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Book review

A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking

by T. Kingfisher

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This book is a delight from beginning to end. Mona is a young baker who has magical skills, but they are strictly related to baking – she can revive stale bread, she can make dough rise better, she can even animate gingerbread people and make them dance. She’s happily working in her aunt Tabitha’s bakery, enjoying delighting people with her blueberry scones, when early one morning she comes to open the bakery and finds the body of a dead girl. And things begin to go downhill from there – an assassin is preying on the minor magical talents of the city, and Mona may well be on their list…

Mona – who is, after all, a fourteen year old girl – soon finds herself in an world run by adults, entirely confused as to why the adults haven’t just done the obvious things and sorted it out. Unfortunately, they haven’t, and things go from bad to worse. Mona – with a little help from her baking skills – does her best, but definitely feels overwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon her.

Some great characters in here, deftly played out by T. Kingfisher, too, with perhaps my favourite being Bob, the animated sourdough starter (our starter is called Adam, so I’m quite happy to see a named character in this guise). And although this is a book entirely suitable for a YA audience, it’s also entirely suitable for grumpy old men like me. It’s a bit dark, but also whimsical and charming – and yes, I did seem to have something in my eye at the end (+1 for waterproof Kindle!).

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for charm.

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King of Thorns

by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)

We find the young Jorg Ancrath shortly after where we left him at the end of “Prince of Thorns”. He’s still ill-tempered, a murderer, destructive, sly, and entirely ruthless. He often seems to act at random, and at best his loose goal might be avenging the deaths of his sister and brother, but mostly he’s just rebelling against being told he can’t do things, or he’s expected to do other things. That’s how Jorg works – instinctively, brutally, reflexively, but still somehow brilliantly:

‘Is this going to be one of those times when you pretend not to have a plan until the last moment?’ Makin asked. ‘And then turn out to really not have one?’

Jorg is a king, now, but it hasn’t quietened his nightmares, which are now haunted by a mysterious copper box. And it hasn’t smoothed one iota off his sharp tongue- we’re sarcastic about everything, if it deserves it:

The bladder-pipe, a local Highlands speciality, is to music what warthogs are to mathematics. Largely unconnected.

Meanwhile, Jorg finds himself opposed to the man who would be Emperor across the whole continent. It’s not that Jorg doesn’t like him, or see why he might be a great Emperor, it’s mostly just his innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to bow down to others, ever. So Jorg finds himself in his castle, with his very young new bride, poorly defended, with twenty thousand of the would-be Emperor’s troops marching towards him. Only his wits – and maybe a handful of peculiar artifacts – might help him.

Occasionally, you get glimpses of the broader setting of this book, from which these artifacts derive – we find that we’re in a long post-apocalyptic future:

When a game cannot be won, change the game. I read that in the book of Kirk.

These kind of “Easter egg” insider nods to the broader science fiction/fantasy genre are delicately done, and a delight to find.

The book is told through two intertwining timelines, one taking only a few hours, while the other takes months, until eventually they come together. I thought this was very well done, and a great narrative device. It’s a form that works very well for other genres, but I haven’t seen it used here, and I rather like it – fantasy as smart fiction, even if it still takes in some of the tropes on the way.

But it’s not all smart asides and clever references. Some of Mark Lawrence’s writing here, as in his other books, soars high above us:

Still the music, the deep slow melody, the high and broken counterpoint, as if the mountains themselves had become the score, as if the glories of hidden caves and secret peaks had been wrapped around the ageless majesty of the ocean and turned into the music of all men’s lives, played out by a woman’s fingers, without pause or mercy, reaching in, twisting, laying us bare.

Five stars, very well deserved.

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Book review

The Road to Farringale

by Charlotte E. English

We live in the 21st century, we don’t have flying cars, so can’t we at least have magic? Maybe it’s that sort of desire that has produced such a wave of “contemporary magic” books in the last decade or two. Or maybe we’ve all read too much Harry Potter, I’m not sure. Either way, this is a nice example of the genre: there’s magic, it’s out there, but it’s been fading for hundreds of years, and now us ordinary people can’t see it – and those who can, like Cordelia “Ves” Vesper, the hero of this book, seem to have a whale of a time with it.

