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Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

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The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi's first novel, is a romance-centred fantasy based on Hindu history, religion, myths and folktales. It is a delightful read - Chokshi's prose is rich and smooth, and her protagonist, the princess Mayavati of Bharata, is an enchanting character from the first time we see her, hiding behind a screen to watch the funeral of one of her father's wives.

In short order we learn that Maya is the only unbetrothed daughter of her father the raja, that she survived her mother's death in childbirth, that she has an unfortunate horoscope that warns of a marriage connected to death, and that she is a bright, strong willed, independent young woman who has some mysterious magical/mystical past/destiny that she is wholly unaware of. Growing up with the knowledge that no one would want to marry someone with a horoscope as disastrous as hers, she has imagined herself with a future outside the harem, perhaps even in a position of power and authority in her country.

Then it all changes. In order to bring peace to a war-torn country, her father announces that she will marry one of the leaders of their enemies, although he promises to allows her to make her own choice from among the suitors. But afterwards he tells her privately that it is all a ruse to lure his enemies to the palace, and that he expects her to kill herself so he has a pretext to destroy them.

When a dashing and mysterious suitor calling himself Amar interrupts her attempted sacrifice and promises to take her to his kingdom where she will rule beside him, Maya goes with him rather than take her own life. But Amar is not what he appears to be, his kingdom is not an earthly one, and he is somehow connected to the mysterious hints she has received concerning her past.

I must admit that even without much knowledge of Hindu religious symbolism, I figured out the basics of the mystery of Amar and her connection with him long before it was revealed in the text. But it was still an engaging, though not particularly demanding read.

Light, romantic fantasies often leave out the difficult issues. A review of the book by Samira Nadkarni [1] that addresses the ways in which Chokshi handled the historical and religious source material, points out some of the problematic areas, notably the exclusion of India's diverse peoples - the book presents everyone as Hindu - and the omission of issues of caste and class, and a downplaying of the sexism that pervades much of the source material.

The Star-Touched Queen is a light and enjoyable read, but I would urge readers to look at critical reviews such as Nadkarni's to gain more perspective.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] For more on Leslau's theories, this is a solid but not too exhaustively detailed overview:

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"Trollbooth," Maureen Tanafon, April 2015, Crossed Genres

While the men around her bluster around violently in an attempt to save two children lost to supernatural captors, a courageous young woman takes another path to win their freedom.

"And the Balance in Blood," Elizabeth Bear, November 2015, Uncanny Magazine

Bear's fantasy novelette is a marvellous story about an unusual hero, a grey-haired cloistered religieuse named Sister Scholique who has the gift of the gods' grace; her prayers are often answered by the gods, from small things like a prayer to allow her to overhear a conversation just beyond the range of her hearing, to prayers for the souls of the dead. In fact, it is this latter purpose that takes up most of her time, praying over wax recordings of prayers for the dead as she turns these cylinders in her chantry. When a dream gives her an idea of how to build an automated chantry that will give her more free time, she sets her church on a path that leads to potential abuses. A beautifully written tale that asks questions about the influence of the wealthy in accessing practices meant to be available to all.

"The House of Surrender," Laurie Penny, January 11, 2016, Der Freitag

In the future, people have learned to live mostly in harmony. Captialism, the belief in hierarchies and the idea that one person can with impunity interfere with the autonomy of another are all distant memories of the past. But sometimes people, being people, offend against others, and if there is no way for them to live among others, they come to the island of the House of Surrender. And there they stay. Until one day a man arrives at the House who claims to be from the past.

"Two to Leave," Yoon Ha Lee, May 28 2015, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Yoon Ha Lee writes in a style all his own, lyrical, elegant, packed with images and delicate allusions. His writing seems to speak to the heart and the unconscious - when I read one of his stories, I often feel that I've just encountered something deeply profound, yet something I cannot quite capture in words, something that partakes of the nature of our dreams. So it is with this story, and deservedly so, for this is a story of a ferryman, and a river that cannot be crossed without sacrifice, a mercenary who kills with a swarm of bees, a messenger raven, and of eyes, and vision, taken and given. Of life and death and the states inbetween and the ways to reach them.

"Vulcanization," Nisi Shawl, January 2016, Nightmare Magazine

King Leopold of Belgium seeks to rid himself of the ghosts of the Congo. A steampunk meditation on atrocity, remembrance and guilt. Powerful.

