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In Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent, Marie Brennan returns to the alternate world she created in The Natural History of Dragons, a world that is in many ways like our own in the mid-victorian era, but in which there are dragons, in great abundance and variety, found mostly in the less accessible parts of the world. Here she continues the story of Isabella, a young woman with a passionate scholarly interest in dragons, and the determination and courage to travel wherever she must in order to collect information on them - even if it means breaking all the conventions that surround a young woman in her society.

These novels bring to mind the lives and writings of European women adventurers of the 18th and 19th centuries in our world, women like Mary Kingsley, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel and Hester Stanhope. Brennan does not shy from giving her protagonist some of the classist, racist and imperialist perspectives of such times, although a healthy dose of scientific rigour and a willingness to learn about the ways of dragons from the people living close to them help to temper these perspectives as she gains more experience in her travels.

This second volume in Isabella's story takes her to a continent not unlike our own Africa, where her native country of Scirland has involved itself in a local war in order to gain massive trade advantages. Isabella, of course, is there to see the dragons of the savannahs and the mysterious swamp-wyrms that dwell in the delta jungles of the Moulish Swamp. Unfortunately, her desire to explore these dragon's natural habitats involves her in the political schemes of others when all she really wants is to do natural science and learn the secrets of dragons.

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I avidly read the first five volumes of Naomi Novik's wonderful alternate Earth/historical fantasy series featuring the unforgettable Imperial dragon Temeraire, but for some reason (possibly a combination of illness and the "too many books, too little tine" syndrome, I did not continue reading the rest of Novik's Temeraire books as they were published - an oversight I now wish to remedy. So since the events were a bit clouded in my memory, I decided to reread the last volume I had completed - Victory of Eagles, which I read when it was published in 2008 - before continuing.

The storyline of Victory of Eagles - of the defense of England against the invading French and their eventual expulsion from that scepter'd isle - was a good read, of course, but what continues to interest me most about the series is the growth of both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. Maturing both emotionally and ethically, Laurence is more and more becoming his own moral compass, and questioning the assumptions of his culture, while Temeraire learns empathy and understanding of the complexities of living with humans and dragons in a complex society. With my memory refreshed, and my curiosity about the next developments revived, I dove into the next three books of the series.

Sadly, I gather from reading Novik's website that there is only one book remaining in the Temeraire series, to be published sometime next year. It's going to be interesting to see how she ends the Napoleonic Wars... And also to see just where Laurence and Temeraire end up after all their journeys.


Tongues of Serpents

The ethical education of Laurence continues apace - and we as readers are seeing more and more of the ugliest side of colonialism and imperialism as Temeraire and Laurence, exiled to New South Wales as punishment for foiling the British plan to infect all continental European dragons with plague, undertake an exploration of the Australian interior, where they discover diverse difficulties from bunyips, wildfires and thunderstorms to smugglers who steal one of the dragon eggs intended to be the foundation of a colonial dragon-borne military corps. Following the trail of the stolen egg, they cross the continent and arrive on the north coast, where they find a thriving seaport where Chinese merchants, working harmoniously with the indigenous people of the region, are conducting trade via ship and accommodating sea serpents with just about anyone with a presence in the Indian Ocean or China Sea - to the considerable annoyance of the British, who want to control trade in every corner of the earth. There's also mention of an arrangement between Napoleon and the dragon-led empires of Africa to invade the New World and end the slave trade, repatriating all Africans kidnapped and taken overseas.


Crucible of Gold

With this novel, Novik continues to expand the geopolitical borders of her variation on the high period of European imperialism, and prepares us for further examinations of the ways that two sentient peoples can live together. The international relationships of Temeraire's world are getting increasingly interesting, and Laurence and Temeraire are becoming increasingly important to what shape the global alliances will take. Equally important is the moral development of the main characters, as Temeraire's sense of justice becomes more clearly defined and Laurence becomes more and more the owner of his own conscience.

The action in this novel is driven by the declaration of war by the Tswana - supported by Napoleon - against the Portuguese in South America in a bid to liberate Africans stolen from their homelands and sold into slavery. Laurence is offered full reinstatement of rank if he agrees to travel from Australia to Rio to negotiate in the conflict.

A mutiny on the ship carrying them to Rio leaves Laurence, Temeraire and their companions cast off on an island near the west coast of South America; making their way to the continent, they encounter an isolationist Incan Empire which was able to resist early Spanish adventurers and maintain its sovereignty. Here we encounter yet another form of relationship between human and dragon - among the Inca, dragons are the property owners and humans live for the most part as serfs in the fiefdoms of their dragon masters. The situations in both the Inca lands and the portuguese colonies on the eastern part of the continent bring the on-going themes of freedom and equality which have been woven into the story of Temeraire from the beginning into greater prominence.



