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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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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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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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I've been feeling rather poorly for a large portion of the year, and when I get that way, I seek comfort reading. There are certain books - mostly fantasy - that I re-read again and again for comfort. This year I've been turning to Katherine Kurtz and Mercedes Lackey when things get rough and I want something familiar that pushes my buttons in comfortable ways. So far, the comfort reading re-read list:

Katherine Kurtz:
Deryni Rising, Deryni Checkmate, High Deryni
The Bishop's Heir, The King's Justice, The Quest for Saint Camber
King Kelson's Bride
The Deryni Archives

Mercedes Lackey:
Magic's Pawn, Magic's Promise, Magic's Price
Winds of Fate, Winds of Change, Winds of Fury

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Closer to the Heart is the second of Mercedes Lackey's Herald Spy novels, featuring Herald Mags as the spy and his lover Herald Amily as the King's Own Herald.

Mags' network of former pickpockets and street kids is now running smoothly - the "littles" working as messengers and errand boys in taverns and inns throughout Haven, and some of the older ones now being trained to service and placed in the homes of the upper class and wealthy. Not to be outdone, Amily comes up with a new scheme for placing observers in every home of note in the country. And Mags finds an unusual source of clever gadgets for the discerning secret agent or assassin. Meanwhile, there is a plot afoot to drag Valdemar into a very messy political situation, and that occupies our heroes for the latter half of the book.

I must confess to a degree of ambivalence about where this series is going. I like reading about spycraft, and this series, while light on adventures and battles and the like, spends a lot of time looking at the daily lives of people who gather information for their government. Being Heralds, they all have the purest of motives, but still... this is getting uncomfortably close to the paranoid state of many governments today, where there are as many surveillance cameras capturing every moment of our lives as possible, and laws protecting privacy are being eroded left, right and centre.

It's still fun to read about this stuff in a fantasy world, but the darker implications of spywork aimed at people not even suspected of wrong-doing is leaving a bitter aftertaste.

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Rediscovery (co-written by MZB and Mercedes Lackey, pub. 1993) tells the story of the rediscovery of the planet Darkover by the Terran Empire, more than 2,000 years after the original colonists crashed there. The crew of the survey ship that finds the planet try to follow basic First Contact rules, but when the flyer they send down to make an exploratory visit crashes during a storm in the Hellers, and the powerful young leronis Leonie Hastur senses their plight and sends a telepathic warning to the nearby Aldaran Comyn, that intention evaporates. Fortunately for the Terrans, crew members Elizabeth Macintosh and David Lorne have some telepathic ability, which enables Kermiac Aldaran to communicate with them. Before long, it's been verified that the Darkovans are descended from the colonists of a Lost Ship, the planet has been assigned Restricted Status - meaning a spaceport can be build if local government agrees, and limited trade may be permitted - and Lord Kermiac has granted the Terrans land to build their port near the village of Caer Donn. Lorill Hastur, Leonie's twin brother, is sent by the comyn of the other domains to investigate the situation.

There are, of course, many complications, including a secondary plotline involving Lorill Hastur, Leonie's twin brother, another Terran telepath, Ysaye Barnett, and Leonie, who is in telepathic contact with both of them during much of the novel. This ends in death for Ysaye and complete withdrawal from outside telepathic contact for Leonie after Lorill and Ysaye are inadvertently exposed to kiresith pollen intended as a trap for Elizabeth.

Meanwhile Elizabeth and David, now married and planning to remain on Darkover as Spaceport personnel, are captured for ransom by bandits while on a field trip. When the Terrans rescue them using aerial weapons that violate the Compact banning weapons that operate at more than an arm's length distance, setting off a dangerous forest fire in the process, only the Aldarans - who do not follow the Compact - remain interested in contact with humans. And so the first Terran spaceport on Darkover is built in the Hellers, at Caer Donn, and the pattern of relations between the Empire and the six Domains of the Comyn is set.

With respect to sexual politics, we see clearly the patriarchal family structure that has developed on Darkover, with occasional references to the exceptions (or escapes) to the restricted place of women in Darkovan society - life in the Towers, or life as a Renunciate (Free Amazon). Leonie lives in a secluded world where women have power as Keepers, and the Keeper of Arilinn has power at the highest levels as the representative of the Towers. But all other women must have a man to acknowledge their legitimacy or they are without any place in society. All the Darkovan women we see at Aldaran are in some way connected to, legitimated and protected by men - Lady Aldaran, Mariel, Felicia, Thyra. Indeed, the worst thing one can say of a child is that her father is unknown. And as women under the protection of a man, they cannot function as equals. Kermiac tells Elizabeth: "to tell the truth, I am not accustomed to discussing serious business with women."

