Age of Assassins (2017) by R.J. Barker

He turned, swinging his club. Fifteenth Iteration: the Oar. Bending at the hip and bringing my body down and round so it went under his swing. At the lowest point I punched forward, landing a solid blow between his legs. He screeched, dropping his weapon and doubling over.

Girton Club-Foot is a young apprentice-assassin. He and his master Merala are given a mission to discover the person or persons behind a rumored threat to the throne. The target of this threat is young Prince Aydor, a boy of similar age to Girton. To catch the would-be royal assassin, Girton must go undercover as a squire-in-training, keeping his fighting skills hidden from the other trainees.

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Daily life in the medieval court proves almost as challenging as his hunt for the assassin. Girton needs a friend if he is to fit in but up until now his unique apprenticeship has limited his social life. He is not like other boys of the same age, yet he must convince everyone he is. The deeper Girton digs in his investigations, the greater the risk he appears to be putting himself in. Continue reading

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Witchmark (2018) by C.L. Polk

‘Magic was rare, a dangerous curse. It brought no one good fortune.’

This debut novel by C.L Polk introduces us to Miles Singer, a gifted surgeon lately returned home from a WWI-like war. Miles lives in Aeland, currently at war with the kingdom of Laneer. His ‘gift’ is the ability to wield magic, specifically to help with his healing work. The problem is he must keep this a secret or risk personal disgrace and the threat of being locked up in an asylum.

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Polk builds a fascinating world to set her story in. Refraining from dumping huge blocks of exposition, she instead reveals the details of Miles’ world piece by intriguing piece. There are echoes of Edwardian England with its class divisions, manners, and fashion. Instead of electricity they have something called ‘aether’ which is a kind of magical element. Technology is limited, and there are some wonderful descriptions of the way people ride bicycles in the city, in groups almost like flocks of birds. Continue reading

The New Voices of Fantasy (2017) Ed. by Peter S. Beagle & Jacob Weisman

‘The New Voices of Fantasy collects the work of nineteen authors of fantasy that Peter S. Beagle and I firmly believe will soon be much better known. […] All of the stories in this book are recent, published after 2010.’ – Jacob Weisman from his Introduction.

 

Short-story collections can often be a mixed bag of good stories as well as not so good ones. After reading The New Voices of Fantasy, I can say that every story in here is worth reading if you have an interest in fantasy or modern fairy tales. Peter S. Beagle is an author I really admire, so seeing his name attached as one of the editors drew me to this volume. I’ve highlighted the stories that stood out the most for me and would love to hear which stories you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy.

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A Different Kingdom (1993) by Paul Kearney

After enjoying Paul Kearney’s 2016 Oxford-based tale ‘The Wolf in the Attic’, I sought out this earlier work by him. ‘A Different Kingdom’ was first published in 1993, and republished by Solaris in 2014. It tells the story of Michael, a young boy growing up on a rural farm in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. In the woods near the farm, Michael begins to witness things he can’t explain. Are there strange creatures living in the woods, or does Michael just have an overactive imagination?

‘It is a last breathing space, a final look around at the soon-to-be-felled woods, the rush-choked bottom meadows, the fields with the wild flowers that have seeded for a thousand years and which knew the feet of the Druids.’ (Loc 118)

 

This is a fairly dark fairy tale which includes some of the standard tropes found in many fantasy stories: a young “hero” sets out on a quest to find a lost family member, he travels through a strange land, and is both helped and hindered by the characters he meets on his journey. He must stay ahead of the dark forces pursuing him, leading to a final confrontation with the “villain” of the book. What separates ‘A Different Kingdom’ from other, similar stories is Paul Kearney’s writing.

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The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle

Disclaimer: I don’t often gush in reviews. Any gushing is my own gush without any outside influence or pressure to gush. Those easily offended by excessive gushing should read no further.

A very brief, spoiler-free summary: This is the story of a unicorn who believes she may be the last of her kind. She sets out on a quest to discover what has become of the other unicorns. During her journey, she meets several characters who attempt to help or hinder her.

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The Last Unicorn is one of those books which I kept hearing great things about over the years, but never got around to reading. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the title that didn’t quite appeal, or perhaps it was the various covers I’d seen which put me off. I don’t know. It just didn’t call out to me in a loud enough voice. It turns out this was my loss as The Last Unicorn is a fabulous story. Continue reading

The Overneath (2017) by Peter S. Beagle

The Overneath is a new collection of short stories by Peter S. Beagle, the writer of The Last Unicorn (1968). I enjoyed all thirteen of these stories, and found it difficult to single out favourites. They are all of the highest quality and cry out to be read. These gems cover genres including fantasy, science fiction, supernatural horror, and steampunk. For fans of The Last Unicorn, there are two stories which feature one of Beagle’s most beloved characters, Schmendrick the magician.

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The following stories impressed me the most: Continue reading

Mightier than the Sword (2017) by K.J. Parker

“Speaking as a military man, I despise fighting against lunatics. I’ve done it once or twice, and it sets your teeth on edge. You can’t predict what they’ll do, …” (Loc 570)

 

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Cover by Vincent Chong

When the Empress is your aunt, you’ve got to do what she says, even if you don’t like it. K.J. Parker’s latest novella pits an unnamed narrator against “the Land and Sea Raiders”, a group of mysterious pirates who have been attacking the land’s monasteries. We are told a brief history of encounters with the raiders, but until now, no-one has been able to discover exactly who they are or where they’re from.

“Our first experience of them was seventy long, high-castled warships suddenly appearing off Vica Bay. The governor […] sent a message to their leader inviting him to lunch. He came, and brought some friends; it was sixty years before Vica was rebuilt,” (Loc 129)

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