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A Local Habitation is the second of Seanan McGuire's novels featuring October Daye - Toby to those who know her well - changeling, private investigator, and knight of Faerie.

In this installment, she is called upon by her liege lord Count Sylvester to investigate a potential problem in the small faerie realm of Tamed Lightning, a buffer state between her lord's domain and that of a rival, the Countess Riordan. The
Countess of Tamed Lightning is Sylvester's niece, January O'Leary, with whom he is normally in close contact, but he hasn't heard from her in weeks, his messages have gone unanswered, and he's worried.

What Toby finds is a terrible mystery almost beyond her abilities to solve. Something has been disrupting communications between Tamed Lightning and Sylvester's lands - January has heard nothing from him, received no messages, and suspects treachery. Worse, death is stalking Tamed Lightning's grounds. The County is anchored on January's computer programming company, and employees - all either pureblood fae or changelings - are being murdered. Worse, they have been killed in such a way that the night-haunts, fae responsible for removing the bodies of dead fae and replacing them with undetectable imitations that will pass as human to police, medical examiners and other humans who deal with the dead, refuse to take their bodies. And Toby, whose gifts involve the ability to read memories from blood, even the blood of the dead, can see nothing in the blood of these victims.

I'm coming to enjoy these urban fantasies. The complexity of mythologies, the intricacies of fae traditions and politics, and the dogged perseverance of Toby herself, who fights on against all odds, in a world where her changeling nature limits what she can do in either world, human or faerie, but manages, just barely, to do what has to be done.

Her victories often cone too hard, at too great a cost, and too late to be truly called successes, and that's a big part of what I like. She's a flawed hero who tries but fails as much as she succeeds - but still keeps trying.

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Rosemary and Rue, the first of Seanan McGuire's October Daye urban fantasy novels, starts off in a manner most uncharacteristic of the genre. Toby Daye, private investigator and half-fae changling, is tailing a fae lord suspected of kidnapping his brother's wife and daughter when she is caught and transformed into a koi. She spends the next 14 years swimming in a pond, her selfhood submerged in the limited mind of a fish.

Unlike many urban fantasy protagonists, Toby Daye doesn't always get away safely. That was the first thing that caught my attention and made me think this might be a cut above the masses of urban fantasy series on the market these days. Then there was the fact that rather than bouncing back ready to avenge her losses - years of her life, a relationship with a lover and a child who believe she abandoned them and want nothing to do with her, a sidhe mother who was slowly losing her mind when the transformation took place and is beyond reach by the time Toby breaks free of enchantment - she withdraws, repudiates everything of her former life, shows all the signs of PTSD you would expect from such an assault, such losses.

And then one of the Sidhe nobility, Evelyn Winters, also known as Evening Winterrose, Countess of Goldengreen someone Toby has known all her life, is murdered by cold iron, and her last act is to bind Toby with an ancient curse to stop at nothing to find her murderer.

The complexity of October Daye's world, encompassing faerie beings from multiple cultures, changelings, kingdoms anchored to the world but not wholly in it, and the politics of all these levels is fascinating, and watching Toby navigate all these realms - while still living in the world and dealing with jobs and rent and the human relationships severed when she was imprisoned in the body of a fish - is enough to engage the reader's interest. Add in the mystery of Evening's murder and the twists and turns of Toby's investigation, and you have a roaring good read.

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What can you say about a paranormal romance that seamlessly blends the Tuatha de Danaan and other sidhe-folk from Irish legend, the long and bloody history of the struggle of the Irish people for independence from English imperialism, and moderns concepts of sexual politics and identity?
Tate Hallaway's [1] short novel, released on the new Tapas online reading platform [2], is all this, and it is a fast-paced, action-filled read.

