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I enjoyed writing reviews of everything I read in 2016, but the reviews had become too long and arduous. I've decided to keep up with the reviewing in 2017, but keep the reviews much shorter. That's the intention, anyway. We'll see how it turns out.



The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

Book 6 in the Rivers of London series: London-based police procedural with magic. While the earlier books were mostly about self-contained cases with an underlying plot gradually revealing itself in the background, this book is much more strongly about the overarching plot. This was unfortunate for me, since it led to a lot of references to past events I'd forgotten all about in the few years since I read the earlier books. Although I can't remember details, I do remember that the earlier books were, for the most part, witty and funny and lively. I found the narrative in this one rather dull and flat, the plot uninteresting and the humour forced. Disappointing. I expect I'll read on, though.

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Third book in the Glamourist Histories series - Regency AU with magic. I said after the first two books that I wouldn't read on, but I hadn't got round to returning the 3rd and 4th books to the library, so picked up the third one when I needed a new book and couldn't be bothered to get out of bed to get a different one. This one is set 1816 (not 1916, as the back cover blurb tells us), when the eruption of distant Mount Tambora resulted in dreadful weather across the world, and also brings in Luddites and anti-Irish feeling. As with the first two books, I enjoyed this one much more when it was dealing with the social interactions of a Regency novel, and much less when it got involved in plottings and action. As with book 2, I ended up skimming. Book 4 I returned to the library unread. (I did like the first book, though.)

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Sequel to Illuminae, which I reviewed last year. Illuminae was about two teenagers – a boy and a girl – caught up in violence and horror on a space ship, and was recounted entirely through primary sources: chat transcripts, surveillance footage transcripts, memos, newsletters, diagrams etc. The sequel is more of the same, really, with two different teenagers. Although the characters are new, the threat that they're facing is linked to the story in book one, and draws ever closer as the book proceeds. I found it all perfectly okay, but rather too similar to the first book. Much of the appeal of the first book came from its format, so a sequel done in the same way will inevitably have less impact than the original. Still, I'll read book 3 when it comes out.

All of a Winter's Night by Phil Rickman

The latest book in the Merrily Watkins series, about a Herefordshire vicar who is also the diocesan exorcist. This book's strange and sinister thing is... Morris dancing! The author does rather over-emphasise the Probably Ritual nature of Border Morris, but it's also clear that he’s done his research and his portrayal isn't at all bad. After all, in a series like this, everything has to have a strange and Probably Ritual side, or Merrily wouldn't get involved. As well as Border Morris, the story involves intense rural feuds, Kilpeck Church, with its excellent Norman corbels, and the conflict between modern farming methods and traditional rural life. It was rather more depressing than many of the previous books, with Merrily’s position under threat from the new bishop, and several other characters feeling bleak or under pressure. Still, I continue to enjoy the series and will read on.

The Dragon Waiting by John M Ford

AU history, set c. 1480 in a world in which the Eastern Roman Empire flourished and eventually won back much of the land lost in the west, and Christianity is just one minor religion amongst many others, all of them equally tolerated. Oh, and there are also magicians and vampires. The story concerns the intrigues of a small group of characters who are trying to prevent the further expansion of Byzantine power, and focuses on England in the reign of Richard III. (Where, strangely, despite the fact that the world is so very different, the Wars of the Roses have apparently happened exactly as they happened in our world.)

I really liked the world-building and the setting, and I liked the 3 opening chapters, each of which introduces a different main character. However, after that, I found it all rather confusing. After those 3 chapters, characterisation seemed to take a back seat. Characters kept on reacting as if something immensely life-changing had happened, leaving me re-reading and re-reading the previous page trying to work out just what had happened to spark this reaction. I understand that there are websites devoted to digging deeper into this story and unearthing the significance of everything that happens. I'm not sure if my bafflement is a judgement on me for stupidity or on the book for trying to be too clever by half. Still, there’s something about it, and I did like the setting. I might even reread it one day and see if I understand it more.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Contemporary-set YA novel about a shy girl starting college. For years, Cath has been obsessed with a Harry Potteresque series of books, and she is deeply involved with online fandom and fanfic writing. Her more confident twin sister wants them to lead more separate lives, leaving Cath to navigate the stresses of college alone, including family dramas, boy-related dramas, and the demands of her writing course, where her teacher is pushing her to write original fiction and despises the very thought of fanfic.

