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Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

Final book in the Greatcoats quartet. Last month, I was rather lukewarm about the third book, which I thought hurtled too quickly from fight to fight, and was rather too grim. I enjoyed this book a lot more. The first hundred pages or so was a return to the feel of the first book: our three heroes bantering light-heartedly while swashbuckling through desperate situations. Even when the main plot emerged, there was a lot more character development and character interaction than in book 3. Plot threads from the earlier books all came together. Even the darkness of the world – something that I often found a little excessive in the earlier books – was a major plot point, with the characters having to ask themselves some hard questions about whether the country was worth saving and whether the enemy's vision for the future might actually be an improvement. The hero has been driven for 4 books by a single goal, but now he has to ask himself if the goal is the right one, and whether his determination to achieve it has led him into bad choices.

Despite my concerns about book 3, this finished series is one that I liked quite a lot.

Take Back the Skies by Lucy Saxon

I came across a new teenage book with an interesting-sounding blurb (something with a secret double life – always a favourite of mine) but it was the third book in a series, so I sought out the first book first. Set in a vaguely steampunky world with a massive gulf between social classes, it's the story of 14 year old Catherine, member of the privileged government class. Chafing at the restrictions on her freedom, she disguises herself as a boy called Cat (a simple haircut is enough to do this) and stows away on a skyship. This turns out to belong to a happy crew of kind-hearted smugglers, who immediately trust her with all their secrets. When Cat finds out that the rule of the government class is built on a massive lie, she is determined to expose it. The kind-hearted smugglers already knew about this lie, but what you do? "We must overthrow the government!" says Cat. "Okay!" say the kind-hearted smugglers. "Let's do it tomorrow!" So they do.

This was moderately readable, but it was pretty bad, nonetheless. All the main characters are incapable of rolling anything other than natural 20s. Every overheard conversation is massively relevant. Every lock can be effortlessly picked. Every guard can be evaded. Randomly open the first door you get to in a vast enemy base, and you stumble on a massive prize. This privileged rich girl never has any sort of culture shock after she runs away from home. She goes out to try some pick-pocketing, and naturally nets a massive haul of bulging purses. Nothing ever goes wrong, even when it really ought to. Naturally, there's a love interest – a teenage boy who sulks and grumbles and whines and comes across like a petulant five year old, yet, after just days, is the heroine's One True Love Forever. We know this because we're told. Emotions are always told in this book, rather than shown. Oh, and everyone rolls their eyes. All. The. Time.

The author was 16 when she wrote this, so perhaps I should cut her some slack. Having discovered that the "series" actually consists of entirely self-contained novels set in different countries in the same world, I decided to try the third book – the one with the secret double-life – in the hope that the author was getting better with age. Perhaps she is, but someone rolled their eyes on page 2, so I gave up.

The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix

Sabriel (reread)
Lirael (reread)
Abhorsen (reread)
The Creature in the Case (novella included in Across the Wall short story collection)
Goldenhand
Clariel
To Hold the Bridge (short story included in a collection of the same name.)

YA fantasy series. Ancelstierre is a non-magical world with a feel of England in the 1920s or 30s. Beyond the wall at its north is another world entirely: the Old Kingdom, full of magic. Here, dangerous Free Magic creatures roam, and necromancers enslave the dead. The Abhorsen is a kind of necromancer, too, but one who uses the more ordered Charter magic to fight the necromancers and lay the dead to rest. 18 year old Sabriel, born in the Old Kingdom but educated in Ancelstierre, is the daughter of the current Abhorsen. When he disappears, she has to travel across the Wall to search for him. Sabriel is in some ways a stand-alone prequel to the rest of the series. Lirael and Abhorsen tell one continuous story set a generation later, and The Creature in the Case and Goldenhand continue that story a few months later. Clariel, in contrast, is a self-contained prequel set hundreds of years before the main series, although its events are not unlinked.

I enjoyed the initial trilogy when I first read it years ago. I'd forgotten almost everything about it, but I enjoyed it even more this time round, with the new books taking the story further and deepening it.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Children's book that has won rave reviews and prestigious prizes. Set on a remote island, that sometimes feels like the real world and sometimes feels magical, it tells the story of Isabella, daughter of a map-maker. When her friend, daughter of the oppressive governor, disappears, Isabella disguises herself as a boy to join the search party – a journey that will take her into the heart of local myth.

