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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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Novel

I was quite familiar with three of the finalists - White's The Ill-Made Knight, Van Vogt's Slan, and Smith's The Grey Lensman - all quite well-known classics of the genre, and all on my nomination list. Boye's Kallocain, which I had actually read earlier this year, was also one of my nominations [1]. So the only new novel to me among the finalists was The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson [2], which, having now read, I think of as a quick and pleasant read, but not particularly special.

My personal opinion is that The Ill-Made Knight has aged the best of the the finalists, and as a retelling if the Arthurian legend, it holds a special place in my memories. But I'd be almost as happy if Slan wins, as it's a book I remember with much nostalgia from my childhood - as I suspect do many socially outcast young nerds.


Novella

Heinlein's If This Goes On… and Coventry - both personal favourites among his early work - were on my nomination list for this category. Magic, Inc., however, has always seemed to be one of Heinlein's lesser works and I did not consider it for nomination.
I had read both of the de Camp/Pratt finalists - The Mathematics of Magic and The Roaring Trumpet - before, but long enough ago that I did not remember them clearly. I have now remedied that [3]. Both of the de Camp/Pratt novellas were good, well-crafted comic adventure pieces, but I remain convinced that for technique, entertainment value, and maturity of themes and ideas, the two Heinlein science fiction pieces are the cream of this crop.


Novelette

Heinlein's "Blowups Happen," Sturgeon's "It!” and Bates' “Farewell to the Master” were among my nominees - I was of course long familiar with the Heinlein novelette, but not Harry Bates' story, which I read for the first time this year and was quite taken with, or the Sturgeon novelette, which I also read earlier this year [4]. Heinlein's “The Roads Must Roll" was a close contender for me, though it just missed being one of my nominations. The late addition to the finalists, A. E. Van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" was new to me, and sadly, I was not impressed [5]. All in all, "Blowups Happen" and "Farewell to the Master" made the strongest impression on me in this category.


Best Short Story

“Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett, “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges - I adore Borges - were all among my nominations for this category, and both “The Stellar Legion," also by Leigh Brackett, and “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov were among the works I had under consideration up to the end [6]. I think I'd be quite content if any of them were to win, but my secret hopes are for the Borges piece.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181310.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198078.html
[3] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198990.html
[4] short notes on the Bates and Sturgeon novelettes here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html
[5] short notes on A. E. Van Vogt's novelette here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/199299.html
[6] short notes on the two Brackett stories here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html

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Short fiction

"The Maker Myth," Ahmed Khan, Inkitt
https://www.inkitt.com/stories/scifi/15673/chapters/1?ref=v_114318f5-c460-4e6d-8bbc-692f62cad08c

A nice twist on the creation vs. evolution debate, though the writing is a bit flat. It's more of an idea piece than a character and plot piece, and suffers somewhat from the narrow focus.


"The Vault of the Beast," A. E. Van Vogt
http://www.prosperosisle.org/spip.php?article236

One of the finalists for the 1941 Retro Hugos, this can be read as a cautionary tale about mistreating your minions if you happen to be an evil overlord, although I suspect that wasn't Van Vogt's primary theme. This is one of those stories in which a hidden and ancient evil lies trapped in a ruined old Martian city, scheming to get out and conquer the universe, beginning with humanity. It's an early and not very remarkable piece by one of the Golden Age masters.


"That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall," Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Clarkesworld, February 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sriduangkaew_02_16/

In the midst of a global war, a specialist in developing and guiding AIs is approached by old comrades. Beautifully written. Sriduangkaew excels in allowing a story to unfold, revealing both backstory and future direction indirectly but never missing out on the essentials.


"43 Responses to 'In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'," Barbara A. Barnett, Daily Science Fiction, February 5, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/barbara-a-barnett/43-responses-to-in-memory-of-dr-alexandra-nako

Told entirely as a (very realistic) series of comments on a memorial to a scientist who apparently died during a Near Death Experience experiment, this thought-provoking story builds to a chilling conclusion. Horror or religious fantasy? You decide.