Blood of Tyrants

Their mission to South America completed, Temeraire and Laurence are on their way to China when Laurence is swept overboard during a storm off the coast of Japan. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Temeraire refuses to believe that Laurence is dead, and demands that the British dragon transport they were travelling on make port in make enquiries in Nagasaki - the only city in Japan currently open to foreigners - to start inquiries into Laurence's fate. While in the harbour, he meets an American dragon - a merchant trader in his own right - who gives us - and the British dragons - a glimpse of another society where dragons are integrated into society and enjoy the rewards of engaging in free enterprise. As it turns out, Laurence is alive, but is on the run through enemy territory, as it is forbidden for any foreigner to set foot in any part of Japan outside of the controlled trade port, and his life has been judged forfeit by the local dragon aristocracy. Worse, he has lost his memory and has no idea how he came to Japan. Worst of all, he no longer remembers Temeraire or any of what he has learned since becoming Temeraire's captain.

In an interview found on the Suduvu website, Novik says:
As the book opens with it, I won’t be spoiling too much to say that at the opening of the book, Laurence has been separated from Temeraire, shipwrecked in a hostile country, and to make matters worse has suffered amnesia. I am always looking for ways to make my characters struggle, as I think that’s what makes them fun to read about. But also, this is the second to last volume in the series, and I really wanted to have a moment where I looked back at the distance Laurence has traveled. He’s come a long way from the person he was when the series began, not just in a practical but in an emotional sense, but it’s been a journey of a thousand small steps, not any single moment. I also am conscious that it’s a long series, and I wanted to give new and old readers both a place to refresh their memory and rejoin the story before we head down the final blaze of the rollercoaster to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2013/08/new-release-interview-blood-of-tyrants-by-naomi-novik.html)
Reunited, and with Laurence very slowly regaining his memories (to the great distress of Temeraire), their next port-of-call is China. There, they become involved in palace politics thanks to Laurence's position as an adopted son of the Imperial family, and hear that news that Napoleon is invading Russia. The Emperor offers military aid, and the small British contingent set off across Asia, escorted by several companies of the highly disciplined and organised Chinese military force.

With part of this book set in Japan and China - both countries where dragons are fully integrated into society along with humans - and the rest in Russia, where dragons are treated as slaves, with those who will not serve hobbled by cruel hooks and chains embedded in their flesh that prevent them from flying, we see in one volume the best and the worst of relations between humans and dragonkind - but we see as well the beginning of an end to that treatment.

As one character in this volume notes, Temeraire and Laurence are, as a result of their own changes, changing things the world over, catalysts for shifting alliances between nations and changing relationships between dragon and human. Given that there is only one remaining volume in this series, I hope that Novik gives us at least some glimpses into the future of her alternate Earth - or perhaps comes back to it some day to tell new stories about dragons and the humans they share their world with.

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I fell in love with one of the main characters, Ailia, the minute she thought to herself: "I always wanted hair like the princesses’ in faerie tales, golden hair that was long enough to sit upon. It was one more item in the long list of things life had denied her. Adventure was another. Adventures, when they happened at all, happened to men and boys. For a girl there were but two possible destinies, housewifery and spinsterhood: and both meant a life confined to the home." It's not just the baby butch girls that long for adventures, after all.

Then we met Damion, the young priest. He seemed a bit stuffy at first, but soon revealed an adventurous heart and an inner longing for romantic quests. In a very short time, he saves the life of the third of the story's significant characters, Lorelyn, who also intrigued me from the start. Appearing mysteriously as an infant in a monastery, hearing voices indistinctly, and dressing up as a boy to save the scroll of destiny from the invading bad guys - she certainly knows how to make a good entrance.

The cast of major characters also includes Ana, the requisite mysterious wise woman who knows much more than she's saying and is clearly something more than she's believed to be, and Mandrake, the requisite mysterious person of great power and questionable motivations who is clearly playing a deep and probably evil game.

There's a quest, of course, for an object of great power that is thought by some to be only a legend, and by others to be just the thing they need to conquer the world. And there is the person with a great destiny - although Baird leaves open the question of exactly who that person really is for rather longer than usual.