Despite being well-written, this just left me cold. I liked the stuff about the power of maps, but I never engaged with any of the characters, or really felt that they were characters at all. It all felt really flat, and I never cared. I've seen this book described as magic realism. Some months ago, I read another YA book that everybody else was raving about, and it also left me cold. That, too, was billed as magic realism. Maybe I just don't engage with the genre.

Rebel by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown (book 3 of the Change series)

YA non-dystopian post-Apocalyptic tale. I read the first 2 books just last month, not realising that people had been waiting several years for book 3. This proved to be excellent timing, since book 3 came out a few weeks later. I enjoyed this one as much as I enjoyed the previous ones, although it had even less actual "plot" than the first book. It's all about character development and character interaction. There's some drama involving an election campaign, some suspicious fires, a newcomer with attitude, and some attacks by giant fauna, but no overarching plot leading to a big denouement. People who need such a thing will probably find this book slow and unsatisfying. I don't, so I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next book.

Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

I bought this on impulse on Kindle before going to Greece. (Why is it, I wonder, that I normally have no trouble finding books to read, except on the night before a holiday when I need to travel light, in which I can spend hours on Amazon failing to find any inspiration at all?) This is the first book in a new YA fantasy series written by the author of the Greatcoats series. Kellan, the narrator, lives in a society where mages have all the power, and those who fail their magical trials are cast out, becoming little better than slaves. Although Kellan's father is a powerful mage, Kellan's magic still hasn't developed, and his trials will take place in a few days. Over the next few days, a hard-drinking, card-playing traveller comes to town, there are plots, betrayals and mysterious masked bad guys, and a foul-mouthed talking squirrel cat gets caught up in things. Although the whole "main character who alone has failed to develop the magic of his or her people" thing is a well-used plot, I was constantly kept guessing about where the plot was going to go. I doubt I'll remember it for long, but I enjoyed it while I was reading it.

Redshirts by John Scalzi (re-read)

I read this because I had a few hours spare on the flight home, so searched my Kindle for a standalone that would keep me occupied for the appropriate length of time. This tells the story of a group of crew members on a space ship, who start to question the very high death rate of anyone who goes on away team missions with any one of a small group of senior officers. From the point of view of the characters, it's told entirely straight, although to the reader, of course, it's also a satire of Star Trek and its ilk. Then it goes very meta and fourth-wall breaky, before ending with three epilogues from the point of view of minor characters – the novel's own redshirts? There are some unexpectedly moving parts. Some pages made me cry, while others made me laugh. I liked this first time round, and I liked it second time round, too. (As ever, I had almost entirely forgotten virtually everything about it.)

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Long-awaited fifth book in the Queen's Thief series, which I love and admire very much indeed. Amazon had informed me that I wouldn't get this for weeks, but they relented, and it was waiting for me on my doormat when I got home. I read it in a single sitting the following morning. I can't say much about this at all, since this is a series where to even read the blurb of a later book will ruin the experience of reading previous books in the series. I enjoyed this very much indeed. It's not another book 3 – a book that gives me every single thing I could ever imagine wanting in a book – but I read it with great pleasure, and – as one usually has to do with books in this series – immediately went back and read much of it again.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)

I hadn't intended to re-read the whole series, since I last re-read them about 18 months ago, but I didn't want to leave the world and move on elsewhere. I spent a day or two dipping in and out of the various books, rereading favourite scenes, before deciding just to go back to the start and reread the whole lot. The Thief is how it all started: a Greek-inspired YA magic-light fantasy narrated in the first person by a thief who is released from prison in order to go on a cross-country journey to steal an artefact out of legend. It all seems fairly simple and straightforward. Subsequent developments show that it never was.

The Queen of Attolia (re-read: not yet finished)

Sequel to the above, and very different – mostly third person narrative from various viewpoints, and full of politics and complex emotions. First time I read it, I wasn't a hundred percent sure about this one, but the third book entirely reconciled me. But, really, I can't say more.



No non-fiction this month, since the books I'd ordered from the library haven't arrived, and I wouldn't have wanted to carry them to Greece, anyway. I read two last month, so maybe I can argue that my "read one non-fiction book a month" vow has been satisfied by that.

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