I really liked this, and would probably have liked it even without the fanfic connection. It's well written and well characterised, and I found even the most prosaic, everyday events compelling. It reminded me of my experience reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, where I found myself completely gripped by discussions on room allocation and curtains, with the magical plot almost an irrelevance. Perhaps American college life is so alien to my own university experience that it’s pretty much like a fantasy setting to me.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

The reason why I read the above. This turned up in a box of new books and looked interesting, but it seemed best to read Fangirl first. In Fangirl, Cath is writing an epic fanfic about fictional Simon Snow’s 8th year at magic school. Throughout the book, there are extracts both from the (fictional) original novels and the (fictional) fanfic they inspired. This book isn’t Cath’s fanfic, and neither is it the "real" 8th book in the series. It's effectively Rainbow Rowell's fanfic version of a non-existent canon original created by a non-existent author who was created by her. Confused yet?

As for plot, it's a school story and a love story about an 18 year old "chosen one" – of the "very powerful magic, but can’t control it" type – and his friends. I enjoyed it, despite the fact that it's told in the first person present tense. Although a lot of the story was told by Simon or his room-mate and long-term nemesis, Baz (Simon/Baz being the most popular pairing in the fandom, naturally) a lot of other characters also get a voice. I do always like see characters and situations from several sides. I'm not quite how well it would work as a standalone, though. This is an AU version of the 8th book in a (non-existent) series. Someone coming to it afresh, without having read Fangirl first, might end up wondering if they’d missed 7 previous books.

Malice by John Gwynne

Book one of a four book series of epic fantasy. The series concerns the coming "God War," an epic struggle between good and evil. According to prophecy, both sides will have human champions, and the whole world will get caught up in the war. About half the chapters deal with the warrior training of a teenage boy, so it's not much of a leap for anyone familiar with the genre to guess that he will go on to be one of these champions. Through the eyes of other characters, we also see the rise of another figure, someone who knows all about the prophecy and becomes convinced that they are the avatar of good, and that everyone who stands against him must be wiped out without mercy. Much war and many battles result.

I almost gave up on this one, and the only thing that stopped me was the lack of inspiration about what to read instead. I found the writing pedestrian and the characterisation flat. It took a very long time for the overarching plot to reveal itself, but once it did, I became just interested enough to carry on. I’m now half way through book 2, which is a bit better, although rather over-full of gorily-described battle scenes, which I find dull. I'll read on, but I don't really recommend it.

Non-Fiction

I want to read at least one non-fiction book a month, and here is my first:

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel

This is really excellent. The author has chosen a dozen important manuscripts, ranging from the 6th century to the 16th, and takes us to "meet" them. As well as describing the contents, he also covers how they were made, who made them, the uses that they were put to, and the often complicated journey that they went on in order to reach their current location. He also briefly describes their "current habitat" – i.e. the library that now houses them, and an account of his visit. This could have been an annoying distraction, like all those documentaries that spend half their time showing the presenter on the train, but it’s only brief, and I felt that it added to the book, and helped turn these manuscripts from dead words to a living artefact with an ongoing story.

It's engagingly written: learned, but with occasional chattiness, as if you're sitting at his elbow and listening to an expert talk about what he’s showing you. My favourite chapter was chapter 2, about the massively heavy Codex Amiatinus (75 pounds!), which brings in Bede, Cassiodorus and the Counter-Reformation, but it was all good. Highly recommended.
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