"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved," Sarah Pinsker, Strange Horizons, May 16 2016
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2016/20160516/pinskercentury-f.shtml

Just outside of town, there's a pond with a waterfall, where people go to sun, and swim, and climb to the top of the waterfall and jump. Not everyone who jumps comes back, and no one quite knows why. There are rules that are supposed to keep you safe if you follow them, but they aren't always reliable. The protagonist's brother jumped - or so it's assumed, because his car was found parked at the head of the trail leading to the pond, and he's never been seen since then. But no matter how many the pool takes, people still jump. Pinsker never resolves the mystery, which makes this story all the more powerful. No one knows where the taken go, but people still jump. And in all the reasons why lies a big chunk of what makes us human.

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The Roaring Trumpet and The Magic of Mathematics, two of the novellas nominated for the 1941 Retro Hugos, are the first two entries in a series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

De Camp and Pratt collaborated on a series of comic fantasy adventures featuring Harold Shea, psychologist and occasional enchanter. In our universe, Shea works in a psychology institute attached to a hospital, and along with a few of his his colleagues, has developed an interest in what they call paraphysics - the theory that all the worlds of the imagination exist, and the key to moving between them is the ability to shift one's sensory awareness from one universe to another.

In The Roaring Trumpet, the first of Harold Shea's adventures, he plans a nice trip to Ancient Ireland, but instead winds up in the universe of Norse mythology, in the midst of Fimbulwinter, with Ragnarok just around the corner. At first, Shea doesn't realise that the laws of physics he knows don't work in this universe - and neither do his matches, his gun, or anything else he brought with him, but once he works out the basic laws of magic, he gains respect as a warlock, and helps the gods prepare for their final battle. His bewilderment in dealing with the gods, giants, trolls and other magical folk from Norse legend provides much of the comedic enjoyment, and in the end, it's a fun - if somewhat bloodthirsty - romp through a mythic winter wonderland.

The Mathematics of Magic, the second adventure of Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter Harold Shea, takes place in the universe of Spenser's Gloriana, where Arthurian-style knights comport themselves nobly against a background of Elizabethan pageantry. This time Shea is accompanied by his colleague in psychology and "para physics," Dr. Reed Chalmers, as they roam from tests of arms to jousts and tournaments to battkes with evil magicians under the guidance of the great female knights Britomart and Belphebe, and the much-imperiled damsel Amoret, committing magical mayhem as they go. De Camp and Pratt offer a fine parody of the excesses of the courtly literary tradition, with a few trenchant comments on the general position of women in the world of knights and fair ladies.

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"Mika Model," Paolo Bacigalupi, April 26, 2016
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/04/mika_model_a_new_short_story_from_paolo_bacigalupi.html

A meditation on artificial intelligence - a high-end sexbot programmed to be whatever "her" user wants or needs her to be suddenly revolts against her owner's sadistic behaviour. But is it a case of product malfunction, or murder?


"Touring with the Alien," Carolyn Ives Gilman, April 2016, Clarkesworld #115
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gilman_04_16/

Aliens have arrived on Earth. So far, they have stayed inside their spaceships, doing nothing. Then one day, freelance long-distance driver Avery gets a call - an alien and its human translator want to go on a roadtrip. As Avery acts as tourguide to her two passengers, she comes to understand both the translator - abducted as a child to serve the alien in this way - and the relationship between them. Gilman draws a picture of a very different kind of alien interaction here, and encourages some serious thought about our own varied mental states.


"The Commuter," Thomas A. Mays, 2015, Stealth Books (stealthbooks.com)

The worlds of Faerie and mortal kind have become intermingled, and there are Accords governing how the two peoples interact in each other's territories. Jack's daughter Abby has run afoul of the rules by going on a school trip to the Unseelie Court without her parents' permission, and now she's been claimed as a changling. Jack's only recourse is to declare himself on righteous quest and go into Faerie after her. A funny and original story.


