Archives for posts with tag: Urban Fantasy

This week I’m recommending “Rotherweird”, a debut novel by Andrew Caldecott set in a very peculiar English town. Since “Rotherweird” has only just been published, the choice is between hardback and ebook. The novel comes with a striking cover design by Leo Nickolls and monochrome illustrations by Sasha Laika, which sounds like an argument for buying the hardback. Sadly, the illustrations are so blurry you might as well go with the ebook version. “Rotherweird” is a difficult book to classify, so I’ve had to invent a new subgenre for it – Cosy Horror.

Ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Rotherweird Valley and the town of Rotherweird have been set apart from the rest of England. The town is ruled by an elected Mayor and an hereditary Herald and has “a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world”. Most of Rotherweird’s inhabitants never leave the valley and outsiders are rarely allowed in but in 2017 several exceptions are made. Corrupt Mayor Snorkel has been bribed to permit ruthless multi-millionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone to restore the town’s Elizabethan manor house, which has been empty for centuries. Slickstone arrives in Rotherweird with an actress and a juvenile thief whom he has hired to impersonate his wife and son.

Another new arrival is Jonah Oblong, a young history teacher who is desperate enough to apply for a post at Rotherweird School. He agrees to take the job but is warned that he must only teach the modern history of the outside world. Any study of the history of Rotherweird itself is strictly forbidden. Once Oblong moves to Rotherweird he is perturbed to discover that his predecessor, another outsider called Mr Flask, vanished without trace after being sacked for looking into the early history of Rotherweird. Oblong soon meets a wide range of eccentric locals, including chivalrous Games Master, Gregorious Jones, fiery scientist, Vixen Valourhand, ex-teacher and biologist Godfrey Fanguin and frustrated shop-assistant Orelia Roc. When Orelia buys a set of four mysterious stones and resells them to Slickstone, who seems to know their purpose, a sinister series of events is set in motion.

With Fanguin’s help, Oblong investigates his predecessor’s disappearence and the meaning of the cryptic notes he left behind. After he witnesses Slickstone display some extraordinary powers and stumbles on the body of a murder victim, Oblong becomes part of a diverse group who are determined to uncover the truth about the town’s origins and foil Slickstone’s evil plans. Some of this group are already surprisingly knowledgeable about the strange history and even stranger geography of Rotherweird. That knowledge will lead the companions into a hidden world of beauty and horror haunted by monstrous beings and the sins of the past. All of Rotherweird is in danger and the Midsummer Fair may be the last chance to save it…

I ought to be cautious when reviewing this novel because the author is a barrister who specializes in defamation and libel law but I must admit that I dithered about whether to recommend “Rotherweird”. Followers of Fantasy Reads may imagine that I take a Pollyanna approach to fiction – seeing the upside of every book and liking everything. This is far from the truth. I only recommend about 20% of what I read and there are plenty of Fantasy novels which I find disappointing or positively hate, such as… No, I vowed not to waste words on bad or boring books so I won’t name them. Books that feature on Fantasy Reads don’t have to be perfect (see my August 2015 post on “The Paper Magician”) but they do need to have some distinctive quality which makes them worth recommending. At first, I believed that “Rotherweird” was going to fail this test because I kept thinking – this is very like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” but not as good. Caldecott lacks Peake’s emotional intensity and gift for poetic language and he hasn’t created powerful leading characters to compare with Steerpike and Titus Groan.

In fact “Rotherweird” doesn’t really have leading characters since it is a story about a place. I’ve chosen to make outsider Oblong the central figure in my synopsis because he is the easiest character for readers to identify with but the novel isn’t like that. Caldecott’s narrative has more than a dozen viewpoint characters and a complex double structure. Events in the town’s present day are interspersed with enigmatic scenes set in the 16th century. Rotherweird’s mix of quaint old-fashioned customs (at one point Oblong finds himself competing in a coracle race dressed as a grasshopper) and cutting-edge Science never seems entirely plausible. For much of the book the numerous story-lines don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The self-consciously eccentric locals can be hard to empathise with – authors please note that coining funny names is not a substitute for proper characterization – and gangling Oblong is not exactly hero material. He is more like a hapless character from a novel by Evelyn Waugh or even P.G.Wodehouse. Caldecott has fun giving Oblong a disastrous love-life but the social comedy in “Rotherweird” tends to work against the Horror elements when these finally arrive. I was disturbed by a creature who is part good woman and part malicious spider but to be honest you can terrify me with the tiniest of spiders.

“Rotherweird” seemed like one for the reject pile until I noticed that I was ignoring my husband at breakfast in order to finish reading this novel. At some point, I’d been hooked by Caldecott’s wayward plot and charmed by his setting. So, what is good about “Rotherweird”? Caldecott does have a strong visual imagination. His style may not be poetic but it is highly readable and pleasingly precise – when Sir Veronal sends for some “flavourless biscuits” they are served “in a white napkin, lined up like poker chips.” Caldecott writes entertaining dialogue which is more literary than natural but that helps to establish Rotherweird as a timeless place, set apart from the rest of the world. It’s an extreme version of the kind of small provincial town often celebrated in English literature – think Cranford or Tilling with added zany machines and weasel-men. Rotherweird lacks some of the main annoyances of modern life, such as traffic jams and mobile phones. This is a place I should like to visit and I got a strong sense that creating Rotherweird was a labour of love for Caldecott.

