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The Shortest Way to Hades is the second of Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar novels, and is very similar to the first; Hilary, Professor of Legal History at Oxford, is called in by the junior members of the barristers' chambers at 62 New Square to investigate the death of a young woman who was recently involved in a variation of trusts case in which all of them represented various parties, and which they feel was suspicious. Like the first novel, it's entertaining and contains some lovely comic scenes; I particularly enjoyed the account of how Selena, on finding herself present at an orgy, decides that her preferred pleasure is in fact reading the copy of Pride and Prejudice she happened to have in her bag (a woman after my own heart!), and, having an Oxford background, I also very much liked Hilary's justification for not taking part in examining, which was an absolutely pitch-perfect example of the Oxford don's refusal to carry out a disagreeable task couched as a favour to absolutely everyone else. Meanwhile, the mystery was well enough plotted that I didn't come anywhere close to suspecting the real murderer until the final reveal, which is all you can really ask of a mystery, after all.

I think I enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered more, but I'm not sure whether that's because the second book is so similar that I knew exactly what I was going to be getting and there wasn't the pleasure of discovering something new, or if I simply wasn't quite in the right mood for it; I certainly think it's just as good a book.
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Reading Gwyneth Jones put me in mind of Rosemary Sutcliff, and as I'm off to Argyll on holiday soon I thought I would re-read The Mark of the Horse Lord, which is set in Argyll. Unlike most of Sutcliff's novels set in Roman Britain, Phaedrus, the protagonist of The Mark of the Horse Lord, isn't a Roman soldier; instead, he's a half-British ex-gladiator, son of a Greek wine merchant and a slave woman, who lived his whole life as a slave until being freed after winning a fight in the arena. By coincidence, he discovers that he is the exact double of Midir, the exiled prince of the Dalriad tribe, and is persuaded to impersonate Midir and travel beyond the northern boundary of the Empire to lead a rebellion and win back the kingdom of the Dalriads from Queen Liadhan, who has seized the throne and imposed the old matrilineal rule of the Earth-Mother in place of the patrilineal worship of the Sun-God. The plot is not dissimilar to The Prisoner of Zenda, really, as Phaedrus tries to take over another man's life and relationships and learn how to be a king.

This isn't my favorite Sutcliff; Phaedrus is a less sympathetic protagonist than the various members of the family in the Dolphin Ring saga, hardened by the years in the arena as he is, although he does become more sympathetic as the story goes on. I also don't find the society of the Dalriads, beyond the frontiers of the Empire, as interesting as the Roman society depicted in the books set inside the Empire, and, revisiting it now, I also feel that the conflict between the matrilineal and patrilineal societies is probably more nuanced than the book really suggests, and I wish we had got to see Liadhan's point of view as well as Phaedrus's.
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Rainbow Bridge is the fifth and more or less final novel in the sequence Gwyneth Jones began with Bold As Love (there is a sixth book set in the same universe, published several years later, but that appears to be a YA novel with a different main character, rather than part of the main continuity). It begins more or less where the fourth left off, in a near-future, post-oil England which has just been invaded and is under military occupation, and sees Ax, Fiorinda and Sage (Jones's near-future rockstar Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot) playing a complicated game, having to work with the invaders to try to prevent further loss of life and manipulate the global political civilisation to give the world the best possible chance of surviving the coming Dark Age.

It's taken me over a decade to finish this series, despite loving the first two; it took me a while to get round to obtaining a copy of the third, and then I wasn't reading much, because citalopram killed my ability to become absorbed in a narrative, and in any case I was scared to try to face the darkness of Jones's post-catastrophe near-future. I only returned to it after re-reading The Once and Future King left me thinking that the tragedy of the Arthur story could have been avoided if only someone had told them about poly, and I remembered that that's exactly what Jones does here.