"Our Lady of the Open Road," Sarah Pinsker, June 2015, Asimov's Magazine

In the future, people's fears of mingling with those they don't know, combined with increasingly sophisticated technology that makes possible holographic displays of concerts and sports events in the safety and security of one's home, have almost destroyed the idea of live performance and the travelling band. But a few artists remain on the road, committed to the belief that performance art involves the immediate relationship between performer and audience, no matter how high the cards are stacked against them.

"The Killing Jar," Laurie Penny, January 2016, Motherboard

In the not too distant future, the simulated murders of television and film are no longer sufficient to satisfy the public craving for blood and circuses. Society has recognised and legitimated a new kind of performance, the serial killer - who is free to kill as long as he follows the rules.
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Manda Scott, Dreaming the Bull

The blurb for this engaging sequel to Dreaming the Eagle describes the events of the second (of four) volumes of Scott's historical fantasy epic as follows:
Hailed as Boudica, the Bringer of Victory, Breaca now leads her people's resistance against the occupying legions of Rome. Opposing her is Julius Valerius, an auxilary cavalry officer whose increasing brutality in the service of his god and emperor cannot shield him from the ghosts of his past. Caught between them are two children, pawns in a game of unthinkable savagery, while in distant Rome the emperor Claudius holds the balance of lives in his hands.
For most of this book, the focus is on Breaca's brother Ban, now known as Julius Valerius, as he binds himself to Rome and the soldier's god, Mithras. The plot takes the reader through the years of the rebellion led by the man the Romans called Caratacus, here identified as Caradoc, lover of Breaca and father of her two children Cunomar and Grainne. In Scott's version of history, Caradoc is captured and taken to Rome along with his son Cunomar, his former lover Cwnfen, their warrior-daughter Cynfa, and another Eceni warrior (Roman sources record the captivity of Caratacus, his wife, brother and two children).

Accepted history says that Caratacus and his family lived in Rome for the rest of their lives, but does not record further details; the date of Caratacus' death and the fate of yhe rest of his family is unknown. Scott makes use of these lacunae to propose that Caradoc, Cwnfen, Cunomar, Cynfa and their compatriot Dubornos escape during the confusion surrounding the last days of the Emperor Claudius, escorted and protected, on Claudius' orders, by none other than Julius Valerius.

The more I read of it, the more these books appear as a sort of secret history - with mystical elements - of British resistance to the occupying Roman Empire. Rather presenting the various tribal rebellions as a series of separate incidents, Scott is weaving a story of multigenerational resistance among peoples linked by ties of kinship and other loyalties. The paucity of contemporary documents speaking to the history of the British tribes gives Scott the leeway to imagine this web of alliances, and to present a strong cast of characters to drive the story.

Looking forward to volume three, and hoping that in the long run, the mystery of the historical Boudica's end will give Scott's Breaca and Caradoc the bittersweet joy of a final meeting once the battles are over.

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Dreaming the Eagle is the first of Manda Scott's historical fantasy quartet based on the life of Boudica, leader of the Iceni - one of several British tribes that rebelled against Rome in the early years after the Claudian conquest.

Very little is known about Boudica, or indeed about any of the inhabitants of Britain prior to the Roman conquest, and most of what is known, come to us through the eyes of the victorious Romans, who looked at the British tribes and saw barbarians. Thus the writer who choses to tell stories of this time has a great deal of free rein to tell whatever story she wants.

I label this series specifically as fantasy not just because so much of the lives of the Iceni and other tribes is - as it must be - invention, but also because the author's interpretation of pre-Roman British spirituality plays a large role, at least in the one book I've read so far.

In Dreaming the Eagle, Scott gives us an imaginative and engaging story of the young woman warrior who will grow up to be, not just the leader of the Iceni, but the Warrior of Mona, a title in some ways akin in meaning to battlechief of the Britons, given to her by the dreamers (Scott's version of the Druids) of the Isle of Mona. We also follow her half-brother Ban, captured and sold into slavery by a traitor of the tribe of the Trinovantes, who, believing all his kin including Boudica (here named Breaca for the early part of her life) killed in the ambush in which he was taken, has given his allegiance to the Romans who gave him back his freedom.

The book ends after the first major encounter between the invading Romans and the British defenders, led by Boudica and her lover Caradoc, leader of the Ordovices. The British forces have retreated, and when Ban discovers on the battlefield the bodies of some he believed dead for years, including that of his own mother, he starts to realise that he has been lied to. But the suvivors among his own people still believe him dead at the hands of the now dead traitor Amminios - brother to Caradoc.