If you enjoy plots put together like a jigsaw puzzle and intriguing mysteries, “Rotherweird” is the book for you. This novel has mysteries galore. Why has Sir Veronal restored the manor house and what is he trying to remember? Who is the scholarly Countrysider known only as Ferensen and what happened to missing teacher, Flask? What is the purpose of the set of stones and the meaning of some mysterious murals in the church? Why did Rotherweird have to be sealed off from the rest of England and what kind of monster once came to its Midsummer Fair? These questions are answered in the current novel but there are plenty more mysteries left to be explored in the impending sequel, “Wyntertide”. “Rotherweird” is a book to be read for the range of its characters rather than their depth. Sir Veronal Slickstone is a standard Fantasy villain but, due to a last minute plot twist, this doesn’t matter. What I really like is the variety of the “good guys”. The companions are female and male, young, middle-aged and old, and include a cheery pair of inventors, a reckless scientist, a warm-hearted cleaner, a reclusive scholar, a timid bureaucrat who learns to take risks and an authority figure brave enough to break with tradition. I’m looking forward to reading more about this group. Until next time….




This week I’m looking again at two Fantasy series which have expanded since I first recommended them. They are both about practitioners of magic in modern London. Lovers of Urban Fantasy should find plenty to relish in each of these series.

In December 2012 I wrote about “Rivers of London” a first novel by Ben Aaronovitch which described how a young black policeman called Peter Grant became a trainee wizard. There are now six Peter Grant novels (“Rivers of London”, “Moon Over Soho”, “Whispers Under Ground”, “Broken Homes”, “Foxglove Summer” and “The Hanging Tree”)  with a seventh (“The Furthest Station”) due out this September. A number of subsidiary stories have been told in Comics/Graphic Novels. Sadly the latter won’t work on my Kindle but you don’t need to have read the Comics to follow the plots of the main sequence. The adventures of Police Constable Grant are funny and frightening “Police Procedural” stories with a supernatural twist. If you like Christopher Fowler’s entertaining “Bryant & May” books about London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, you will probably enjoy the “Rivers of London” Series.

After he manages to interview a ghost, PC Grant is taken on as an apprentice by formidable wizard, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and goes to live at The Folly – “the official home of English magic since 1775”. Grant has to learn on the job as he battles crime and unauthorized magic. There are several long-running plot lines in this series, including the search for a group of illegally-trained magicians known as the Little Crocodiles and the struggle to discover the true identity of the evil Faceless Man. Aaronovitch generally treats dark events in a light-hearted way but there are plot developments in the final chapters of Volumes One and Four which have a powerful emotional impact. Grant’s personal story arc features an on and off romance with a river goddess, a frustrating relationship with his jazz musician father and a bond with a brilliant colleague which survives mutilation and betrayal.

A realistically portrayed modern London is the setting for this series – except in “Foxglove Summer” (2016)  which sends Grant on a post-traumatic trip to the countryside which, thanks to some sinister local fairies, proves far from restful. I’ve learned a lot about London’s architecture, underground rivers, police force and jazz scene from these books. Handsome PC Grant makes a dashing hero while as a narrator he has a nice line in self-deprecating humour. He tries to drag The Folly into the 21st century by using both magic and technology but with limited success since spell-working apparently does awful things to phones and computers. There are so many maverick detectives in fiction that it’s refreshing to come across a policeman who strives to do things by the book however bizarre the  circumstances. In “The Hanging Tree” (2017) for example one of his murder suspects is a haughty river goddess and another has been dead for centuries. Grant’s latest sidekick is a tough-minded headscarf-wearing Muslim policewoman. This series could be seen as an example of tick-box diversity but it doesn’t read that way because Aaronovitch writes about all his regular characters with such warmth and affection. I find myself caring about the fate of the people in these books, so I’m keen to read the continuing adventures of PC Grant.

In March 2013 I recommended “A Madness of Angels” by Kate Griffin, a prolific SF and Fantasy author who also writes under the names of Catherine Webb and Claire North. “A Madness of Angels” is the first of a quartet of novels about Matthew Swift, a murdered Urban Sorcerer who comes back to life when he fuses with the Blue Electric Angels who embody all the life and energy in London’s telephone network. During Volume One he encounters a horror known as The Shadow and tries to track down and defeat his own killer. At the start of Volume Two, “The Midnight Mayor”,  Swift unexpectedly inherits the office of  Midnight Mayor, the protector of  London from supernatural dangers – such as the terrible “Destroyer of Cities”. In Volume Three, “The Neon Court”, Swift and his new apprentice, an ex-Traffic Warden called Penny, have to deal with an angry underground tribe, some furious fairies, a lost “chosen one” and a night that refuses to end.  “The Minority Council”  sees Swift investigating a drug-dealer known as “The Fairy Godmother”, a monster which is attacking hooligans and possible treachery among the Aldermen who are supposed to assist the Midnight Mayor.

In 2012, Griffin launched a new London-based series called “Magicals Anonymous”. Matthew Swift is still Midnight Mayor but he is no longer the narrator. The central character is young woman called Sharon Li. At the start of “Stray Souls”, Sharon is working in a coffee-shop and worrying about the fact that she can walk through walls. She has founded a Facebook Group for those with weird powers and some very strange people turn up at the first meeting of “Magicals Anonymous” to discuss their problems. Afterwards, Sharon is approached by the Midnight Mayor who tells her that she is a shaman and sends her to an irascible goblin for training. Swift also sets Sharon the task of looking for the protective spirits who have gone missing from parts of London. Sharon learns how to walk herself invisible and into a world of danger. In the sequel, “The Glass God”, it is the Midnight Mayor himself who goes missing, so it is up to Sharon and her fellow members of “Magicals Anonymous” to save London from a new threat.

It wouldn’t matter very much if you read this double series out of sequence because the plots of the novels are all rather similar and there isn’t very much character development. In each book there is a mystery to be solved, a monster to be slain and a conspiracy to be defeated. I warned in my initial review that these stories are not “for the fastidious or the faint-hearted”. All the books contain extremely graphic violence and far too much bad language for my taste. However, the tone of the novels has become less grim than in “A Madness of Angels”. Griffin has introduced more humour and given Swift some cheerful companions including my favourite character, the Midnight Mayor’s relentlessly upbeat PA, Kelly. She knows how bleak the world can be but is determined to face horror with a smile and make sure that fighters against unspeakable evils at least get decent coffee and sandwiches.

