1
Pages: 411
Published by 47North on June 13, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A world on the brink of war and a mother and daughter on the run, in a thrilling novel of swashbuckling adventure, culinary magic, and just desserts.
Adamantine “Ada” Garland has an empathic connection to food and wine, a magical perception of aromas, flavors, and ingredients. Invaluable property of the royal court, Ada was in service to the Five Gods and to the Gods-ordained rulers of Verdania—until she had enough of injustice and bloodshed and deserted, seeking to chart her own destiny. When mysterious assassins ferret her out after sixteen years in hiding, Ada, now a rogue Chef, and her beloved Grand-mère run for their lives, only to find themselves on a path toward an unexpected ally.
A foreign princess in a strange court, Solenn unknowingly shares more with Ada than an epicurean gift. They share blood. With her newfound magical perception, she becomes aware of a plot to kill her fiancé, the prince. It’s part of a ploy by adversarial forces in the rival country of Albion to sow conflict, and Solenn is set up to take the blame.
As Ada’s and Solenn’s paths converge, a mother and her long-lost daughter reunite toward a common goal, and against a shadowy enemy from Ada’s past who is out for revenge. But what sacrifices must be made? What hope is there when powerful Gods pick sides in a war simmering to eruption?

My Review:

There are a thousand quotes about revenge and most of them are not kind to the person seeking it. But it’s possible that the one in the world of these particular five gods is the most bitter, literally and figuratively. “There are a thousand recipes for revenge, and they all taste like scat.”

In other words, revenge tastes like shit. In a world where the ability to perceive and even enhance the qualities of every single thing a person might eat or drink is the highest form of magic, that has to be one of its world’s greatest curses.

And a warning that entirely too many people have refused to heed in this fantastic story that has only just begun.

At first, we’re following two women who don’t seem to have much to do with each other. And even though we don’t know it yet, someone’s revenge has reached out, seemingly from beyond the grave, to do its best to turn both their lives into shit.

Or perhaps something a bit worse but surprisingly edible – even if it really, really shouldn’t be. Which is where this world’s magic comes in.

Ada Garland is one of the chefs blessed by Gyst, the God of Mysteries and Unknowns. Her tongue is literally magic. She can tell whether something is clean or polluted, poisonous or just badly prepared, too salty, too sweet, or perfectly balanced. Her magic allows her to make the dish that a person wants and needs most in that moment – and do it perfectly every time.

And she has the power to turn certain special ingredients, called epicurea, into magical items that will pass their magic on to whoever eats them.

It’s a gift and a curse at the same time, as all blessed chefs in her country are automatically conscripted into the royal service the moment their talents manifest. It’s a service that led Ada to her husband and their child. And it’s a service that split them apart when the alliance between their countries dissolved.

Ada is on the run, and has been for over a decade, taking care of her increasingly unstable grandmother while avoiding the grasping, greedy mother who wants to use her and her talent for ends that are even more unsavory than Ada first believed.

The revenge that reaches out for Ada, her friends and her family threatens to expose all of her secrets – and theirs. If it doesn’t get them all killed first. Or worse. Much, much worse.

Escape Rating A+: I picked this up because I was looking for something else with magical cookery after The Nameless Restaurant. Both stories do feature cookery as Magic with a Capital “M”, but that is the only thing they have in common. I’m still grateful for the push from the one to the other, because A Thousand Recipes for Revenge is just plain awesome and I’m so glad I read it, even if it is making me give the side-eye to pretty much everything I eat.

The magic system here is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time, because it’s all wrapped around magical foods, the ability to create them and the ability to taste them. This is a world where many people can cook, and unsurprisingly so or everyone would starve, but where it takes a gift from the actual gods to be a chef. But the silver lining of that gift comes with plenty of cloud wrapped around it, as both Ada and Princess Solenn discover to their cost.

This is also definitely one of those stories about being better off – or at least sleeping better at night – if one did not know how the sausage was made. It’s a secret that has been brutally suppressed in this world for excellent if entirely terrible reasons.

At first, this seems like a rather typical military type, gaslamp set fantasy. Ada is AWOL from her military service, while our second perspective on this story, Princess Solenn, is in the midst of being married off for a political alliance.