One minute, part-time student and self-identified dyke Kerry O'Neill Nystrom is dashing along a wooded short cut, trying to get to an exam on time, and the next, she's in a forest in Eire and a gorgeous lady centaur is kissing her passionately. Thus begins Kerry's involvement with both the politics of Irish unification and the politics of the faerie court. Before long she discovers that she is thought to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy concerning a son of the O'Neills and the rising of a free Ireland - and that the sidhe who have brought her to Ireland have no idea that she's a woman. Along the way she is drawn into a bitter personal struggle between the strangely attractive Hugh O'Donnell, child of a mortal man and a faerie woman, and Puca, a shape-changing bogie, or dark fey.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Sidhe Promised, aside from the story itself, was Hallaway's handling of Kerry's sexuality. The journey to an understanding of sexual identity as something that is inherent in the person, and not the relationships they choose, is one I have travelled myself, and I thought was very well-done here.



[1] Tate Hallaway is, of course, the alter ego of Lyda Morehouse, author of the marvellous cyberpunk series AngeLink.

[2] Tapas - download the free app to read available content online, one or two sample chapters of each work are free, purchase keys to unlock more chapters if you like what you're reading: https://tapas.io/
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In Kelly Robson's novella The Waters of Versailles, former soldier Sylvain de Guilherand has found a place for himself at the court of the Sun King through his skill in plumbing - providing fresh water and toilets to the court. But his expertise depends on an unequal - and possibly coerced - partnership that is fraying at the seams, as are the pipes that supply water to the toilets of the court.

Sylvain, we discover, has enticed a nixie away from her mountain streams and is using her power over water to ensure that the waters of Versailles flow smoothly and the pipes never leak. But when the old soldier he keeps to entertain and communicate his needs to the nixie dies, the orderly functioning of the palace plumbing begins to fail, and Sylvain must deal with the nixie - a childlike being who is eager to please, but who misses her friend - himself.

At the outset of the story, Sylvain has everything he ever thought he wanted - the favour of kings and nobles, and the favours of many of the ladies of the court. But he is also cynical, and callous toward those on whom his social-climbing success Really depends. Much of the charm of this waterpunk story lies in the depiction of a frivolous and status-obsessed court side by side with Sylvain's slow development of understanding and empathy for the nixie he formerly sought only to use for his own aims.

I was also rather amused at the frank - and quite historically accurate - discussions of toilets and their functions, and the public use of them. This was, we must recall, a time when the real Sun King would take a shit while holding court whenever it pleased him.

The novella can be found on the Tor website:
http://www.tor.com/2015/06/10/waters-of-versailles-kelly-robson/

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Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is a most delightful debut novel. This combination of Regency romance and historical fantasy works very well, and the grounding of the characters and story in the midst of Britain's colonial project, complete with trenchant observations on matters of race, gender and class gives the narrative depth and - odd though it may seem to say - realism.

Zacharias Wythe, the new Royal Sorcerer, is beset with difficulties. The magical power available to Britain's thaumaturges is dwindling, no one has been able to contract with a new familiar in years, the Crown is badgering him to help a foreign ally deal with a rebellious group of - perish the thought - female magicians, the circumstances of his accession to the post have left many of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers suspicious of him, his predecessor is haunting him, he is suffering from a strange malady, and someone is trying to kill him. Oh, and he is the only black freed slave to ever have become a thaumaturge, in a land where the practice of real magic has traditionally been restricted to gentlemen - that is to say, men of family, breeding and wealth, the cream of British society, and unquestionably white.

But there's worse in store for Zacharias, when he learns that the only person who may be able to help him resolve these problems is Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of mixed English and South Asian heritage, who has the potential to become the most powerful sorceress in all England - if only it were permissible to teach women the use of magic.

The interplay between Zacharias and Prunella is delightful, as they move from teacher and student to allies, friends, and more, and as they slowly discover each other's magical and personal secrets.

Deceptively light in tone, this is a story about two outsiders who will come together to save their nation, but in doing so, begin a process that may change it utterly.

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There's not a great deal to be remarked on about Jim Butcher's Skin Game. It's urban fantasy with lots of action, and a very complicated con/heist/doublecross plot that involves our wizardly hero Harry Dresden, assorted ancient and nasty enemies, his liege lady Mab, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Hades, God of the Underworld, and a plan to steal the Holy Grail from the most secure vault in the Harryverse.

