[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.


Lay member
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.
Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, Orthe books 1 & 2, by Mary Gentle

A sprawling epic of a story dealing with culture clash and colonialism in space. Earth has survived the bad times of the twentieth century and discovered FTL travel, and is busy exploring the galaxy, exploiting other worlds. The balance of power has shifted from Europe and America to the Pacific Rim cultures, with Europe now being clients of Pacifica. The books are set on the world of Orthe, home to a humanoid race. Initially thought to be primitives, the Ortheans are in fact the descendants of a post-holocaust civilisation. They are split into two major groupings; the Northern continent population being fanatically anti-technology, very much psychically attached to their birth land and have racial memory, and the Southern continent living in and with the ruins of the Golden Empire.

Golden Witchbreed opens with the arrival of an Earth envoy, Lynne de Lisle Christie, who is trying to open up the planet to research and development teams. This is based on the mistaken premise that Orthe is a primitive civilisation, and that the dominant grouping is the Northern Ortheans. Given permission by the ‘High King’ of the north, Christie leaves the major city to travel in the hinterlands. Here she encounters the anti-technology predjudice held by the Northerners, and falls foul of it and the Northern political situation, not helped by interference from the South. She escapes her captors and travels trying to return to the embassy, on the way encountering the pre-holocaust ruins and going to the South. In the South, she meets the Hexenmeister of the Brown Tower, and understands that some of the ancient technology still exists - in the hands of the Tower and the half-breed descendants of the Golden, the Golden Witchbreed.

Ancient Light is set some 8-10 years later. Christie returns to Orthe, this time as a representative of the Pan-Oceania Company who want access to the old technology in order to exploit it. The fragile balance of power between North and South is disrupted by this, especially when some of the Company people start smuggling Earth technology to the Southerners, who eke out a precarious existance on the Desert Coast. Armed with the smuggled weaponry, the Southerners invade the North under the auspices of the Golden Witchbreed whose aim is to re-establish the Golden Empire or, failing that, to complete the destruction of Orthe that their ancestors started (which is held in check by the Brown Tower).

Both books are long and complex, and it can be difficult to keep track of who is who and who they are currently allied with, especially as Orthean politics are reminiscent of Sengoku period Japan. They also make for some uncomfortable reading, given the culture clash between Earth and Orthe; I was reminded of the history of the East India Company in India and the Opium Wars, along with US Cold War neo-colonialism. Along the way, we have the love that Christie has for Orthe and the friendships and betrayals she encounters.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (or vice versa depending on which edition you have...)

After the Orthe duology, I wanted something lighter, and someone I follow over at LibraryThing has just read it.

Basically, it's a mash-up of Just William and The Omen scripted by John Le Carre. We are approaching the End Times, and it is time for the Antichrist to make his appearance. Both Heaven and Hell have representatives on Earth, Heaven's agent is a rather poncey rare book dealer (channeling Quentin Crisp), and Hell's agent is a yuppie. Hell's agent is supposed to hand over the baby; however, there's a mix-up when the baby is delivered - instead of the chosen family, the baby is delivered to a perfectly normal family who rear the lad as a normal boy (not realising what he is).

Fast forward a decade or so, and we meet the Witchfinder Sergeant and the Witchfinder Private - the last remaining members of the Witchfinder Army. They're looking for witches - and find one in the last descendant of one Agnes Nutter. She's trying to understand exactly what's special about a small Oxfordshire village - but she can't get a handle on it because she's too close.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse now make their appearance as the final days are now down to the final week. War, Famine, Pollution (Pestilence retired in 1936), and DEATH meet up and head for Oxfordshire. All meet and the Apocalypse starts. However, the Antichrist has other ideas - being an 11-year old boy, he doesn't want the world to end...

There's a lot of spot the reference, and the jokes come thick and fast. It's now got a bit dated; even in the 1980s it was teetering on the edge of old-fashioned. However, it's still a fun read (although non-Brits may find the in-jokes puzzling).

# Books in March 2018

<Edit - SCUP review moved to RPGs read thread.>

## *Alice* (Christina Henry)
I’d seen this book on Amazon a while ago, and had dropped it on my wish list to pick up at some point. When I saw it on the daily deal for Kindle, I snagged a copy straight away. I’m really glad that I did. Lewis Carroll’s *Alice in Wonderland* is one of those books which I read, repeatedly, at a young age. Partly because it was one of the few books suitable for me at my grandparent’s house, but I enjoyed the story as well, especially the clever dark edges to it as reality turns out to be something different to what you expected.

Christina Henry’s take on this is delicious. Alice is locked up in an asylum after a terrifying experience with the Rabbit and more. Her next door cell-mate is Hatcher, an insane murderer who becomes her friend. Events ensue that leads to them escaping the asylum, and heading off to seek revenge on the Rabbit and find Hatcher’s family. They travel deep into the Old City, a dystopian urban nightmare of competing gangs, violence and abuse run by bosses like the Rabbit and the Caterpillar. Although the magicians were banished from both the Old and New City years ago, magic remains, and the Jabberwocky is stalking Hatcher.

