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"Harvestfruit," J. Y. Yang, july 2014, Crossed Genres

In this chilling piece of flash fiction, Yang explores the responses of people traumatised by capture and forced integration into a society where they live only to satisfy the needs of others.

"So, You Must Talk to the Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones," Alexandra Petri, August 30, 2016, The Washington Post

A powerful and very pertinent piece 'inspired' by the public conversation about the inappropriate demands for attention men make on women who clearly do not want to be disturbed.

"The Lady Astronaut of Mars," Mary Robinette Kowal, electronic publication September 11, 2013,

A moving novelette about an aging former astronaut called back in for a final mission that she is uniquely suited to perform, and the emotional costs of deciding between the desire to return to space and the responsibilities that arise from love.

"The Curse of Giants," Jose Pablo Iriarte, March 7, 2016, Daily Science Fiction

Some stories give you all the clues you need to figure out what's happening, but nevertheless kick you in the gut at the final reveal. This is one of those stories. Some people might debate whether it's really science fiction, or magic realism, or something else, but it's powerful and it's both comment and critique on the world we live in, and the nature of courage.

"Between Dragons and Their Wrath," An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky, February 2016, Clarkesworld

Domei and hir friend Hano live in a country that lies between two nations at war, a country ravaged and poisoned by dragons used as weapons of destruction. This story focuses on how the terrible aftermath of war and global exploitation affects innocent people trying to live their lives in the midst of destruction they neither caused nor understand. It is a story of despair, resignation, and faint, distorted hope, and it wracks the soul.

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One might not think that a trilogy of science fiction books about the various ways one might go about creating a society based on Plato's Republic, and what the outcomes of those societies might look like, is going to be engaging, at times exciting, and hard to put down. And maybe it isn't, if you have little interest about such ideas as justice, the good life, excellence, the nature of conscious self-awareness and the soul, the origin of the universe and the meaning of time.

But since I have a strong interest in these things, and since Jo Walton has, in her Thessaly trilogy, written an amazing set of characters you can't help caring about who take part in explorations of these ideas through debate, daily living, and various travels and adventures, it was probably inevitable that I would fall in love with these somewhat unusual novels.

I've already talked about the first two novels in the trilogy, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. In the third novel, Necessity, Walton continues her explorations of the deep philosophical questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.

Necessity begins 40 years after Zeus, in order to save Athene's experiment in building a true Platonic society and continue its isolation from human history, has moved all the existing cities to a distant planet and to a time in the 26th century. Survival on Plato, as its new inhabitants have named it, is not as easy as it was on the island of Thera - the climate is colder, and the planet has no indigenous land-based animal life (though it has fish in abundance). But the people of Pluto have prospered, and their cities occupy the planet in peace. Living with them and taking part in Plato's society are two sentient Worker robots that were transported with them, and some members of an alien space-faring race, the Saeli, who find their Platonic ideals appealing.

The narrative that drives the further philosophical explorations Walton engages us in involves the disappearance of the goddess Athene from not only time and space, but the dimensions out of time. When Apollo, returned to his divinity by the death of his human incarnation, Pythias, discovers that he cannot sense Athene anywhere, his decision to search for her becomes a quest to understand the underpinnings of existence and the meaning of life.

This quest is interwoven with the lives of several inhabitants of Plato, key among them: Jason, who operates a fishing boat; Marsilia, one of the consuls of the City - the first Platonic community settled by Athene on Earth - who also works with Jason; Thetis, her sister, who works with the City's children; Hilfa, a young Saeli who is also part of Jason's crew; and Crocus, the first sentient Worker.

The death of Pythias and Apollo's discovery that Athene is lost take place place against the backdrop of an event the Platonians have long anticipated - the arrival of the first spaceship from another planet of humans. The planet's inhabitants must decide whether to follow the advice of Zeus, and present the story of their arrival on Plato as a kind of origin myth, all the while leading the space-faring humans to believe Plato was settled just as any other human colony - or just to tell the truth and let the other humans make of it what they will.

Rounding out this mix of events, Sokrates is returned to the Platonic cities, having been found by Apollo on his quest to find Athene. Not at all changed by having spent time in the Jurassic period, living as the gadfly Athene transformed him into, Sokrates becomes an essential part of the continuing philosophical dialogue that is Plato, and of the lives of the Platonians involved in Apollo's quest.

