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[reading] What have you read recently?

Lady Aurelia’s Bequest, by Sheila Walsh

A Regency romance, written by an author who I have several books by. This one I had not seen before.

Set in 1811/1812, Cordelia Darcy, daughter of an exiled English lord (exiled for killing a man in a duel) returns to England to fulfil the terms of her godmother’s will: she will inherit a competence if she resides in England for a year. On the voyage to England, she meets Drew Harvey, a personable young man who is acting as a courier between the British and American governments, and when their ship is boarded by the Navy and he is impressed, delivers his package in England for him. Once in England, she becomes a social success, and befriends Lady Evelina, younger sister of the Earl of Wyndham, but her actions on behalf of Drew Harvey come back to haunt her.

Not bad, but rather on the light side. Of Walsh’s work, I prefer The Incomparable Miss Brady or The Sergeant-Major’s Daughter. Both have a bit more of a social conscience. Still, if I ever run or play Good Society, then it will give me ideas.
Good Guys, by Steven Brust

Just published this week (Steven Brust is another author I’ll pay full price for).

Well, this was interesting. A techno-thriller that happens to be an urban fantasy: there are two organisations of sorcerers in the world - one wealthy and amoral, the other who are effectively enforcers for the first, and keep their members in check.

Sorcerous murders are happening, and the team of enforcers are engaged in a race against time to catch the perpetrator(s). Weirdly, the story is written as two viewpoints - from the point of view of the hitman (first person) and from the point of view of team of enforcers (second person). To begin with, it’s a bit difficult to keep track of what’s going on but as the story progresses (and the kill count increases) you start being able to figure out what’s going on.

I enjoyed this very much.
Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings (book 1 of The Belgariad)

Picked this up as a 99p deal on Amazon recently. I used to own the entire series and at least the first 2 or 3 of The Mallorean as paperbacks, but they got culled from my collection at least 10 years ago, so I thought I’d have another try at them 30 years on.

This is basically a bildungsroman - Garion is a young boy being raised by his aunt Pol on a farm. We see him first as a young boy, and the story proper starts when he is 14 and events elsewhere in the world affect his life.

I may have enjoyed it when it first came out, but frankly I didn’t enjoy it now. The story is straight-forward enough, magical macguffin is stolen and a party is going to retrieve it, but -

- Teenaged protagonist with a slight tendency to self-pity. Fortunately, Aunt Pol has no patience with such and usually has an unpleasant tonic to hand...
- An inordinate number of kingdoms, races etc. And that’s just the good guys. Annoyingly, the retrieval party needs to feature one of each just in case an ancient prophecy is to be fulfilled (as they invariably do).
- The Cook’s Tour writing. Yes, the world is large, but do we really need to visit every last kingdom before we end up at the climax?
- The RPG trope party: fighter, thief, cleric (well, not really - I guess technically he’s multi-classed as a wizard-cleric), wizard etc.
- It’s book 1 of 5. Plus more in the second series and the spin-offs. No, I am so not bothering.

I suppose nowadays these would be classified as YA.
Not much. I find it difficult to concentrate on it. About the only series to have held my attention in recent years is Versailles - I managed season 1 of Victoria, but broke off during season 2 when we were in Greece and never went back. Troy I'm part watching; I expect I'll end up getting the box set and watching that (although I'm bad at doing that as well - the number of box sets I have yet to watch is embarrassing - Paul put in a Amazon order recently and got me seasons 1-3 of The Borgias; I'd got season 1 for costume reference for The Art of War but never watched it).

I barely go to the cinema either.

I think part of the problem is that I now wear varifocals and find a lot of swooping camera techniques make me seasick. Also, I find American accents grating (especially on female characters), and unless I have the sound at 'annoy the neighbours' level I find most actors mumble or can't be heard over an intrusive soundtrack (wasn't that one of the complaints about Poldark or Jamaica Inn?). Why on earth do TV dramas insist on soundtracks? Real life doesn't come with a soundtrack unless you're at a dance or working in a factory.


