Tag Archives: review

The Amber Crown – a review

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This fantasy novel by Jacey Bedford is due out in January 2022, but I had the lovely opportunity to read it in advance!

This is a fantasy novel set in a reality that is like our Earth but significantly different in various ways. The familiar aspects serve to rapidly ground the setting and there’s a good balance between what is familiar and what is fantastical. The action takes place in Europe, and we’re at a technology level that gives us printed newspapers, officers on horseback, guns and artillery. In a scenario where assorted small nations are jostling with each other, a King is murdered, and this where the book starts.

We follow a number of characters, including the man blamed for the King’s murder and the assassin hired to do it. I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced while not being overly demanding.

There are a number of rapes and attempted rapes in the book – which are integral to the plot and to the backstories of some characters. Part of the story is about exploring the impact of these experiences, which is done in a thoughtful way. I hate it when rape is used carelessly as a plot device, but that’s not what happens here, and given the way the story circles several key events, if you needed not to read the more detailed bits it is easy to see them coming and it would be feasible to skip over them. There is a significant amount of violence, including horrible execution methods, torture, nasty injuries, slow deaths, so if you’re a squeamish reader this probably isn’t for you. If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.

What I found most interesting was the sexual content. There’s a lot of sex and no jealousy. There’s an attitude of positivity towards sex workers that I really enjoyed. While it’s clear that some of the cultures value virginity in women, none of the female characters are shamed for being sexually active or promiscuous during the story. Contraception is very present and treated as normal in the setting. There are some queer characters – all of the focal relationships are straight, but there is an important background queer relationship in there too. Sex for comfort and not underpinned by a romantic relationship also features. The book has a lot to say about consent, love, attraction, and relationships as various of the characters move through different kinds of relationships with each other during the story. It’s not a straightforward romance narrative, and features a number of relationships that are important to the plot but that have very different shapes.

The magic in this story will engage Pagan readers. The author is clearly well versed in all sorts of traditions so the magic is rich and well informed.

I enjoyed the language used in the story telling. Faux-archaic writing can be the bane of the fantasy genre, as can the habit of fantasy authors to invent language off the cuff with little sense of how languages actually work. I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.

For clarity, I do know the author and have worked with her in the past while we were both wearing entirely different hats. Back in the days when I ran a folk club, Jacey was an agent I worked with on a number of occasions. I’m a longstanding fan of her band (Artisan) and have seen her performing on a number of occasions over many years. This is the first novel of her’s that I’ve read, but there are others and I hope to get round to them.

More about Jacey Bedford here – https://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/books.htm


The Hourglass Sea – a review

The Hourglass Sea is the second book in Mat McCall’s Dandelion Farmer series. It’s steampunk fiction set on Mars, and I reviewed book 1 here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/the-dandelion-farmer-a-review/

I think there’s a fighting chance this would stand alone without reading book 1 first, but really, why would you do that to yourself? Read book 1 first and then read this one! There’s always that worry with a series that the author won’t be able to live up to the promise of the opening, or that it will all spiral out of control – well, that’s not an issue here.

I loved book 1, and book 2 follows on from it wonderfully. Mat expands and develops the story and the setting with great style and skill. Life on Mars is explored in greater detail and the plots we encountered in book 1 become even plottier. As some mysteries seem to become clearer, new questions and problems arise for the characters. What’s critically important in this is that it feels entirely controlled. There’s clearly an underlying story here, and as the world building expands, more sense can be made of what’s going on, not less.

This is a wonderfully diverse tale, with characters from all kinds of backgrounds. It sets that diversity in a context that is sometimes supportive, sometimes problematic for the characters. There’s some of that Victorian prudery, and an exploration of prejudice around it, but also a strong pushback against narrow and restrictive ways of being. There’s a look at the realities of colonialism that does not romanticise invasion, conquest or settlement. While the central characters are largely privileged people, the story itself exposes that privilege and its implications in all sorts of ways.

This is a complicated adventure with a lot of action and a great deal going on – murder and revenge, spies and political scheming, evil science, strange sf elements, mystery, wonder, smugglers, airships, afternoon tea… it’s a really strong mix that managed to be both grounded and surprising.