"The Stories She Tells Herself," Kelly Sandoval, April 1, 2016, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/slipstream/kelly-sandoval/the-stories-she-tells-herself

Beautifully written, emotionally gripping, the stories she tells to herself are the stories that women in abusive relationships have always told themselves until that moment when they finally realise that, wounded though they may be, it is better to fly than to stay.


"Three Points Masculine," An Owomoyela, May 2016, Lightspeed
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/three-points-masculine/

In a world where you must have have the right gender for the job you want - but this depends not on your biological sex, your chromosomal sex, or your gender identity but on how you test on a scale of masculine and feminine traits. In this world, a person who identifies as a man but needs to be a girl in order to work in medicine and a trans man who doesn't test quite manly enough to be the soldier he wants to be meet on the battlefield.


"The Lover," Silvia Moreno-Garcia, July 2, 2016,
http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/the-lover/

Judith has always lived in her sister's shadow, never loved, never free to make her own life. A haunting story about love, desire, and freedom.

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I read "Darker Than You Think," by Jack Williamson, for the Retro Hugos, thinking to myself all the while that it really did seem too long to be a novelette, and then, lo and behold, it was disqualified because it is in fact a novella, but didn't get enough votes to be a novella finalist.

Novelette or novella, finalist or not, I was quite caught up by the story - part urban fantasy, part secret history - which sought to bring together all the myths of witches, vampires and shapeshifters into a vast and ancient conflict between two branches of humanity, one possessed of the ability to manipulate probability and matter, and the other, our more familiar sort of human. Defeated by normal humans eons ago, the shapeshifter potentials have nonetheless been carried in humanity's gene pool, and after centuries of judicious breeding, a new breed of shapeshifters is ready to rise.

The protagonist is journalist Will Barbee, once a promising archeological student who was dropped from an important project by his mentor Doctor Lamarck Mondrick and, despite remaining friends with his mentor, the other members of the team and their families, carries a certain amount of bitterness.

The story opens at an airport, where Barbee waits to cover the arrival of his mentor and the others of the team, who are returning from a long and hazardous expedition to Mongolia. Waiting with him is April Bell, a beautiful and strangely attractive reporter from a rival newspaper. After the sudden death of Mondrian during a press conference in which he speaks vaguely about a threat to true humans from a secret, ancient foe, and the coming of a Child of Night who will bring about the resurgence of this hidden enemy, Barbee feels compelled to find follow the story.

His quest uncovers things that he finds hard to believe, despite the witness of his own eyes, as he is drawn further into the mysterious world that Mondrian died trying to warn the world about. It is in some ways a fascinating study of the ability of human beings to explain away that which they do not want to believe - and to deny even to themselves the truth of what they truly want. And at the same time, Barbee's slow transformation, facilitated by the femme fatale personified in April Bell, is a compelling description of the subtle, step-by-step temptation and corruption of the soul.

I'm not sure whether the version I read was the original novella from 1940, or the later novelisation from 1948. The concept of a dark taint hidden in the human bloodline is something one associates with the casual racism of early pulp fiction by authors such as Lovecraft and Howard, while the idea of the enemy that could be hidden anywhere is a potent Cold War image. "Darker Than You Think" may well be drawing on both in its suggestion of hidden dangers close at hand, people near and known to us yet darker than we think.

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Elizabeth Peters' early standalone novel, the Camelot Caper, attracted me with its promise of an Arthurian theme. While there was just enough of Arthur to satisfy me, I was quite delighted to discover that this novel was very reminiscent in tone, plot and characterisation of one of my favourite childhood authors, Mary Stewart.

This novel, like many of Stewart's, is a sort of romantic suspense adventure built around a female protagonist who is neither weak nor stupid, although occasionally young and a touch naive. I'm not sure if anyone writes these any more - an everywoman who confronts some kind of unexpected danger, and who finds along the way a romance with a man who is not so much a saviour as a partner, who shares the mystery and the danger, but needs as much help as he gives. Wikipedia describes Stewart as "... a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations." And that's very much the genre that The Camelot Caper falls into.