There's nothing here that breaks ground in terms of the tropes of fantasy (unles you coubt the fact that the "otherworlds" realy are on other planets, and the teleportation system could be advanced tech instead of magic, but there's definitely magic, and oh yes, dragons) but it's well-written, smartly put together, and the cast of main characters have charm and depth.

First volune of a trilogy, and I and sufficiently intrigued that I plan to read the remaining volumes.

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The Starry Rift, Jonathan Strachan (ed.)

In this anthology, Strachan has assembled a roster of fine SF stories from established authors, all of the sort that older readers like myself read with wide-eyed excitement and wonder in the pulp magazines of our youth.

Strachan says of his intent in editing this anthology: "I turned to a handful of the best writers in the field, asking them to write stories that would offer today’s readers the same kind of thrill enjoyed by the pulp readers of over fifty years ago. The futures we imagine today are not the same futures that your grandfather’s generation imagined or could have imagined. But some things in science fiction remain the same: the sense of wonder, of adventure, and of fearlessly coming to grips with whatever tomorrow may bring. Some of the stories here are clearly the offspring of those grand old space adventure tales, but others imagine entirely new and unexpected ways of living in the future. The Starry Rift is not a collection of manifestos—but it is both entertainment and the sound of us talking to tomorrow."

These are stories with younger protagonists and presumably intended for a YA audience; however, it should be noted that the quality of the work herein is such that most adult readers should enjoy the anthology as well; I certainly did.



Wings of Fire, Jonathan Strachan and Marianne S. Jablon (eds.)

I am fascinated by dragons, and have ben for as long as I can remember. So how could I resist an anthology of dragon stories? And such wonderful stories, too, including some of the finest of t)the classic dragon tales, from Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea-based The Rule of Names, to Elizabeth Bear's Orm the Beautiful, to Anne McCaffrey's first tale of Pern, Weyr Search, to Lucius Shepard's haunting The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule.

Other, perhaps lesser-known, but compelling visions of dragonkind include Michael Swanwick's King Dragon (an excerpt from his novel The Dragons of Babel); Naomi Novik's In Autumn, A White Dragon Looks Over the Wide River, set in her Temeraire alternate history universe and featuring the Imperial dragon Lien; and Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg's heart-rending The Dragon on the Bookshelf. And more. A delicious diversity of dragons.



Shattered Shields, Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt (eds.)

Enjoyable anthology of fantasy stories focusing on warriors, some set in established fantasy worlds developed by writers such as Glen Cook (The Black Company novels) and Elizabeth Moon (the Paksennarion novels), others stand-alones, and all quite readable. Standouts for me were: Bonded Men by James L. Sutter, a story based on the legends of the Theban Band of warriors who were also lovers; Hoofsore and Weary by Cat Rambo, about a small group of warriors - all but one of them female centaurs - cut off from their main force and making a desperate retreat through dangerous territory; and The Fixed Stars, by Seanan McGuire, about a fateful battle between the children of the great lords of Fae, Oberon and Titania, and their own mixed blood descendants.

Fans of milsff of the fantasy variety should find something here to suit their fancies.


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I did a lot of catching up with various series in 2013. The Completed series:

David Anthony Durham, the Acacia series
Acacia: The Other Lands
Acacia: The Sacred Band

N. K. Jemisin, the Inheritance series
The Broken Kingdoms
Kingdom of the Gods

Christopher Paolini, the Inheritance series
Brisingr
Inheritance

Glenda Larke, the Mirage Makers series
The Shadow of Tyr
The Song of the Shiver Barrens

Charles Saunders, the Imaro series
Imaro: The Naama War

C. J. Cherryh, the Chanur Saga
Chanur's Homecoming
Chanur's Legacy

Elizabeth Bear, Jacob's Ladder series
Chill
Grail

Kage Baker, The Company series
Not Less Than Gods
(Probably the last, given Baker's untimely death)

Michael Thomas Ford, Jane Austen, Vampire series
Jane Goes Batty
Jane Vows Vengeance


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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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I follow a lot of authors who write both science fiction and fantasy series. New volumes in ongoing series read in 2012:


Tanya Huff, The Wild Ways

The second novel about the Gale family, whose women are strangely gifted and powerful and whose men - rare in a family of many sisters, aunties and nieces - are the embodiment of the Horned God. The full story of what and who the Gales are is slowly unfolding as Huff tells stories about its various members, and I'm sure there is more to come.