I'm looking forward to the next volume.

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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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With 20-odd books in the Saint Germain series, by now one knows what to expect - impeccable historical detail surrounding yet another of the ancient vampire's travels and adventures. I love these books, and Night Pilgrims delivers all of the trademarks of Yarbro's successful blend of the historical and the supernatural.

It's 1225, not long after the Fifth Crusade, and Saint Germain is back in Egypt, living as a secular guest in a Coptic monastery while attempting to minister to the medical needs of the community's elder. Political developments, both internal to the monastery (the ambitious monk who seeks to become the community leader and is suspicious of Saint Germain's true nature and intentions) and external (unrest stemming from the advance of Ghenghis Khan) make it necessary for the Count to leave his place of refuge. Fortunately, a party of European Christian pilgrims require a guide in their journey south along the Nile to sacred sites in Ethiopia. The Count, a well-travelled polyglot with great skill as a healer, is the perfect choice.

The novel details the world of medieval Egypt through which the group of pilgrims pass with painstaking detail, and I must admit that this for me is one of the greatest draws of the Saint Germain novels. The other draw is the idea of Saint Germain, the millennias-old being who has seen the rise and fall of civilisations, the best and worst that humans can contrive - and still moves among them with pity and compassion. The vampire healer. The peacemaker (when possible) who needs blood to survive. The eternal contradiction.

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Unlike the other of George's biographical novels i've reaf, which are grounded in historical fact, well preserved in existing documents, this treatment of Mary of Magdala draws equally on what is known of the times from secular documents, and on Biblical and other religious sources, without any questions concerning the historicity of the latter. George tells a compelling story about the most well-known of Jesus' female disciples, but writes of prophetic dreams and visions, miracles, driving out demons and the death and resurrection of Jesus as literal truths, without the devices that, in her novel of Henry VIII for instance, allowed us to see where the subject of the novel may be an unreliable narrator with respect to their own motivations and beliefs.

I enjoyed the book, but as a non-Christian, I read it more as historical fantasy than straight historical fiction. It was much like reading a novel of King Arthur where the writer has done detailed research into the historical period and presents that faithfully, but includes all of the supernatural tales of Merlin and Morgana's magic, the tale of the Green Knight who, beheaded, returns to life, and other such elements of the mythos as if they too were undisputed historical fact.

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The Space Between, Diana Gabaldon

Interesting novella, set in France and featuring Joan MacKimmie, Jamie Fraser's step-daughter (daughter of his second wife, Laoghaire MacKenzie), and Michael Murray, his nephew. Michael is taking Joan to join a French nunnery as a postulant, and in the process they encounter the Compte Saint Germain - who has his own plans for the young woman he believes to be the daughter of Claire Fraser. What intrigued me the most about the novella was its portrayal of Le Compte (a character whose historical and literary appearances I have some interest in) as not just a magician and alchemist (or a con man of some notoriety) but a time traveller much like Claire and the others so far encountered in the Outlander saga.'

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

It's very easy to see why this won the Nebula for Best Novella. The story is intense and compelling, the prose lean and yet visceral, and the characters - after, before and during the fall - are so very human in their fears and choices.

The story unfolds in three time - 2035 (after the fall), 2013 (before the fall) and 2014 (during the fall), but characters from after and before connect in various ways, and all three merge at the climax of the fall - a convergence of natural disasters on a massive scale that sparks nuclear devastation and the end of almost all life on earth. But in that climax, the message that one woman from before the fall manages to pass on to the handful of humans surviving after the fall is one that may save the future.

In the House of the Seven Librarians, Ellen Klages

A simple fantasy about a closed and forgotten library, seven librarians who stay there after it closes, keeping order and eating tea and biscuits (the new library that has replaced their beloved home is too modern and soulless for these librarians) and the baby left in the book return chute. I suppose it's technically a children's book, but I loved it. Beautifully illustrated and published by Aqueduct Press.

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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. (
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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Last year was a year for historical novels of many flavours. I've already discussed the historical mysteries I enjoyed, but there were other multi-genre historical novels to be read kast year.

I finally caught up with Diana Gabaldon's twin historical-tine travel fantasy series, just in time for the upcoming release of the next Outlander novel. I'm looking forward to that, and also, I hope, to more of the Lord John books. 