Terran society, however, appears relatively egalitarian. Because the novels were not written in chronological order, in Rediscovery (written in 1993) which takes place several generations earlier than The Bloody Sun (written in 1964), the Terran Space Service is more integrated, with more women in positions of authority (Ysaye Barrett is the senior computer analyst, Aurora Lakshman is the Chief Medical Officer).

Contraception is freely available, as is abortion, at least within the Service. While sexuality in the Service seems to be a matter of personal choice, it's clear that the various planets in the Empire have varied cultural norms with respect to sexual behaviour. Ysaye comes from a culture that values monogamous marriage and frowns on contraception and abortion. On the other hand, various references are made to planets like Vainwal, where sex work is legal and attitudes seem very permissive.

One of the particularly enjoyable aspects of this novel for me is that many characters who play major roles in the saga of Darkover are shown here as they were before the events that made them crucial characters in the history of Darkover - Leonie and Lorill, but also Kadarin, and Thyra. Jeb Scott will eventually marry Felicia Darriel, and father Rafe and Marjorie Scott. Kermiac's younger sister Mariel will marry Wade Montray; their daughter Elaine will marry Kennard Alton. Elizabeth and David will stay on Darkover and raise their child Magda Lorne. In this book, written well after many of the novels dealing with the generations of contact with the Terrans, Lackey and Bradley have worked into the narrative a host of references to things to come. The narrative itself is rather on the thin side, but for the devoted fan of Darkover, the joy of seeing how it was in the beginning makes Rediscovery a book worth reading.

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Well, maybe not for profit. But there are a good many books that I like to reread for fun. They are comfortable old friends, and depending on my mood, I can pick sonething that I know is absolutely going to hit whatever spot needs hitting.

When I'm sick and depressed and cranky - which is a state that hsppens every once in a whike to most peoole with chronic illness - one of the authors I turn to for sonething that will soothe but not challenge me is Mercedes Lackey, and her Valdemar books in particular. They are full of spunky women (and a few men - Vanyel being one of my favourites) who face all sorts of obstacles, but always manage to get through whatever is blocking their way, and get the job done. That lifts my spirits.

I had one of those spells earlier this year, and while I was caught in the middle of it. I read a bunch of Mercedes Lackey books:

Magic's Pawn
Magic's Promise
Magic's Price

Winds of Fate
Winds of Change
Winds of Fury

Storm Warning
Storm Rising
Storm Breaking

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Fluffy and lightweight as it has been compared even to other of her novels and series, I have been enjoying Mercedes Lackey's latest Valdemar-based Colliegium series about abused child labourer Mags saved form a nasty, brutish and short life through the miraculous appearance of one of those blue-eyed guardian spirits in horse form that serve as Companions to the Heralds of Valdemar. After several books exploring the personal growth of Mags and his friends and the development of the Collegium itself as the new way of training Heralds, Lackey has started a new series, still focused on Mags, called The Herald Spy.

Closer to Home is the first book of this new series, and it's fun. Yes, the content is pretty light after some of Lackey's earlier world-saving plots, but I rather enjoy seeing the day-to-day life of a young Herald preparing to take over the role of Spymaster to the King. To say nothing of his partner in all things, Amily the old Spymaster's daughter, who has some massive new responsibilities of her own to shoulder. And the decidedly anti-romantic variation on the star-crossed lovers themes that forms the plot, such as it is, pleases me. I always thought Romeo and Juliet were hormonally challenged idiots.
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More series reading from 2013, this time books that are in series that are, or may be, unfinished.

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
A Feast for Crows
A Dance with Dragons

Elizabeth Moon, Paladin's Legacy series
Limits of Power

Kate Elliott, the Crossroads series
Shadow Gate
Traitor's Gate
(Technically, this is the end of a trilogy, but Elliott has a stand-alone novel and a second trilogy planned in the same universe which will continue the story.)

