29 February 2024

#Review - Pillar of Ash by H M Long

Book "Pillar of Ash" by HM Long. Against a background of forests, the face of a beast - perhaps a bear or a big cat -against which is silhouetted a woman holding a staff.
Pillar of Ash (Hall of Smoke/ The Four Pillars, 4)
H M Long
Titan, 16 January 2024
Available as: PB, 336pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803360041

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance copy of Pillar of Ash to consider for review.

This is the fourth and final part of what I still think of as the Hall of Smoke sequence, the first part of which introduced us to the formidable warrior priestess Hessa. Subsequent volumes followed the world-changing events which she triggered - indeed I should say worlds-changing events, as gods and goddesses were overthrown, empires clashed and ancient truths uncovered.

Now, as we reach the Fourth Pillar upholding HM Long's world, Hessa steps back and the action focusses on Yske, her daughter. Yske is very unlike Hessa: she considers herself a healer, not a fighter, and has no wish to leave her comfortable hut on the mountain and seek excitement. A bit of a Bilbo Baggins, perhaps, she nevertheless joins a company of adventurers travelling East - mainly, it seems, to look after her brother, Berin rather than from any desire to travel.

Unlike in previous books, the quest is driven this time more by curiosity than by crisis as rumours of a great Tree circulate, and also of something stirring in the Unmade space beyond the world. The East of the Hall of Smoke worlds is little visited: it proves to contain unknown peoples, monsters and, of course, mysteries. And while Yske, Berin and the others didn't travel to confront a great peril, it seems that one is heading for their world - and it has its roots in the strange powers and spirits that Hessa knows so well.

I enjoyed this book, though I have to say that I enjoyed the second half most. An avowed non-warrior is a difficult fit in the Eangen culture of fighters, and for most of the first part of the book Yske's distinctly not at ease, out of place in the somewhat martial company and tending to get the blame when anything goes wrong. Several times I felt she might have been justified in just telling them to **** off, and going back home - after all she only joined the expedition because she was asked, because of what she could contribute as a healer, yet here she is being continually cold-shouldered and devalued because she's not a fighter.

All this changes once... well I can't say exactly what, can I, that would be spoilery, but I will just say that Yske has strengths, knowledge and resourcefulness (and alliances!) that she is able to reach for when things get really tough. It was especially pleasing that, while there is plenty of combat in the book, most of the important action is about building alliances, negotiating, and bringing together unlikely forces against a common threat. Yske proves to excel at all those things and it's great to see how, once she has some freedom of action, she reframes the challenges that face the party to skew away from combat.

In showing what happens next, Long completes the picture that's been building right from the start of Hall of Smoke, a picture which - it's now clear - still had significant gaps. The result is a satisfying conclusion to the whole sequence, adding balance and wholeness to this series of books. 

A good end to this series, a series which has never been less than great fun.

For more information about Pillar of Ash, see the publisher's website here.

27 February 2024

#Review - With Any Luck by Ashley Poston

With Any Luck by Ashley Poston (The Improbable Meet-Cute)
Ashley Poston
Amazon Original Stories, 23 January
Available as: audio, e   
Source: Purchased e-book

I love Poston's stories and am slightly bemused to find myself, having picked up her series set in and around SF cons (always with a romancey tinge) following on by reading her romances-with-a-hint of magic and now, With Any Luck which is I think pure romance. That just shows the joys of this adventure of reading, you never know what will come next.

I admit though that in reviewing this book I'm definitely straying out of my usual comfort zone, and may be missing context and be ignorant of conventions.

Anyway, With Any Luck focusses on the (tragically unlucky) Audrey Love, a woman who couldn't possibly be worse-named as she has a record of being the one who gets dumped when her partner finds their real, true love. Whether that is an actual family curse or confirmation bias is left hanging, but it has been her experience. So when Audrey arrives in a small town to act as best man to a friend (I loved the way that the wedding roles were basically thrown up in the air and left where they lay) and THEN the groom disappears on the morning of the wedding - well, understandably Audrey immediately assumes it's her fault, that she messed things up somehow (if only she could remember how, but she's got such a hangover).

What follows is part comedy, part detective story as Audrey attempts to work out what has happened and what it might mean. There's lots of humour here, and excellent observations of life, love and relationships. There may even be some true love - I will say no more because of spoilers - but it's very entertaining and there is a sharp counterpoint between Audrey's inner hurt (all those failed relationships), hopes and fears for the future, and a desperate desire not to have messed things up, here and now, for her friends.