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
Diana Gabaldon, The Scottish Prisoner
Diana Gabaldon, An Echo in the Bone

Another multi-genre book I happened across was Paula Brackston's now-and-then historical/paranormal fantasy novel The Witch's Daughter. Told in two different times, it's the story of a woman whose mother was hanged as a witch in 1628 and who survives into modern times by learning witchcraft herself from a powerful but vengeful warlock. Brackston seems to have written several more books in a similar vein, and this one was interesting enough that I anticipate reading more of her books.

Then there was the somewhat unclassifiable Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, by Robin Maxwell, who is known for her historical novels. Jane is a retelling of the Tarzan story from the perspective of the woman who loves and civilises him, but Maxwell makes Jane even more interesting and unconventional than Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to do (and considering his times, and his focus on Tarzan as his hero her actually did rather well at it). A cross between historical fantasy and literary hommage, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan should delight ERB fans and feminists alike.

And finally, I read two more novels in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's marvellous historical vampire series. As ever, I enjoyed these novels greatly, both for the historical accuracy and for the chance to experience yet more chapters in the endlessly fascinating life of the Count Saint Germain. 

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, A Dangerous Climate
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Commedia della Morte

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Judith Tarr, Bring Down the Sun

Judith Tarr writes wonderful historical fantasy. She takes real characters, places and times, and tells a story that builds on is known about them, imbuing the tale with the mystery of gods and magic.

In Bring Down the Sun, Tarr tells a story about Olympias (also known as Polyxena and Myrtale), the mother of Alexander the Great, following the outlines of her life as recorded by Plutarch, several centuries after her death. The magic enters the tale from the beginning, with the young Polyxena being raised to be a priestess in a Triple Goddess cult and the hints we gather from the elder Priestesses that Polyxena carries within her some powerful but unexplained gifts. Polyxena later is initiated into the Dionysian mysteries (taking the name Myrtale at this point) where she meets and forms a bond – part sexual, part magical – with the young Philip of Macedonia, who seeks her for his (fourth) wife. The story continues up to the birth of the young Alexander, with Myrtale facing intrigue from Philip’s other wives and from various magical sources, including the cult she served as a young girl and a cult of “Thessalonian witches” – priestesses of yet another ancient mystical tradition who are aware of Myrtale’s hidden power and seek to bring make her one of their own.

What I found frustrating about this book, despite my enjoyment of the story, the magic, and the strong women characters, is that it seems unfinished. I had hoped it was the first in a series, but it has been three years and there’s no sign of a sequel on the horizon. There is still so much of the past that Tarr has imagined for Myrtale that remains hidden, and so much more that is known of Olympias’ life past the birth of Alexander, that the book does not address. I will just have to keep looking to see if Tarr returns to this story.

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Like many other people these days, I have a deep appreciation and affection for the work of Jane Austen. I've re-read all of the published novels several times, and collect the various versions of the films and TV movies that have been based on her books. I am a little more picky about which of the many "inspired by Austen" novels that have been hitting the market in ever-increasing numbers, but I do read some, when the fancy takes me.

Jane Austen & Seth Grahame Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This was, as many people seem to agree, a lot of fun, but I fear the idea did not delight me sufficiently to cause me to go and buy all the other versions of classics with interpolated fantasy elements that are (were?) such a fad for a while. Best part of this one? - the martial arts battle between Lady de Burgh and Elizabeth Bennett.

Carrie Bebris, Suspense and Sensibility

Bebris has written a series of mysteries in which Elizabeth and Darcy solve crimes involving both the other characters from Pride and Prejudice and characters related to or featured in the other novels. I rather enjoyed the conceit of this one, in which a member of the fictional Dashwood family from Sense and Sensibility is possessed by his ancestor, the historical Francis Dashwood, notorious founder of The Hellfire club (well, one of them, but certainly the one best known to posterity). Unfortunately, Bebris does not, at least in my opinion, get the "voice" of the Austen characters quite right and this left me a little disappointed. I may or may not investigate the other books in this series.

Michael Thomas Ford, Jane Bites Back

This was delicious. Jane Austen as a vampire, turned by no other than Lord Byron, living in modern times and trying to get a new novel published. I enjoyed Ford's take on an Austen who has survived into modern times and seen her books rise in popularity and critical acclaim, and plan to pick up the sequel.

Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club

Fowler's conceit in this book is fascinating - the novel follows a diverse set of characters in a book club devoted to Jane Austen, their interactions with each other and with the texts they are reading and discussing. Parallels naturally emerge, but the relationships and resonances are subtle. Well worth reading.

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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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