Review Round-Up: Cardigan, Stormswift and Tregaron's Daughter

30220686Historical romance edition! Three historical romances - from the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary upstate New York to the fishing villages of Cornwall - love finds everyone. Especially if you're attractive and of noble birth. 

Robert W. Chambers' Cardigan (1901) was, within his lifetime, his most famous work. The King in Yellow was a cult favourite, and certainly proved the most long-lasting and influential. But it was Cardigan that established Chambers as a best-seller and a popular favourite. There's some merit to Cardigan's success. If we posit (tautologically) that this was an era in which Chambers succeeded, so therefore Chambers books were successful, there's a lot about Cardigan that is, well, Chambersy. It has, amongst other things:

  • A suitably jingoistic plot - set in the early days of the American Revolution, and firmly establishing American exceptionalism
  • A charming, if utterly hackneyed, romance - a young boy (Cardigan) and a young woman (whom he always refers to as her childhood nickname, 'Silver Heels') are raised together as wards of an important pre-Revolutionary figure.
  • A coming of age story, in which Cardigan realises that loyalty is more than an oath to a distant King, and maybe his dream of becoming an officer isn't the best thing in the world and whatnot
  • A ton of very florid nature writing - including meandering treks across the wilderness, countless fishing expeditions, and a general, ubiquitous appreciation of all things related to sunsets, sunrises, the moon, water features, trees, mountains, skies and/or dirt

All of which, as noted above, are hallmarks of Chambers' writing. As mixed a bag as this is already, Cardigan also features some of Chambers' less appreciable writing quirks. 

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Dead Letter by Benjamin Descovich

30295885I'm a sucker for many, many things: wizard schools, arranged marriages where they learn to love one another, business thrillers, the list goes on. Another? High fantasy worlds where the magic isn't important. 

I have a lot of respect for authors that take the complete freedom of an imaginary world - where the very physics and cosmology can be arranged at their very whim - ... and then write stories that really have nothing to do with any of that. Books that clearly have elaborate, intricate world-building, but doesn't make that the 'point' of the book.

In the case of Dead Letter, Descovich ticks this box and then some. It begins in a fairly conventional way: Kettna is a novice in the school of wizardry. She's clearly talented - but it becomes rapidly clear that she's doing a lot with a little; her raw power is unimpressive, but her intellect and study have taken her far. She's also got a past - her parents are both powerful wizards: her mother is the Archmagus. Plus, her boyfriend has been expelled, a result of a magical scandal that may or may not be Kettna's fault in the first place...

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Under Witch Moon by Maria Schneider

9494168Adriel is a witch. 

That's not her real name, by the way. She's not an idiot. Far from it - Adriel's one of New Mexico's best. She's a magical trouble-shooter who can scare off a werewolf, de-curse your home, or rescue a straying husband from the ill-effects of a love potion. Moreover, she's got a heart. She'll keep your secret, say 'no' to vampires and even slip the cops a tip or two, if they're in a bind. All of which - as you might expect - makes a perfect platform for an urban fantasy.

Adriel's not a conventional hero. She's got a network of contacts, skills at interviewing and clue-spotting, a savvy minion or two and, of course, magic. Over the course of Under Witch Moon, Adriel is forced to draw on all these resources - and more - as she battles to protect Santa Fe's human and supernatural community from a menacing new presence.

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Otared, Graustark and The Winning of Barbara Worth

OtaredOne very modern book and five very old ones. Are there common themes? Is there a pattern?! Not really, no.


Mohammed Rabie's Otared (2016) is a harrowing existential thriller, set in a near-future Cairo. The city has been occupied by a mercenary army - a sort of quasi-Masonic organisation that swept through in a sudden coup with distinctly Cruaderish underpinnings. Cairo persists - everyday life plods along, despite the foreign invaders and the ominous ring of battleships.

Otared is a former policeman who, infuriated by the way the government rolled over, has joined the rebellion. His job is distasteful: assassin, freedom fighter, terrorist - everything in-between. Otared repeatedly asks the same question - how far would you go? - with different nuances and inflections each time. The voiceless people of Cairo are choosing between two - if not 'evils - brutalities. Otared decides what he will do, how far he will go, in the name of a city that he never particularly liked and certainly never liked him. It is particularly telling that the resistence is led neither by civilians nor military, but policemen - who Otared describes less as a public service and more like a necessary evil. 

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Velvet: Sex, spies and stereotype


I recently saw a trailer for the upcoming film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, a 2014 film based on a comic by Mark Millar and frequent collaborator, Bryan Hitch. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman recaptured the over-the-top violence of their earlier collaboration Kick-Ass but was playing in the sandbox of a Bond-style spy-action-thriller.

In fact, the film was essentially a Bond spoof and, while it sought to make a point about class prejudice (although what that was I’m not exactly sure), their approach to women was much more in the vein of having their cake and eating it too. The female characters in Kingsman: The Secret Service are almost entirely sidelined, silent or uncomfortably sexualized. While womanizing has been a part of the Bond-style spy movie since its inception, is it a necessary part?

Well, if you want a spy thriller every bit as Bond as Bond (or Kingsman) but without the uncomfortable sexism, I’d highly recommend Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet (colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, letters by Chris Eliopoulos).

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Review Round-Up: War-Gamers World, 13 Minutes, Squeeze Play and More!

War Gamer's WorldFrom the mediocrity of War-Gamers' World and One Against the Moon to the horror of Fimbulwinter and The Hidden Children, I read these things so you don't have to. But hey, there's good news as well! Mystery lovers will delight in 13 Minutes and Squeeze Play, and Robert E. Howard is here to restore my faith in fantasy fiction with "Shadows in the Moonlight".


Hugh Walker's War-Gamers' World (1975) is a disappointment. It is a set-up that we don't see so often any more, and, in fact, might be one of the first of its kind. Our protagonist is a gamer, and, in the opening chapters (paragraphs, even), he's sucked into his game world. No longer is he the master of fate - merely one of its pawns! He's seeing, first-hand, the carnage and chaos of his 'game'! He learns a valuable lesson about humanity, privilege and power!

Actually, none of that happens.

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A Closed and Common Orbit, Moonraker's Bride and The Season

Moonrakers BrideHappy almost Valentine's Day!

To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified. 


Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one. 

Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.

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The Face in the Frost and The Obsessed

The Face in the Frost
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
(1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.

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