Even within the confines of a shortish novel (read this at one sitting!) Poston delivers a satisfying story with sharp dialogue and lots of empathy. It would be great to hear more about Audrey - though as further stories would inevitably put her through the emotional mangle again, perhaps she deserves some peace. Either way, this book is strongly recommended.

For more information about With Any Luck, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.

22 February 2024

#Review - Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands

Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands
Heather Fawcett
Orbit, 18 January 2024
Available as: HB, 352pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356519159

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands to consider for review.

Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands is a followup which for me was just as good as, or possibly even slightly better than, its predecessor, Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries

Once again, Wilde and her colleague Bambleby (now Emily's lover, but also the exiled monarch of a Fae kingdom in Ireland) find themselves on a field trip abroad. This time, though, their interest is more than merely academic[1]. Bambleby is under threat, and to meet the challenge, the pair need to identify a door that leads back to his kingdom.

Once again, the pair settle into a remote village (the time in Switzerland), risk antagonising the locals, and begin fieldwork.

Once again, there's bickering over methodology, jealousy over use of the results and a concern with reputation. Now, though, it's not between Emily and Bambleby but involves a third party - Dr Farriss Rose, the Head of Department, who insists on joining the trip. Pretty soon, the fieldwork turns into a search for two long-missing dryadologists who came to this isolated Swiss town and, apparently, vanished into the Otherlands. 

I was afraid that with my favourite two dryadologists[2] now an item, the romantic tension might reduce but I'm happy to say that Fawcett doesn't disappoint on this score, having them navigate a new phase of their relationship, still unsure of where they stand and with Dr Rose trying to throw sand in the machinery of their romance by warning Emily not to become entangled with one of the Folk. (Based on the extant literature, that is of course Very Wise, and Emily does have her doubts - she's quite realistic about Bambleby and avoids placing him on a pedal above other Fae).

We see, I think, in this book an even stronger and more determined Emily than ever (perhaps a reaction on her part to how she was entranced and beguiled in the previous book) and a rather helpless (at times) Bambleby. That allows exploration of a variety of fairytale motifs, Emily alert to the extent to which her life may depend on a narrative. But Fawcett doesn't stint on the horror either, and Emily has plenty of causes for regret in this story - both because of things she does, and things she's unable to prevent.

With all the charm and sideways humour of its predecessor, but perhaps a slightly more direct storyline, one driven by Wilde and Bambleby more than in Encyclopaedia, this book was a delight to read and really takes this series forward - events being left on a total cliffhanger with the opening of the third volume destined to be very exciting, I think!

For more information about Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands, and to order a copy, see the publisher's website here.


[1] I hesitate to use that term - the academic in-jokes here and allusions to professional feuds, lack of tenure and the annoyances of students are as fresh and funny as ever.

[2] Academics who study the various serious subject of the Fae and related entities

[3] There must be footnotes!

20 February 2024

#Review - Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Mislaid in Parts Half Known (Wayward Children, No 9) 
Seanan McGuire
Tor, HB 20 February, e-book 9 January, audio 9 January
Source: Purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781250848505

I purchased this book as an audio. I will also buy the hardback once that's available, as, while the audio is empathetic and engrossing, I think that the Tor hardbacks of these stories are just beautiful objects to own (and as short books, they use little shelf space!)

Of all the Wayward Children stories so far, Mislaid in Parts Half Known is I think the most direct continuation, picking up Antsy's story from Lost in the Moment and Found more or less where it was left, with Antsy's arrival at Eleanor West's School. As such, it suits reading out of sequence much less than some of the other parts of the series - not only because of spoilers but because the previous book has established Antsy's character, rooted in her terrible experiences and in the betrayal she suffered from her adopted friends in her world-hopping Store. All of those things matter when a nine year old girl in a teenager's body tries to fit in at a school already full of misfits, and they affect how Antsy's very special gift - of being able to find anything - will be seen by those who, more than anything else, want to find their Doors and return to their own adopted worlds.

As with several other of the books in this series, these pressures force Antsy - still basically a nine year old, this bears repeating - into making some very subtle moral judgements and decisions about those who are older and ought to be wiser than her. The whole of McGuire's endlessly fascinating universe is like that, of course. The School is predicated on the existence of diversity, the different worlds from which the Wayward Children have returned representing that diversity, but it highlights a paradox because it brings together those who would rather inhabit their own, less diverse worlds, worlds that call to something distinct inside each of them. (Mine, I'm sure, would be the Moors). 