Lois McMaster Bujold, Lord Vorpatril's Alliance

Now that Miles Vorkosigan is settled into a title, important court function and family, Bujold has turned her attention to one of the people in Miles' inner circle. An improvement on Cryoburn, largely because the new focus lets Bujold play wild games with her characters again.


Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal

This follow-up series to Moon's Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter series just keeps developing more and more twists and taking a wider scope with each volume. I'm thinking by the end that we will know a lot more about the history and future of this world, and that's a good thing.


Charles R. Saunders, The Trail of Bohu (Revised)

The third volume of Saunders' exceptional Imaro series was first published decades ago, and revised recently now that the new era of self-publishing has finally allowed him to complete the series. Although I had read the original version when it was first published, between revisions and the passage of time, thiswas very much a new book for me. And it sets up the coming confrontation between Imaro and his life-long enemies very well.


Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Burning Shadows

Somehow I never tire of the Count Saint Germain, warrior, healer, alchemist, vampire. This one is set in 5th century Hungary and Romania, where the Count faces the coming of the Huns.


Michelle Sagara, Cast in Silence
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Chaos
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Ruin

Finally almost caught up with Sagara West's Elantra Chronicles featuring Private Keylin Neya.


Todd McCaffrey, Dragongirl
Todd and Anne McCaffrey, Dragon’s Time
Todd McCaffrey, Sky Dragons

Fare thee well to Anne McCaffrey, creator of Pern and other worlds. I've been reading her work for most of my life, it seems, and while I have issues with her gender politics, still I can't ignore what a key figure she was in science fiction. And as Todd McCaffery cones into his own as inheritor of his mother's creations, I'm hoping to see more originality and more of the greater awareness of sexual and gender diversity and equality that he has been bringing to the series.


Kevin Hearne, Hexed
Kevin Hearne, Hammered
Kevin Hearne, Tricked
Kevin Hearne, Two Ravens and One Crow (novella)
Kevin Hearne, Trapped

Atticus O'Sullivan (born Siodhachan O Suileabhain), the 2000 year-old Druid with a sharp wit and enough magical power to take on a god or two, is one of the most enjoyable new characters I've encountered in some time. The Iron Druid Chronicles are fast-paced and truly funny. I hope Hearne has quite a few more brewing in the back of his mind.
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The genre of fantasy is rapidly subdividing these days, and I'm not entirely certain what the distinctions are any more. I am sticking with urban fantasy as something that ha
a definition of urban fantasy as something that involves humans interacting with non-humans (vampires, demons, werewolves, elves, whatever) and the use of magic or psychic powers virtually indistinguishable from magic, in an urban setting that is directly based on real world settings (modern-day Toronto or Chicago or whatever). It may involve crimes or mysteries, or it may involve supernatural romance. Or both. I"m not all that fussy.


Jes Battis, Inhuman Resources

Battis' OSI series has held my interest through three volumes to date, and I have the fourth in my TBR pile. The premise is that there is an investigative force, CORE, complete with Occult Special Investigators, that is charged with the responsibility of dealing with all sorts of non-human and occult communities (vampires, necromancers, sorcerers, and so on) secretly co-existing with "normate" human society, investigating crimes involving members of these communities, and keeping the whole business quiet so those ordinary humans can never know. The stories focus on OSI Tess Corday, a woman of mixed heritage (and by that I mean human and demon) and her investigative partner (and roommate) Derrick Siegel. Together they solve crimes! - with the aid of an interesting collection of supporting characters, of course. But behind the episodic nature of the occult crime procedural is a sweeping arc that has to do with Tess' demon heritage.


Katharine Kerr, Licence to Ensorcell

With her lengthy Deverry Cycle epic fantasy series completed, Kerr has decided to explore the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, and in my opinion she quite nails it with this first volume in the new Nola O'Grady series. O'Grady is a an operative with a secret agenct whose mandate you can probably figure out right away, and her new case is to find a serial killer targeting werewolves. It's personal - O'Grady's brother was one of the victims. Her partner on the case is a hard-boiled Isreali operative, assigned to work with her because the serial killer has claimed victims in both Israel and the US. I like this new series, and the next volume is in my infamous TBR pile.


J. A. Pitts, Black Blade Blues

This is a first novel from author J. A. Pitts, and there is some roughness to it, but the premise - a lesbian blacksmith who moonlights as a props manager and is part of a medieval reenactment society - was not the sort of thing I could resist. And there are dragons! To continue the refrain, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Kevin Hearne, Hounded

Another first novel, and a very fine one too. But how could I resist a novel about the last of the Druids, currently living in Arizona under the unlikely name of Atticus O’Sullivan. The rest of the cast of characters includes his Irish wolfhound, a werewolf and a vampire who happen to be his lawyers, several Celtic deities, the spirit of an ancient Hindu sorceress and a coven of witches. And it's funny too - Hearne has a pleasantly dry wit that is well integrated into the style and storytelling. The next volumes is... oh, you know where it is.