Despite reading it so slowly, I have liked the series a lot; the narrative is odd, disjointed in places, and the structure of the novels is somewhat unconventional, veering between affairs of state and the trio's polywobbles, with parts of the political action taking place offstage and merely reported in a way that would drive the advocates of show-don't-tell as an unbreakable rule of writing round the bend, but somehow it works for me. I like the characters, too, even if I have found myself wanting to smack all of the central trio with codfish at multiple points throughout the series. And actually, like Rosemary Sutcliff's novels of post-Roman Britain, which are an obvious influence on Jones (there is a chapter in Rainbow Bridge entitled 'The Lantern Bearers', and a section called 'The Shield Ring'), while the future of these novels is dark and scary and beset with difficulties, it's not a hopeless future; what matters, mostly, is love and loyalty and being able to be flexible in some things while absolutely inflexible in others, and ultimately, it's quite a hopeful book, and ends with Jones's three heroes finally able to settle down in peaceful obscurity, away from the public eye.
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After finding The Mauritius Command rather sombre and focused more on the mechanics of the campaign than on the characters, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed Desolation Island much more. After some time working for the Navy ashore, Jack Aubrey is given command of the Leopard with orders to take her to Botany Bay and a cargo of convicts, including a spy who Stephen Maturin has been given the task of covertly obtaining information from. As neither Jack nor Stephen has been entirely thriving on land (Jack's fair and trusting nature makes him an easy mark for dodgy tradesmen and card-sharps, while Stephen has been taking more and more laundanam in an attempt to ease his broken heart) this voyage is a good thing for both of them, but after a promising start they are beset with difficulties; an outbreak of gaol-fever (typhus) kills a third of the crew, while several others are left too weak to travel and have to be put ashore in Recife to convalesce. Undermanned and unable to fight his ship effectively, Jack makes for Cape Town where he hopes to be able to recruit more sailors, but encountering a larger Dutch ship in the South Atlantic he is forced to change course and flee far south of the Cape to try to outrun her. The chase through the stormy Southern Ocean is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, as is the Leopard's subsequent desperate limping journey to make landfall at Kerguelen Island (the 'Desolation Island' of the title), while after The Mauritius Command's focus on plot the emphasis is firmly back on character. If I had one gripe, it would be that the mention of Australia as a destination had made me hope to see Stephen encountering a wombatt, but even wombatt-free it's a terrific read.
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I picked up the omnibus edition of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel autobiography, Persepolis, in the Oxfam bookshop the other week, where it was shelved under science fiction, presumably by someone who couldn't get their head around graphic novels tackling "serious" subjects. I am not a great reader of graphic novels; I tend to skim through them far too quickly, concentrating on the text and not paying enough attention to the pictures, and never feel I've read them "properly", but with that caveat I did very much enjoy Persepolis and am glad I bought it.

Persepolis is a memoir of Satrapi's life, from her childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran to her final departure for France in 1994; as a determined and outspoken girl and young woman, the novel depicts her struggles to continue to live a "normal" life under the increasingly repressive regime in her country, as well as the years she spent living by herself in Austria, where her parents sent her after her forthrightness led to trouble at her school in Tehran, and her struggle to readjust to life in Iran after spending time in Europe. I found it fascinating to read about the everyday reality of life in a country that is normally only a name on the news, especially when that's combined with the universal relability of Marjane's experiences of growing up; rebellion alternating with clinging to family, feelings of isolation and being misunderstood, failed relationships and lost friendships, all provide a reminder that people are not so very different wherever they are.
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I hadn't heard of Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit until it was shortlisted for the Hugos this year; I wasn't quite sure it sounded like my kind of thing, but so many people were praising it I thought I'd try it. And actually, I'm very glad I did, because it's an amazing book.

