[reading] What have you read recently?

You'll need to read the first 2 to understand what is going on, and ideally, the 3 Riverside novels as well for the background (although there are some discrepancies). I thought I'd reviewed them, but it must have been on the old Tavern before I started cross-posting to LibraryThing...

You can find them on Amazon, but there's a preview (season 1, episode 1 I think) available on SerialBox (and maybe Amazon) - https://www.serialbox.com/serials/tremontaine.
I have just joined my library, largely to use the online e-book service they offer. Quite excited..
Would that be Overdrive? Although we've got ebook loans in Cambridgeshire, I haven't used the library in ages, mostly because the SF&F selection is poor. (I haven't even bothered updating my records since we moved...)
Agent of the Imperium by Marc Miller


Surprisingly good and predictably bad.

The writing style is quite telegraphic and lacking in colour but not that bad. There are lots of great ideas in it, some even profound. There are a couple of truly powerful dramatic scenes. It's worth reading for the above. The issues with maintaining personality continuity from multiple separate wafers is a bit of a problem and a solution only partly alluded to, but it's easy enough to gloss over that and not feel like suspension of disbelief has been violated. However, the "story" is a mess. A bit of a stream of consciousness and the ending just pops up unexpectedly giving no real closure (although it's unclear just what the "story" is other than a set of scenarios, so closure would be difficult). It's quite predictably Marc Miller's somewhat autistic mind at work (reflects the organisational mess that Traveller 5 is). It also messed majorly with the Traveller canon and must have given some of the grognards apoplexy. After years of saying the font of OTU is Marc Miller, he comes out with a novel that is actively pitched as canon, but introduces a completely new, game-changing and OTU-spanning tech that never before been seen in the OTU.
Stories of My Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

A short story collection from either a Humblebundle or a StoryBundle purchased by Paul. We both liked it, although he thought it wasn’t quite my thing being in some ways quite mathematical in places. However, as short stories I was happy enough but if it had been a full-length novel I don’t think I would have liked it.


Pandora’s Boy, by Lindsey Davis (book 6 in the Flavia Albia series)

This pre-purchase arrived on the Kindle app today and was devoured during the course of the evening. The usual great fun: Tiberius Manlius’ ex-wife turns up asking (rather condescendingly) Flavia Albia to investigate the death of a 15-year old girl. Against her better judgement, Flavia agrees to do so, as Tiberius has apparently walked out of the house and vanished (still not being entirely himself after being hit by lightning).

The usual secrets are exposed to the light of day, not least that two gangland families are involved - the Balbinus and Rabirius families. Gentlemen of a sensitive disposition may not wish to read parts of the book - a statue of Min is ‘defaced’ (so to speak) and is restored to it’s former glory by a dodgy stone-restorer of Falco senior’s acquaintance...

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Still trying to finish Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle (for some reason it's not holding my attention) but I have been reading some Neville Shute online at fadedpage.com (he's still in copyright in the UK - Canada is life +50). I remember his books from my teens - he was one of the authors I read when the children's section in my local library no longer had anything I wanted to read.

Beyond the Black Stump (1956)
An American goes to the Australian Outback prospecting for oil and becomes engaged to the daughter of one of the local station-owners. The main theme of this book is cultural differences, despite Australia and America being both English-speaking countries. The other thing is the sense of the moving Frontier - the American comes from a small town in rural Oregon, the Australian setting is a remote area in Western Australia. Both areas consider themselves to be the Frontier, but the Australian version is about 100 years behind the American version culturally. This causes problems when the daughter visits America; for a start her family is complex - and includes mixed-race half brothers and sisters and you can imagine this goes down like a lead balloon in the US.

On the Beach (1957)
One of the first post-apocalypse novels I recall reading, this (and A Town Like Alice) is probably the best known of Shute's works. The Southern hemisphere is waiting for the arrival of deadly fall-out from a nuclear exchange in the Northern hemisphere. Here there is no happy ending; humanity's days are numbered. It deals with an American submarine captain who has take refuge in Australia and his interactions with the local populace as they await death. People deal with this in different ways - some go wild, others await the end with dignity.

The Chequer Board (1947)
A post-WWII novel set in England and Burma. A man who received a serious head injury in the war had shrapnel left in the wound - at the time this was inoperable. However, some years later this is causing problems and he visits a specialist, who gives him a year to live. He decides to find out what happened to some other men in the hospital ward he was in while recovering from his initial surgery during the war. Unusually for the time, the book deals with mixed race marriages sympathetically; one of the men 'goes native' in Burma and marries a native girl, another was a black GI from America who marries a white English girl and settles in England.

