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Valour by John Gwynne

Ruin by John Gwynne (skimmed)

Wrath by John Gwynne (skimmed)

These were the rest of the series that started with Malice, which I read last month. I almost gave up on that one several times, but ended up just interested enough to read on. I thought book 2 was a bit better, but when I finished it, I realised that I just couldn’t face 1200 more pages, so I skimmed fairly quickly through to the series end. There are just SO MANY BATTLES! The writing’s pedestrian, the characters pretty flat, and whenever you think you might be about to get a quieter chapter of character interaction, off we skip to the next gore-filled battle. SO MANY BATTLES!

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I bought this book years ago, but for some reason never got round to reading it. Although technically "fantasy," this is so strongly inspired by real-life history that it’s pretty much an AU historical novel. In this case, the inspiration is Spain in the late 11th century. Al-Rassan is the equivalent of Moorish Spain, under threat both from its fanatical co-religionists across the sea and by the squabbling Christian-equivalent kingdoms in the north. The story revolves around two exceptional men: an El Cid figure and a poet/diplomat/assassin from Al-Rassan. Separately exiled, they end up serving the same king, and are drawn together by respect and growing friendship. But holy war is brewing, and all along, there is a growing certainty that Al-Rassan is doomed, and that these two men will end up on different sides in the war that will destroy it.

This was not the lightest of reads, given its subject matter, but I thought it was very well done. After the Gwynne series, it was good to have a book that was so thoroughly rooted in character - and characters who felt complex, grown-up emotions, too. I like clever, charismatic characters, and this book was crammed full of them. I found it all quite moving, and really rather good.

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

A two book series (The Sarantine Mosaic) set in the same world as the above, although several centuries earlier. This centres on a mosaicist from AU-Ravenna who journeys to AU-Byzantium to work on AU-Justinian's equivalent of Hagia Sophia. Many other characters also feature, from rulers to chariot racers. At times, I felt that there were so many characters that I wasn’t entirely sure what the plot was; it felt almost more like a slice of life in a near copy of Justinian's Byzantium. But it all came together towards the end of the second book, and by the end, I found it rather moving. I did wonder for a while why he hadn't just written a historical novel, but that, too, became clear, as events started to veer away from their historical course. In historical novels, you know the fate of kings and empires, but in historical inspired fantasies, all bets are off.

Part way through my next Guy Gavriel Kay book (see below), ill with a cold and very lacking in sleep, I felt the need for something lighter that demanded fewer brains, so picked up some tempting-looking children’s books from our latest new book delivery:

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

A really nice children's book. Adventurine, a young dragon, is fed up that it will be decades before she's old enough to leave the family cave. Her brother is a budding philosopher and her older sister a famous poet, but Adventurine has yet to find her passion. Determined to prove herself, she sneaks out of the cave, but almost immediately finds herself unfortunately transformed into a human girl. On the plus side, however, the process leads her to stumble upon her passion: chocolate! Although she knows nothing at all about the baffling creatures that are humans, she makes her way to the city, where apparently there are chocolate houses – imagine that! – and if she can’t go home again, the next best thing in the world is to find out how to make wonderful chocolate creations.

Although this is aimed at 8 to 11s, online reviews show that loads of adults are loving it, too. It’s a nice, old-fashioned magical children’s story, full of dragons and chocolate, with likeable characters and some warm, gentle humour. I found it quite delightful.

The Ministry of Strange, Unusual and Impossible Things by Paul Gamble

Another children's book, this one aimed at slightly older children – probably around 10 to 12. This is the story of Jack, a boy with insatiable curiosity, who gets recruited by the eponymous Ministry, an organisation whose effectiveness is slightly hampered by the fact that Cthulhu is in charge of their paperwork. When contemplating the school’s box of spare PE kit, Jack draws the only possible conclusion: odd children are regularly being kidnapped, and since his best friend is distinctly odd, he must surely be at risk. Jack must save him! But the plot isn’t really the point of this very silly and often very funny book. The story is punctuated throughout with footnotes and extracts from ministry training manuals, covering such things as how duvets are made (kangaroos are involved), why ninjas wear black and why a solitary shoe in the shoe proves beyond all doubt that an escaped pirate is nearby.

It’s all very silly, and it frequently made me chuckle out loud. I am very fond ofmaking up fanciful tales to explain mundane occurances, so the humour appealed to me.

Back to Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-historical novels:

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Another novel set in the same world, but this time in the late 15th century, 25 years after the fall of not-Byzantium. It’s rather a hard book to describe, since it doesn’t really have a focused plot. The book tells the stories of an assortment of characters – merchants, spies, fighters, pirates, artists – most of whom are travelling – sometimes together, sometimes apart - some or all of the way from not-Venice by way of not-Dubrovnik to not-Istanbul. As in the Sarantine mosaic, but even more so, the author stresses the fact that choice made by seemingly unimportant individuals can change lives, sometimes even change history. I liked it, but I think the lack of traditional plot meant that I didn’t love it. Although there was a unifying theme, it felt a little unfocused. Good, though, but for me, a book to think about, rather than to love.

Then another book that turned up as new stock this week, ordered because of rave reviews

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

YA novel, billed as magical realism, set in a small town called Bone Gap. Finn is known as a dreamer. When a beautiful young woman called Roza disappears, everyone assumes she has left of her own accord. Finn says he saw her being kidnapped, but since he can’t describe the man he saw her with, everyone thinks he’s lying. Roza was so beautiful, everyone assumes Finn must have been in love with her. But Finn only has eyes for Petey, the bee-keeper’s daughter, but Petey, as everyone knows, is "ugly" while Finn is very good-looking, so he can’t be sincere, surely? The story deals with issues of perception and the way people are judged – and judge themselves – by the way they look. It drifts from the real world – albeit a real world that has something of a fairy tale feel to it - into a world of magic and back again.

It's well written and thought-provoking, with some likeable, well-written characters. It’s getting loads of rave reviews online, and I certainly didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t love it.

With a couple of reserved books due to arrive in the library in a day or two, I wanted a non-demanding re-read that could fill a day or two, so stared without much inspiration at my shelves for a while, before grabbing…

Once a Princess by Sherwood Smith

Technically half a book, really. Although the edition I've got is published in two separate volumes, it's really all one book. This is the story of Sasha, a 25 year old waitress from LA, who is whisked away to a fantasyland. The twist is that she was born there, her father being a prince and her mother a hippy from our world whom he met while on a sort of inter-world gap year. When she was 10, at a time of unrest and danger, her father sent her and her mother back to our world, promising to come for them when it was safe, but never same. Now Sasha – and soon, separately, her mother – are back, facing adventures with plotting kings, sinister war captains, a charismatic pirate captain with a secret, and a dreamy prince whom everyone dismisses as stupid. Pirate captains with secrets and princes who appear stupid are a particular favourite of mine, so the book gives me much to enjoy.


Non-fiction

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches by Matthew Champion

This is a exploration of medieval church graffiti, arranged by the subject matter depicted – e.g. crosses, ships, heraldry etc. There's some interesting stuff here, with inferences made about how medieval people probably viewed the graffiti – i.e. not as an anti-social menace, but as something that enhanced the holiness of the building, by adding another devotional symbol. These were often highly visible, carved in painted walls, but nobody tried to paint over them. Some symbols were associated with certain areas – e.g. near the font – so graffiti can sometimes help locate missing features. Some interesting stuff, then, but the book was lacking in notes and references, which made me wonder just how much I could trust anything he says. Most of all, though, it needed more pictures. A lot more pictures.

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