I really enjoyed this book; there’s an energy to it, and a darkness that pulls you on. It’s not a nice book; violence and abuse are everyday events in the Old City and both of the protagonists are broken and quite brutal when provoked. If anything, this is partly a journey of them finding what remains of their humanity. I really enjoyed this book, and found it hard to put down.

## *The Red Queen* (Christina Henry)
Having finished *Alice*, I immediately bought the sequel. Rather than being an urban dystopian nightmare of gang violence, this book is a quest. Hatcher and Alice travel beyond the City to try and find Hatch’s daughter, entering the lands of the White Queen and Black King.

This is not as strong a book as the first novel, as it is far more traditionally linear, more conforming to classical fairy tales. What happens is far less of a surprise and less twisted than the first book. That said, it was satisfying and enjoyable, and I’d love to see more in this setting.

## *Elysium Fire* (Alastair Reynolds)
A new Alastair Reynolds story is always something to look forward to. A story set in the *Revelation Space* universe even more so. This tale is set in the Yellowstone system (featured in *Chasm City*, *The Prefect* (now *Aurora*) and more), at the height of the Glitter Band. The character Prefect Dreyfus is, once again, at the heart of the story (although it’s more of an ensemble piece with his team this time), and Panoply tries to prevent an existential threat to society whilst dealing with agitation from member communities to secede. I guessed part of the reveal towards the end but not the whole thing. I’m hoping that there are more books about Dreyfus and colleagues.

## *The Princess Diarist* (Carrie Fisher)
I picked this up on impulse; it’s the late and sadly missed Carrie Fisher’s diaries from the filming of *Star Wars*. The more recent commentary has a lovely, relaxed, almost conversational tone. This is the book where she revealed the truth about ‘Carrison’ as she called the relationship between her and Harrison Ford.

## *Notes from the Upside Down* (Guy Adams)
This was prep for running the Delta Green/Stranger Things mash-up I have planned for North Star in late April. Best reviewed of the various ‘Unofficial Guides’, this seems to be more focussed around the influences on the show rather than the show itself. It’s fair to say that I’ve learnt a lot about John Carpenter, Stephen King and media trivia from the Eighties, but I’m not convinced that I got out of this what I was looking for in terms of material to plumb. Certainly an interesting read.

## *The Reservoir Tapes* (Jon McGregor)
I picked up the novel of the BBC Radio 4 series written by Jon McGregor. It’s an interesting concept. The author describes it as a ‘who dun-what’ rather than a ‘who dun nit’. There are 15 different points of view, supposedly from interviews by a reporter, all about the disappearance of a 13 year old girl while on holiday in a small village in Derbyshire. The book is quite literally the script for the BBC version (which can be downloaded as I write this), and each chapter is an episode. I was hooked from the first interview, which takes the form of an overheard conversation. I have picked up the linked novel *Reservoir 13* to read later. It has to be said that I really enjoyed McGregor’s first novel – “If no-one speaks of remarkable things” – but somehow missed the work that he has done since. Something that I need to remedy.

## *Stranger Things - The Companion* (Nick Blake)
A very concise and focused overview of both series of *Stranger Things* which was much more what I was looking for, yet still managed to cover many of cultural references that *Notes from the Upside Down* focussed on. Think of this as the gruff Northern version, not wasting its words yet providing more information in a more easily usable state. That said, it didn’t have the edge of dry humour and wit that its competitor had, but it also lacked the many digressions. I preferred this book.
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First Age

Staff member
Happy - Derren Brown

A delightful read, where the brilliant charlatan provides cogent thoughts on how to lead a balanced and happy life. He digs deep into Stoicism, reviving and con-temporising it for today with all of its old power. His bold move to focus the latter part of the book on how we handle our death, breathes rlevance into our handling of our lives.

I loved this book. It really spoke to me.

Now onto A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes 1!
Tremontaine: the complete Season 3, written & edited by Ellen Kushner

This is a SerialBox offering - 13 'chapters' written by different people set in Ellen Kushner's Riverside setting (Swordspoint etc). The 'chapters' focus on different stories and points of view, which can make for a slightly disjointed read if you obtain them as a serial (which is the more expensive way of obtaining them). In a way, this method is harking back to the way Charles Dickens wrote.

Politics, intrigue, romance and swordplay mix in the city in the 3rd prequel to Swordspoint (there are 5 projected). Following on from the previous instalments, we see more of what is going on: and how Diana, Duchess Tremontaine is holding onto power after having been declared Duchess in her own right (having poisoned her husband, the fiction is that he is very ill and unable to fulfil his duties). The denizens of Riverside unite in opposition to the Middle City and set up a council of their own to police their populace. The Hill continues to intrigue and do down the rest of the City.

To be continued in Season 4... Recommended.