Here, we follow Ves as she works with her new partner, Jay, to discover what’s ailing the troll communities of Britain, many of whom seem to be turning in on themselves in a rather alarming way. We’re in book 1 of a series here, so there is some development of the characters, with Ves receiving most of the spotlight, and Jay less so. I liked the setting, too, with the ancient manor house where their organisation is headquartered also playing a significant role. The writing flowed smoothly, but I did feel a little short-changed when the whole thing wrapped up in about 120 pages, all a little too neatly, and with perhaps not enough time for me to get properly engaged with the world.

Still, lots of enjoy here, so three stars for some engaging writing and interesting segments.

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Book review

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K.J.Parker

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Let’s be honest here, I bought this book because of the title. Don’t by a book by its cover – well, maybe, but surely you can take the title into account? I did here, and I have zero regrets.

Orhan is a military engineer. He’s never going to rise far through the ranks, despite his evident competence – he’s the wrong race, and regarded as useful, but somewhat out of his depth on a battlefield. By a series of unfortunate accidents, though, Orhan finds himself in a city that is about to be under seige. He is the sort of person who will, somewhat reluctantly, step in when others are thrashing incompetently around him, so he finds himself increasingly in demand, and increasingly in charge of the city defenses.

“as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

Fortunately, though, he is cunning, smart, and reads a lot.

“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them, and if that doesn’t work— Indeed. But the books were written for generals, kings, emperors; better luck next time, and we have plenty more cities where that one came from. And, to be fair, each of the fifteen ways is practical and sensible, provided you’ve got an adequate garrison, and sufficient supplies and materiel, and a competent staff of trained officers making up a properly constituted chain of command. What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men and nobody to lead them. Apart from that, it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever. Fine, I thought. Let’s give it a go.”

He’s also happy to delegate to people who do appear competent, and resourceful in working out who those might be. Honourable, he is not, but that’s not what the city needs right now. It needs resourceful, and Orhan is that.

Every stupid, bloody desperate little thing I can think of buys us a tiny scrap more time, once he gets here. It’s all ridiculous and pointless, of course, but I’ve got to try.” I looked at him. “Everyone keeps telling me what I can’t do, but they’re wrong. The only thing I can’t do is nothing.”

I liked all the references to various ancient cultures in here, mixed up in a delightful way. The main division in the city, for example, is into the Greens and the Blues – you are just born into one or the other, and they hate each other for reasons lost in the mists of time.

The story is told in the first person, so it’s (delightfully) not always clear when Orhan is being a reliable narrator of his own tale, but that just gives K.J.Parker more license to have some fun with us. I’ll be lining them up now – I loved it!

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Book review

Prince of Thorns

The Broken Empire, #1

by Mark Lawrence

This is a book that I can imagine some people really aren’t going to like at the start: the protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, seems to be more than usually disturbed young man – sociopathic is the word that sprang to my mind.

But as you read on, and as the complexity of his background is uncovered, his behaviour becomes explicable, and one begins to understand more. Eventually, one can perhaps begin to move from understanding to empathy. You learn what he has seen and how he felt – the death, the brutality, the guilt. Together with the environment he grew up in, how else could he have survived? And indeed, in due course, the layers of the true motivation of his actions begin to appear.

Jorg is still a bit of a sociopath, though. Here he is on the game of life:

“You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.”

In this view of life as a game without rules, and a game to be won, you find the key to his character:

“Anything that you cannot sacrifice pins you. Makes you predictable, makes you weak.”

Which gives you Jorg’s philosophy on how to play – you push, you cheat, you stab them in the back, but you never, ever, stop:

“In the end it’s about staying power. They should put that on headstones, ‘Got tired’, maybe not tired of life, but at least too tired to hold on to it.”

The world in which the book is set is also an important element here. Jorg is – or at least was – the heir to the throne of one of many competing kingdoms. War is everywhere, and has always been. Again, expectations are confounded, and we gradually learn more about the history of the world, just as we do about Jorg’s personal history. It’s a world like our own medieval times, with some limited magic thrown in. Although, like Jorg, there’s a backstory which you slowly learn, and which tells you more.

Finally, we see hints of a strange politics in this world. Jorg’s ambition is to regain his throne and end the hundred years of war. But is that his ambition, or is he a pawn in a larger and more sophisticated game? Lots for me to look forward to in the rest of the trilogy!

Four stars here. Excellent writing, intriguing world building, and a nuanced main character.

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Book review

Grey Sister

by Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister by Mark  Lawrence

The second of Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy was another great read for me. Nona, our hero from the first book, is now two years further in to her training at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. In this volume, though, we get to see more of the world in which the Convent is set, and more of the politics that plays itself out through the empire which surrounds it. In particular, there’s more politics in this book – in a good way.