An outstanding feature of the first four novels is the strange but compelling narrative voice of the composite being that is Matthew Swift and the Blue Electric Angels. You can tell which is dominant at any given point in the story by whether the pronoun used is I or we.  Fallible Swift is a “man of sorrows” who suffers injury, betrayal and every kind of loss but remains generous and compassionate. The Blue Electric Angels have never had corporeal form before and are keen to share all the varied experiences of a human body – which means they’ll eat anything. The merciless angels give Swift supercharged magical power and the ability to wreak terrible fiery revenge on his enemies when he loses his temper. “A Madness of Angels” tests whether Swift can retain his sanity and humanity, but then Griffin seems to lose interest in this question. The later books are more about what is likely to happen when an anti-authority loner is put in charge of a large organization with pragmatic values. I missed Swift’s consistent narrative voice in the “Magicals Anonymous” books, which are told from multiple viewpoints, but it is good to glimpse the Midnight Mayor as others see him – a shabby dark-haired man with impossibly blue eyes and sometimes a pair of flaming wings.

There are two particular reasons for recommending Griffin’s books. Firstly, she is a wonderful observer and recorder of modern city life and secondly she’s the best there is at inventing forms of truly Urban Magic. In the course of these novels you get detailed tours of numerous districts of London, which each generate their own distinctive magics. For example, the Brutalist concrete architecture of the Barbican is “a place where the laws of space and time are put through the wringer”  and sorcerers can pass through apparently solid structures.  Even the seediest parts of London are lovingly described. Griffin finds terror and beauty in urban landscapes that most of us have stopped noticing.  In Willesden, spectres take the form of gangs of hoodies loitering in bus shelters, which Swift defeats with bottles of beer, cigarettes and Sellotape bought from the nearest corner shop. London is a scary place but thanks to the Midnight Mayor if I’m ever attacked by a demon while travelling on the Underground I now know how to defend myself with my Oyster Card. Until next time….






November can be a nasty month so as a countermeasure I’m recommending a warm-hearted story about a very nice dragon. Rachel Aaron’s “Nice Dragons Finish Last” is the first book in her “Heartstriker” series. It came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. This novel is set in the late 21st century, 60 years after magic has surged back into the world reawakening the spirits of the land and empowering human mages. I’d classify “Nice Dragons Finish Last” as Urban Fantasy. Most of the action takes place in a bizarre version of Detroit, a city which deserves a break but doesn’t get much of one in this plot. Oh and as a hangover from “Ghost Month” this novel features a ghostly cat who may or may not be a Death Spirit.

Twenty-four year-old Julius is a junior member of the powerful dragon-clan known as the Heartstrikers. He is a kindly soul who lacks the ambition and aggression of most of dragonkind. This is a problem when you are a grandson of the mighty feathered dragon, Quetzalcoatl, and a son of the ruthless Bethesda. She murdered her own father to take over the Heartstriker clan and has hatched more clutches of eggs than any other female dragon. Bethesda doesn’t tolerate failure in her children. She suddenly seals Julius into his human form, depriving him of most of his powers, and throws him out of his Nevada home. Julius is dumped in the notoriously dangerous DFZ (Detroit Free Zone) and warned that Bethesda will eat him if he doesn’t do something truly draconic by the end of the month.

His only chance seems to be a job offered by his devious elder brother, Ian. All Julius has to do is track down a runaway dragoness in a city where humans have few legal rights and full-form dragons are killed on sight. Julius does have two allies among his numerous siblings: his much stronger clutch-brother Justin, and his oldest brother, the Great Seer Brohomir, known as Bob. The trouble is that Justin is none too bright and Bob is generally thought to be mad. Bob can see possible futures but his only advice to Julius is to behave like a gentleman and help desperate women. Julius soon meets one – a young human mage called Marci Novalli who is desperate for a paying job. Julius hires her to help him infiltrate a group of shamans and find Katya, the missing dragoness.

Marci is a mage powerful enough to bind a Death Spirit but she’s on the run from the man who killed her father. Murderous thugs and mages are after her and they keep on coming because of a prophecy. Julius soon has to cope with a malicious Seer from another dragon-clan,  gun-wielding gangsters, sewer and cave-dwelling monsters, and his scary sister Chelsie whose job is to punish any Heartstriker who steps out of line. Justin’s efforts to help only attract the unwelcome attention of both Chelsie and Algonquin, the terrifying Spirit of the Great Lakes who rules the DFZ. Julius is reluctant to complete his mission and force Katya to go back to her clan. He’s sick of being told to be a good dragon if that “is just another name for a cold-blooded sociopath.” Can Julius find a way to come out on top but still stay nice?

Regular readers of Fantasy Reads will know that I am keen on dragons. I loved this novel even though most of the dragon-characters stay in their drop-dead gorgeous human forms throughout the story. This book is more about draconic states of mind than fire-breathing monsters. The sudden return of magic to earth after a “thousand-year drought” and the history of the two dragon groups we get to meet – the black-haired, green-eyed Heartstrikers and the snow-pale, all female Three Sisters clan – are rather sketchily described in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. Fortunately, the details are filled in – complete with some fascinating surprises – in the two sequels: “One Good Dragon Deserves Another” (2015) and “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished” (2016).