I particularly like Mat’s approach to storytelling – the tale is presented as a series of documents gathered after the event – diaries, text books, letters and so forth. Sometimes the story is fragmented. Sometimes it overlaps, but in the overlapping versions, doubts and possibilities appear. The first person voices of the characters are distinctive, and the choice of who not to give a voice to also affects the plot in significant ways. I think it’s technically a really clever piece of work, which I also enjoyed. I may think about the mechanics of this sort of thing more than is normal!

It’s not easy reviewing a book in a series because almost any comment on the details has the potential to spoiler the previous instalments. This is especially true of this series, where even talking too much about the identities of the characters in book 2 might give away too much about who has survived book 1 and what has changed for them.

Heartily recommended!


Soul Land – a review

Soul Land by Natalia Clarke is a love letter to a landscape. It was a joy for me reading someone else’s poetry in this vein – having done something similar with a poetry collection of my own called Mapping the Contours.

Natalia is in love with Scotland, and her poems are passionate expressions of a profound love affair with place. The writing is generous, sensuous, wholehearted.  These are bardic braise poems directed at place rather than person, and I greatly enjoyed reading them.

I recommend this collection primarily for the pleasure of reading it. However, for anyone on the bard path wondering about writing love songs, love letters, and romances directed towards the non-human, this is a lovely example. For the person who feels alienated and craves relationship with the land, this collection may help you on your way.

To be a body in a landscape. To be alive and keenly feeling and in relationship with all that is around you is an exquisite thing. For me, it is a key part of the Druid path. I’m painfully aware though that many people do not have that grounding love in their lives. Alienation from land, landscape and a sense of place is a modern illness, and reading and writing can be one way back into the land. Poems can be maps, and guides to help us heal and to rebuild the relationships that should always have been ours.

More about the book here – https://rawnaturespirit.com/e-guide/


Carved from Stone and Dream – a review

Carved from Stone and Dream is a novel by T Frohock. It is the second book in a series – I’ve not read the first but was told they standalone and I could jump in here. So let me start by saying yes, you can totally do that. This book stands alone. My suspicion is that the emotional impact of it would however be very different for the person who read book 1 (Where Oblivion Lives) first, because being invested in the characters already would turn this already intense story into mercilessly edge of the seat stuff from the first page.

Coming in as a new reader I was trying to figure out who I ought to care about, so when a character I barely knew died, I wasn’t that upset, and when multiple characters were in significant peril at the start of the book, it was interesting but I didn’t think it would break me. I suspect if I’d read book 1 already, I would have been in bits most of the way. It’s a tense, story told almost entirely through action sequences – technically it is quite some feat of writing to get that much character, backstory and insight into a book that never lets up.

The tale revolves around the struggles for power between various different groups of Nefilim. It took me a while to piece together who the Nephilim are and how their magic works – both are fascinating, and I don’t want to spoiler it. It’s rich, complex, original stuff that has a real elegance to it. There’s a pretty much perfect balance between coherence in the magic, and mystery – often if the mechanics are too clear, magic stops feeling magical. Equally if the magic hasn’t been thought through, it can be too convenient and unconvincing. Teresa Frohock has nailed it.

Now, all of this would be more than enough story for most authors… but there’s an added layer in that the book is set during the Spanish Civil War and looks at how that contributed to the Second World War. While that’s all framed by Nefilim activity, it’s an interesting and brutal period that I think often gets left out of WW2 narratives. It’s good to see a story touch on it in this way.

This is a violent story, there are some really uncomfortable sequences, it is definitely a book for adults. It’s also a story that has gay characters without the gay being particularly what the story is about. Gay characters are put under the same pressure in fear for their loved ones and families as straight characters in similar situations are, and that makes me very happy. It’s great to see LGBTQ people included in a story where they’re allowed to be other things as well and the plot isn’t about the gay. For extra points, the gay characters are already in an established relationship – it’s not a romance or a coming out story!