I haven't read any of the previous Dresden Files novels, although I've sort of wanted to check out the series because I watched and enjoyed the short-lived TV show based on the character. So a lot of the backstory that presumably motivated the various good, evil, and ambiguously aligned characters was missing for me. And after 15 novels, there was a lot of history between most of the characters, as this seemed to be one of those novels that brings back all of your favourite guest stars to stir things up between them. I probably missed out on a lot that might have made the book more emotionally gratifying by being a complete stranger to the series, but that's one of the risks of nominating the 16th volume in a series for a major award.

Harry himself seems to be modeled after the classic film noir hard-boiled detective, except that as a first person POV narrator of that particular stripe, he's not really jaded enough, and he rambles on rather a lot.

As a casual read, Skin Game was reasonably enjoyable, and I still might go read a few of the earlier novels when I'm in the mood for frivolous magic and mayhem - but I must say that while reading this, I found myself comparing it with the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne, another urban fantasy with a male protagonist with which it shares certain types and tropes, and thinking that it did not quite measure up.

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As Constant Reader may recall, I like invented-world fantasies with lots of worldbuilding and history and complicated politics and cultural issues and yummy things like that. The Goblin Emperor is exactly this, and being so well-written and with such fascinating characters, I was immediately drawn into it and devoured it with delight. Sarah Monette, writing as Katherine Addison, has created something wonderful here.

It's a fish out of water court intrigue - protagonist Maia is the unloved and unregarded fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, the child of a political match between his father and a princess of Barizhan - the land of the goblins. Both mother and son were banished from court, and after his mother's early death, Maia is raised in a remote town by his resentful, out of favour kinsman who abuses him. Maia's life seems destined to be lonely and unpleasant, until a terrible accident - later found to be sabotage - takes the life of his father and three older brothers, leaving him the heir to the throne of Elfland.

Maia comes to the throne totally unprepared, with no knowledge of politics, the nation's concerns, the intricacies of court life, the duties of an emperor, the bureaucracy and endless paperwork that keeps an empire running. What he does have is a natural honesty, a desire to serve and do the best for his people, and a likable nature that eventually wins him a few key allies amidst a court that views him with disdain as a half-blood savage who does not deserve to rule.

It's the essential decency of the main character that sells the novel from the first page. The reader wants Maia to learn how to thread his way through the complexities of politics, the mechanics of government and the court intrigues, to come into his own and heal a land where divisions along lines of race, class and gender have resulted in a host of abuses, great and small, institutional and personal.

It's a complex and wonderful story, with much to enjoy, and much to think about.

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Marie Brennan returns to the world of the Onyx Court in this novella, Deeds of Men. Set between the events of Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie, it tells the story of how Michael Deven, human ally, lover, and eventually consort of Lune, the Elven Queen of the Onyx Court of London, comes to select his successor as Prince of the Stone and advisor to the Elven Queen.

Weaving the politics of the Elven Court into the real history of England is one of the most interesting and enjoyable things that Brennan does with this series, and the various Princes of the Stone play a crucial part in this, as the bridges between human and elven worlds. Deeds of Men is at once a character study of two of the humans to hold the title and an exciting adventure story with one murder to solve and another to prevent.

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Gael Baudino's Gossamer Axe is one of my favourite books, which is probably why I keep rereading it. It's hard to put into words what draws me to it over and over again, except to say that it hits all the right emotional and thematic buttons for me, with a good hard punch that generally has me crying about a dozen times.

Bare bones synopsis: two sixth century Irish lovers, both student bards, sneak out at night to listen to the elves. They are caught and taken to the land of the far, where nothing ages or changes. One of the lovers, Chairiste, uses a magic elven harp to escape, but cannot free her lover Siubd. The magic of the harp keeps her young as she tries again and again to break her lover free, but fails in the face of elven harper Orfide's superior technique, knowledge and magic. Finally, after 200 years, she discovers heavy metal, realises that this new musical form, with it's raw energy, power and passion is weapon she neds to counter Orfide's advantage, trades in her harp for a double-headed axe, forms an all-woman band, and blasts her way into the Twilight Realm to rescue her beloved.