What you do get in this very American take on Urban Fantasy is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a city that has risen again after a great catastrophe. I’ve a soft spot for Detroit (a favourite aunt of mine used to live there) and the decay of huge areas of this once prosperous city seems to have captured the imagination of artists and writers. In Jim Jarmusch’s intriguing Fantasy film “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), cool vampire Adam hangs out in a decayed Victorian mansion in Detroit. Marci squats in a similar, rubbish-filled, cat-infested house in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”. In Aaron’s version of American history, most of Detroit was destroyed by a tidal wave on the night that magic returned when Algonquin took vengeance for the pollution of her lakes. The “Lady of the Lakes” then built a new city of “blindingly white, thousand-floor superscrapers rising from a beautiful  whimsically spiraling lattice of elevated skyways” over the “rotting carcass” of the old city. Tens of thousands of people live in almost total darkness among the underground ruins in “the chaos of capitalism gone crazy”. With virtually no laws restricting business or magic, this Detroit is a place of unlimited opportunity and unlimited peril. The perfect mean-streets setting for gritty magical adventures.

Though these books contain plenty of thrilling action scenes, the Heartstriker Series is also a Family Saga centred on a hero who has always felt the odd one out. Julius has spent most of his life hiding in his room from bullying or competitive siblings and from his selfish and manipulative mother. Many unhappy teenagers will be familiar with this scenario but it is all so much worse when you have nearly a hundred siblings and your mother is likely to kill members of the family who disagree with her. In 2014 I recommended a novel which features a monstrous mother in law (Erick Setiawan’s “Of Bees and Mist”). Now I’m nominating greedy, power-mad Bethesda as one of the worst mothers in Fantasy fiction. We get to know her better as the series progresses, along with many of Julius’ brothers and sisters. Chelsie isn’t the greatest name for a character who develops into a tragic heroine but we can blame that on Bethesda since she’s supposed to have vulgar tastes in everything from jewellery (gold, gold and more gold) to her children’s names.

Bethesda has done the right thing in kicking Julius out to force him to stand on his own two feet (or four feet when in dragon form) but this isn’t accidental. She’s been nudged into it by Bob who sees gentle Julius as a vital player in the version of the future he’s trying to create. Charming Bob, with his crazy dress-sense and his strange relationship with an intelligent pigeon, seems to be a force for good in the story but may not be. Aaron keeps us guessing. An on-going battle between Dragon-Seers to shape the future is one of several intertwining plot-strands in the Heartstriker series. It is typical of Aaron’s clever plot-making that quirky details in “Nice Dragons Finish Last”, such as Bob’s pigeon or Marci’s ghost-cat, turn out to be of vital importance in the later volumes.

Two other important plot-strands involve Marci’s discovery of her huge potential as a mage and her developing relationship with Julius. To most dragons, a human is at best a pet and at worst lunch but Julius is won over by Marci’s warmth and courtesy. They become business partners and friends with a hint of more to come. Aaron shows that this partnership is successful partly because human Marci isn’t quite as nice as dragon Julius. She can be secretive and vengeful and she’s utterly determined to make the most of her talent for magic, whatever the cost. Nevertheless, it is Marci’s support which gives Julius the strength to break with draconic tradition and start doing things his way. He tries to solve problems by diplomacy and negotiation rather than physical or magical force. Whether you’re human or dragon, or a bit of both, this series could cause you to think about what sort of society you want to live in.

Each volume of the Heartstriker series contains one complete story-arc but leaves several issues unresolved. The cliff-hanger at the end of the third volume is of the kind that makes you want to kidnap the author, lock her in an attic and tell her she’s not coming out until she’s finished the sequel. Don’t worry Rachel, I have a very nice attic. Until next time…





























This week I’m recommending “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley – a novel which shows that if you want a story with strong heroines you don’t always have to go to a female writer.  “The Rook”, which is Volume One of “The Checquy Files”, was first published in 2012 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It is a novel which doesn’t fit neatly into just one genre. “The Rook” could be classified as Urban Fantasy with Science Fiction and Horror elements but it is also a Murder Mystery and a psychological Thriller. O’Malley is an Australian-born writer who was educated in America but “The Checquy Files” series is set in Britain and concerns a very British kind of secret organization.

With “The Rook” you get two heroines for the price of one. At the start of the story our heroine finds herself in a rain-drenched London park surrounded by corpses. She can’t remember how she got there or who she is and even her body doesn’t seem familiar. Fortunately there is a letter in her pocket from her battered body’s previous owner, Myfanwy Thomas, telling her to use the cards in her wallet to check in at a luxury hotel.  Once there, Myfanwy 2, reads another letter from her predecessor, Myfanwy 1, describing how she was warned by several psychics that she was going to be attacked and stripped of her memory. Myfanwy 2 is given a choice between two deposit boxes. One contains the wherewithal for a fresh start abroad; the other all the information she would need to take on Myfanwy 1’s identity and a life of power, wealth and danger.

After surviving another attack, Myfanwy 2 chooses the second option. The next letter in the sequence explains that she has the power to disrupt other people’s control of their own bodies. After this power first manifested in nine year-old Myfanwy 1 she was taken away from her family and raised by a secret organization known as the Checquy Group whose purpose is to protect Great Britain from supernatural threats. The agents of the Checquy (pronounced Sheck-Eh) come in two kinds – Retainers, who are ordinary human beings, and Pawns, who each have some kind of inhuman power. The Checquy are ruled by a Court which always consists of a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Rooks and two Chevaliers. Myfanwy I was unwilling to use her special power in combat but her talents as an administrator caused her to be promoted to the rank of Rook. Myfanwy 2 doesn’t have time to learn much more before she has to turn up at Checquy headquarters and pretend to be the real Rook Thomas.

On her first day, Myfanwy 2 has to deal with her scarily efficient PA, Ingrid, and with Rook Gestalt, a single mind with four bodies – all of them annoyingly blonde and gorgeous. She manages not to throw up when watching the interrogation of a visitor from Brussels who has killed and eaten a prostitute. The Checquy assume that the man has natural inhuman abilities but he turns out to be something worse – a monster created by a group of European scientists known as the Grafters. Back in the 17th century, the Grafters used their surgical skills to adapt men and animals into a monstrous army which invaded Britain. At great cost, they were defeated by the supernatural powers of the Checquy of the day. The Grafters were stamped out – or so it was thought. Now they seem to be attacking Britain again and horrible things begin to happen. Myfanwy 2 surprises her colleagues by being brave and resourceful in the field. The letters left by Myfanwy 1 warn that she cannot necessarily trust those colleagues. Timid Myfanwy 1 was in the process of uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of the Checquy. Rook Thomas is not the woman she once was, so can she unmask the traitors and save the Checquy from their ancient enemies?