Staff member
Unless I have the sound at 'annoy the neighbours' level I find most actors mumble or can't be heard over an intrusive soundtrack (wasn't that one of the complaints about Poldark or Jamaica Inn?). Why on earth do TV dramas insist on soundtracks?
Try a soundbar or soundbase on 'voice' setting.
4 books back to back: The Cecelia and Kate Novels - Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, and Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer. These should be read in the following order:

Sorcery and Cecelia
The Grand Tour
Magic Below Stairs
The Mislaid Magician

The omnibus of the 3 Cecelia and Kate Novels is collated in the wrong order - The Grand Tour is collated after The Mislaid Magician. Magic Below Stairs is actually a YA novel. Linked to these are the A Matter of Magic duology I reviewed previously (I think these are set slightly earlier - these 4 are post-Waterloo whereas the others seem to be set while war is still happening). All are set in a Regency England where magic exists and is a respectable profession, although I have some reservations about the consequences on actual history as it appears to follow our timeline pretty closely.

The Cecelia and Kate Novels are all written in a epistolatory format ; this is particularly noticeable in Sorcery and Cecelia and The Mislaid Magician; whereas The Grand Tour is written as a series of braided narratives which has the same effect. They take the form of narratives written by 2 cousins - Kate Talgarth and Cecelia Rushton.

In Sorcery and Cecelia, both girls are aged about 17 and about to make their bow to society; except Cecelia is being kept at home while her cousins, Kate and her younger sister Georgina, enjoy a London season. Raised in respectable obscurity in rural Essex, the cousins are close companions. Both girls get entangled with the affairs of wizards - Sir Hilary Bedrick, recently elected to the Royal College of Wizardry has been tapping Thomas, Marquess Schofield since his return to England after serving in the Peninsular. Linked is Miranda Tanistry who has a grudge against the Schofields for breaking her engagement to Thomas' older brother. The girls foil both plots and get engaged - Kate to Thomas, and Cecelia to James Tarleton (Thomas' comrade in arms).

In The Grand Tour, the girls are now married and set out for the Continent on a Grand Tour. Accompanying on the first leg f their journey is Sylvia Schofield, Thomas' mother who is returning to Paris where she has made her home. (She and her husband were members of The Pimpernel League...) Odd things happen en route, and when they reach Paris, Lord Wellington asks the two young couples to investigate - a wedding tour is perfect cover. Several artifacts with links to coronations have been stolen, and it appears various rituals have been enacted.

Magic Below Stairs tells the story of the orphan Frederick who enters service in the Schofield's household - along with a brownie. Together, they are instrumental in lifting a curse on the family home in Gloucestershire in time for the birth of the Schofield's first child.

The Mislaid Magician is set some 10 years later: railways are now starting to be built and a Prussian magician-surveyor has gone missing in the North of England. He was checking the route of a proposed new line and also investigating some accidents on the Stockton and Darlington railway. Lord Wellington (now Prime Minister) asks the Tarletons to investigate.

Light and frothy, these are a joy to read. The epistolatory style is a bit off-putting at first, starting in media res, but you soon get used to it and are eager for the next letter and accompanying plot revelation. Magic Below Stairs is probably for completists only; it's noticeably shorter and squarely aimed at older children. Still, it's interesting in that it's written from the point of view of the servants not the masters.

Recommended, especially if you want to get into the Regency period for a game of Good Society.
The Frontier Magic Trilogy by Patricia Wrede: Thirteenth Child, Across the Great Barrier and The Far West

This trilogy is an historical fantasy set in an alternate universe. Like the Sorcery and Cecelia and the A Matter of Magic series, these are set in a version of our world where magic works, and magical creatures abound. Unlike the other series, history is different. They are set in what is colonial America (‘Columbia’) and deal with the exploration west of the Mississippi River (‘Mammoth River’). The feel of society and technology is very late nineteenth century but the exploration and settlement of America feels more late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. The world is divided roughly between the great powers of Europe (‘Avrupa’), Africa (‘Aphrika’) and Asia (‘Ashia’) and each have different styles of magic. North America is mostly empty - the local magical megafauna has seen to that. There was some settlement off the East Coast (Vinland), but the mainland was only settled in the Age of Exploration.