What grabs me about it:

It's powerfully feminist and woman-centred.
It's a Celtic-themed fantasy (even though it's woefully historically inaccurate).
It's a lesbian love story with a happy ending.
It's one of the first fantasies with an unrepentant queer protagonist.
It's all about women breaking free of the control of men and owning their power - each member of the band is a woman with a misogynist past to overcome.
It's music and magic - and to me these have always gone together.
It takes on the nasty guilt and shame elements of Pauline Christianity that surround women and sexuality, and counters them with a sex-positive goddess spirituality.
It's about undying, totally unconditional love.

Sure, it has flaws, but it also has a cult following and if you are one of those who gets caught up in it, it's a part of you forever. And in recent years, it has become even dearer to me because when I read it, I hear echoes of a good friend, now departed for the Summerland, who loved this book as I do, and who lived parts of it as a woman who loved women, as a master musician, and as a woman who fought to be freely and fully herself. So now as I read it again, I raise a cup and sing for all the women who love women, and fight for their right to be proud and free, and especially for the memory of Julie Songweaver.

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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 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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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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I loved Elizabeth Moon's books about Paksenarrion, the sheepfarmer's daughter who ran away from an ordinary predictable life to become first a mercenary and then a paladin. It's been a long time since Moon wrote those, but she has returned to the richly detailed world of Paksenarrion with a new series focused on Kieri Phelan, a key figure in the original books.

Kieri Phelan, homeless orphan who became leader of a mercenary company and later a Duke, was revealed in the first series to be the long-lost half-elven heir to the kingdom of Lyonya. Moon's new series follows King Kieri's efforts to establish himself in his new role, defend his country against dark plots within and invasion without, and restore his lost elven heritage so that he can be a whole person and the kind of king that Lyonya, a kingdom of both humans and elves, desperately needs.

Naturally, in preparation for the new series, I had to re-read all of the earlier books in this world.

Paladin's Legacy
Oath of Fealty
Kings of the North


The Deed of Paksenarrion
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter
Divided Allegiance
Oath of Gold


The Legacy of Gird
Surrender None
Liar’s Oath


The third volume in the Paladin's Legacy series comes out next month, and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Moon cannot write these books quickly enough to please me - but I'm so happy she is writing them that it doesn't matter.

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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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Elizabeth Bear:
Ink and Steel
Heaven and Earth

Elves in the Elizabethan era. With Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson and Will Shakespeare and Francis Walsingham and the Queen of the Elves and a most strangely imprisoned angel and Lucifer himself.

In the second duology of her Promethean Age series, Bear continues to explore themes of how the creation of narratives influences reality, and issues of servitude and freedom, sacrifice and the desire for redemption.

A more focused story (the title of the duology is The Stratford Man, and Shakespeare is the central figure, although it is Marlowe’s actions – beginning with the historical circumstances of his death, often speculated to have been at the hands of an assassin – that drive much of the plot) it is stronger and more thematically coherent than her previous Promethean Age novels, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water. The Stratford Man duology also focuses more specifically on religion as a source and instrument of oppression/bondage.

While Bear has received criticism for her handling of racial tropes in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, I’ve always appreciated her treatment of queer characters and situations. And in the character of Chris Marlowe, Bear continues her solid and, in my opinion, very welcome tradition of sympathetic representation of queer characters.

I could barely put the books down to sleep and eat and work until I finished them.

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Elizabeth Bear’s first two novels of the Promethean Age, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, are, in my mind, absolutely brilliant. These books are to what is often called urban fantasy as Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is to a Harlequin romance. Not that there's anything wrong with the standard urban fantasy book (I read several series in this subgenre most avidly) or with Harlequin romances (not my cup of tea, but clearly they offer satisfaction to a great many people). But Bear's books, although unarguably fantasy, and clearly set in a modern urban setting (at least those portions that take place on Earth, and not in Faerie), are something quite special indeed.