In Necessity, Walton proposes some possible answers to the questions being asked in these three novels, but also leaves much still to be considered by the reader, just as she gives her characters some degree of closure in their daily lives, while leaving the future open-ended.

The entire trilogy is a kind of experiment, the success of which the reader must judge for themselves. For me, it succeeds gloriously.

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Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

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Deborah J. Ross, authorised by the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust, and guided by notes and conversations held when Bradley was still alive, has written a number of books set in the world of Darkover. Thunderlord is the latest of these.

Set during the Ages of Chaos, long before the events surrounding the return of the Terrans to Darkover that have been the subject of many of the Darkover books, Thunderlord is a sequel to Bradley's novel Stormqueen, although there is enough backstory included that the books can be read independently.

While Thunderlord has its share of excitement - bandits, banshees, dangerous journeys through the forbidding mountain passes of the Hellers - it is primarily about family, love, building trust and turning vengeance and suspicion into peace.

The main characters, Rockraven sisters Kyria and Alaya, find themselves in the centre of the long but currently dormant feud between Scathfell and Alderan, and must find a way to keep the cycle of bloodshed from rising again.

I always enjoy going back to Darkover, and I like what Deborah Ross has brought to the stories of Darkover. I enjoy reading about the small domestic details and the developing relationships as much as I do adventures and the great deeds of the laran-gifted. I enjoyed Thunderlord.

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Joanna Hickson is very good at creating romance from the bare bones of history. She did it to good effect in her duology featuring Catherine de Valois, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. She attempts this again in Red Rose, White Rose, a novel based on the life of Cicely Neville, Duchess if York and mother of both Edward IV and Richard III.

The novel deals well with the political issues of the times, the growing antipathy between reigning Lancaster and ambitious York, and the various historical nobles whose actions led to the continuation of the Wars of the Roses that resulted in the reign of the two Yorkist kings and the ultimate triumph of the Tudor line.

It also shows, through the viewpoint of Cicely and the relationships of her sisters, friends and daughters, many of the harsh realities of the lives of the noble women of the times. Often the wives and daughters of the great lords were little more than pawns, their marriages serving as ways of solidifying political alliances, their bodies useful only as the producers of heirs.

However, it is in the realm of personal relationships, that I feel Hickson goes somewhat astray. Hickson invents a story of an abduction and seduction by an estranged kinsman when Cicely was young and not yet married that turned into love unrequited for many years after that. I feel that the relationship between Cicely and her husband Richard of York was complex enough without inventing secret lifelong adulterous desires.

The novel has as one of the two viewpoint characters (Cicely herself being the other) a supposed bastard half-brother, Cuthbert of Middleham. I liked the invented character, and Hickson effectively uses him to allow us to see further than even a politically active woman like Cicely Neville could reasonably take us - into the councils of men, and into battle. But the naming of this character was to my mind inappropriate and potentially confusing. It's certainly true that Cicely's father, having had 20 legitimate children, could easily have had more than a few illegitimate children, and might have brought one into his house to be raised alongside his half-siblings - but Cicely did have an older, legitimate brother named Cuthbert (who died young) so why not call the invented brother something else?

Red Rose, White Rose carries Cicely's story through to the moment when, her husband dead in battle, her eldest son Edward is offered the crown - though not before he has managed to defeat the Lancastrian forces and capture Henry VI. There is a postscript which notes that Cicely outlived all but two of her children, both daughters.

Aside from the quibbles I have with certain invented elements (which Hickson actually addresses in her Afterward), I found the novel both enjoyable and an interesting look at the events surrounding the York rebellion and Edward IV's rise to the throne.

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I don't think I'm going too far when I say that Diane Duane's Young Wizards series has captivated her readers, who have become attached, not only to the central characters Nita, Kit, Dairine and their immediate families, but also to the wizards - and other beings - from planets far and wide who have become a part of their extended family, as well as colleagues they can rely on.

This is why I was so excited to learn that Duane is writing a trio of novellas about some of the secondary characters - if any of them can actually be called secondary - as they deal with the defining moments of their future lives as wizards, their Ordeals. In fact, I immediately bought the two novellas currently available from Duane's website.