Michelle Sagara West, the Chronicles of Elantra
Cast in Peril

Katharine Kerr, the Nola O'Grady series
Water to Burn

Marie Brennan, the Onyx Court series
In Ashes Lie
A Star Shall Fall

Juliet Marillier, Sevenwaters series
Heir to Severwaters
Seer of Sevenwaters

Diane Duane, Young Wizards series
A Wizard of Mars

Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next series
The Woman Who Died A Lot

Liz Williams, Inspector Chen series
Iron Khan

Kevin Hearne, Iron Druid Chronicles

Mercedes Lackey, Foundation series

P. C. Hodgell, Kencyr series
Bound in Blood
Honor's Paradox

Deborah J. Ross, Darkover series
Children of Kings

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It seems that there has been a recent rebirth of the novella. I've been finding all sorts of books that are collections of three or four novella-length pieces - most of them in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance categories. Also, some publishing houses, notably Subterranean Press and Aquaduct Press, have been publishing a number of works in the novella to short novel range. And one finds novella-length pieces on various author and magazine websites all over the net. In the list below of novellas I've devoured this past year, if a novella was not acquired as a standalone publication (paper or edoc), I've tried to indicate the name of the book, or website I found it in/on.

As for the novellas themselves, there's quite a range. Many of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance novellas are much of a muchness. I was delighted to find a novella by Michelle Sagara set in her Cast universe, and found the novellas by Yasmine Galenorn and C. E. Murphy interesting enough that I intend to explore their novels.

On the other hand, I was very excited to read more tales set in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam - Abigail Irene Garrett is a character I am very fond of. The same is true of the late and much lamented Kage Baker's steampunk sequence of novellas associated with her Company books. And I do like Diana Gabaldon's Lord John sequence of novels and novellas. And my devouring of Margaret Frazer's published oeuvre would not have been complete without the domina Frevisse novella.

Marjorie M. Liu, The Tangleroot Palace (Never After)
Marjorie M. Liu, Armor of Roses (Inked)
Marjorie M. Liu, Hunter Kiss (Wild Thing)

Yasmine Galenorn, The Shadow of Mist (Never After)
Yasmine Galenorn, Etched in Silver (Inked)

Mercedes Lackey, A Tangled Web (Harvest Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Moontide (Winter Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Counting Crows (Charmed Destinies)

Rachel Lee, Drusilla's Dream (Charmed Destinies)
Catherine Asaro, Moonglow (Charmed Destinies)
Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Moonlight (Harvest Moon) 
Cameron Haley, Retribution (Harvest Moon)
Karen Chance, Skin Deep (Inked)
Eileen Wilkes, Human Nature (Inked)
Maggie Shayne, Animal Magnetism (Wild Thing)
Meljean Brook, Paradise (Wild Thing)
Tanith Lee, Heart of the Moon (Winter Moon)
C. E. Murphy, Banshee Cries (Winter Moon)
Sharon Shinn, The Wrong Bridegroom (Never After)

Elizabeth Bear, In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Asimov's)
Elizabeth Bear, Seven For A Secret
Elizabeth Bear, The White City
Elizabeth Bear, Ad Eternum

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Succubus (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Haunted Soldier (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, The Custom of the Army (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Plague of Zombies (via author's website)

Margaret Frazer, Winter Heart (Smashwords)

Kage Baker, Rude Mechanicals
Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea
Kage Baker, Speed, Speed the Cable

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories

I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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As usual, Mercedes Lackey published a number of books this year, and as usual, I read most of them: new entries in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, the Valdemar corpus, and the rather Manichean Obsidian universe series she's co-writing with James Mallory. also, a rather nice stand-alone novella.

Mercedes Lackey, The River’s Gift

Mercedes Lackey, Beauty and the Werewolf

Mercedes Lackey, Collegium Chronlcles: Redoubt

Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory, Crown of Vengeance

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It's a grab bag of volumes from some of my favourite fantasy series! Well, in a couple of cases, loosely associated with my favourite fantasy series.

Mercedes Lackey, Intrigues
Mercedes Lackey, Changes

Volumes two and three of The Collegium Chronicles. In some ways, this series is very much like Lackey's very first Velgarth series, in which Valdemar and the Heralds were introduced through the eyes of Talia, an abused child whisked away from a life of misery to become a person of importance and destiny. But the particulars are different and the time is different and it's still great fun.

Mercedes Lackey, Sleeping Beauty

The latest in Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series. I actually think this series is among the most interesting work that Lackey has done. These are all engaging stories in their own right, but at the same time Lackey is both analysing and deconstructing traditional folk and fairy tale motifs, and rewriting those tales with a feminist perspective. I like.

Katharine Kerr, The Silver Mage

The last volume of Kerr's epic Deverry cycle. Truly epic in scope, what makes this series unique is that, it's not just about the heroics and politics of a rich and diverse fantasy world and the interplay of characters and nations, it's also a story of spiritual redemption across time for the key characters, who are reborn again and again until the actions that wove their spirits together are finally resolved, and in a sense for the nation of Deverry, for in this last volume we discover the events that set the movements of nations through the series, across hundreds of years. An excellent ending for one of the great fantasy series.