Every law of church or state seeks to separate you from your anger. Every rule is there to tame you – to take from your hands that which you should own. Every stricture aims to place the vengeance that is yours in the grasp of courts, juries, justice and judges. Books of law look to replace what you know to be right with lines of ink. Prisons and executioners stand only to keep your hands from the blood of those who have wronged you. Every part of it exists to put time and distance between deed and consequence. To lift us from our animal nature, to cage and tame the beast.


The physical world itself is a masterful creation by the author, and a great backdrop in the series. In this volume, it comes into the foreground, too. Huge mountains of ice press in on a narrow corridor around the equator, kept clear only by the nightly heat from the focus moon. We see a few more hints of how people came to be on this world, and we get to see some more of the world itself.

We find out more about some of the characters who were introduced in the first book, such as Zole, the “Chosen One”. I really enjoyed her mask of frostiness, from behind which the odd glimpse of humour would sometimes sneak:

‘How did you follow me without my noticing?’ ‘Carefully.’ Zole looked up, pocketing a few coins. ‘Do not feel too bad about it. I am the Chosen One, after all.’ Although there was no hint of a smile Nona suspected that she might have witnessed Zole’s first joke.

Nona herself is still key to the action, and she’s joined by her friends as she has to fight assassins, intrigue, and her own demons to survive. Friendship is a constant theme – the bonds formed by it, and their value. And there’s plenty of action, too: the last third of the book is one long relentless chase, and the twists and turns certainly kept me reading into the night.

Nona let Keot take her tongue, her voice becoming a snarl, something alien. ‘I hunger for their deaths. I want their blood to spill. I’ve been trapped, boxed, poisoned, abused, and now it’s my turn. I don’t fear destruction. It’s the desire to survive that slows you, girl. I—’ Nona wrested control back from Keot, coughed and added in her normal voice, ‘if that’s all right with you?’ Clera, pale now, backed against the tunnel wall, her eyebrows raised, and offered her palms in the ‘be my guest’ gesture.

Overall, four and a half stars, rounded up to five for the action in the final chapters. Great stuff, and I can’t wait to read the last one!

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Book review

The Obelisk Gate

by N.K.Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate was, I’m very sorry to say, a sad disappointment to me. Especially after the brilliance of the first in the trilogy The Fifth Season. This felt to me like about a quarter of a book’s worth of plot, stretched out across a whole book, because it’s a trilogy and so, y’know, it needs three books. The plot did advance – in particular with Nessun, the young daughter we were chasing after in the first book – but not as far as one would’ve hoped. And the same style was there, with the main character being written about in the second person, by a mysterious voice. But it didn’t really add anything substantial to the amazing world that was created in book one, nor were there any particular plot twists to delight the reader.

Quite upset about this all, I have to say. I’m not sure I’ll be able to persuade myself to read the last one, in case that, too, is disappointing.

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Book review

Red Sister

by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister by Mark  Lawrence

My headline for this book would be “Somewhat bloody, and completely bloody brilliant”. Five stars, very well earned.

I marvel, yet again, at how absolutely amazing some books can be at immersing you in their umwelt. This one combines great world-building, complex characters, and – most of all – some amazing prose that rises to the level of poetry at times. Because the plot is so stuffed full of surprises, I’m barely going to mention it. There’s great fight scenes (some are quite gory, if that might concern you), there are many hints of underlying glorious ages gone before (leaving, for example, the “focus moon” – which is a marvellous plot device), there is a fleshed-out background philosophy/spiritual side, and of course are heroes to root for and even the villains are multi-faceted. Perhaps the closest book I can think of is how I felt when I read The Blade Itself and found Joe Abercrombie.

In the end, you don’t read books like this for the plot, you read them because of the prose, and the world that envelopes you as you read. And Mark Lawrence does just a fabulous job with this. I haven’t read any of his others, but for sure I will be doing so. I’m not even going to give you any more of the storyline- I’ll just say that you have to read it, because it’s marvellous.

Here are some random snippets, to keep you going. He waxes philosophical at times – let’s look at time itself:

“All the world and more has rushed eternity’s length to reach this beat of your heart, screaming down the years. And if you let it, the universe, without drawing breath, will press itself through this fractured second and race to the next, on into a new eternity. Everything that is, the echoes of everything that ever was, the roots of all that will ever be, must pass through this moment that you own. Your only task is to give it pause – to make it notice.”