In the Wet (1953)
This one is effectively alt hist science fiction; an Anglican priest is on the deathwatch for a dying man. The man appears to be remembering a future life as a pilot of the Queen's Flight in 30 years time. About a year later, the priest meets a man who fits what he was told of the family background of the dying man's reincarnation.
Lucretia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons, by Roberta Gellis

A murder mystery set in the Italian Renaissance. Lucretia Borgia is now married to her third (and final) husband, Alfonso d'Este and is pregnant with her first child. One of her ladies in waiting dies from poison and Lucretia is accused of the crime. To clear her name, she must find the real perpetrator.

An interesting book, and well-plotted. However, it helps to know a little of the political background involved, especially of Florence (although the story is set in Ferrara) as the motive for the crime revolves around that. I didn't notice any glaring anachronisms (something that destroys immersion for me).

Taming the Forest King, by Claudia J Edwards

This is an unusual book; it's a romance set in a fantasy world (which may be post-apocalyptic North America) with supernatural creatures and magic.

Tevra, a Colonel of Light Cavalry is sent by the King to what used to be a separate kingdom but is now the Northern province of the Empire. As Viceroy, she needs to sort out problems there - the province has been going it's own way for some time and now needs reining in. She is accompanied by her long-time second in command, Hetwith.

In the Forest Kingdom, she capably sets about relieving the famine, plague and supernatural attacks, and is assisted by Dard, grandson of the last Forest King. He hopes to make her his queen of an independent Forest Kingdom but Hetwith has other ideas.

Light, but charming. In some ways, the story and setting remind me of the Sharing Knife series by Lois McMast Bujold. Sadly, Edwards only wrote 4 books, none of which are in print.

Another Claudia J Edwards: Eldrie the Healer, book 1 of The Bastard Princess

This was the start of a series, but sadly Edwards died shortly after this was published and either never had a literary executor or the others in the series never existed in any meaningful sense.

Eldrie is a wandering healer, living by her wits and sword as much as her healing skills. She wanders the petty kingdoms of the Eastern seaboard of her world. She is caught up in a war in one of the kingdoms and in escaping it, 'acquires' an armsman, Huard, who subsequently becomes her lover. Wandering to the west, she attempts to find a healing mage in order to learn that skill. In the western deserts, the stumbles across such a person - a young and beautiful woman, Mennefer. Huard transfers his affections to Mennefer; it seems that Eldrie is the bastard daughter of the King of Maritiene and Huard insists on treating her as a princess first and person second. She eventually consents to return to Maritiene, taking an entourage with her - Huard and Mennefer, and an innkeeper and his wife who want to travel. The innkeeper is in fact a cartographer.

On her return to Maritiene, she discovers that the Heir is dead in a hunting accident, and her younger legitimate brother is now Heir. However, there is a problem - he's gay and doesn't have the King's Gifts (magical psychic powers) which Eldrie does. In fact, there's some doubt whether her brother is in fact the King's son, the Queen having taken a lover by the time he was conceived (although the boy was acknowledged by the king). She is now needed to take up the duties of a Royal Princess, including an arranged marriage.

Compared to Edwards' other books, this is obviously the first of a series. There's a lot unexplained, and the ending is very unsatisfactory for a stand-alone. I also had issues with some of the plot lines, especially the way her relationship with Huard played out. It read to me as scene-setting for a sequel which ended up never seeing the light of day because of her death. It also struck me that 16 years was too long for her to have spent wandering to suddenly (apparently out of the blue) try and find a healer mage to learn from. Admittedly, she did not become a healer until she left Maritiene aged 16, but even so...

I won't say Recommended, but it's worth reading if you like Edwards' other works; the others work better as they're stand-alones. Note that this and her other 3 books are only available as second-hand paperbacks, and you may have to order them from the US.
Todd Downing (2017) A Shield Against the Darkness. (Airship Daedalus Book 0)

E. J. Blain (2016) Assassins of the Lost Kingdom. (Airship Daedalus Book 1)

Both are effectively fan fiction written by new authors with only a single novel each, although Todd Downing has written numerous RPG books, including the eponymous Airship Daedalus RPG, which I highly recommend for the same reason as the novels.

In essence they are trying to recapture the spirit of the pulps, and I think have done a great job. It's a well developed setting (originally through the Airship Daedalus comic and radio plays), fast paced action and characters that are consciously cardboard cutout enough to give it all a pulp feel. There are elements of the writing that clearly shows the lack of experience of the two writers, but the plots are surprisingly engaging. I found them both true page turners. Very cheap as Kindle books and quick and easy to get through.
Rats and Gargoyles, by Mary Gentle (book 1 of Rat Lords)

Finally finished this; it was a bit of a struggle. It took about a week to read the first 6 chapters, and over a week to read the last 3. A very strange book; it helps if you know something of Alchemical Philosophy and Masonic teaching.

Set in The City (which other cities reflect), ruled by the 36 divine Decans and their gargoyle servants, this details the struggle of humans to overthrow their masters, the Rat Lords ruled by the eight-fold Rat King. The Rat Lords in turn want to overthrow the Decans. There are other races resident there as well; principally the Kateyans (who appear to be some kind of colobus-like primate with a prehensile tail).