Tamora Pierce, Wild Magic

First volume of The Immortals series. Set in Pierce's Tortal universe, this new series shares some characters - at least so far - with her first series, Song of the Lioness (aka the Alanna Adventures). What I've liked about Pierce's work from the beginning is that these are YA novels in which young women get to do great and heroic things.

Kristen Britain, Blackveil

Fourth volume of the Green Rider series. This volume took the series to some very dark places - both in the Blackveil forest and in the kingdom of Sacoridia. Along with epic deeds, we also find deceit, betrayal of trust and corruption on a number of levels and in some disappointing places. But things have to get darker before dawn, don't they?

Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Fury

The fourth volume of the Chronicles of Elantra series (aka the "Cast" series). As this series has progressed, the protagonist Kaylin Nera, a member of the Hawks - the police force of the city of Elantra - has been drawn into situations that have given her entry and a unique understanding of the various races that live, more or less peaceably, in the City. In this volume, she must deal with some of the consequences of her last major mission, which involved the telepathic Tha'alani, while engaging in a personal quest to clear the name of her friend and superior officer, a Leontine accused of murder. And we are carried a bit further along in learning more about Kaylin's own past and powers and what is happening in the region known as Nightshade, where Kaylin once lived.

Jack Whyte, Order in Chaos

Final volume in the Templar Trilogy. Whyte completes the story of his alternate history secret order concealed within the historically secretive Order of Knights Templar with the destruction of the Templars. As with most Templar fantasies, the remnants of the order ( and the secret inner circle) flee to England and Scotland where their legacy lives on - an element of the Templar mythos that probably has its genesis in the fact that the Templars were not persecuted nearly as violently in England as they were in continental Europe, so that while the order itself was disbanded, many former Templars lived on in England and a number of survivors from Europe made their way across the Channel to begin new lives.

Liz Williams, Precious Dragon

Third volume in the series. The continuing adventures of Detective Inspector Chan and his demon partner Seneschal Zhu Irzh in Hell, Heaven, Singapore Three on Earth, and a few other assorted dimensions. Complete with dragons and the Emperor of Heaven.

Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne’s Scarlet Spy

This is more of a related stand-alone to Baker's Company series, but I thought I'd include it here anyway. Steampunk adventures of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, featuring Lady Beatrice. The two novellas collected here are all we shall ever see of Lady Beatrice, as they were written not long before the untimely death of Kage Baker - but at least we have these.

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I read three anthologies in 2011, all of them theme-based and all quite enjoyable.

Mercedes Lackey (ed.), Under the Vale and Other Tales of Valdemar

What can I say? Lackey's world of Velgarth, and her stories about Valdemar, and its Heralds and their Companions are irresistible to me. I know, telepathic talking horses. But so what?

John Joseph Adams (ed.), The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is another literary creation that I find irresistible. so if you give me an anthology of stories about Sherlock Holmes facing adversaries more fantastical than most of those Arthur Conan Doyle created, who am I to say no? A really excellent collection (to be expected, given Adams' track record as an editor).

John Pelan & Benjamin Adams (eds.), The Children of Cthulhu

And yet another irresistible topic - the Cthulhu mythos created by H. P. Lovecraft. These are stories inspired by the mythos, and not necessarily drawing directly on elements of the canon, but there are some excellent horror stories here, with all the distinctive flavour of the Lovecraft originals.

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Fantasy reads in 2010 included books by some of my favourite writers: Tanya Huff, Michelle West (aka Michelle Sagara), Lyda Morehouse (writing as Tate Hallaway), Mercedes Lackey (solo and in tandem with James Mallory), Kate Elliott, and Katherine Kurtz (writing with Deborah turner Harris).

I revisited Elizabeth Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor trilogy. discovered the work of Nnedi Okorafor and Anna Elliott, and found some newer works by familiar names - Andre Norton and Holly Lisle.

Anna Elliott, Twilight of Avalon

Mercedes Lackey, Gwenhyfar

Kate Elliott, King’s Dragon

Tate Hallaway, Dead If I Do

Elizabeth Lynn, Watchtower
Elizabeth Lynn, The Dancers of Arun
Elizabeth Lynn, A Northern Girl

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker

Michelle Sagara West, Lady of Mercy
Michelle Sagara West, Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light

Tanya Huff, Sing the Four Quarters
Tanya Huff, The Enchantment Emporium

Andre Norton & Sasha Miller, To the King a Daughter

Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory, The Phoenix Transformed

Holly Lisle, Fire in the Mist

Katherine Kurtz & Deborah Turner Harris, The Temple and the Stone

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So ,to get back in the groove, some light writing about some light but enjoyable reading.