The first novella I read was On Ordeal: Roshaun ke Nelaid, which, in addition to showing us that an Ordeal need not be full of physical threat and heroic deeds in order to be a profound test of courage and will to do what is best for all, provided much welcome background information into Roshaun's life, his family and his world.

The second novella of the planned trio, On Ordeal: Mamvish fsh Wimsih, tells of the Doom of the Wimseh at the hands of the Lone One, and the events leading up to Mamvish's rather unorthodoxly concluded Ordeal. The history of Mamvish's people, and Mamvish herself, is a difficult one, but Duane handles it with skill and sensitivity. A beautifully told story.

The third novella, not yet released, features another of the fascinating young wizards who have worked with and become companions to Nita and Kit - Ronan Nolan. I am keeping an eye on Duane's website so I can read it as soon as it's available.

The idea of seeing these familiar characters before their wizardry comes to them, and as they negotiate the trial that confirms them as wizards and agents of the Powers, appeals greatly to me. I rather hope that Duane will continue with these novellas, giving us the Ordeal stories of more of the wizards who are a part of Nita and Kit's lives.

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I have enjoyed reading Robin Maxwell's historical novels, even though I don't always agree with her characterisations of certain persons, or her choices in terms of their actions. The Queen's Bastard is another such book - well-researched and written, fun to read, but not featuring "my" Queen Elizabeth.

Maxwell's premise is that Elizabeth not only consummated her relationship with Robert Dudley, but that early in her reign, she conceived and secretly bore him a son. As difficult as such a thing would have been to hide in the Tudor Court, Maxwell does manage to effectively present a just-barely-possible scenario. The complete disappearance of the child from history is explained by a secret plot-within-a-plot by Kat Ashley and William Cecil to replace the live baby with a dead one, convincing both Elizabeth and Dudley that their son did not survive birth.

The novel is structured such that we alternate between reading sections of a kind of autobiography written by the adult child of Elizabeth - interesting for their look at the life of a child raised as the younger son of a minor country gentleman who follows the path of many younger sons and runs away to become a soldier - and sections from Elizabeth's perspective detailing key points in her reign, with particular focus on the public events that shaped what is known about her relationship with Dudley.

It must be noted that Maxwell has based her novel on a real incident. Not long before the launch of the Spanish Armada, an Englishman giving his name as Arthur Dudley was arrested and interrogated by the Spanish before being placed in prison and disappearing from historical record. He claimed to be the bastard son of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, and the story he gave to his interrogators formed the basis of Maxwell's story. Most historians have dismissed Arthur Dudley as either a pretender or an English spy telling a wild tale in an attempt to save his life.

Certainly, when cast as fiction, it is intriguing but not quite credible, to my mind. But once one suspends one's disbelief, it makes - in Maxwell's hands at least - a fine and enjoyable novel.

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Karen Harper's historical novel, The Last Boleyn, focuses on the life of Mary Boleyn - or Bullen, as the family was known before their later rise in power. Drawing on what is known and theorised about the older sister of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Harper creates a highly sympathetic character who, after a lifetime of being manipulated and used by her own family and by the powerful men she is brought into contact with, finally escapes the life others have made for her, and finds happiness with her own choices.

Harper portrays the young Mary as the pawn of an ambitious father and siblings. It begins with a position as attendant to Queen Claude of France, wife of the libidinous Francois du roi, King of France, and the machinations of her father, English ambassador to France, to bring her to Francois' attention as his mistress. Then, at the famous Cloth of Gold, Thomas Boleyn brings Mary to the attention of Henry VIII, who later takes her as his mistress once her father brings her home from France. She is married to Henry Carey, a nobleman from a family that chose the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, who takes her to wife knowing she is desired by the King, in the hope that she will be able to influence the king to restore his family's lost estates and revenues.

After the king tires of her and Anne comes to court, the family discards Mary except when they see a use for her in the latest plan to elevate the family fortunes further through her younger sister.

How Mary finally breaks away from her family and the politics of the court to become the last survivor of the family of ambitious Thomas Boleyn is a moving story, well handled by Harper.