This tension produces some fascinating dynamics and calls the kids to balance their desire for their one, true and only world with care and love for their very different friends, against a backdrop of their necessary accommodation with a harsh and uncaring primary world (Earth) that doesn't understand any of them. Not all of them pass the test: some may come to this with further experience, some may not. 

While these themes recur in the series, the contradiction is, I think, especially acute for Antsy, possibly because "her" world was a nexus, a hub with many connections, and she was abused by those she trusted, at considerable cost. For her, then, the fantasy landscape has darkness at its core. It's not just the losing of the desired world that has hurt her, it's the core experience of it. How she resolves that and redeems herself and her world is the heart of the story, and it is a beautiful and revealing story which I loved to read.

There is, though, more here - we see alliances and authority in the school shift and Eleanor, that rock, seems to be crumbling somewhat. The School isn't static, and these books continue to explore and develop new themes and challenges. Roll on Book 10!

For more information about Mislaid in Parts Half Known, see the publisher's website here - 

15 February 2024

#Review - A Pair of Nightjars - The Junction by Alison Moore and Removals by Ian Critchley

The Junction
Alison Moore
Nightjar Press, January 2024
Available as: PB, 20pp
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB): 9781907341908

With its narrative balanced delicately where the sinister and the tender come together, there are more junctions in this story than simply the location of the accident that sets events in motion. 

Paul's life is at a junction as his relationship with his girlfriend has ended - a story hinted at, but which I would happily sit down and read in full. Returning home, his mother awaits. Neville is also at a junction of his own. When the two men meet, pushed together by chance circumstances (or are they?) it's genuinely unclear how things will go. 

I'm not sure whether we know a lot more by the end - we stand at the crossroads, wondering which is the way forward - but the dance between Paul and Neville has been  intricate, charged with unspoken meaning, a very English encounter in a seemingly otherwise empty bit of the English countryside, and it has illuminated a lot about their lives. 

Strongly recommended!

Ian Critchley
Nightjar Press, January 2024
Available as: PB, 12pp
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB): 9781907341892

When Charlie helps out his mate Aiden on a job in return for a bit of cash in hand, he's introduced to the mysterious Mrs B who wants a stack of boxes cleared from her flat. She is, she says, "death cleaning", that is, getting rid of her clutter so her relatives won't have to deal with everything once she's gone. 

As someone who lost a family member recently I can really see the point of this, but Critchley adroitly sidesteps what one might then expect to be a story about the weight of memories or something like that. No the focus stays on the two lads and suggests that something else - something more eerie - may be at play. "Death cleaning" doesn't really explain Mrs B. The process of removals raises more questions than it answers, and possibly also posts warnings about who we end up obliged to. Those obligations may come back to us either before death, not just after.

A magnificently eerie story.

I received copies of The Junction and Removals through my subscription to Nightjar Press - a wonderful opportunity to read varied stories that draw out the subtler patterns and tensions of modern life.

For more information about The Junction, or to buy a copy, see here. For Removals, see here.

13 February 2024

#Review - The Briar Book of the Dead by A G Slatter

The Briar Book of the Dead
AG Slatter
Titan Books, 13 February 2024 
Available as: PB, 396pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803364544

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me a copy of The Briar Book of the Dead to consider for review.

The Briar Book of the Dead is a novel set in Slatter's Sourdough universe, recently explored by her in All the Murmuring Bones and The Path of Thorns. I was very pleased to revisit this intricate and intriguing world, its society centring on the witches who keep everything going and protect everyone else while themselves being persecuted by a venal Church.

This is a world where details matter, where social structures and indeed social infrastructure matter, where people matter. I think The Briar Book of the Dead explores that even more than its predecessors did. The story's set in Silverton, a remote hill town where the Briar family of witches have some prominence, since their powers enable them to fend off the dark Leech Lords. This means they're granted some tolerance by the distant church - so long as they know their place.

But when did Slatter's witches ever know their place? Far from that, the Briars - a matriarchal clan who came to Silverton three hundred years before and rescued the town from decline - actually run the place, dealing with a myriad of administrative, economic and social questions as well as with the magical. Such work isn't easy, however, and we see Silverton at a troubled time when the titular Witch has died suddenly and her role been passed on for the first time in a generation, as has that of the Steward, the family who ensures all those things listed above go smoothly. 