Essentially, the plot is standard military SF. Captain Kel Cheris is removed from command of her unit after suffering serious losses in battle and placed in command of an expeditionary force charged with putting down a rebellion on a distant outpost, taking with her a secret weapon; the mad but brilliant general Shuos Jedao. Who just happens to have been dead for 400 years. There are battles and subterfuges and a staggeringly high body count. So far, so standard. The worldbuilding is stunning, though: the civilisation Lee creates is complex and believable, based on a complicated system that's part religion and part mathematics and which enables the use of weapons of mass destruction whose functions are somehow tied to the structures of belief and which can be rendered ineffective by alternative, heretical, belief systems. The characters are well-drawn, believable and mostly likeable even when they are committing acts of terrible devastation; Lee certainly doesn't shy away from showing the horror and futility of war, and I particularly liked his use of vignettes of the ordinary soldiers fighting the battles, contrasted with Cheris and Jedao in the command centre, away from the action. And the prose is incredible, with some stunning descriptive passages. I can't recommend this too highly, and obviously I've already downloaded the sequel.
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Mixed Magics contains four short stories set in the universe of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci novels. The first, 'Warlock at the Wheel' catalogues the misadventures of the Willing Warlock (one of the minor antagonists from Charmed Life) when he tries to escape to a parallel universe and steal a car, which unfortunately turns out to be occupied by a small girl and a large dog. There wasn't a lot to this one; I know that the Chrestomanci novels are generally written for younger readers than some of DWJ's other books, but this felt as though it was aimed at very young children.

I liked 'Stealer of Souls'a lot more. This story recounts an episode in the lives of Cat Chant (Charmed Life) and Tonino Montana (The Magicians of Caprona), and also gives readers another sight of several of the supporting characters from The Lives of Christopher Chant, many years later. I liked this much more than the first story; it was nice to revisit the characters and it provided some interesting character development for Cat in particular.

The third story, 'Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream' is about what happens when Carol (the world's youngest best-selling dreamer) is taken to consult Chrestomanci about the difficulties she is experiencing in recording her hundredth dream. It's a slyly witty look at the creative process, writer's block and the differences between producing genuine art and simply churning out the same things again and again.

The final story, 'The Sage of Theare' is set in the world of Theare, where the gods are highly organised and are thrown into a panic at the prophecy that a Sage of Dissolution has been born. Unfortunately, their attempts to thwart the prophecy cause further problems, which require Chrestomanci's intervention to resolve. I think this was my favourite of the stories, mostly because I enjoyed the philosophical aspects.

It's quite a slight book, both literally (only 160-odd pages in the edition I have) and in terms of the stories themselves; not DWJ's best, but enjoyable nonetheless and perfect when I wanted something undemanding.
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Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire is the story of Jennie Mazdan, a divorced woman in her late 20s who lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, and what happens when she unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, incurring the disapproval of the conservative, middle-class community she lives in.

Except it sort of isn't, because it's also a fantasy novel, set in an America 87 years after a religious revolution, when the whole country (maybe the whole world) has become converted to a kind of neopagan spirituality; people make blood offerings, follow a calendar of ritual, believe in the guardian spirits who watch over their homes and businesses, and gather together to hear "Tellers" retelling the stories and parables first told by the Founders. It's a world where miracles and wonders are everyday occurences, where dreams are prophetic and lives are regularly influenced by malignant or benign supernatural beings, but where people also watch TV and eat pizza and live ordinary lives. Although the story of Jennie's pregnancy and her relationships with her ex-husband, her neighbours, her colleagues and her mother are, on one level, absolutely normal and mundane, on the other they're about as far from mundane as you can get; she becomes pregnant via a dream, despite being legally a virgin due to the form the annulment of her marriage took, and it becomes clear very early on that the cild she is carrying is destined to be a prophet and leader, born to restore the magic which has dwindled in the time since the revolution, with too many people seeing their religion as a comforting form rather than real magic.