The writing is excellent, so if this all sounds like the sort of stuff you might read, pick up a copy. It’s a satisfying story, that comes to a conclusion while leaving plenty of room for future tales in the same setting. You can read it without having to make a commitment to the whole series (anyone else still got issues from The Wheel of Time?) but if you want to dig in for more, you can do that too.

 

Find out more about the book here – https://www.tfrohock.com/carvedfromstone


The Dirigible King’s Daughter – a review

When Alys West guest blogged with me recently about living tradition (https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/referencing-the-tradition-by-alys-west/) she mentioned a Steampunk novel, so I asked for a review copy.

The Dirigible King’s Daughter is a steampunk romance and I liked it as a romance because it deviates from the usual story shape in some interesting ways. We know from early on that the protagonists are in love with each other – it’s never really in doubt, but it’s more a case of whether love is enough and what it might cost them. This is a question I’d like to see asked more often- I think the assumption that love will always be enough is a harmful one that needs challenging.

On the steampunk side, there’s enough action, adventure, dirigibles and other technology to cheerfully tick all those boxes. There’s also (which is really important to me) a political aspect to it. It’s not all titled people having jolly adventures. Alys has things to say about class and the way in which wealth impacts on how people are treated. She also has a lot to say about gender politics, both historical and by implication, contemporary.

What really caught me off guard though was the emotional intensity of the book when it came to the main character’s backstory – which you slowly piece together heading towards the reveals near the end. No spoilers from me! There turned out to be a number of difficult subjects in this book, handled with empathy that resulted in something both moving and engaging.

I usually don’t pick up books in which a female protagonist is defined in the title purely in relationship to a man. I made an exception for this one, and I’m glad I did, because the story is very much about dealing with the implications the central character – Harriet – has to deal with from having been defined to herself and others by her father’s actions. This is a story about a young lady taking control of her life and emerging from beneath the long shadow her father has cast, it is about becoming someone other than The Dirigible King’s Daughter, and I very much liked that about it.

You can read the first 2 chapters here – https://alyswest.com/the-dirigible-kings-daughter/tdkd-sample-v2/

Or find the book on Amazon –  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dirigible-Kings-Daughter-Alys-West/dp/0993288677


Miserere – a review

 

Miserere, by Teresa Frohock is a fantastic fantasy novel. At risk of a little bit of spoilering, I’d like to explain what happened to me as I read the first few chapters…

Chapter one… ah, Catholic mediaeval fantasy with angels and demons and Latin, and prayers as spells and all that.

Chapter two: Why are we in the present day? Is this a portal story? Then where/when were we before? This is not what I thought it was.

Chapter three: This world building is very exciting.

And from that point I had a great deal of trouble putting it down.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this book. I immediately loved the fact that of the four main characters, three are middle aged. They’ve already lived and loved and made terrible mistakes and done problematic things to each other and they are messy and flawed and very real. As a middle aged reader, it’s rather pleasing to have some middle aged fantasy action.

Of the four main characters, three are women. Two are middle aged women, and one is a child. They all kick ass.

There’s some wonderful background content about religious diversity. That made me very happy.

Horses have names. People care about them. They are not disposable modes of transport.

The writing is excellent – this is an author with a strong and distinctive voice, able to craft powerful turns of phrase, to capture scenes in a few lines and to quickly give a sense of character. The pacing is excellent.

I shall be seeking out more books from this author, she offers the blend of escapism and relevance in her work that I crave. The fantasy side is suitably fantastic, the human and emotional side of the story is potent and full of truth.

You can find out more about Miserere here – https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Miserere/Teresa-Frohock/9781597802895


The Pre-Programming – a review

I read and reviewed The Automation – part one of the Circo del Herrero series back in the summer. Volume 2 is now out and honestly it blows the first novel out of the water. I really enjoyed the first book, but volume 2 achieves whole new levels. It’s also nigh on impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

This is a modern set fantasy in which Vulcan (the God) has automata running around in the human world causing trouble and adventure. You do not need to know your Greek or Roman Gods to get in here and enjoy the tale. You can’t start with volume 2 though. You really have to begin and the beginning with this series or you will be utterly lost. This is a complicated reality with a lot of ideas in it, and you need to get in and appreciate some of those ideas before you have them taken apart for you.