The Gates of Sleep, Mercedes Lackey

Another in the Elemental Masters series, and quite obviously a recasting of the basic situation of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, this was an enjoyable read, although I did not like it quite as much as the other book I've read in this series, The Serpent's Shadow. Aside from the basic plot in which the princess, er, young sorceress must be hidden away in an attempt to save her from a curse and later on must call on both her own powers and her friends to escape the evil plans of her wicked stepmother, er, aunt. I particularly liked Lackey's social critique of the conditions of child factory workers.

Foundation, Mercedes Lackey

Back to the beginning in Valdemar! Set well before the first Valdemar novel, Arrows of the Queen, the protagonist is (of course) an abused and unloved child who is saved from a miserable life and possible untimely death by one of the Companions, the magical white horses who select the incorruptible Heralds of Valdemar. Off to the newly founded Colliegium they go, for training, lots of intrigues, and hints that the littlest Herald-trainee may be more than he seems. A standard Valdemar tale, but that hasn't stopped me from reading the last couple dozen, and it probably won't stop me from reading as many more as Lackey writes in my lifetime.

And Less than Kind, Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Geillis

Alas, the last volume in the series that fulfilled two of my reading fetishes at once - Elizabeth Tudor, and elves, all in one. Darker than the previous volumes, in the series, this follows Elizabeth and her elven lover/protector through the bloody reign of Queen Mary, while Underhill, the forces of the Dark Court are resurgent. Of course, we all know that it ends in the Glory that was Elizabethan England, but seeing how we get there in this faerie-filled version of history is engaging.

The Phoenix Endangered, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

The middle volume in the Enduring Flame trilogy, it is, like many middle volumes, all about getting from the early exposition of the situation and the initiation of the protagonists to the final crisis and resolution. The main protagonists in this case, two young mages of very different traditions (one with a dragon companion and the other being assisted by a unicorn), do a great deal of travelling, learning, being tested, and finding allies, while the antagonist gathers forces, becomes a major threat, and causes a great deal of injury and death. Solid work, a decent read, builds well toward the conclusion.

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The Snow Queen, Mercedes Lackey

The fourth volume of Lackey’s delightful Five Hundred Kingdoms stories, all of which draw on fairy tale traditions from around the world and feature competent and powerful female protagonists – often “Fairy Godmothers” – whose job it is to mitigate the harmful effects of “The Tradition” – the magical force that acts on the people of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, pushing them into fairy tale roles which can be potentially disastrous, even deadly (just think about all the grue and gore in traditional fairy tales, and this will make sense).

Aleksia, the protagonist of this instalment of the series, is a Fairy Godmother who lives in a northern kingdom. Much of her public persona is drawn from the fairytale of the Snow Queen, the heartless fairy who steals young men and holds them until they are saved by the courageous young women who love them. The reality, of course, is that the young men she steals away with are arrogant assholes who take their lovers for granted, and it's is all about making them realise just how much of an asshole they've been. Of course, she does all the usual Fairy Godmother work as well, nudging the lives of people all over the kingdom away from fairytale patterns that end badly.

Then Aleksia starts hearing rumours about a nearby kingdom where there is no Fairy Godmother, about an impostor who has taken on the role of the Snow Queen – only this Snow Queen is killing whole villages, and the young men she lures away are not returned to their brave lovers, a littler wiser and more aware of just how strong a force love can be. This Snow Queen’s victims are never seen again. And it’s up to Aleksia to stop her.

The folklore traditions at the heart of this novel are taken from the culture and mythology of the people of Finland, and particularly the indigenous peoples. Some of the characters Aleksia encounters are drawn from the Kalevala, an epic compilation of folk poetry from across Finland (and parts of the Baltic states, particularly Estonia), and the culture of the people she meets in her search for the impostor is clearly based on elements of Sami culture.

I enjoyed this, not just as another of Lackey’s reliably pleasant fantasy offerings, but also as an exploration of a European tradition that is not found all that often in SFF. It also reminded me of a series of novels that I’d read many years ago in my youth, but long since forgotten – the four Kalevala-inspired novels of Emil Petaja: Saga of Lost Earths, Star Mill, The Stolen Sun and Tramontane. I imagine they're long out of print, but now I have a hankering to re-read them. And of course, to re-read the Kalevala itself.