Tate Hallaway, Almost to Die For

You, constant reader, already know that I think very highly of Lyda Morehouse's work, and of course you are aware that Tate Hallaway is the name Morehouse uses for her contemporary supernatural urban romance fantasy work (did I cover all the bases there?). This is the first volume in a new YA series about a teenaged girl whose father happens to be the leader of the vampires in her city, and by vampire tradition, that makes her his heir. I liked it, and... you guessed it, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Tate Hallaway, Honeymoon of the Dead

And, to balance all these new series, this is the last volume in Morehouse/Hallaway's Garnet Lacey series. Garnet and her vampire lover Sebastian von Traum are finally married - but Garnet's past gets in the way of their planned honeymoon in Transylvania. A good ending to an enjoyable series. No more volumes to put in my TBR file. Sniff.

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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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Cast in Secret by Michelle Sagara (who also writes as Michelle West)

Cast in Secret is the third volume in Sagara West’s Chronicles of Elantra, featuring police officer and healer Kaylin Neva as she forges alliances with yet another of the many different peoples who inhabit the capital city – the telepathic Tha’alani – and learns more about her own mysterious abilities.

I’ve become quite a fan of the series – it has a strong but conflicted female hero, a complicated political background, well-developed non-human cultures, in short, lots of the things that turn me on in my SFF reading. And so far, the ominously predictable love triangle has not yet manifested (very surprising for a Harlequin imprint book, but more power to Sagara if she's found a way to avoid the obligatory annoyingly obvious romance plotline that detracted from some of the other Luna fantasy novels I've read), so I'm quite happy to keep reading.

Fortunately, the series is a hit with its publishers and Kaylin’s adventures are assured to continue for some time to come.

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The Hurog Duology, by Patricia Briggs:
Dragon Bones
Dragon Blood


These books were my first introduction to Briggs, and I enjoyed them very much. While the overall plot arc of the two books isn’t particularly original and the setting is your pretty standard generic feudal Europe, the writing is good, the characters are interesting, there are some interesting variations on the theme of the young hero on a quest to claim his throne and, well, there are dragons and some kick-ass women, especially in the second book.

The main character is Ward, oldest son of the lord of Hurog. At the beginning of the first book, we see a family that has been corroded from within – a violent father, a mother who has retreated into something near to melancholic madness, a mute daughter, a runaway younger son, missing for two years and presumed dead, and Ward, so badly abused by his father that his injuries have almost destroyed his gifts as a mage, and have led him to play the simpleton for seven years to avoid more of his father’s brutality. We also sense in the details of life in Hurog that there is something wrong in the land itself, that the corruption in the family of the lords of Hurog may be tied to something greater and wider-reaching.

Then Ward’s father dies in a hunting accident. Having played the fool for so long, Ward’s right to hold the lordship of Hurog is in doubt, and his uncle is given control until he comes of age. Enter several interesting plot threads having to do with politics in the larger kingdom of which Hurog is a part, and a mysterious cousin who comes to Ward’s aid, but who is clearly not what he claims to be, and suddenly we’re off on a quite absorbing adventure.

The first novel ends with Ward succeeding in claiming his lordship (this is hardly a spoiler, is it?), but with a great many unanswered questions about the state of the kingdom itself, which lead us into a new quest in the second volume, as Ward, having proven himself, must come to the assistance of former allies and a prince who has been dispossessed of his kingdom much as Ward had been dispossessed of his lordship.

For the easily triggered, I should note that here is realistic sexual and physical violence in these books that goes beyond the typical sword-hacking. I think it’s important to the story, and not gratuitous, but it’s not pleasant reading the relevant sections.

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The Spirit Stone, Katharine Kerr

Kerr’s long and complex Deverry sequence continues to move toward its conclusion, as the many-braided lives of this long series of novels spanning hundreds of years of history in the fantasy world of Deverry are woven together in yet another generation.