This is a stunning and unique book. I remember reading a review of it (probably in the Guardian when it was first published in 1989, and thinking it sounded like something I would like to read, but I lived in a small town and didn't have access to either a bookshop or a library with a good SF section, and I forgot about it until a few months ago when I found a copy in a charity shop. I suspect I got more out of it now than I would have done at 14, and I'm really glad to have had the chance to read it at last.
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I'll always have a soft spot for Monstrous Regiment, because after the period in the late 90s and early 2000s where I didn't quite get what Pterry was trying to do with the series and found myself struggling to read the new books as they came out, this was the first one I really, genuinely loved and which pulled me back on board for the rest of the series and showed me how to approach the ones I'd had trouble with. Also, I think it's one of the best examples of the later, more-satire-than-parody Pratchett there is.

Monstrous Regiment is about as close to a standlone Discworld novel as you get; there are no witches or wizards, no magic at all in fact, and Ankh-Morpork is very far away. Sam Vimes, Angua, William de Worde and Otto Chriek all make brief appearances, but the setting is the remote and rather Mitteleuropean Grand Duchy of Borogravia, and the main characters are Polly Perks, who disguises herself as a boy to join the army, and the other members of her squad of recruits, gradually revealed (in a twist that won't surprise anyone who automatically completes John Knox's quote whenever they read the title) also to be women. Unsurprisingly, the novel makes a lot of points about war and gender roles; it also takes on organised religion (and religion's role in propping up the patriarchy), and while the final scenes are clearly a defence of women's right to serve in the army, or do anything else, rather than being constricted by narrow ideas of gender, they also felt like a fairly obvious swipe at Don't Ask, Don't Tell*.

I'm not sure I could pick a favourite Discworld book, but this is definitely one of my favourites.

* I also note that this novel, published in the same year that Section 28 was repealed in England and Wales, features a canonical lesbian couple, which I find interesting given that I have seen far too much criticism of Pterry's lack of queer characters from people who appear to be unable to comprehend that up until this book was published including such characters would have been quite likely to see them removed from school libraries and taken out of the "teenage" sections of public libraries.
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I spent my weekend staving off depression by immersing myself Caprice and Rondo, the seventh of Dorothy Dunnett's eight House of Niccolò novels, and only took until today to finish it because Scales of Gold scared me off sitting up late to finish Dorothy Dunnett novels and I forced myself to put it down at 81% complete on Sunday and 90% yesterday. I'm not completely sure that Dunnett-immersion is really a good long-term antidepressant, but in the short term it seems to have worked and I am feeling a bit better now anyway.

This volume takes Nicholas from Poland to Persia, via the Crimea, and then finally back to Bruges via a sojourn in Russia which echoes The Ringed Castle. Cut off from his friends and colleagues by the revelations that ended To Lie With Lions, he originally seems bent on self-destruction, but the events of this book build on his experiences in the desert and Iceland until, by the end, it truly feels as though he has grown up and is ready to begin building a life with roots, rather than seeing everything as a game to be played and won. The plot is typically twisty and compelling, the characters flawed and human and so very real, and I think I'm finally starting to understand why some people prefer the Niccolò books to the Lymond Chronicles. (I may even end up that way myself, although I might also just start re-reading Lymond and fall for him all over again.)

Caprice and Rondo resolves enough of the series' many subplots that I had a definite feel of approaching the end of the series; although it leaves some major plot threads unresolved, it felt as if enough had been tied up that the series could almost have ended there, and I do wonder if that was deliberate - Dunnett was 74 when it was published, and although she did manage to complete Gemini and publish it the year before she died, if this had been the last book it wouldn't have been an entirely unsatisfactory ending in the way ending with any of the previous three books would have.
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In The Vor Game, Miles Vorkosigan has graduated from the the Imperial Military Academy and is taking - or trying to take - the first steps in his military career, steps which are seriously hampered by Miles's tendency to be the best strategic mind in the room and to know it. Instead of managing to fit in to life as a junior officer, Miles solves a mystery, joins a mutiny and ends up stopping an interstellar invasion fleet.