Volume 2 picks up the plot threads from volume one, laughs at you, and runs off in a whole selection of new directions. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a well crafted story that I cannot predict. This is one of those. Twisty doesn’t begin to describe it. I was entirely surprised, repeatedly. Plot shapes suggested by volume 1 crumbled. Characters died. Agendas were revealed to be other than expected. No one was quite who I thought they were. By the end of book 2 it looks like the real plot has emerged, and now we know what’s going on. I expect we’re being set up for even more massive rug pulls when volume 3 comes out.

There was one line in the FAQs at the start that stuck out for me “Because the author of this series grew up in the Bible Belt, is of indigenous descent and has a lot to say (sub-textually) in response to colonialism and literature like American Gods, for instance.” It struck me that this series (at the moment) is well worth considering as a response to American Gods and that looking back at American Gods with this in mind, I now feel quite uneasy. And also happy to feel uneasy in retrospect.

I heartily recommend this series, it is knowing, funny, provocative, full of surprises. I wait impatiently for the next instalment. Find out more at circodelherreroseries.com


Faery Godmother Oracle Cards – a review

I was sent Flavia Kate Peter’s Faery Godmother oracle cards to review. I’m fond of oracle cards, although I’ve noticed over the years the whether they work depends a lot on whether they chime with your life stage. I reviewed a set elsewhere last year that assumed the total spiritual inexperience of the user and I didn’t find much of any help in those! Figuring out who a set is for, and whether you are that person is often the challenge.

I’ve been using these cards for a few weeks now, pulling one of an evening and seeing what it gives me. They’ve been remarkably predictive. I usually take oracle cards as an opportunity to look inside my own head, but these have, unexpectedly, been flagging up things to come in the day or two after reading them.

These are cards for a person who is trying to figure themselves out. I think they’re most relevant for someone going through a life change. I think they’re ideal for teens for that reason. As an often confused menopausal life form, I found them relevant, and good food for thought.

Mostly what these cards do is invite you to look at how you interpret what you experience, and how you choose to behave. There’s guidance here to steer you towards self knowledge, recognition of what you could be, kindness to others, and ways of being a better sort of human.  That’s another reason to put them in the hands of teenagers. I like the underpinning belief that we have a lot of control over our thoughts and actions and that we can indeed choose the people we want to be by choosing to change how we think and act.

 

 

If art is key in your oracle card choices, you’ll need to look at the images to decide. Helpful flip through here –

 

I can’t say the art really did it for me, but I enjoyed using the cards nonetheless. When I pulled the card ‘wishes’ and the text asked me what I really wished for, I had a moment of realising that for all that faery godmother oracles are charming, what I really want, is to be able to get in there and be a faery godmother for other people!

More about the cards here – https://www.barbarameiklejohnfree.com/product/new-faery-godmother-oracle-cards/ 


Quiet – a review

Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

 

 


The Weight of Expectation – a review

This is a very small, very powerful comic. Writer Oli Williams and illustrator Jade Sarson explore how stigma associated with bodyweight and size impacts on people. The visual storytelling here is brilliant, and gives a real sense of an experience that is felt in the flesh.

I did not find this an easy read, and at the same time, I found it enormously helpful. I’ve dealt with fat shaming and body loathing my whole life. I saw something of my own experiences reflected here. That was both painful and cathartic. At the moment, I’m about the smallest I’ve ever been, and as someone small enough to buy regular high street clothes I know that I effectively have more thin privilege than not. But at the same time, like some of the characters in this comic, the words of fatness are written into my flesh through years of struggle, and I cannot look at my own body without seeing that.

One of the things I really love about Jade’s work here, is her ability to depict large people without making them grotesque or ridiculous. The idea that people are intrinsically loveable, that human bodies are loveable and acceptable is a theme I see reoccurring in her work and I am deeply glad of it.

More about The Weight of Expectation here – http://teahermit.co.uk/