Amazon kept telling me that I should buy “The Rook” because I own all of Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” books but I resisted for a long time. Amazon aren’t always right – they are currently convinced that my cat-loving husband has a labrador and keep recommending doggie treats. I love “The Laundry Files” (see my September 2014 post on “The Rhesus Chart”) and I didn’t want to read something that sounded like a pale imitation.  Luckily, I opened a copy of “The Rook” in my local bookshop and was immediately captivated by the wry narrative voice of Myfanwy 2 – “It sounds like I’m the Defence Minister of Ghosts and Goblins, but as long as the job is “all fairly self-explanatory” I’ve no doubt it will be fine. The country might get overrun by brownies and talking trees, but what the hell – there’s always Australia!” The two series do have a similar premise (the existence of a secret branch of the British government which uses both magic and technology to fight supernatural threats) and Stross and O’Malley share a dark sense of humour. It may not be apparent from my synopsis that “The Rook” is a very funny novel. O’Malley doesn’t have Stross’s uncannily accurate knowledge of current trends in management and government policy but he has the British character nailed and he has given his Checquy Group a long and inventive history. There is a delightful running joke about the Checquy having been sent to deal with various situations which readers will recognize as coming from well-known Fantasy stories.

“The Rook” has a wider range of female characters and a more complex structure than any of the “Laundry Files” books. Amnesiac main characters are not uncommon in fiction but the device is used particularly well in this novel. The reader learns about the strange world of the Checquy step by step, just as Myfanwy 2 does. Scenes in which she has to deal with things she knows nothing about such as “tidying up after that outbreak of plague in the Elephant and Castle” and a “scheduled assault on an antler cult” alternate with the new Rook reading carefully prepared briefings from Myfanwy 1. These cover the history of the Checquy and its sister organization in America, the Croatoan, and give detailed accounts of the members of the ruling court, like haughty Lady Farrier who can walk into other people’s dreams or hot vampire Bishop Alrich whose hair changes colour when he drinks human blood. Some of the back-stories in these briefings, such as what happened when a Pawn thought he’d developed a rapport with a dragon’s egg, aren’t necessary to the plot but are gruesomely entertaining.

Myfanwy 1’s more personal letters describe her upbringing and rise to power and her attempts to discover why she is going to be erased. Meanwhile, in the current part of the narrative, Myfanwy 2 is having to cope with increasingly bizarre events including a conversation with a flayed aristocrat in a tank of slime, a house in Bath full of man-eating fungus, and a cocktail party with a very high body count. Further subplots about Myfanwy 2 striking up a friendship with a glamorous American Bishop and an unexpected approach from Myfanwy 1’s sister add to the hefty page count. If you prefer fast-moving linear narratives you might get impatient but as a voracious reader I’ve a lot of tolerance for over-stuffed books. I also appreciated the games that O’Malley plays with genre. Kick-ass Bishop Shantay who can turn herself into metal, represents the flamboyant American comic-book superhero tradition. She’s the perfect contrast to quiet administrator Rook Thomas who, like a character from a classic British Spy novel such as “Smiley’s People”, is so much more formidable than she seems.  The plot of “The Rook” concerns the long-standing and bitter enmity between the supernatural Checquy and the scientific Grafters but it could be interpreted as a dramatization of the perpetual argument between lovers of Fantasy and Science Fiction about which is best. A wonderful twist right at the end of the novel suggests the stance that O’Malley himself might take in this argument.

This plot twist works because O’Malley made me believe that only the woman Rook Thomas has become would think of taking the Checquy in such a startling new direction. Publishers have finally realized that strong heroines sell books but in Fantasy fiction I often get the impression that a male leading role (warrior, wizard etc.) has been automatically replaced by a female one without giving much thought to the differences the change of gender might bring. That isn’t the case with “The Rook”. O’Malley has created a number of complex and interesting female characters. They convince as professional women doing difficult jobs and none of them are in the plot to be somebody’s love interest. Shy and plain Myfanwy 1 could destroy people with a touch but preferred forensic accounting and sitting at home reading Georgette Heyer novels and eating pastries.  Myfanwy 2 is irritated by her predecessor’s dull dress-sense (O’Malley is very good on clothes as an expression of character) but has increasing respect for the courage with which Myfanwy 1 faced her impending destruction. One of the fascinations of this novel is watching Myfanwy 2 develop a distinct personality, starting with small rebellions such as taking cream in her coffee and working up to taking the lead in tackling monsters and traitors.

If both versions of Rook Thomas aren’t enough of an attraction, may I draw your attention to Ingrid, the loyal PA who remains unflappable in dire situations which would reduce most of us to hysteria. How often in Fantasy fiction is a middle-aged, married secretary allowed to shine? “Stiletto”, the recent sequel to “The Rook” features two more appealing heroines, one representing the Checquy and the other, the Grafters. “The Checquy Files” is a series I’ll be sticking with. If you can stomach some quite strong violence, do give “The Rook” a try. Until next time….
















Is there enough cake in Fantasy fiction? I ask because my ideal comfort read would combine magic, romance and comedy with a beautiful setting and plentiful descriptions of delicious food – especially cake. I have recently found a book which does contain most of these elements – “The Witches of Cambridge” by Menna van Praag. She defines her work as Magical Realism and this is the fourth novel she has set in her home town of Cambridge, England. “The Witches of Cambridge” came out this month (May 2016) so it’s only available in hardback or as a reasonably priced ebook.