But then Ada’s old comrades start getting killed, Ada’s hidden existence is suddenly under threat, and it seems like she’s on the run from awful but otherwise mundane forces. Until things go completely pear-shaped and the gods start getting involved. At which point it’s off to the races – against time, against death, against the forces of oppression and most especially against petulant beings who would rather play with their food than either nurture it, treat it as a pet or kill it as prey.

And then things get really complicated.

I thought I knew where this was going. And then I thought I knew where this was going. But it didn’t go any of the places I thought it would, but where it did end up was both head spinning and stomach churning as well as a tremendous tease because there had to be more and at first I didn’t realize there was, but there is and oh thank goodness!

Ada and Solenn give readers two heroines to route for, as this is both Ada’s story of picking up the pieces of the life she left behind and Solenn’s coming of age story and both are fantastic. The world’s setup at first seems fairly standard epic fantasy and then goes to places that are fresh (if occasionally rotting) and new and unexpected. There are bits of Bujold’s World of the Five Gods and Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons in the way that the gods of this world operate, as well as Guy Gavriel Kay’s and Jacqueline Carey‘s use of real world geography and history as a way of creating a fantasy world’s map and political divisions, but the magic system is just completely off a new wall and it’s marvelous in the way it suffuses the story.

Which, as I squeed earlier, thankfully isn’t done yet. There’s a second book in the Chefs of the Five Gods series, A Feast for Starving Stone, coming in January. And I can’t wait!

Review: For Love of Magic by Simon R. Green

Review: For Love of Magic by Simon R. GreenFor Love of Magic by Simon R. Green
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 240
Published by Baen on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

History isn’t what you think it is. It’s been rewritten to remove all the magic. Together, two people decide to put things right. A new novel of magic, history and true love from Simon R. Green.
When they fall in love, it’s magic!
History can change and has changed. Magic was and is real. 
Once upon a time, there was a forgotten era of magic and monster. But the remnants — and all memory — of the old world have been replaced by the sane, the scientific, and the rational. But sometimes the magical past isn’t content to stay past. That’s where Jack Damian comes in. It’s his joy to protect our present from the supernatural remnants of an earlier time, a different history.  It’s his job to make the past safe.
Jack is called to the Tate Museum, where dozens of people have disappeared beneath the surface of a painting. While investigating, he finds himself smitten with a mysterious art expert Amanda Fielding. But Amanda has plans of her own, and soon the two are traveling through time — back to the Roman Empire and then forward through history, from King Arthur’s court to Sherwood Forest. As they explore histories past as written and overwritten, the balance of magic and science shifts, and the choices the two make could change the world forever.

My Review:

The fun of For Love of Magic begins with the title, as there are SO MANY possible interpretations. And all of them are applicable and all of them are fascinating.

In the beginning, Jack Daimon doesn’t love magic. In fact, his job is to eliminate whatever bits of it sneak into our rational, scientific world. But he does fall head over heels in love with Amanda Fielding the moment he meets her – in the middle of closing up an abyss to an extremely nasty and highly magical place. And there’s more magic in that meeting – and in Amanda herself – than initially meets the eye.

Jack Daimon is the Outsider, the one person who exists outside of magic AND the various and sundry organizations and armies that are attempting to stamp it out. His job is to eliminate the chaos of magic whenever it appears.

He’s very, very good at his job. But his job requires that he have an open mind about pretty much everything. The people who don’t believe in magic tend to become gibbering wrecks whenever it appears – which in Jack’s line of work turns out to be frequently and often.

What Jack doesn’t know when we first meet him – and he first meets Amanda – is that magic is dying. Not of natural causes, but by being ruthlessly stamped out by some very mysterious secret masters of the universe who plan to control everything and everyone.

For fun, profit and their own benefit, of course.

Jack is magic’s – and Amanda’s – one last chance to set things right before it’s too late. But first he has to learn a lesson. Or two. Or ten. Whatever it takes to stand up and hold his ground in the face of everything he’s ever believed – and every force that has ever tried to remake the world in its own dry, humdrum, ruthlessly rational and utterly tyrannical image.

There’s supposed to be magic in the world. It’s Jack’s job to stand his ground so that Amanda has the chance to bring it back. If he can. If he decides he should. If he can make up his mind – and his heart.

Escape Rating A-: I had a great time with For Love of Magic, but whether you will or not probably depends on how much you like snarky characters with even snarkier commentary – even though this Jack isn’t filled with nearly as much of the snark as some of the author’s previous protagonists.