As with many of Bear’s novels, there’s almost too much going on to even being to state a simple premise, over-arching plot or singular theme, but one can begin by saying that the universe of The Promethean Age is one where Earth and Faerie, Heaven and Hell, are real… places. Dimensions, overlapping and intertwined worlds, or something like that. The Earth is much as we know it, except that in the places that no one ordinarily looks to closely at, there are Magi, many of them members of the Prometheus Club, an organization which has for centuries waged a war with the realm of Faerie for the control of Earth. But neither the human Magi nor the otherworldly folk of Faerie can be said to be monolithic blocs, and there are power struggles between factions of the Magi and factions and courts of Faerie. And of course, various parties have various allegiances with Heaven and Hell – and not necessarily the ones one might expect.

Some reviewers have suggested that Bear has researched her material a bit too deeply. Certainly the more one is familiar with folk ballads, history (particularly the Elizabethan period), world mythology, other literary interpretations of the realm of Faerie and of the relationship between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, Arthurian myths, and sundry other related fields of interest, the more one are likely to find in these books that delights with a fresh perspective on familiar characters and ideas. But the use of all of these stories, of differing degrees of presumed truth and cultural influence, is absolutely key to what Bear is doing with these books, because one of the underlying themes in the Promethean series is all about the consequences of the act of creation and the role of the imagination in creating and shaping reality.

As for me, I thought these two books were among the best things I read in 2008. I'm currently reading the next duology in the Promethean novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, and if anything, these are even better than the first.

Edit: Since I wrote this brief comment on my reaction to Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, the racial tropes Bear uses in exploring another of her themes in these books - issues of bondage,servitude and obligation - have been critiqued by several readers of colour as problematic. Bear herself has not handled the critiques or the discussions that spread out from her responses particularly well. (For context on this debate, which has come to be known as RaceFail 09, please see this post by [personal profile] rydra_wong for a very long list of pertinent links, including links to some timelines and summaries.)

I agree that the tropes are problematical. My reading of the text is that Bear was attempting, among many other things, to deconstruct these racialised tropes as part of her exploration of binding and servitude. Speaking as a person with white privilege, I think that she was successful in this to some degree, certainly enough that I was encouraged by the book alone to think about these issues. But I am not a person of colour, it is not bodies that look like mine that are being used in the text to do this deconstruction, so the text had no power to anger or injure me. It was easy for me to read a text written by a white author that made use of these tropes, and wait for her to show me what she intended in making use of them.

Moreover, the author was working primarily with myths that were drawn from my home culture, one in which concepts of binding spells and geasa and other, similar tropes are common and not racialised, and in my privilege I did not think about how the use of explicitly racialised characters and tropes would affect people of colour.

I am not detracting my statement that these books were among the best that I read in 2008, but I am acknowledging that there are serious issues of cultural appropriation and how to write racialised characters and situations to be considered in approaching this text, and that it should not have been easy for me not to see these issues up front. I need to be a more careful reader where race is concerned.

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Midnight Never Come, Marie Brennan.

It’s 1554 and Mary Tudor wears the English crown. Her sister Elizabeth lies in the Tower, expecting at any moment to hear the news that her death warrant has been signed. To preserve her life and gain her throne, Elizabeth makes an alliance with another would-be queen, Invidiana, who seeks rulership over all the faerie of England. They swear to help each other to their respective thrones – but where Elizabeth is the true queen of England, Invidiana is at heart a usurper. Though affairs may appear to go well in Elizabeth's court, Invidiana's Onyx court becomes a place of fear and corruption, and the pact between the two queens, which now keeps an unfit queen on her throne just as surely as it originally brought a fit queen to hers, will be challenged by a young courtier from Elizabeth’s world, and a secret agent with mixed loyalties from Invidiana’s court.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something that’s just so thematically right about bringing Faerie to Elizabeth’s court, and Marie Brennan has written a new and interesting variation on a theme that’s as old as Spenser and Shakespeare.

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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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