Nevyn has finally moved on to another life, and in this new life, he greets again the soul who was his love in centuries past, and his student Jill in her last life. Rori, whose life has been woven with theirs again and again, is still trapped in dragon form, and the Horse Kin, still caught up in the worship of the would-be goddess Alshanda (despite her defeat in previous volumes), continue to threaten elvenkind and humans alike. The threads are still multiplying, and while one can begin to see the overall shape the final stretch of the tapestry must take, the allure is in the details, and they remain a much anticipated mystery.

It’s getting very hard to wait for the final two volumes to come out.

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Michelle West, writing as Michelle Sagara, has another interesting series going full blast: the Chronicles of elantra, perhaps better known as the Cast series.

At this point, I've read the first two books in the series, Cast in Shadow and Cast in Courtlight, and I am enjoying them, although not quite as much as West's other work - but I'll get into that a little later.

Fantasy doesn't often pay attention to the function of policing, being generally more interested in the doings of princes, heroes, wizards and occasional thieves, assassins and other folks from the underside who have great destinies ahead of them, for whom the local police are just another obstacle to get around. In this series, West has made her protagonist - Kaylin, a young women with a mysterious and traumatic past - a cop. She and her colleagues police the streets of the capital city of Elantra, where humans and a number of assorted other races dwell in uneasy proximity, surrounded by a band of lawless territories known as the Nightshade.

Kaylin was born in the Nightshade, where as a child she was caught up in a macabre series of ritual murders of children. she's grown now, and happy with her life - until the murders begin again and shadowy characters from her past come into her life once more.

There's a lot that I like to this series - the character and development of kaylin, the highly complex and structured society she lives in, which its multiplicity of cultures and people, all with different abilities, psychologies and customs, Kaylin's interactions with many of her colleagues and acquaintances - but this is another series published by Luna, and as with Judith Tarr's Luna series (published under the name Caitlin Brennan), there's sense that the romantic elements - which West is quite capable of handing in a way that I appreciate in other books - are just a little too foregrounded and formulaic at the same time. There's a little too much of the stereotype in some of the dark and mysterious men out of Kaylin's past, too much of the "is he evil, or just misunderstood" in their characters, too much of the annoyingly eternal triangle in their interactions with Kaylin.

That said, I'm reading 'til the end, because Kaylin herself is just too interesting to resist. Plus, she has a mentor who's a dragon, and I'm just a real sucker for that.

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Dragon Harper, Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffery.

Anne McCaffery and her son Todd McCaffrey have collaborated on another Pern novel, continuing the story of aspiring harper Kindan, who has already been involved in bringing the special abilities of watchwhers to the attention of those who need them and giving the weyrs of Pern access to a much safer form of firestone for the dragons to use in fighting thread.

Now Kindan is up against something he can’t solve, but can only fight to survive – a deadly planet-wide influenza epidemic, which the authors have based on the historical Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.

It’s a light and undemanding read, and is probably of interest primarily to those who just can’t kick the Pern habit, like me. It covers well-trodden ground – we’ve seen a lot of plague among both dragons and humans in the Pern books over the years. Not that it’s unrealistic for a people to experience multiple plagues over the course of several thousand years, but if you’re going to create a series of books about what’s most interesting in the long history of a lost human colony, a detailed exploration of one plague is probably enough (OK, two if you want to have both human and dragon plagues, but that’s the limit unless you put some clear and strong differences into the stories). I hope that if either or both McCafferys continue to write about Pern, they’ll explore more new ground, rather than going back to some of the same plots over and over again.

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Travel Light, Naomi Mitchison

What a wonderful find.

Mitchison’s part-fantastical, part-historical tale of a young girl named Halla, cast out by a wicked step-mother, mothered by bears, raised by dragons, taught to “travel light” by the Wanderer (he of the one eye and the two ravens), is a delightfully subversive story. Once she accepts that she cannot be a dragon, Halla encounters many people who have clear ideas of what she should be and what she should do, from the nasty hero who kills her guardian dragon Uggi and threatens to teach her “the way of women” (she escapes with the help of another of the dragons) to the priests and nobles of Micklegard (Constantinople) who want to use her gift for talking to animals to win money on the horse races, and later decide she belongs in a nunnery (she escapes with the help of a friendly Valkyrie), to the young man who decides that he wants to marry her.

But Halla has her own path to follow, and her own place in the world to find, and as long as she chooses to travel light – unencumbered by baggage of the physical kind, but also of the kind of expectations and assumptions and preconceptions that limit the ways one can learn and grow and adapt to change – she remains free to become herself.

The style is very plain and straightforward, the characters distinctly drawn and memorable, the message invaluable but never preached about.