My only quibble was that Harper chose to use the names by which some characters are historically known long before they came to be known as such. For instance, Jane Parker, who would eventually become wife of George Boleyn, and later be known as Lady Rochford, is incorrectly called Jane Rochford from the beginning. Annoying, but if one can set such annoying details aside, it is an interesting read.

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Mercedes Lackey's Closer to the Chest, the third volume in the Valdemar-set Herald Spy series, is somewhat unusual for Lackey, as it quite openly addresses a serious modern issue - misogyny, expressed through harassment and violence.

A new religion with a highly patriarchal, misogynistic set of teaching arrives in Valdemar, where the long-held policy of religious tolerance offers no resistance to them, despite the distaste felt by many toward their anti-woman rhetoric.

Not long afterwards, Mags, spymaster in training, begins to notice more and more disaffected, working class men spouting misogynist diatribes. Two women-only religious orders are vandalised, as are a series of small, women-owned businesses. And around the Court and Collegium, women are receiving poisonous and threatening letters.

It's a complex investigation that draws on the talents of Mags, Amily, their Companions, and the entire network of observers and agents that are a part of the Crown's intelligence service.

I enjoyed this, as I enjoy most of Lackey's work; the pointed social commentary added to the pleasure.

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Diane Duane's tenth young wizards novel, Games Wizards Play, is just as wonderful as the earlier books (and shorter pieces) in the series. Yes, I am a huge fan.

On the surface, it's a step back from the high-stakes save the universe stories in many of the earlier books. This time around, the mission for Nita, Kit, Dairine and her wizard-computer Spot is hardly the stuff of life or death: they are mentoring young wizards competing in the Invitational - a "science fair" held every 11 years where wizards with a flair for creating new spells present their work for judging, with the prize being a year's apprenticeship with Earth's Planetary wizard.

But of course it's more than that. The novel is full of encounters, coincidences, and prophetic dreams that warn us to read carefully, because what is happening around this seemingly low-risk assignment will have an affect on whatever is coming. Some plot-threads from earlier books are happily furthered, or resolved, as well.

And it's also a treat for fans, because we get to see wizards - lots of wizards - interacting, and we learn a lot about how wizardly society works around the world.

Lots of fun for long-time fans, probably not a book for a new reader to start with.

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Sustenance, the latest of the Saint Germain novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, is in many ways a typical Saint Germain novel - we have the Count, now calling himself Ragoczy Ferenz, Grof Szent-Germain, his manservant and companion, the immortal ghoul known as Roger, an intelligent woman in some degree of distress who forms an attachment with Saint Germain, and a historical place and period of considerable conflict and sociopolitical upheaval which can present a believable threat to the wealthy and powerful but always precariously placed immortal exile.

The style is familiar too, to any fan of Yarbro's invincible vampire - narrative interspersed with letters and documents which often give the reader insights that the main characters may never be aware of.

The time and place, while historical for many readers, are just barely in the past for many of Yarbro's older readers - Paris and the Northeastern US in the late 40s and early 50s, at the beginning of the Cold War and the reign of fear perpetrated by Hoover and McCarthy, among others, in the US.

The story focuses on the activities of a group of American academics forced out of their university positions and into exile due to suspicions of their being Communist sympathisers - however, even the most radical of the bunch seem simply to be left-wings free-thinkers who don't understand why Russia should suddenly be an enemy not an ally.

As academics, most have a powerful need to publish - not only for their livelihood, but also for the love of research. And Grof Szent-Germain owns publishing houses under the Eclipse imprint all around the world, with long list of academic publications under their belt. When Charis Treat, a historian who made the mistake of researching the medieval commune movement, approaches him about looking at her own manuscript - and possibly those of a few of her friends, Szent-Germain is drawn into the duplicitous and dangerous world of American intelligence, the feud between FBI and CIA, and the insanity of the Communist witch hunt. And Szent-Germain has much to hide - though nothing like what the operatives swirling around the ex-pat Americans imagine.

A sobering novel for Yarbro's readers, yet bearing within it the inevitable promise of a new life rising from ashes.
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C. E. Murphy's Magic and Manners is a Regency fantasy heavily inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which for me is more than reason enough to take a chance on it.