The protagonist is a young American woman, Jessica Tregarth, visiting Britain for the first time at the behest of a dying grandfather. Her own father, who died when she was young, had been long estranged from his family, but had kept a family heirloom, a not very valuable man's ring, which Jessica's grandfather had asked her to bring with her.

The mystery begins when Jessica realises that someone else wants to get the ring before she can take it to her grandfather, and seems prepared to go to some lengths to get it. Fleeing from the two men pursuing her, she meets David, a writer of romantic mysteries, who at first thinks her story is part of a practical joke cooked up by his friends, but who is soon drawn into the mystery and offers his help in getting her safely to her grandfather in Cornwall.

The Arthurian connection comes in through the belief of the grandfather that their family is descended from a bastard son of Arthur's. His conviction that there are remnants of an Arthurian fortress, perhaps Camelot itself, on the family land has nearly bankrupted the family with repeated archeological excavations.

Along the twisty path to Cornwall, Peters also treats us to visits to a number of historical churches, and of course a stop at Glastonbury, as Jessica and David chase, and are chased in turn - and captured on several occasions - by the two mysterious men.

There are no red herrings here - the resolution of the mystery is directly connected to the ring, the excavations, the bankruptcy and the ancient legend, in a satisfying way. The romance is handled lightly, growing slowly as Jessica and David manage to figure out the connections, escape their captors, and set things right.

In The Camelot Caper, Peters has written a fine example of a possibly dated but nonetheless enjoyable genre.

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Reading Jack Williamson's Reign of Wizardry (it's one of the Retro Hugo finalists) is like stepping back into my childhood, the days when many science fiction and fantasy novels were brisk swashbuckling adventure stories based, sometimes quite openly, other times more subtly, on legends and folktales, and ancient history.

Reign of Wizardry is set in the time of the Minoan Empire, and calls on the myth of Theseus, the Athenian who killed the Minotaur and broke the hold of Minoan Crete over the Mediterranean world. In Williamson's fantasy, the power that sustains King Minos is wizardry, and Theseus must set human courage and ingenuity against supernatural forces - aided by the love of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and priestess of Cybele.

This is a very Golden Age fantasy, for all that it stays rather close to the bones of the Greek legend. The hero is from the same mould as Conan - bold, strong, smart, a warrior with a touch of barbarian nobility fighting against the decadent, cruel, and immeasurably wealthy forces of corrupt magic. The woman is a cypher who exists only to fall madly in love at the hero's passionate kiss and betray everyone she's ever known, everything she's ever believed in, to help him defeat the only world she knows. It's a fast, tightly plotted read that moves from set piece to set piece with efficiency and provides all the entertainment the reader expects.

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Hugo Nominations - Novel and Novella

Unlike my Hugo voter experience last year, this year I had actually read many of the finalists in the novel and novella categories before the finalists were announced, and was able to quite quickly read those I had not. This post is simply a placeholder, to gather together links to my comments on all the finalists.

And now, to make a few comments on my relative assessments of these works in the novel category. I had a very hard time making my personal nominations - right up until the end there were about ten novels that I could barely differentiate in ranking, and The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy were among that group. There was but a hair's-breadth of difference for amongst them all, and hence, only a hair's-breadth of difference between these three at the top of my ballot. The other two novels were not in that final group of ten.

As for novellas, Binti is the only one of my nominations that appeared as one of the finalists. Both Slow Bullets and Penric's Demon were on my list until the end, and had I read The Builders before nominations closed, It would have been another possibikity for consideration.


Novel

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/173419.html

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/176380.html

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/177907.html

Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181055.html

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/193254.html


Novella

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/179830.html

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185477.html

The Builders, Daniel Polansky
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192634.html

Penric's Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/170131.html

Brandon Sanderson, Perfect State
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192320.html


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Elizabeth Peters's novel The Murders of Richard III impressed me as being just the thing for reading when in need of light entertainment and amusement. So I tried another book in the same series, The Seventh Sinner, to see if the impression held. And it did.