This story concerns an unusual group of people. Amandine, Héloise, Kat, Cosima, Noa and George have two things in common. They all live and work in Cambridge and they are all witches. Each of them has a different special power. Amandine, who teaches art history, can feel other people’s emotions. Her mother Héloise used to be able to see future events but hasn’t done so since she failed to predict her beloved husband’s death. Kat is a Professor of Mathematics who can turn formulae into spells while her younger sister Cosima bakes joyful magic into the food she serves at her Sicilian-style café, Gustare. Art student Noa perceives people’s deepest secrets. Kat’s best friend George claims that his magic can’t do anything much. When Amandine invites Noa to join the Witches’ Bookclub, which meets on the rooftops of Cambridge colleges, the evening doesn’t go well. Noa can’t help blurting out secrets that members of the group are trying to hide.

All the good witches have problems in their personal lives. Amandine believes that she has lost her husband’s love but she doesn’t know why. Héloise is starting to emerge from the numbness of grief but her husband’s ghost is still the dominating presence in her life. Kat fears that her secret love for George is unrequited and George doesn’t feel free to act on his true feelings. Cosima suffers from an inherited condition which makes pregnancy dangerous for her but she is determined to have a baby – even if it means misusing love spells. Noa sees her truth-telling gift as a curse, so when Brazilian artist and witch, Santiago, offers to change her, she leaps at the chance. Soon Noa is living an exciting new life in the London art-world, but is gorgeous Santiago too good to be true? There are shocks in store for all the witches and encounters with love and death. The power of the Cambridge Witches could save a soul, but only if they can shed their secrets….

Having studied and later taught at Cambridge University, I couldn’t resist a book called “The Cambridge Witches” but I was prepared to be critical of any mistakes in the background detail. I don’t think there are any. The boring bits of academic life have been left out, but that just helps to speed up the story-telling. Quirky areas of Cambridge town – such as Midsummer Common – are well exploited. The author is clearly writing about a place she knows and loves.  Menna van Praag is young, beautiful and successful but let’s not hate her for that because she endured a long struggle to get her work accepted and had to self-publish her first book  – “Men, Money and Chocolate” (great  title). She still has to put up with patronising reviews. I note that when a male author like Matt Haig writes warm-hearted, life-affirming novels (see my August 2014 post on “To Be A Cat”) his work is praised as profound, but when a female author does it her books tends to be dismissed as sentimental Chick Lit.

I do concede that if the sort of relationships you like to read about in Fantasy mainly culminate in rape, mutilation or gruesome death, this rather gentle novel probably isn’t for you. The focus is on the witches’ innermost feelings and much of the magic is of a therapeutic kind – such as “Break-up Brownies” made with pinches of magnolia for dignity and celandine petals for joys to come. Having said that, the story is darker than you might expect from the opening chapters. Cruel things happen to several of the characters and magic isn’t shown as able to solve all problems or prevent all ills. Some of the plot twists are rather predictable. Others may give you a jolt. You could class “The Cambridge Witches” as a Romance but it doesn’t just feature romantic love.  There are many different kinds of love in the story, including love between friends and siblings and between parents and children. Types of infatuation which can be mistaken for love are cleverly depicted and I like the fact that van Praag seems equally interested in lovers of all ages, from teenage Noa to sixty-something Héloise. The men in this book do tend to be either very nasty or very nice but the women are satisfyingly complex.

The way that van Praag combines compassion with sharp analysis when writing about her female characters, and the emphasis on the little comforts of daily life, made me think of her as a mildly pagan version of Elizabeth Goudge (see my September 2012 post on Goudge’s classic children’s novel “The Little White Horse”). van Praag is a very sensual writer. I don’t mean that her work is erotic (though there are a couple of steamy sex scenes in this novel) but that she revels in sensory appreciation of the world and is excellent at describing how things look, sound, feel or taste. The visual arts are important in this novel and van Praag made me see Santiago’s mesmerising seascape paintings which remind Noa “of Turner’s tranquil sunsets, with a slightly sinister edge, as if sharks swim in the purple seas and black crows caw through the red skies.” We’ve all read about corruption and fraud in the art-world but this book comes up with an entirely new form of art-crime. The joy of reading and discussing books with like-minded people is celebrated in this novel and plays a major role in Héloise’s recovery – though not quite in the way she expects. Then there is the food…

The wonderful tastes and aromas of Cosima’s Café Gustare reminded me of my own favourite Sicilian café (it’s called Dolce & Salato if you are ever in Cheltenham). Food is shown as a tangible expression of love, such as the picnic Cosima prepares to share with her adored husband – sour cherry and chocolate cupcakes, goat’s cheese and pesto pizzas, orange oil canoli, and lemon and lavender cake. Cosima’s magic melds traditional herbalism with the Great British Bake-Off. The book even includes full recipes for delights such as “Spicy Chocolate Cake – To Ensure Wishes Come True” and “Very Simple Sicilian Biscuits – For Domestic Bliss”. In the early stages of the plot, van Praag gets a lot of humour out of the wrong person eating an enchanted biscuit. Later food plays a more poignant role, summing up someone’s character. Café Gustare definitely joins my list of Fantasy places I should love to visit.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by this novel’s modish argument that keeping secrets from people close to you is always harmful. I think I’ll still plump for traditional British reticence. Nor does “The Witches of Cambridge” have as strong a central concept as van Praag’s last two Cambridge-set novels – “The House at the End of Hope Street” (a magical sanctuary for women who need a new start in life) and “The Dress Shop of Dreams” (a shop where the clothes endow women with qualities they lack) but if you love cake (and aren’t currently on a diet) this book is a mouth-watering treat. Until next time….
