I particularly enjoyed the bits about growing up with the dragons and coming to understand just how annoying and destructive those pesky heroes can be. Here's the dragonish take on the whole dragon-hunting fetish of so many heroes:
Kings and champions and heroes, unfairly armed with flame-resisting armour and unpleasant lances, were encouraged by certain underground elements and against the wishes and interests of the bulk of the population, to interfere between princess and dragon. Occasionally this resulted in tragedies, as in the case of the good dragon who was killed by the man George, or of the dragon so cruelly done to death by Perseus when about to make the acquaintance of Andromeda. It could be verified that no princess was ever asked whether she wanted to be rescued and carried off by a dragon-slayer to a fate (no doubt) worse than death.
I wish I’d known about this book when I was young.

Travel Light should be at least as well-known as a classic children’s novel as The Hobbit, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or A Wrinkle in Time. Please, if you have kids –especially girls, but boys too – in your life, give them this book.

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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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There’s always been a lot that’s problematical about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, the gender politics being one of the more prominent issues for me, and the quality of a number of her later books was, well, starting to get a little thin in my opinion, but nonetheless I’ve continued to buy and read each new Pern novel, including the ones that she has co-authored with her son Todd, and now the ones that he is writing on his own. Call it habit, call it nostalgia, but there it is.

Dragon’s Fire, Todd McCaffrey & Anne McCaffrey

This is a continuation of the story begun in Dragon’s Kin. These novels, set near the end of the Second Interval, seem to have been written at least in part for the purpose of giving origin and back stories to some elements of life on Pern that have become fully integrated in the society by the time of F’lar, Lessa and Master Robinton. Dragon’s Kin looked at the discovery of the unique abilities of watch-whers, and the life of miners on Pern – who learn to use watch-whers to sniff out gas pockets and locate trapped miners. Portions of Dragon’s Fire overlap the events of Dragon’s Kin from a different perspective, as the book continues with the exploration of life in the mining camps of Pern, and deals largely with the difficulties of mining the explosive firestone used by Dragonriders in fighting thread at this period in the history of Pern – in fact, it is during the events of this book that the shift is made to the less-volatile mineral used in the time if F’lar. The book also looks at some of the consequences of the Pernese custom of shunning – making outcaste and exlie – criminals and other “undesirables.”

Due to the youth of the key characters, it would appear that the series was intended as young adult reading. That’s fine – most of the Pern books feature young characters – but something about these two books just failed to grab me. I found the plots somewhat disjointed and perhaps unnecessarily complicated, and to be perfectly honest, I find it difficult to remember exactly what happened in the books, and to whom.


Dragonsblood, Todd McCaffery

Curiously enough, Todd McCaffrey’s foray into writing a Pern book without his mother’s collaboration was a far more enjoyable affair for me. It certainly helps that he appears to lack his mother’s difficulty in following the decisions she made about the sexuality of dragons and dragonriders to their logical conclusion – that the vast majority of male dragonriders, by necessity if not inclination, engage regularly in sex with other men and probably form strong emotional ties to those men. After all, male dragons come in three colours – bronze, brown and blue – and the female dragons in two colours – gold and green. For most of the history of Pern, women have only been gold dragon riders - and gold dragons are very few indeed - while men have been riding green dragons as well as all the other colours of dragons. And it is canon that the bond between dragon and rider means that when two dragons mate, so do their riders - and that these bonds can be intensely emotional as well as sexual. It’s always been there in the text, and sometimes even mentioned, but Todd McCaffrey actually seems comfortable enough with the concept to discuss it directly as part of who his characters are and what they do, and that’s a welcome change.

Set just prior to the beginning of the Third Turn (just a few years after the trilogy the McCaffreys are co-writing), Dragonsblood draws on some familiar tropes in the Pern universe – plague and how to deal with it in the absence of medical technology, finding lost records from the Landing, using the dragon’s time-travelling abilities to make possible something that otherwise could not be done – but it’s a pleasant if not particularly challenging read. And it gives us more information on the dragons, the fire-lizards and the whers.

I’m looking forward with some curiosity to Todd McCaffrey's next solo Pern offering.

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Fortune’s Fool, Mercedes Lackey

In this, the third of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, Lackey draws on Russian, Arabian and Japanese folklore for another delightful retelling of old tales with a new and somewhat subversive twist. Several old friends reappear, including the dragons from volume two.