Featuring librarian-sleuth Jacqueline Kirby again, this novel is set in Rome, among a small group of young research fellows and other advanced foreign students at an international institute for the study of art and architecture. Kirby herself is on a working vacation, improving her CV with an eye to an classics-related opening at her workplace back in the US.

The historical hook here is the remarkable architectural history of Rome, with particular emphasis on the history of Christian buildings, from secret underground churches and catacombs dating back to the early days of Christianity in Rome, to the proliferation of churches devoted to the saints - which leads to a delightful sidedish of hagiographic tidbits.

The murder mystery to be solved focuses on the eccentric theories of one of the young scholars of hagiocentric archeology, and in the process of solving it, Kirby leads us on a wild ride through the underbelly of academe.

I think i'm going to enjoy the rest of Peters' oeuvre.

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In Dreaming the Hound, the third volume of Manda Scott's Boudica quartet, the focus of the narrative returns to Breaca and her brother Ban, also known as Julius Valerius.

Breaca has returned to her own people, the Eceni, with her children Cunomar and Graine, and her step-daughter Cynfa. Now married to the Eceni leader Prasutogas, a client-king of Rome, she hides in plain sight from the Romans, who would gladly kill her if they ever connected the new queen of the Eceni with the war leader Boudica. Her goal is to build up an army of rebellion among the eastern tribes that have fallen under the sway of Roman authority.

Ban too has come home, in a sense, after several years spent avoiding both Romans and Britons on the island of Hibernia. In bringing a wounded young man he loves to the healers on Mona for help no one else can give, he finds in himself the desire to at last fulfill his gifts as a dreamer - and on Mona a dreamer willing to teach a former traitor how to dream.

But the Roman drive to control all of Britain continues. In the lands of the Eceni, the Roman governor authorises the work of slavers, who carry an offer to the Eceni king to relieve all the tribal debts in return for Graine and Cynfa. Breaca and Prasutogas' responses to this insult set in motion the path to the inevitable resumption of war against Rome. And in the West, governor Suetonius Paulinus marches toward Mona.

Again, Manda Scott weaves another chapter in this powerful historical fantasy series around the few facts known about the Roman treatment of the tribes of Britain and the uprising of the Iceni under Queen Boudica.

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What delight! An entire anthology devoted to modern reimaginings of those glorious old school planetary romances, set on that long-lost imaginary planet of fetid swamps and humid jungles, of thickly overcast skies dripping hot rains, of slimy and slithery things that flourish in the warm, damp dimness, of scaled and webbed amphibious denizens of vast blood-hot oceans, and the ruins of ancient decadent civilisations overrun by thick, lush vegetation - the Venus of my youth, destroyed forever by the flyby of Mariner 2. Yes, I'm talking about George R. R. Martin and Garner Dozois' collaborative editorial effort, Old Venus.

It's a wonderful homage to the great pulp writers of planetary adventure, from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis Adelbert Kline to Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore, a collection of stories with all the fast-paced action, adventure, and even at times terror of the originals, but infused with a modern, often post-colonial awareness. In many of these stories, lurking in the shadows behind the hard-boiled adventurer's narrative lies an acknowledgement of damage done by the bold colonising Earthmen, the exploitation of Venusian wealth and peoples, the question of who is the monster - the indigenous, adapted life form, or the alien writing the story. And in some, there is awareness of the hubris of the explorer, the belief that the indigenous peoples can not be as knowledgeable, even of the nature and history of their own world, as the ones who "discover" them. This is planetary romance, all grown up.

While all the stories have something to recommend them, I particularly enjoyed "Bones of Air, Bones of Stone," by Stephen Leigh, "Ruins," by Eleanor Arnason, "The Sunset of Time," by Michael Cassutt, "Pale Blue Memories," by Tobias S. Buckell, and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson," by Elizabeth Bear.