Jack isn’t nearly as snarky as Gideon Sable or Eddie Drood, because Jack needs a sense of wonder to make his way through the magical mystery history tour that Amanda takes him on. Her plan is to convince Jack, or use Jack, or a bit of both, to bring the magic back before it – and she – are gone forever.

That’s where the fun of the whole thing comes in, as she takes Jack to the times and places where magic made life, well, magical – before the forces of rational science rewrote history for their own purposes.

She doesn’t work through logic, because that’s the enemy’s strategy. She grabs for the heart, both Jack’s and the reader’s, by going back to times and places that were filled with wonder. She makes this adventure a tour of what rational science has reduced to mythical Britain, and draws Jack to Camelot and Sherwood Forest. Not to show him that magic will make things perfect – because human beings are NOT perfectable. But by showing him that some things are worth fighting for and that one of those things is a world that is not reduced to humanity only.

So she gives him a dream – and she gives it to us too. All the better because it hits a few contemporary issues squarely on the nose – and promptly punches them several times.

Like much of this author’s work, it does borrow a bit from his vast canon, but not in any way that’s overt or requires previous familiarity. Personally, I saw elements of Shadows Fall and Hawk and Fisher, as well as the Nightside. But then I also felt like I was seeing bits of the Iron Druid’s perspective, and Amanda was often referred to by some of the same terms that that series uses for the Morrigan.

By throwing King Arthur and Robin Hood, Boudicca and Gloriana, Frankenstein and Faust, into the mix, it stirs up a heady brew of the possibilities of where magic in the world might take us – if we still have the chance to let it. And that always makes for a fantastic read!

Review: The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna + Giveaway

Review: The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna + GiveawayThe Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Arthurian legends, fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Pages: 400
Published by Angry Robot on May 9, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur's court…
A new, feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends

The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.
The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur's half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?
As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.
Juliet McKenna is an expert on medieval history and warfare and brings this expertise as well as her skills as a fantasy writer to this epic standalone novel.

My Review:

The story (or legend, or myth, or history) of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table is one of those “tales as old as time.” Whether one considers it a myth, or a legend, or a bit of fictionalized or fantasized history, there’s something about the story that speaks to generation after generation, and has since Sir Thomas Malory compiled his now-famous Le Morte d’Arthur back in the 15th century.

A compilation which was itself based on an earlier popular “history”, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. All of the elements we now recognize as part of the Matter of Britain, King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, the castle at Tintagel, the sword Excalibur and his final rest in Avalon are all in that 12th century tale, just as they are in this 21st century reimagining, The Cleaving.

Some stories, and some characters, are so profoundly immortal that they must be reinterpreted for each generation and the story of King Arthur is one of those tales. Each generation has reinvented the “once and future king” for over EIGHT centuries so far.

There’s no sign of that stopping any time soon. Rather the reverse. The Cleaving, with its gritty medieval setting and its female-centered perspective on the deeds and misdeeds of the arrogant and autocratic and all-too-frequently abusive men they were supposed to serve and obey, shows the reader a somewhat more-plausible version of a story we all believe we know and love. The Cleaving tells another, rather different side to a legend and makes it all that much more “real” and even believable by that telling.

And it’s going to inform and inflect (or possibly infect) the next generation of tellers of this beloved tale. As it so very much should.

Escape Rating A+: The Cleaving is a compelling conundrum of a book. On the one hand, the story of King Arthur and his knights has been told, and retold, over and over, to the point where it forms one of the foundational tales of western literature along with a considerable number of the archetypes therein.

But very much on the other hand, in order to be considered a good book right now, The Cleaving has to be, and very much is, considerably more than merely a rehash of a story we already know. So it has the hard work of being a book where readers will already know how the story ends, while needing to tell its familiar story in a way that is fresh and new and will appeal to the audiences of its time and not just play on the nostalgia of those already familiar with the story.

The Cleaving succeeds in dancing on that very high and narrow tightrope by telling the story from the perspective of the women who usually exist as mere ciphers in its background while the men perform all the deeds of derring-do and conduct all the important business of their realms.

What The Cleaving does with the familiar story doesn’t change the story nearly as much as an earlier explicitly feminist and fantastically magical version – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ultra popular The Mists of Avalon – did. Rather, The Cleaving takes that original story of men doing manly things and shows it from the perspective of a group of intelligent, influential women who performed as society forced them to in public – while maintaining their own thoughts and their own council behind the scenes.