The trilogy is effectively a bildungsroman - we follow Francine (‘Eff’) Rothman from about 5 years old to her early twenties. She is unfortunately the thirteenth child of her parents and is believed to be damned - her wider family don’t want her around although her immediate family don’t hold with that belief. As a result, her father accepts a professorship at the new college in Mill City - a new town on a crossing point of the Mammoth River. Settlement is slowly happening to the West - the Great Barrier keeping the more dangerous megafauna out of the Eastern States runs along the Mammoth and the St Lawrence Seaway via the Great Lakes. Professor and Mrs Rothman move move to Mill City along with the younger members of their family - Eff and her twin brother, Lan, along with several of their older brothers and sisters. The eldest children remain in the East.

Thirteenth Child introduces us to Eff and Lan. Lan is a ‘double seven’ - the seventh son of a seventh son and his magical power is great. Double sevens are held to extremely lucky for all - in contrast to Eff’s situation as a thirteen. We follow Eff and Lan through their younger years, getting their schooling at the local day school and their interactions with their class mates. We are introduced to the 3 main schools of magic - Avrupan, Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan. Eff starts learning something of Aphrikan magic alongside the more usual Avrupan magic.

Across the Great Barrier follows Eff after she leaves school. She starts helping out in the wildlife centre at the college, and is selected to go on an expedition to the settlements to the West.

The Far West deals with a major exploratory expedition. The earlier expeditions that Eff has participated in have discovered some extremely dangerous wildlife, and worse, it appears to be moving east. As a result, the government have agreed to sponsor a major exploratory expedition, especially as the Cathayans have agreed to co-sponsor it.

I do like these novels. Although they are YA, they don’t read that way. In many ways, the world-building is superior to the other series, and isn’t just our world with kewl pwrs. Interestingly, there are no Native Americans; it seems the megafauna are responsible, although I wonder why this did not happen elsewhere in the world. Perhaps the groups that tried to migrate into the Americas didn’t have magic but the groups elsewhere did - which gave them the edge - or the American megafauna was more dangerous.

Cartomancy, by Mary Gentle

This is a collection of her short stories, with a framing story of magical maps linking to various times and places. We visit many of the worlds (or they are alluded to) from her novels. Originally, I thought that the framing story was set in the world of Grunts!, but it seems to be a similar fantasy world with the dualism between good and evil.

As is usual with short fiction, you get stories you like and stories you don't. Gentle is very much a blood-and-guts writer, showing things as they are, and not sanitising her stories overly much. The scene in the second story with the slit trench and the pig is straight from an illuminated manuscript (I don't think it's the Tres Riches Heures). Other stories were interesting - I liked the two stories from the Hundred Isles, and would like to see that setting expanded.

Other stories are more science fiction than fantasy - which included the nasty story dealing with child abuse. (No real children were harmed in that story, but the story still packs a punch in that the created children are basically unintelligent pets.)

Recommended, but not if you like your fiction sanitised.
These days alas my choices are all on Audiobook, which can be quite limiting which I listen to while working.

I have just finished listening to Winter Tide (Innsmouth Legacy) by Ruthanna Emrys and wow what a fabulous tale using the world of Cthulhu.
The author narrates the book, and not only is she easy to listen to but she does a fabulous job with the different characters voices while reading.

It's a story set in 50's, written in a first person view point, which takes up after Lovecrafts, 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Whizzed through the audio book of Ready Player One prior to the release of the movie - I honestly don't see how they can do the film without tearing the novel to shreds .
My concern also. The book resonated with people of a certain age who pounced upon the references with glee. I can't see the film industry self-limiting its audience to a single generation who will get it.