Murphy has retained all of the key characters of Austen's masterpiece, and has given them, in large part, very similar characters - although several characters are portrayed with greater generosity by Murphy than they are in the source text. The broad strokes of the tale are familiar - a rural family - the Dovers - landed but low on the social ladder, a father who regrets his choice of a wife, a mother with little intelligence or sense and an all-encompassing desire to see her daughters married, and five daughters who must marry on their own merits because there is little dowry, and no male heir to an entailed estate. Into their world comes wealthy young Mr Webber, his two sisters, his brother-in-law Mr Gibbs, and his best friend, the dour, proud and extremely wealthy Fitzgerald Archer.

What changes and complicates the progression of the novel is that this is a world in which some people are born with the gift of working magic - a most socially unacceptable gift, more than enough to destroy the reputation of any gentleman or lady, though welcome enough in some places, such as the military. As it turns out, it is the taint of magic that has caused Mr. Dover to retreat from Society and dwell quietly in the country, and which constrained his choice of brides. And his daughters have inherited his abilities, notably the second daughter and Mr. Dover's favourite, Elsabeth, and the youngest and favourite of Mrs. Dover, Leopoldina (Dina for short).

Much of the fun in reading lies in how well Murphy has captured the tone of Austen's original work (though there are some rather jarring missteps in that regard) and in watching the ways in which the plot of Magic and Manners diverges from the source material - most of which, particularly in the earlier parts of the book, involve the use of magic by either Leopoldina, or the dashing army captain who catches the eye of both Dina and Elsabeth, and has earned the distain of Mr. Archer and his friends. Indeed, the secondary focus of the narrative - after that of ensuring both marriages and personal satisfaction for most of the main characters - is the ways in which magic has been stigmatised, and how the suppression of magic among the upper classes has led to unhappiness and tragedy, to say nothing of the loss of opportunities to improve life for all.

The changes made to the story include several that - I hesitate to admit this - are somewhat more in keeping with how I would have liked to see certain characters treated than is the source text. The character modelled on Mary Bennett, in particular, is much better served here, and her ultimate fate also serves as an example of how magic, well-used, can benefit an entire community. As well, the character based on Anne de Bourgh is a far more sympathetic one, and fares much better. And the happy ending given to the character based on Charlotte Lucas delighted me to no end.

Murphy has done some very interesting and satisfying things with the bones of Austen's work, and her incorporation of magic leads to some highly enjoyable developments. I'm glad I took a chance on this book.

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For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

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Sword and Sorceress 30, edited by Elisabeth Waters, is the most recent in the long series of women-centred fantasy anthologies started by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1984.

I've been reading this series, on and off, since it first began. While I've missed a few volumes, I haven't missed many. And regretfully, it seems to me that there has been somewhat of a slow decline in the quality of some of the short stories on offer in these anthologies in recent years. Or perhaps I'm simply demanding more of my short fiction. Anthologies are often uneven, with some excellent stories, and dome that do not appeal quite so much.

However, I found a number of the short stories in this volume to be a bit lightweight, and though reading them was fun, they were lacking in punch or impact. I read them, but I didn't find myself caring deeply.

Exceptions to this include the following stories, which did, at least for me, deliver the expected reading experience.

Robin Wayne Bailey's The Sea Witches, about a woman and her daughter who must confront an ancient threat from the sea.

Liar's Tournament by Pauline J. Alama, in which a wandering knight and her sorceress companion face on illicit sorcery at a tournament.

The Piper's Wife by new writer Susan Murrie Macdonald, a tale about a pregnant scribe who saves the day with somewhat unorthodox tactics.

In Four Paws to Light My Way, by veteran author Deborah J. Ross, a blind warrior and her canine companion join with a princess cursed to turn anyone who sees her face to stone to face a warlock bent on destroying the kingdom. I think this was my favourite story.

In Catherine Soto's Jewels on the Sand, a caravan master who is more than she seems investigates a murder.

All in all, an average quality anthology with a few gems, but still worth reading because it centres stories of women in sword and sorcery fantasy, and that's something we still need a lot more of.

*This anthology contains 15 stories, six of which are written by men, seven of which are written by women, one of which is co-written by a man and a woman, and one of which is written by an author whose gender is not known.