It’s a portrait that feels more realistic to a 21st century reader without stretching the bounds of anachronism. These women were expected to manage complicated households, oversee large budgets for those households, keep everything running smoothly whether their lords were in residence or not – and even act in place of those lords when they were away – as many often were.

That level of intelligence and capability can’t be faked for very long at all without being found out. On the other hand, public subservience is easy to fake just by schooling one’s expressions and keeping one’s mouth shut except to be agreeable and above all, meek. It would require getting used to the sensation of swallowing one’s own tongue rather a lot, but it can be done. Especially in front of men who would be inclined to believe it anyway.

So in public they all seem meek, mild and accepting of the inevitable. Because the abuse they suffered, whether physical or emotional, was inevitable. Their choices were few. But in private, they mitigated what damage they could. Even if it wasn’t nearly enough.

So Uther, with Merlin’s connivance, rapes Ygraine while wearing her beloved husband’s face. With Merlin’s connivance, the child of that rape becomes king. With Merlin’s connivance, a whole lot of things happen that probably shouldn’t. (There’s a possible interpretation of this version of the Arthurian legend as Merlin interfered with a whole lot of things that he should have left well enough alone and karma is a bitch.)

Because of the way the story plays out, and just how much the queens are influencing events when the men are too busy pillaging to pay attention, even though we know how the story ends we don’t know how it gets there, and it keeps the reader turning pages to learn what is different and what remains familiar when told from a formerly hidden point of view.

Based on this latest variation of these seemingly eternal legends, we’re clearly not done with Arthur yet. Is it possible that this is what was truly meant by that sobriquet, “the once and future king”?

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Thanks to the publisher, Angry Robot, I’m giving away one copy of The Cleaving to one lucky US or UK commenter on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Magician’s Daughter by H.G. Parry

Review: The Magician’s Daughter by H.G. ParryThe Magician's Daughter by H.G. Parry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Redhook on February 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A young woman raised on an isolated island by a magician discovers things aren’t as they seem and must venture into early 1900s England to return magic to the world in this lush and lyrical historical fantasy. 
It is 1912, and for the last seventy years magic has all but disappeared from the world. Yet magic is all Biddy has ever known.   Orphaned as a baby, Biddy grew up on Hy-Brasil, a legendary island off the coast of Ireland hidden by magic and glimpsed by rare travelers who return with stories of wild black rabbits and a lone magician in a castle. To Biddy, the island is her home, a place of ancient trees and sea-salt air and mysteries, and the magician, Rowan, is her guardian. She loves both, but as her seventeenth birthday approaches, she is stifled by her solitude and frustrated by Rowan's refusal to let her leave.    One night, Rowan fails to come home from his mysterious travels. To rescue him, Biddy ventures into his nightmares and learns not only where he goes every night, but that Rowan has powerful enemies. Determination to protect her home and her guardian, Biddy's journey will take her away from the safety of her childhood, to the poorhouses of Whitechapel, a secret castle beneath London streets, the ruins of an ancient civilization, and finally to a desperate chance to restore lost magic. But the closer she comes to answers, the more she comes to question everything she has ever believed about Rowan, her own origins, and the cost of bringing magic back into the world.
For more from H. G. Parry, check out:
The Shadow HistoriesA Declaration of the Rights of Magicians A Radical Act of Free Magic
The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep

My Review:

The story of The Magician’s Daughter is a case of not just two great tastes going great together, but three great tastes combining to form a delicious and occasionally bittersweet treat of epic proportions.

It begins as a coming-of-age story. Biddy is just 16 when we first meet her. Or she is finally 16, an age when she may not yet be an adult but she is certainly no longer a child, and no longer believes childish things.

It’s 1912 in her version of our world, and the situation has been going to hell in that handcart for 70 years. Because nearly all of the magic has leaked out of the world. Or has been closed off from the world. Or has been used up by the world.

Which is one of the central questions of the whole story.

But Biddy has grown up on the legendary, mystical, nearly-mythical island of Hy-Brasil off the coast of Ireland. An island that was, once upon a time when the world was new and magic was abundant, a fortress of the Tuatha Dé Danann in their nearly-endless war with the Fomorians.