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The Serpent’s Shadow, Mercedes Lackey

The first volume of her Elemental Masters series, The Serpent’s Shadow represents another venture into historical fantasy by Mercedes Lackey – set in Edwardian England this time, instead of the Elizabethan England of the series she’s co-writing with Roberta Geillis – and one that is successful on a number of levels.

First, Lackey’s protagonist, Maya Witherspoon, is one of her most complex and interesting characters to date. Maya is the daughter of an English physician who settled in in India and an Indian woman of the Brahmin caste, who gave up her position as priestess (and mage) to marry her lover. Maya has inherited her mother’s magical gifts, but has had no training – her mother has always told her that her path lies with the magical traditions of her father’s people, not her mother’s. Maya has also inherited her father’s gifts as a healer, and following her graduation from medical school in India, she worked with her father as his associate. When double tragedy befalls her with the death of both parents in suspicious circumstances, Maya has reason to believe that she herself is the next victim of the unknown mage who has brought about her parents’ deaths and decides to move to her father’s homeland.

The early part of the book touches on Maya’s struggles, as a woman and a person of mixed race, to establish herself in England as a practising physician at the same time as it lays the foundation for a more-or-less standard plot about evil mage determined to destroy good mage for reason not entirely reasonable. And that’s part of what makes this a more interesting book than Lackey’s usual offerings.

In addition to addressing Maya’s fight against blatant racism in imperial England and her personal quest to find balance in her own life between her two heritages, the book also has a strong feminist and anti-domestic violence stance, and a refreshingly positive perspective on sex work. Once certified as a physician, Maya sets up a practice in one of the less affluent areas of London. Her business plan is to offer both general and reproductive medical services to the elite of London’s courtesans and entertainers – including contraception and abortion – in order to subsidise her practice among poor women and men – where she also advocates family planning and champions abused women. Oh, and she’s also a suffragette.

It’s hardly surprising that I was sold on this book, and its heroine, before the mage vs. mage plot had even got rolling. There are some potentially problematic issues in that plot, but Lackey treads carefully when she pits Maya, newly-trained by English mages, against the Indian mage responsible for her parents’ deaths who has followed her to London with murderous intent. Maya receives assistance from figures out of her mother’s traditions, as well as support from English mages, in her magical battles, and it is made all too clear that the goddess in whose name her opponent has acted repudiates her servant’s excesses.

Lackey has always made an effort to be socially conscious in her writing, particularly in her use of powerful female characters, and positive queer characters. She’s often used her novels to further awareness of child abuse, and there tends to be a feminist slant to her work. I think she’s taken another step forward in this book, and I hope to see more of this kind of complexity in her characters.
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Moving Targets and Other Tales of Valdemar, Mercedes Lackey (ed.)

Yes, it's another Valdemarian anthology, full for the most part of interesting stories about times and places and characters in Lackey's most successful creation, the world of Velgarth.

Some of the stories are rather slight (including, alas, Lackey's own contribution, which seemed to be a mediocre ghost story and which, I gather from the observations of others, is a misguided homage to a piece of pop culture I have somehow been fortunate enough to have completely missed, called Scoobie-Doo). Others (like Janni Lee Simner's "What fire Is") are moving and powerful.

A mixed bag, but there's enough in it to please at least this devoted fan of Lackey's Valdermarian tales.

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The Phoenix Unchained, Mercedes Lackey & James Mallory

The Phoenix Unchained is the first volume of The Enduring Flame trilogy, which takes place in the world of Lackey and Mallory's earlier Obsidian Trilogy (The Outstretched Shadow, To Light a Candle, When Darkness Falls), only it's 1,000 years later, and no one remembers that the forces of Dark were only defeated, not destroyed forever, and everyone (well, at least everyone human) has forgotten that the dark was in the end defeated by a combination of ritual or high magic and wild magic. Which is sort of where we were at the beginning of the first trilogy, except that then, no one in the human lands remembered the existence of wild magic, and now, it's high magic that's been forgotten.

Enter the obligatory young person with a destiny. Although in this case, it's actually two young persons with a destiny, Tiercel and Harrier, best friends who have grown up together and seem to have their lives perfectly planned out for them until Tiercel rediscovers high magic and naturally, they're off on a journey to find out What It All Means. Unicorns,elves and dragons ensue, of course.

Based on the first volume, I expect this trilogy to be just as amusing to read as the last one was.


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