Just to make things weird, the technology level seems to be set at around the English Civil War. The Rat Lords come across as though they are conceived by Dumas, the Kateyans seem to be Babylonian or Sumerians judging by their names (and live the opposite side of the world - Cathay), and there seem to be several human kingdoms, one of which appears to be analogous to Spain.

I think I may not have read this one before although the paperback is in my library, but I recall reading book 2 in the series, The Architecture of Desire. This, as always, is well-written, but highly densely plotted. It’s difficult keeping the plot straight. I also don’t know how to categorise this; it starts reading like a fantasy and then you realise that it’s actually an alternate universe. Book 2 is definately an alternate universe.

In all honesty, this may have been better split into 2 volumes. I understand why it’s a single volume, but I was flagging badly towards the end.

Recommended if you like this sort of thing.
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The Architecture of Desire, by Mary Gentle (book 2 of Rat Lords)

This follows on from Rats and Gargoyles, and is a much shorter and very much less obscure book. The White Crow and Lord Casuabon have returned to the White Crow's ancestral home, the manor of Roseveare in an alternate England. They now have 2 children, a boy aged 7 or 8, and an infant daughter. England is a land divided in loyalty - between Queen Carola and General Olivia. The General is trying to build a new temple in London - but it keeps collapsing. She sends a troop of gentleman mercenaries to bring Lord Casuabon to find out why.

There is less Hermetic philosophy than Rats and Gargoyles, and the story is a bit less convoluted. This makes for a more rewarding read, and I finished it in a couple of days (instead of weeks). The alternate England means we meet recognisable names - apart from Queen Carola and General Olivia, we meet Isaac Newton (Master of the Mint) and William Harvey, plus others.

The first 7 in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome:
Swallows and Amazons
Peter Duck
Winter Holiday
Coot Club
Pigeon Post
We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea

These are all available online at the Faded Page website, Ransome being out of copyright in Canada (but not England - we have to wait until 2031 unless international copyright changes. I have them all in hard copy anyway.

A classic children's series with more or less the same characters in each, and with continuity between each book (although each book is a stand-alone story). Set in the interwar years, they still seem relevant today although there are now some general issues:

  • There's very much an issue with female characters - although the Beckett girls are real tomboys, Susan Walker and Peggy Beckett seem to spend an inordinate time engaged in domestic tasks - cooking and cleaning, and taking charge of the younger children (Titty & Roger Walker, Dick and Dorothea Callum). (We won't mention Titty's name - it's a perfectly reasonable nickname for a girl whose full name is presumably Letitia.)
  • Jim Turner's relationship with his nieces, Nancy and Peggy Beckett. Even today, it would have been perfectly in order for an uncle and his nephews, but felt a little off for an uncle and his nieces. Admittedly, the family was rather close knit as the Mrs Beckett was raising her daughters alone, and she and her brother were themselves orphans raised by an aunt.
  • The lack of supervision. That is the one thing that now dates the series - even in the 60s I was able to run wild round the neighbourhood with little or no adult involvement. Now, that's all over unless your parents are fortunate enough to own several several acres of land.
Swallows and Amazons
The Walkers are holidaying in the Lake District, and the 4 elder Walker children (the Swallows) want to camp out on an island near the farm they are staying on. They receive permission from their father (a naval officer) and set out. They meet 2 girls - the Beckett sisters (the Amazons) who reside nearby and have used the island as a campsite previously. After some skirmishes, they win the 'war', capturing the Amazon, and in the process finding 'treasure' - a manuscript written by Jim Turner (Captain Flint) who resides on a houseboat in a nearby bay.

The Walkers are back in the Lake District next summer, and are hoping to camp once again with the Becketts. But Great Aunt Maria is staying and expects Ruth (Captain Nancy because pirates are ruthless) and Peggy to be seen and not heard (except when reciting poetry). The Swallows camp instead in a valley near the Beckett residence so the Amazons can slip away when they can.

Peter Duck
A more fanciful story - Uncle Jim has acquired a schooner and the Swallows and Amazons go with him and an old sailor (Peter Duck) to recover some buried treasure Peter Duck watched being buried 60 years ago in the Caribbean (shades of Treasure Island). Peter Duck's story is well known in Lowestoft, and when the skipper of another boat sees him setting to sea once more, gives chase thinking that at long last the treasure is to be recovered (having tried and failed to find it before).

Winter Holiday
The Callums - Dick and Dot (the Ds) are introduced to the Walkers and Becketts during the course of a winter holiday in the Lake District. The lake freezes over and a trip is made to the North Pole.