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Raven ​A. ​Nuckols' alternate history ​Had ​the ​Queen ​Lived: An ​Alternative ​History ​of ​Anne ​Boleyn is a most interesting conceit. Written in the form of a history rather than a fiction, it puts forward an imagined Tudor history in which Anne Boleyn was not tried and executed for adultery and treason, but instead lived to be Henry VIII's consort throughout his reign.

Nuckols takes as her point of divergence the fateful tournament held during Anne's pregnancy, in which Henry and his brother-in-law Charles Brandon faced each other in a friendly joust gone seriously awry. In 'our' history, Henry was injured and rendered unconscious - in fact, was initially thought to be dead. It is generally held that the shock of being told this was a major cause of her miscarriage of what appeared to be a healthy male fetus. Losing Henry's desperately wanted male heir left Anne vulnerable to both Henry's fears that this marriage too was cursed, and the political machinations that ultimately led to her trial and execution.

In Nuckols' alternate history, it is Brandon who suffers the near-fatal injury. Anne goes on to bear a healthy son and thus retains her position as Henry's wife and her influence over the governance of the kingdom.

The conceit is interesting, as are the ways in which Nuckols imagines Anne's continued influence would have changed the events of Henry's reign. As a thought experiment, it was enjoyable reading. One might not agree with the path Nuckols imagines for Henry and Anne during the course of a long and tempestuous marriage in which Anne actively sought to influence policy, but the effort involved in researching the possibilities is impressive.

Unfortunately, Nuckols is not the best of prose stylists - to put it mildly - and the book sadly lacks a good proofreader. The text is riddled with grammatical and typographic errors, incomplete sentences, and other issues that make reading a bit of a chore. But I persevered and was not unhappy to have done so.

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Heather Rose Jones's The Mystic Marriage is a sequel to the delightful Daughter of Mystery. Margerit and Barbara are key characters, and it is wonderful to see them further developing a unique and loving relationship throughout the events of this novel. The protagonists are Antuniet Chazillen, disgraced and self-exiled alchemical student and sister of executed traitor Estevan Chazillen, and Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a wealthy and bored widow noted for her eccentricities, among them quiet affairs with other society women.

There are mysteries to solve and plots to unravel, and with all four women working to restore Antiniet's reputation and protect the royal family of Alpennia, an engaging story of intrigue and romance unfolds.

Now looking forward to the upcoming third volume in the annals of Alpennia.

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And I'm back to my fascination with the Tudors. This time it's Robin Maxwell's novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Maxwell begins the novel early in the reign of Elizabeth I, and presents us with a vibrant young woman, so in love with Robert Dudley that she risks her reputation and position to take him as her lover. When an aged lady in waiting to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn appears with a diary Anne had secretly kept and given to her companion just before her death, this sets up a doubled narrative tracing the progress of Anne's relationship with Henry, and Elizabeth's with Dudley.

It has been suggested by some that Elizabeth's reluctance to marry was in part driven by a deep mistrust of men founded in the relationships of Henry with Anne - which Elizabeth would know about but probably not remember clearly - and with the young Catherine Howard, who was executed when Elizabeth was a young girl. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth comes to distrust men after reading her mother's account of her relationship with Henry, which in turn influences her own response when Dudley's wife is found dead.

A quick read that presents the well-known stories of two Tudor women and the men in their lives in a new and captivating way.

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I've been having the year from hell as far as health issues go, and have been spending far yoo much time sick, in pain, depressed and in hospitals of various kinds.

When I'm on this sort of state, I tend to reread my beloved favourite fantasy books rather than try to focus my brain on more demanding fare - and often, just being new is too demanding for me.

So, just to note what I've been reading:

Mercedes Lackey, By the Sword
Mercedes Lackey, Oathbreakers

Elizabeth Moon, Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Elizabeth Moon, Divided Allegiance
Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Gold
Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Fealty
Elizabeth Moon, Kings of the North
Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal
Elizabeth Moon, Limits of Power
Elizabeth Moon, Crown of Renewal

Lackey has long been one of my "i'm sick and braindead, bring me magnificent comfort reading" authors, but I haven't reread the whole Paksworld series (minus the two Gird books) in one sweep before, and watching the stories evolve as Paks and her unorthodox style of paladinship quite literally lead to the whole world changing was interesting. And good for my poor brain.

