The Secret Commonwealth (2019) by Philip Pullman

Remember Lyra and Pantalaimon?

I read and enjoyed Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy back when they were first published just over twenty years ago. I’ve wanted to re-read them for a while, but I haven’t got around to it yet. I bought The Book of Dust Vol.1: La Belle Sauvage when it came out in October 2017. I enjoyed it overall, but felt that something was lacking. Perhaps it was the lack of familiar characters, as Lyra is just a baby in that story which is set chronologically before the His Dark Materials trilogy. But there were moments of magic in there; enough to make me want to read the next volume of the Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (2019).

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In the Forests of Serre (2004) by Patricia McKillip

Beware of old women in the forest; especially if they live in a hut that can sprout chicken legs and run! I first came across Baba Yaga in an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic. The story was titled “The Hunt” and was published in issue #38 back in June 1992. She wasn’t as scary as when I later encountered her in a couple of issues of the comic book Hellboy.

Here is a quote from Wikipedia’s page on the character:

‘In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed or ferocious-looking old woman. In Russian folklore, Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs.’

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A Feast for Crows (2005) by George R.R. Martin

Aemon’s blind white eyes came open. “Egg?” he said, as the rain streamed down his cheeks. “Egg, I dreamed that I was old.”

2005’s A Feast for Crows appears to divide opinion more than any of the previous three books in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. One reason for this was the author’s decision to chop this fourth installment into two parts due to its excessive length. (The second part would eventually be released in 2011 as A Dance with Dragons). The author then upset fans even more by leaving the plot threads of his three most popular characters hanging until the following book. So readers had to wait six more years to discover what became of Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Danaerys Targaryan.

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A Feast for Crows continues the narrative from the point of view of twelve characters, both major and minor. Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Sansa and Arya Stark get the majority of the chapters. It is notable that Martin takes us inside Cersei Lannister’s head for the first time in this book and we get to hear her first-person narration of events. Additionally, we are introduced to Aeron Greyjoy–a priest of the Drowned God–and discover more about the ways of the Iron Islands and their inhabitants. Continue reading

Witches Abroad (1991) by Terry Pratchett

‘Forever didn’t seem to last as long these days as once it did.’

My recent re-read of Pratchett & Gaiman’s sublime Good Omens (1990) led me to seek out the Discworld books that were published around the same time, (give or take a couple of years). Witches Abroad is the twelfth Discworld novel and the third featuring the Witches, preceded by Equal Rites (1987) and Wyrd Sisters (1988). It stars Pratchett’s holy trinity of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlik.

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Witches Abroad opens with a death. Desiderata Hollow, witch and fairy godmother, bequeaths her magic wand to Magrat Garlik before she passes on to the undiscovered country. This leads to Magrat becoming fairy godmother to Emberella, a young woman who lives in the land of Genua, far across the Disc. Now responsible for young Emberella, Magrat must journey to Genua and help her get out of an impending, unwanted wedding. Not trusting Magrat with the responsibility of her new role or her new wand, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg insist on accompanying her abroad. Continue reading

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

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