Or

“Your death has not been waiting for your arrival at the appointed hour: it has, for all the years of your life, been racing towards you with the fierce velocity of time’s arrow. It cannot be evaded, it cannot be bargained with, deflected or placated. All that is given to you is the choice: meet it with open eyes and peace in your heart, go gentle to your reward. Or burn bright, take up arms, and fight the bitch.”

The book, you initially guess, and then find confirmed, is about a young girl who ends up in the care of some nuns – people who might, in other worlds, be spiritual and charitable and kind, but who in this world are spiritual and cunning and combat-trained.

“You may be called upon to enforce the authority and the will of the church. It would be better if you did so in a manner that allows the transgressor to see the error of their ways rather than the contents of their body.”

Fight is what they do, and they are very, very, good at it:

“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”

But sometimes, the prose is just plain philosophical:

“‘It’s hard out there.’ Nona gazed towards the windows. ‘Running’s all right, but when you stop there’s the freezing and the starving and the dying.'”

or

“Children are like cats, only less useful and less furry.”

Enough, or I’ll quote the whole book. And although it’s complete in itself, it’s the first of a trilogy, which I was so thrilled to discover that I just went ahead and bought the others, sight unseen.

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Book review

The Masked City

by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

A second excellent book The Invisible Library series, this picks up the story from the first book as Irene becomes Librarian in Residence in the slightly magical, slightly steam-punk, Victorian England, together with Vale, the great detective (think Sherlock Holmes, thinly veiled, as it were), and Kai, her apprentice. Kai – who we discovered in Book 1 is in fact a dragon, a creature of Lawfulness, working in human form – goes missing, taken by the Fae, who represent the side of Chaos.

As a Librarian, Irene is in theory neutral in this Lawful/Chaos struggle that spans many thousands of worlds in many times, but as Kai’s mentor, she feels a responsibility to find out what’s happening. From this, the plot is spun. And it’s a cracker, moving things into a Venice that’s much closer to the Chaotic side of things, where it’s always Carnival, and masks are de riguer. For me it slowed a little in the middle perhaps, as we started in Venice, but that was a momentary pause lasting only a few dozen pages, before things cranked up to full volume for the sparkling finale.

You perhaps don’t have to have read book 1, The Invisible Library first, but honestly I don’t see why you wouldn’t, as that’s a great book, too. Four and a third stars, for me.



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Book review

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

From the famous opening line – “Marley was dead, to begin with” – Dickens announces that this isn’t your everyday ho hum Christmas tale; indeed the full title stakes its claim: “A Christmas Carol: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”.

But it’s more than that, of course. It’s a story that kicked into life the Victorian version of Christmas (apparently turkey sales rocketed at Christmas, while sales of the traditional goose dived correspondingly). It’s another chance for Dickens to talk about the appalling poverty and deprivation which lived on the doorsteps of his middle class readers: the ghost of Christmas yet to come takes the reader to this scene –

The ways were fouls and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleyways and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth and misery.

Dickens was a marvelous writer, and A Christmas Carol contains many great lines, from Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug”, through Marley’s Ghost’s “I wear the chain I forged in life”, to Tiny Tim and somewhat saccharine “A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears! God bless us every one!”. You can read the scenes even now without our modern detachment hiding their power from us. Even the two children clinging to the second Ghost “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility” still just about land this side of my irony detector.

Ultimately, though, it sets the template for the Christmas tales of redemption. This appears in all our favourite Christmas stories and movies, from “The Grinch” to “Elf” to to “Die Hard”. Like many of these tales the story hangs on the credibility of the transformation of the hero (well, perhaps not with “Die Hard”…). On this re-read, I found Scrooge’s transformation entirely credible. Although only one night has passed in the real world, in the ghostly world Scrooge visits, he spends at least twelve nights in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, where the moral is pounded repeatedly into his head:

Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick-beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling me, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and gaol, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.

Perhaps a little over the top to modern ears, but in the renowned psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves he talked of using A Christmas Carol to show how we really can change – but the motivation needs to be strong enough. By the end of the second ghost’s visit, Scrooge is ready to change, and by the end of the third, he knows he must. He sees what his death may be otherwise, how his cooling body is picked over for change, how the shirt is literally taken from his corpse’s back in exchange for a few pennies from a rag and bone merchant. Buddhists will spend days meditating in charnel grounds to come to terms with their own death and motivate their change in life. One can but hope that humankind in general does not need the lesson so brutally told.