* This anthology contains 16 stories, 13 of which are written by men, and three of which are written by women

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While in the throes of my Princes in the Towers reading binge, a mystery novel by an author I'd never read before, Elizabeth Peters, was recommended to me - The Murders of Richard III. I promptly acquired and read it, and found it to be quite a fun read, if rather on the light side. I gather that Peters has created several series of mysteries featuring different amateur detectives - in this case, the sleuth was the formidable Jacqueline Kirby, reference librarian by trade, which was an immediate plus, as I worship reference librarians, as all academics should.

The setting was an English country house party, the occasion, the discovery of a letter that could prove the innocence of Richard III, lately come into the hands of the head of a society of Ricardians. The American Kirby is in England visiting a friend who happens to be a member of the society, and is invited along to the party.

The unfolding of the murder plot occurs within an atmosphere of intense discussion of the minutiae of the various arguments as to who killed the princes, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The mystery itself, and Kirby's investigation of it, was also fun to follow, despite the relative lightness of the murder plot.

If this is characteristic of Peters' work - and reading some descriptions of several other of her novels suggests it may well be - then I suspect the historical elements of her novels to be at least as much of a draw as the mysteries. Which for a history buff is not a bad thing. An evening of pleasant light reading with some historical interest and a mystery adventure is sometimes just what the librarian ordered.

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I have a Tudor bug now, it seems, and have been picking at the books dealing with that era in my TBR pile. Today's selection, Robin Maxwell's novel Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, is a rather short and somewhat overblown novel dealing with a rather short period of Elizabeth Tudor's life - the two years following her father's death.

What is historical record is that Thomas Seymour, one of the uncles of the young king Edward VI, secretly married the Dowager Queen, Catherine Parr, within a few months of Henry's death in January 1547. Seymour took up residence in Catherine's household at Chelsea House, where Princess Elizabeth was also living. Later accounts suggest that Seymour was sexually aggressive toward Elizabeth during this period, and that eventually she was sent away from Chelsea House to live in Sir Anthony Denny's household at Cheshunt.

Meanwhile, Catherine Part became pregnant, and died shortly following the birth of her daughter Mary Seymour. Now free, Thomas Seymour attempted to press his suit with Elizabeth. At the same time, Seymour was planning a coup to remove his brother Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, from power and assume control of the young king himself.

Thomas Seymour was arrested following an attempt to approach the King in his private chambers, charged with treason, and executed. Elizabeth and her staff were questioned, but while the staff reported Seymour's behaviour toward Elizabeth and confessed to promoting the idea of a marriage, no involvement in Seymour's schemes - or participation in what would for the times be thought gross immorality - on Elizabeth's part was ever proven.

Over the years, many authors have taken a variety of approaches to this period of Elizabeth's life. Some have followed the rumours of the time that Seymour and Elizabeth had a sexual relationship and that her removal to Cheshunt was to cover up a pregnancy. Others have held Elizabeth to be an innocent forced by circumstances to endure advances she found wholly unwelcome. Maxwell has taken the position that the adolescent princess was swept up in her first sexual awakening by an ambitious and experienced adult's seduction plan, and that while she was unwise and took far too many risks, she emerged from the tumultuous time still a virgin, and innocent of everything but a dangerous and all-encompassing infatuation. In this story, Seymour is beyond all doubt the villain. I'm not sure I agree with Maxwell's characterisation of Elizabeth in this novel, but it made for a quick and pleasant read.

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Continuing to read books that deal with the fates of the princes in the tower, I turned to another book on my TBR shelf, Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman - a complex novel based in part on the theories of amateur art historian Jack Leslau [1] about hidden meanings in a portrait of the family of Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein (who was known for the use of multiple levels of symbolism in his mature work).