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Heather Rose Jones's delightful Daughter of Mystery, is a historical fantasy of the Ruritanian variety, taking place in a not-too-alternate Europe where the napoleonic wars (or something very like them) have taken place but where there is an extra country, Alpenna, nestled somewhere between France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and having political and military involvements with all of them.

The fantasy element in the novel comes from the existence of the mysteries - real formal magic dependent on ritual invocation of the power of the saints. In that, it is somewhat reminiscent of the religious ritual magic practised by the Deryni in Katherine Kurtz' novels.

The novel combines a number of elements - coming-of-age, romance, political mystery. The protagonists, Margerit Sovitre and Barbara are both young women not quite of age, brought together by the will of the eccentric Baron Saveze, Margerit's godfather and Barbara's employer and bondholder.

Margerit, the daughter of a wealthy but untitled family, is just starting her dancing season, during which her family hopes she will attract the best possible match - but what Margerit most desires is to be able to study the philosophy and ritual of the mysteries. Barbara is Baron Saveze's armin - a servant of special rank, his bodyguard and a skilled duellist, the daughter of a man of noble rank who died impoverished in debtor's prison, who is at the same time his bondservant and as such a chattel and part of his estate.

When the Baron dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to Margerit, including the bond service owed to the estate by Barbara - leaving to his wastrel nephew on;y the title and the lands that are legally attached to the Saveze name.

With her fortune dramatically increased, Margarit is now one of the most interesting single heiresses in the country. Her change in status means that she can persuade her family to allow her to occupy her new holding in the capital, where she can study at the university while seeming to circulate in high society and attract a suitable husband. Barbara, now her armin, and frustrated that the Baron had not freed her in his will as he had promised to, goes with her as bodyguard. And the Baron's nephew Estefen plots his revenge on them both.

The core of the novel is the developing relationship between Margerit and Barbara, which is a slow-moving and sweet romance with many obstacles, from the differences in their rank and the mystery of Barbara's heritage to the schemes of Estefen which draw them into a treasonous plot.

I enjoyed this novel very much, although it did move a bit slowly. The characters are very well delineated, and their romance a delight to read.

Jones has written a second Alpenna novel, The Mystic Marriage, and a third, The Mother of Souls, is due to be released later this year.

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With the publication of The House of the Four Winds, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory have a new series on the go, though given the long wait for volume two of their Dragon Prophecy series, I find myself wondering if we'll ever see another volume of One Dozen Daughters - and that would be a real shame. Because The House of Four Winds is a delightful fantasy. And the series concept has a great deal of promise.

The premise is this. Duke Rupert and Duchess Yetive, the rulers of the very small and not at all consequential Duchy of Swansgaarde, have twelve daughters and one son. The son, of course, will inherit the dukedom, but the future of the daughters is much less clear, as Swansgaarde can not possibly afford to provide appropriate dowries for twelve royal brides. Fortunately, Duke Rupert and Duchess Yetive are sensible, practical people who have raised their daughters to be competent young women, perfectly able to take care of themselves and earn their own livings. So, as each daughter reaches the age of 18, she will be outfitted with everything she needs to make her way in the world and sent off to make her fortune, much as younger sons are often encouraged to do in this kind of fantasy.

The oldest daughter, Clarice, has a gift for swordsmanship, and intends to make the teaching of swordwork her profession. However, she's practical enough to realise that she needs some experience and a reputation in order to get a good position with lots of paying pupils, so she disguises herself as a young man and sets out in search of adventure.

On a sea journey to the new world, she is caught up in more adventure than expected when there's a mutiny on the ship she's booked passage on and the surviving crew ends up on the secret island refuge of the Brotherhood of Pirates, subject to the demands of the ruler of the House of Four Winds.

There's action and romance. And pirates. Lots of pirates. And Clarice is a smart, level-headed, capable young woman, an admirable protagonist in every way. It's a lovely plot that leads to a well-earned happily ever after.

I want to read the next book, which I suspect will be about Clarice's next younger sister, who wants to be a thaumaturge.


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