Once in a blue moon I realize that I am reading a new book which is destined to become one of my all time favourite Fantasy novels. `City of Stairs’ by Robert Jackson Bennett is such a book, so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. This novel came out last year and is currently available in paperback and as an ebook. `City of Stairs’ seems to have appealed to both Fantasy and Science Fiction readers. It also incorporates the genres of Spy story and Murder mystery.

Shara is a Saypuri Intelligence officer posing as a low-grade diplomat. She and her secretary/bodyguard, a massive North-man called Sigrud, have come to Bulikov to investigate the murder of Shara’s mentor, the historian Dr Efrem Pangyui. Bulikov is the chief city of the Continent and was once the site of the Seat of the World, a temple from which six Divinities ruled an empire. The country of Saypur, which had no gods to protect it, was conquered by the Continentals and its people treated like slaves. Eventually the Saypuris rose in revolt and their leader, known as the Kaj, discovered a way to kill Divinities and their semi-divine offspring, the Blessed.

When the Divinities died almost everything they had created disappeared, an event known as the Blink. After the Blink came a terrible time of plague and famine. Now the Continent has long been a poor and backward colony of Saypur and all knowledge of its extraordinary past has been suppressed.  Under the `Worldly Regulations’, Continentals are not allowed any form of religion and they must not even mention the names of their former gods.

There is a lot that Shara isn’t mentioning to the people of Bulikov too. She is a direct descendant of the god-murdering Kaj and she’s also the niece of Vinya Komayd, the all-powerful Minister for Foreign Affairs. Shara has only been given a week to look into Dr Pangyui’s brutal murder. Her investigations uncover a plot by fanatical `Restorationists’ to destabilise Bulikov, a plot which may involve Shara’s old flame, wealthy local businessman, Vohannes. After a series of attacks and disappearances there are urgent questions to be answered. What secrets did Dr Panguyi uncover during his research on the true history of Bulikov? How powerful are the ancient artefacts kept in the `Unmentionable Warehouses’  guarded by the Saypuri military, and are all the Divinities of Bulikov really dead?

In my last post I wrote about an Urban Fantasy  (`A Darker Shade of Magic’) which didn’t quite bring its city-settings to life. There are no such complaints this time. Bulikov – the City of Stairs – is an exciting and distinctive place, though not the ideal destination for a relaxing city-break. People who spend all their lives in cities probably dream about rural paradises. I was brought up in beautiful countryside, which may be why I’ve always been fascinated by the great cities of Fantasy. The dangerous Divine City of Bulikov with its vast white walls and mountainous stairs that lead everywhere and nowhere is one of that select group, or even two. There is the  modern city which Shara sees when she first arrives, with its dark alleyways and bland, featureless buildings, and the dazzling pre-Blink city which she gets occasional glimpses of. Modern Bulikov convinces as a colonial city with a complex political life where the ordinary citizens struggle to earn a living amongst the ruins of their once great civilization. Ancient Bulikov was a place where different realities met and miracles were a daily occurrence, a place which some factions long to see restored to its former glory.  That glory though came at a high price for citizens unwilling or unable to conform with the sacred laws of the ruling Divinities.

Bennett is a very skilful story-teller who only gradually reveals the full back stories of his leading characters and of the relations between the Continentals and the Saypuris. He cunningly begins with the military Governor of Bulikov, Colonel Mulaghesh,  presiding over an absurd court case in which a hat maker is accused of advertising his hats with a sign which is deemed to be too similar to an ancient symbol of one of the banned Divinities. The defendant is outraged because, `The Wordly Regulations deny us our history’, though Saypuri scholars such as Dr Pangyui are allowed to study the records forbidden to locals. The reader shares his outrage. `City of Stairs’ explores the same theme, of whether war crimes should be forgotten for the sake of peace, as Ishiguro’s recent novel `The Buried Giant’ (see my April 30th post) but in my view does it even better. As the story develops it becomes clear that while the Continentals know that parts of their history, and therefore their cultural identity, are denied to them, most Saypuris are unaware of how much their own history has been distorted by their ruling elite. By the end of the book plenty of secrets are still being kept but you can understand why.

Having got our sympathy for a people whose Nationalism has been neutered by depriving them of the religion which underlay so much of their culture, Bennett proceeds to illustrate the darker aspects of that religion, embodied by the puritanical Kolkashtani sect whose followers must live by a bizarre and cruel set of rules. I say religion but it isn’t just one. Bennett describes a wide range of religious experience to go with his six primary Divinities, who include Sky-Dancer Trickster God, Jukov; harsh, judgemental Kolkan; and the gentle Goddess Olvos who disappeared before the Blink. Bennett has come up with a wonderful explanation for why some cultures have conflicting creation myths and his Divinities come with impressive sets of miracle-working objects and sacred creatures. When some of the latter are loosed to wreak havoc on Bulikov, the tone of `City of Stairs’  tips towards Horror but it remains a story with many layers of meaning. This novel makes you ask whether banning religion is ever justified and it examines, in a most original way, the old conundrum of whether God created man in his own image or vice versa.

Even if you are not much interested in questions like these, `City of Stairs’ is an absorbing mystery story about intriguing characters. Quite often I decide not to recommend an otherwise enjoyable  novel because the female characters are only there as love or lust-objects for the male characters. Bennett however writes strong and complex women. There is the honest soldier, Colonel Mulaghesh, the wily politician Vinya, and best of all super-smart Shara. Small, plain Shara is frequently underestimated by her opponents but she’s able to deal with almost anything. At first she seemed rather unlikable but, as I learned more about the idealism of Shara’s youth and her life as an exile from her home country, I began to respect and admire her. If it’s inspiring heroes you want, there is Vohannes, the debonair playboy with a tortured past, and there is strong, silent Sigrud who takes part in what is probably the best man versus monster fight since Beowulf met Grendel’s mother (see my post of June 2014). By the end of the book I’d become so fond of the leading characters that I found myself continuing their stories in my own imagination. There is to be a sequel though, called `City of Blades’,  and Bennett’s Continent is undoubtedly a Fantasy world rich enough to sustain a whole series of novels. If you only accept one of my recommendations this year, let it be `City of Stairs’.