Hy-Brasil still has a bit of magic left, the magic that keeps the island lost in fog and protects Biddy and her guardians, the wizard Rowan and his familiar-spirit Hutchincroft. The island protects them, but it also restricts them. At least it does Biddy, who sees her father-figure leave the island every night in search of more wisps of magic while she is forced to remain behind.

While Rowan’s excuses for why she cannot go to the mainland become more and more threadbare. As do most of his explanations about why the mainland is dangerous and what is going on in the world. The mask that Rowan uses to hide his very real worries about the fading of magic and the reasons behind it no longer conceal his fears or his hopes.

But it’s those fears that come true first, when the forces of the powerful, grasping Mages’ Council that he fled 70 years ago entrap him at last. And Biddy is forced to grab the reins of what little magic she can in order to spring him from their trap.

Which is when Biddy learns that she should have been much more careful about what she wished for. Rowan doesn’t merely let her leave the island, he deliberately removes her from its protections and seemingly sets her out as bait for his enemies.

Along the way, Biddy learns that the world is not remotely like what she dreamed of when she read all the books in the island’s vast library. It is much darker and infinitely more dangerous. And it holds secrets from her even as it exposes the secrets that Rowan has been keeping all her life.

The magic of the world is gone, leaving the world a dark and dismal place. Rowan has the glimmer of the hope of a plan to bring it back. All he needs to do is break open the magical secret that has been hiding, literally, in Biddy’s heart.

If he can find the way. If Biddy still trusts him enough to let him after all the secrets he’s been keeping from her for so long. And if they can keep one step ahead of the forces arrayed against them – even if they have to sacrifice everything along the way.

Escape Rating A+: At the top, I said this story encompassed three great tastes that go great together. The obvious is Biddy’s coming-of-age story. This is also very much a found family story – and a charming one at that. And it’s a power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely kind of story hidden under an almost gothic tale of politics and traps and plots and creatures straight out of the pages of the darkest of dark fantasy.

What makes Biddy’s coming of age story work so well is that she begins as a clean slate. She literally has not been in the real world and has no clue what it’s like. So we see her 1912 through the eyes of someone who had no idea what to expect and who has no built in “but we’ve always done it that way” set of blinders. She knows that so much of what she sees is just plain wrong even if she doesn’t know how to fix it. And she’s aware of the privilege that Rowan and Hutchincroft raised her in. Not a privilege of material things, and not even a privilege of always knowing where the next meal was coming from because that wasn’t always true, but the privilege of knowing that she was loved and that she could explore the island and any thought or idea she might have gathered from books or dreams or observation. And especially the privilege of safety at all times, until that safety was shattered at last.

The found family aspect of this tale is both sweet and bitter. Rowan and Hutchincroft see Biddy as their child, their daughter, even though they did not make her and did not bring her with them because they had any obligation to her. Instead, this is a love that grew over time, and care, and arguments, and impatience and rebellion and mending skinned knees and testing boundaries. And it’s a love that endures even after Biddy learns that Rowan has been keeping gigantic secrets from her about pretty much everything.

And then, on top of that beautiful foundation, there’s the story about magic going away and power corrupting. There’s always a question in Rowan’s mind, and in the reader’s mind as well, as to whether the decline in magic was natural or was caused by human activity. (Now that I think about it there’s a parallel to the climate change arguments I didn’t see as I read the book.) Coming out of that question about a natural decrease versus a man-made one there’s a follow-up question about whether the best use of the remaining magic is to hoard it so that it can be used for the ‘greater good’ – and who gets to define THAT – or whether the magic should be set free to help as it wills for as long as it can.

But if it is a human-made problem, should they hunt for a human-made solution, whatever that might be? Which is where all those questions about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely come sweeping in on the wings of some truly horrible little flying monsters – and go out on the feet of one frightened young woman who is willing to sacrifice everything for the people she loves.

From beginning to end, an utterly charming story that makes the reader fall in love with its characters and their compelling need to fix their broken world.

One last thing that isn’t related but kind of is. As I read The Magician’s Daughter it reminded me of Freya Marske’s Last Binding series, whose first two entries are A Marvellous Light and A Restless Truth, which are both utterly charming and lovely. The world of the Last Binding is not bereft of magic the same way that the setting of The Magician’s Daughter is, but both are set in alternate pre-World War I Englands in which there is a Mages’ Council that is well down the path of the ends justifying the means because of the power corrupting. So if you’re a fan of one you might very well fall in love with the other, as I most certainly did.