Coot Club
The action shifts to the Norfolk Broads. The Ds are staying there with their mother's old school mistress, and learn to sail. Here the Coot Club has it's headquarters: Tom Dudgeon the doctor's son, the solicitor's twin daughters Port & Starboard (Nell and Bess Farland), and Jim, Bill and Pete - three younger boys (the Death and Glories). The Coot Club are keen birders and trouble ensues when Tom sets a motor cruiser adrift which has moored on top of a coot's nest.

Pigeon Post
Back in the Lake District, the Swallows, Amazons and Ds are prospecting for gold in the fells. The drought has bitten hard and everywhere is tinder dry. They end up camping on the edge of the fells after finding a spring in a valley used by the local charcoal burners.

We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea
The Walkers are at Pin Mill on the East coast to meet their father who has been transferred to Shotley (he was on the China Station). Here they befriend Jim Brading of the Goblin and go sailing with him. An accident sends them to sea, and they make a night crossing to Flushing in atrocious weather.

Somewhat dated, but all are still very enjoyable. There's some casual racism in Peter Duck, but not really in the other books unless you count the children referring to the adult members of their families as natives of whatever adventure they are currently engaged in. Given Ransome's socialist background, working class characters come across as sympathetic, and does not approve of the idle classes (the Hullaballoos in Coot Club). The other thing noticable is how ecologically sound the books are.

The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer

A historical romance, set after the Jacobite Rebellion.

Mr Peter Merriott and his sister Kate are on their to London to stay with my Lady Lowestoft. On the way, they chance on an eloping couple - but the lady is having second thoughts. They rescue the lady, and take her back to London with them. Staying with Lady Lowestoft, the Merriotts are introduced to Society - apparently on the instructions of their father. It seems the Merriotts are not what - or indeed, who - they seem. They are indeed brother and sister, but Peter is rightfully Prudence, and Kate is really Robin...

Making a stir in Society, Robin/Kate is attracted to the rescued heiress, and Prudence/Peter attracted to the heiress’ official suitor. Then their father turns up - it seems he is the (missing) heir to a Vicounty - or so he claims. It’s difficult to know for sure; the family have always been adventurers and lived by their wits. What is known is that Robin and his father took part in the Rebellion and Robin at least is under attainder.

After various ins and outs, all is resolved happily.

Great fun to read, I can recommend this one.


Staff member
I loved all of these as a kid. I lived in Hull and the sea and the estuary was always present. The one that I remember with fondness immediately is We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea
I loved all of these as a kid. I lived in Hull and the sea and the estuary was always present. The one that I remember with fondness immediately is We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea
I always remember that one for the rescue of Sinbad. I also remember Peter Duck for the waterspout. I don’t think my sister’s kids ever read them - unless they were read when staying with Nana in Poole before my sister organised a Sky package.

Mum was stationed at Shotley at the end of the war; and I remember going on holiday in Suffolk and doing a day trip down to Pin Mill and along the river there. She told us how she was working on a ship when they brought the then U-boat admiral to England and he was startled to see a mere female working on a ship bossing a male seaman around (she was a Leading Wren and merited an assistant). Apparently he stood and watched for a while.
As background reading for “The Gangs of Old London” I picked up “A Dictionary of Victorian Slang, Cant, and Vulgar words” which is a reprint of “A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words Used at the Present Day in the Streets of London; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; the Houses of Parliament; the Dens of St. Giles; and the Palaces of St. Jame”s by John Camden Hotten, London, 1859.

Unfortunately the Victorian English is as sometimes almost as incomprehensible as the slang. So for example I now know:

ALYBBEG, is slang for “a bedde”.
CACKLING-CHETE, is slang for “a coke [cock], or capon”.
TO SKOWER THE CRAMPRINGES, is slang for “to weare boltes or fetters”.
Bright and Shining Tiger, by Claudia J Edwards

A stand-alone fantasy set in the same world as Taming the Forest King.

Runa is exiled from her kingdom, under penalty of death for witchcraft if she returns. She heads east - across a mountain range and desert until she reaches grasslands. There she is claimed by the Silvercat, the tuteletary beast of the Silvercat castellum to be the castellum’s mantic - the previous mantic and margrave having died and left no heirs. However, the rulers of the other castellas don’t like an outsider claiming the Silvercat castellum, and like it even less when she marries a barbarian as her margrave.

After beating off an attack of cannibals, Runa and her husband go horse hunting - horses being very important to the rulers of the castellas, and being in short supply. While in the wilderness, her husband is taken by a summoning spell arranged by the other rulers as they want Silvercat back in their hands. After various vicissitudes, Runa and her husband are reunited and settle in Silvercat.

Fairly light, but fun. Yes, it and the other Edwards I’ve reviewed are romances, but unlike the modern paranormals they aren’t in the least smutty. The world building is interesting - it looks like North America far in the future after our civilisation has collapsed, but this is never explicitly stated.