It’s a sunny June day so my thoughts are turning to relaxing holiday reading. On my wish-list when I’m reading Fantasy purely for pleasure are thrilling adventures in spectacular settings, flawed but lovable heroines and  heroes, scary but interesting villains, breathtaking magic, a dash of romance, a sprinkling of humour and, if I’m really in a holiday mood, some cute animals and covetable clothes. I found most of these elements in V.E.Schwab’s `A Darker Shade of Magic’ so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ was published a few months ago and is already available in paperback and as an ebook.

The story begins in 1819 when a young man called Kell arrives in London to visit the mad King George III. Kell is an Antari, a blood-magician with the very rare skill of being able to travel between parallel worlds. King George rules Grey London, which has no magic but is developing science and technology, while Kell comes from Red London which is rich in magical power. In White London people fight ferociously to control the little magic that is left after a crippling war with Black London, which has long been sealed off as a place too dangerous to visit. Kell has been adopted by the royal family of Red London and serves as an official messenger between the rulers of the three remaining Londons. It is absolutely forbidden for an Antari to carry anything between the worlds except royal letters but Kell is a rule-breaker and a risk taker.

During a trip to White London, Kell rashly agrees to smuggle a package which turns out to contain a magical stone that can only have come from Black London. In Grey London, Kell is attacked and wounded and the powerful black stone is stolen from him by a pick-pocket known as the Shadow Thief. When Kell tracks down the Shadow Thief he discovers that she is a nineteen year old girl called Delilah Bard. Lila has romantic dreams of becoming a pirate with her own ship and she longs for a life of adventure. When she proves to have an apititude for magic, Lila forces Kell to take her with him on the perilous journey he must make between worlds to get rid of the black stone. In Red London, Lila and Kell discover that there is a plot against the royal family which threatens the life of Kell’s adoptive brother, the dashing Prince Rhys. Kell and Lila also find themselves hunted by Holland, the powerful Antari who is forced to serve the Dane twins, the psychotic rulers of White London. Can a smuggler and a thief stop a magical war between the worlds which might threaten all the Londons?

I imagine that it was the interesting concept of a series of alternate Londons which sold this book to the publishers. London-based Fantasy has become fashionable in recent years and I’ve recommended a number of outstanding examples on my blog, such as Benedict Jacka’s `Fated’ (October 2012), Ben Aaronovitch’s `Rivers of London’ (December 2012) and Kate Griffin’s `A Madness of Angels’ (March 2013). In `A Darker Shade of Magic’ Kell reveals that he has never been to the countryside beyond the three cities but I’m not entirely convinced that Urban Fantasy is Schwab’s thing. None of her Londons seem as vivid and varied as the real city in all its splendour and squalor. Her Grey London is well…a bit grey. Flower-scented Red London with its shining crimson river and teeming Night Market, is the most colourful of the Londons we get to explore in this novel.

Palaces, and the extravagances and intrigues of court life, appear to inspire Schwab more than cityscapes. `Dreary’ Windsor Castle and `elegant’ St James in Grey London;  `Beating Heart’ the glittering palace built on a bridge over the magic-filled river of Red London, and the `Stone Forest’ fortress of the rulers of ash-covered White London are very well differentiated. Imagining striking clothes for her characters to wear is another of Schwab’s strengths. Lila gets to go to a masquerade ball in pirate boots, a horned mask and a cloak of true black velvet with glassy red clasps, while Kell has a magical coat which can transform itself to fit the fashion of any time or place. I want one of those.

Schwab is also a fine story-teller. Her fast-paced narrative is full of exciting action scenes – chases, abductions, murders, fights and some cracking magical duels – but still finds time for character development. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ is a good example of a `cascade plot’. Kell’s petty smuggling lands him in ever-worsening trouble and leads to further rule-breaking (such as transporting Lila between worlds) as he strives to put things right. The vicious rulers of White London, Queen Astrid and her brother King Athos, may be standard Fantasy villains who wouldn’t be out of place in `Game of Thrones’ but their evil plans do lead to some high-tension scenes. In spite of its title, I haven’t tagged this novel as Dark Fantasy because the mood of the story is relatively upbeat and the violence isn’t too gory. Schwab’s mission is to entertain her readers, not to horrify or disgust them.

Kell’s rival blood-magician, Holland, fulfils my requirement for an interesting villain. Holland’s true feelings remain hidden for most of the story and he frequently challenges Kell’s beliefs about the nature of magic. Is magic about balance or about dominance? Does the magician choose magic or the magic choose the magician? The most frightening force in the book is the stone from Black London, which can grant remarkable powers but is addictive and potentially lethal. As the story develops it becomes clear that Kell is not the only one to have made a near-disastrous mistake because of a desire to be something that he isn’t.

Kell and Lila meet by chance and become magically linked through an exchange of objects. Their story isn’t (yet) a romantic one, but they seem to have a special insight into each other’s true characters. Lila rejects any form of charity and insists that she needs no friends. She presents herself as a bold adventurer who steals `for freedom’ but Kell sees through this to the frightened, abused girl struggling to survive in a largely hostile world. Picturesque Kell ( pale skin, copper hair, one blue and one black eye), who has no idea who his real parents are, seems a typical brooding tormented Fantasy hero. It is one of the pleasures of this novel that spirited Lila won’t let him play this role. She frequently reminds Kell that he is lucky to have a family of any kind, that he has never known the poverty and hardship which she has experienced, and that breaking the rules for kicks just makes him a spoiled brat. Lila does though have some lessons to learn from Kell about friendship and unselfish bravery. I’m looking forward to reading the further adventures of this likeable pair and, who knows, there may even be some cute animals in the sequel. Until next time….