The theory here is that the two young princes were taken from the Tower, raised for some years by Sir Tyrell, and then given new names and identities through the intervention of Bishop John Morton - in whose household the young Thomas More served as a page. The elder prince, Edward V, is alleged to have been adopted into the noble Guildford family and to have quietly accepted his fate, perhaps due to a belief that the charge of illegitimacy made against him and his siblings was true. (In this context, it's interesting to note that one of his grandsons, Guildford Dudley, was married to Lady Jane Grey in a plot to usurp the throne of Mary Tudor, and another grandson, Robert Dudley, was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and is believed to have hoped to marry her.) This novel, however, focuses on the younger prince, Richard, who is sent to the mainland to become a scholar under the protection of his aunt, Margaret of Burgundy. Given the name John Clement, he eventually becomes part of the loose circle of humanists that included Erasmus and Thomas More, and on his return to England becomes part of More's large, loosely connected household, and later still, marries More's ward and relative Margaret Giggs.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, told largely from the perspective of Margaret Giggs Clement, with some sections from the viewpoint of Hans Holbein, is largely the story of Margaret's relationships with three men: her adoptive father Thomas More, as he becomes less the humanist and more the defender of Catholicism against heresy in the face of the growing power of the reformist-minded Boleyns at court; painter Hans Holbein who comes to England with the support of More's friend Erasmus, seeking help from More in finding patrons at the English court; and her husband, John Clement, scholar and physician, a protégé of her father's despite being of an age with him, and secretly the lost prince of York.

Now it's important to note that all these people - not just Thomas More, Erasmus and Hans Holbein, but also Edward Guildford, John Clement and Margaret Giggs, were real people who, insofar as the historical record survives, did the things that they are shown as doing in this novel. The invention lies in the attribution of a secret identity to Clement and the knowledge of it to various of the characters, including More, Erasmus, and eventually Margaret.

Even without the lost princes theme, Portrait of an Unknown Woman works well both as a portrait of the family and inner circle of Thomas More, and, in later chapters, as an introduction to the symbolic complexities scholars have found in Holbein's art - though it must be pointed out that there is little support for Leslau's specific interpretation of the More family portrait. Bennett's portrayal of More as a man driven by deep inner conflicts between secular and spiritual desires, drawn into an almost fanatical persecution of heretics, and an ultimate longing for martyrdom, is a complex and fascinating one, and yet it never overshadows the voice of his adopted daughter Margaret Giggs, whose story of love, faith and the middle road between devout Catholicism and a healer's compassion is compelling.

The load of imagined secrets gives the later chapters of the book a tinge of melodrama that weakens the otherwise strong narrative, but overall, it's quite a good read.

[1] For more on Leslau's theories, this is a solid but not too exhaustively detailed overview: https://mattlewisauthor.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/leslau-holbein-more-and-clement/

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Reading the Hugo-nominated graphic stories for the year reminded me that I had enjoyed several of those I'd read last year, and so I decided to check out Vol. 2 of Ms. Marvel to see if I was still as interested in the story and character as I had been last year.

The answer is yes and no. I'm still quite interested in the character of Kamala Khan and how she manages to combine being a superhero with being a teenaged Muslim schoolgirl still living at home. The parts of the comic devoted to dealing with that and with the life lessons she learns in being a superhero are still quite worth reading and in my opinion make up the best parts of the narrative. The actual comic book adventure criminal-fighting stuff is less interesting to me.

For now I suspect I'll skim the plot stuff and devote most of my attention to the character bits, and see where that gets me.

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Another year, another Darkover anthology. This year's edition arrived at a most opportune moment, when I was sick with a truly vicious cold and much in need of comfort reading.

Realms of Darkover is exactly what one should, by now, expect - a collection of short stories set in the familiar world created by Marion Zimmer Bradley, with all sorts of variations on the themes of first contact and the coming of the Terrans, how to cope with laran, the workings of renunciates and Guild Houses, a scattering of chieris and perhaps some of the other non-human races found on Darkover, and a few stories that break out into other areas.

I enjoyed all of the tales in this volume, particularly Diana L. Paxson's "Housebound," and Barb Caffrey's "Fiona, Court Clerk in Training," both of which feature protagonists seen in earlier collections.

Light fun reading.

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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