This time, there are two protagonists – Ekaterina (Katya) the seventh daughter of the King of the Sea, and Sasha, the seventh son of the King of Belarus. This being a faerie land, and Tradition being what it is, both the seventh daughter and the seventh son have unusual powers, which their respective parents have put to great use. Katya, like all underwater people, has magical power, and she also has the much rarer ability to transform instantaneously from water-breather to air-breather, and she is quite happy putting her talents to use as her father’s eyes and ears – observer, spy, and agent – both at home and in other kingdoms. Sasha, meanwhile is not only the seventh son, but a Fortune Fool and one born with the gift of influencing the workings of Tradition through his music. His job in his father’s court is to play the fool while subtly easing tensions and manipulating people and events in to bring about good fortune; outside the court, he uses his abilities to manipulate Tradition itself so that the country experiences the best possible consequences of those kinds of situations that can call Tradition into play.

Because this is, after all, a faerie tale (to say nothing of a series written for a SFF imprint of a publisher specialising in romance novels), Sasha and Katya meet one day during the performance of their respective duties, and end up, after various trials and tribulations, happily in love (that’s hardly a spoiler, I think). What is fun is how they get through those trials and tribulations. Sasha is not your typical hero – rather, he’s a truly good man who gets out of trouble by being polite, thoughtful, honest, observant, honourable and diplomatic; three cheers for a hero who doesn’t suffer from testosterone poisoning! Meanwhile, Katya is quite capable of defending herself in tight quarters, and even though the major plotline takes the form of the all-too-familiar “evil creature kidnaps beautiful maidens and hero leads the mission to rescue them” trope, these maidens are well on their way to extricating themselves by the time the rescue party arrives, and the final confrontation requires the efforts of both captives and rescuers to succeed.

It’s light and fluffy, to be sure, but Fortune’s Fool, like the earlier volumes in the series, playfully challenges the conventions of the faerie tales I knew as a child, and that’s a good thing.

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In these times, when there's a new urban fantasy or supernatural romance on the shelves almost every day, and there is a recognisable format that so many of these books have adopted, it's fun to go back and re-read some of the earliest works of the genre.

Tea with the Black Dragon, by R. A. MacAvoy was written in 1983, when very little fantasy was being written that took place in contemporary times and real places. It is, like many modern urban fantasies, both a mystery adventure and a romance, but part of its charm is that the main characters are a middle-aged woman having communication problems with her daughter, and a centuries-old dragon in the form of a man who has grown tired waiting for the "master" that he was once told he was destined to meet.

It's a wonderful, charming, magical book, and it was a pleasure to read it once again.

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It’s always interesting to me when an author does something new or unexpected with material from oral traditions – fairy tales and the like, and that’s very much what is happening in Mercedes Lackey’s series of novels set in The Hundred Kingdoms. She’s written three books (so far – I don’t know if she intends to write more) in this series, and I’ve recently gotten around to reading the first two:

The Fairy Godmother
One Good Knight

The overall conceit is that in her world of The Hundred Kingdoms, what we consider to be the conventions of fairy tales are actually a powerful force known as The Tradition, which shapes the lives of people to conform to the conventions of fairy tales – sometimes to their benefit, but often to their detriment. Acting as a balance against the untrammelled consequences of Tradition gone wild are Sorcerers, Sorceresses, and above all, Fairy Godmothers, whose job it is to watch out for situations where The Tradition is making a mess of things, and nudge things around a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) so that the power of The Tradition flows along paths that result in at least a better result for the people involved, if not the best possible result.

For instance, how do you manipulate the Tradition of Rapunzel so that dozens of young princes aren’t drawn to her tower to be maimed or killed trying to rescue her, before the prince whose destiny it is to save her finally shows up? How do you manage to avert the Tradition that a maiden saved from a horrible fate by a young knight must end up madly in love with him? And so on.

These books are very witty, even gently satirical concerning the relationships between genders, classes, and races (humans, elves, dragons and so on), and make brilliant use of the range, variety, and interrelationships of folklore motifs – in fact, an afficionado of oral tradition may well feel as though she’s wandering through an animated adaptation of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. At the same time, I found the conceit an interesting comment on the ways in which perceptions, expectations, choices and actions are moulded and driven by social and cultural conventions. It’s not easy to challenge the weight of tradition in any world, and Lackey’s magical Tradition is a metaphor, I think, for just how difficult it is to change ideas about such things as the natural roles of men and women in society, and how, when one does try, the result is rarely a clean break with the past, but rather, an accommodation with the past that moves change forward one step at a time.

Fun reading, but with a hidden kick – a bit of a change for Lackey, who’s not always this subtle in her social messages.

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