The story is told from the perspective of the new Steward, Ellie Briar, who's a bit of an embarrassment to the family because she has no witchcraft. What Ellie does have, unknown to anyone else, is a talent for speaking to - and for - the restless dead. This will be useful as the power of the Briars is tested to its limits. But it's a secret Ellie's determined to keep because the mere existence of ghosts in the town undermine's her family's mythology.

This was a magnificent story. Ellie is a fantastic mixture of the assured and competent - and the unsure. Being the only non-magical Briar means that while she may be loved, she's endlessly slighted by the others in unthinking ways. Despite recognising all the things that need to be done ahead of anyone else,  grasping how awkward situations can be defused and simply remembering what's next, Ellie has developed a habit of deference. So when only she seems to see what's going wrong, only she takes it seriously and only she knows what needs to be done, a tension inevitably rises between her and the other women of the family.

That is made worse as Ellie fancies the new priest who's been sent to shake up the town - a sign perhaps that the distant Church is finally paying attention to this remote corner? - so she has to juggle personal feelings, family history and romantic inclinations to find a way through. 

A fast-moving, enjoyable and positive (despite the dark things that happen) take on a fantasy world, this is a fun read and it was great to see mentions and hints about other storylines in this world, both those already in print and - dare I hope? - those still to come.

For more information about The Briar Book of the Dead, see the publisher's website here.

1 February 2024

#Review - Three Eight One by Aliya Whiteley

Three Eight One
Aliya Whiteley
Solaris, 18 January 2024
Available as: HB, 44pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781837860753

I'm grateful to Solaris for sending me a copy of Three Eight One to consider for review.

This is a tough book to review. It's hard to hang one's thoughts on what actually happens in the story, because the events are designedly fantastical, contradictory and, well, suspect. And their nature is in any caseanalysed in the book itself by one of the narrators, who makes her points much more clearly than I can.

To try to clear this up, the main narrative is about a young woman called Fairly, who decides to leave her village on a Quest, following the "horned road". Her part of the narrative, set in 2024, is therefore called "The Dance of the Horned Road". It's suggested (from the one concrete geographical clue) that Fairly's village is in Southern England, though with a sea voyage, the story may decamp across the sea (so - to France? But there is no idea of a different language being spoken?) However, while familiar in details - a campervan features, as do pubs, hotels, a jukebox - the atmosphere, motivations and assumptions of Fairly and everyone she meets are odd, definitely placing this in a different world, I think, a point driven home by the presence of a Spire from which rockets are launched.

The other narrative is a commentary, by way of footnotes in Fairly's account by Rowena Savalas in 2314. Rowena inhabits a future where the boundaries between human and machine are blurred, and the conservation and interpretation of data from the past has become a subject of philosophical and practical interest. Rowena's interpretation of Fairly's journey is in some respects her life's work, the footnotes yielding new and startling information both about Fairly and her world and about Rowena's own far future. As the footnotes grow longer, the two women almost seem in dialogue, Fairly's "quest" and Rowena's task of interpretation paralleling one another.

There is a lot to interpret - or perhaps wonder over - including the "Cha", animals that feature heavily in Fairly's world though whether they are real (and if so, what they are) and the roles they play (variously, saviours, currency, food and teachers) are both mysterious.  The Cha are deeply embedded in the story (and in the mythology that underlies Fairly's society) but they are ambiguous, subject to contradictory narratives and often only known in a frustratingly oblique way - though you may find traces of them where you don't expect!

The other central theme is the "Breathing Man", a person whom Fairly suspects of following her and whom she sees as a threat although we're never actually told what this might be. More than a mere bogeyman, the Breathing Man also seems to have a place in the mythology of Fairly's people, but given that Quests such as hers are an assumed part of a young person's life the threat of an encounter with him seems oddly binary - very threatening but, surely, inevitable - and also unclear: Fairly doesn't tell us what other Questers experienced of him (but, nor does she tell us the purpose of her quest, a lot is unsaid).

These, and other elements, of the story could provoke lengthy speculation which would I think be to miss the point of the book, which must be about experience - the Quest, again, has an obscure and ill-defined purpose, necessary but with no clear object or end. In Fairly's case it perhaps catalyses changes in her society which must be a focus of Rowena's interest as she lives in a society that presumably developed form Fairly's - yet Rowena absents herself from commentary as this story nears its end, so that is only speculation.

A complex, involving story, at once simple on the surface but fiendishly complex inside, Three Eight One was like nothing I'd read lately, calling to mind for me puzzle filled, treacherous narratives such as Charles Palliser's The Quincunx or John Fowles' The Magus. 

For more information about Three Eight One, see the publisher's website here.