Having taken several tries to actually get into Bujold, I'm now very much enjoying working my way through the Vorkosigan saga; so far, they've all been enjoyable and entertaining and comforting without being fluffy. They may have many of the trappings of standard military SF, but they're really character-driven novels whose military setting is almost incidental. Bujold's characters are delightful and well-rounded, likeable but realistically flawed and sometimes exasperating; in this novel, Miles is continuing to grow and learn from his experience and his fairly frequent mistakes and misjudgements (despite an amazing talent for turning every situation to his advantage he is clearly very young, very inexperienced, and far from perfect), and I particularly loved Gregor, the young Emperor of Barrayar, resenting the weight of the crown he has worn since early childhood and trying to work out who he is and how to be his own person within the limitations of his role. The exploration of what makes a leader, and what it means to be Vor - a member of Barrayar's hereditary military/aristocratic class - is a big part of what makes these books not-fluff for me; they may be fun, but they're also interesting and thought-provoking.

I note that The Vor Game won the Best Novel Hugo*, which surprised me a little, as although I enjoyed it a lot the plotting isn't terribly tight and it doesn't have the "doing something new and interesting" feel I tend to expect from Hugo winners (even if "new and interesting" in 1990 was rather different from "new and interesting" now, it isn't doing anything very different from The Warrior's Apprentice). It's still great fun, though, and probably more enjoyable than many "new and interesting" but more serious books.

*"at the time when good writing and plot were more important than political leaning", says one Goodreaders reviewer, who has clearly failed to spot that the novel has a disabled protagonist, at least two prominent LGBT characters (to be fair, Aral's bisexuality is pretty much blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but Bel Thorne isn't) and more than one woman in typically male command roles.
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In the third of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries, Phryne and her companion, Dot, are taking the night train to Ballarat when Phryne is woken from a doze by the smell of chloroform, and discovers that their first-class carriage has been filled with cholorform and that one of the passengers, an elderly lady, is missing. When the missing passenger's body is discovered, her daughter hires Phryne to find her mother's murderer, and Phryne also takes on the task of trying to find the identity of a young girl with amnesia who was found on the same train.

The identity of the murderer was glaringly obvious, but the question of evidence and alibis takes up more time, while the subplot about the amnesiac girl takes a bit more unravelling. The feminist slant of the previous novels remains strongly in evidence here, with Phryne continuing to take down exploiters and abusers of women in the course of her cases, and there are a few knowing nods to other novels; the allusion to Murder on the Orient Express is obvious, but I also spotted a reference to the Megatherium Trust which sets the series firmly in the same world as Peter Wimsey. The series continues to be entertaining feminist fluff and definitely high on my list of comfort reads.
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After reading Kindred, which is about slavery in the USA a short time after Jane Austen was writing, I decided to re-read the one Jane Austen novel which explicitly mentions slavery, Mansfield Park.

I actually first read Mansfield Park recently enough that my thoughts are on LJ, and my opinion hasn't really changed; I know a lot of people dislike Fanny Price, but I still find her sympathetic and relatable, and her quiet determination in the face of pressure to accept Henry Crawford's proposal (and, indeed, the careful observation which allows her to understand Henry's character in a way that no-one else, except perhaps Mary Crawford, does) is all the more impressive for coming from a character whose life has shaped her into a person who always puts other people's wants and needs before her own. Yes, a shy, anxious, insecure heroine isn't as fun as a sparkling, witty Lizzy Bennet, but Fanny feels very real and I found it easy to care about her predicament. I do wonder if some of the dislike for Mansfield Park comes from people expecting a fluffy romance and not getting that, because while none of Jane Austen's novels are actually fluffy romances (honestly, I can't think of one that isn't really an anti-romance when you look at it closely) Mansfield Park is one of the hardest to see that way; although Fanny does end up with the man she is in love with, he isn't in love with her and they have a marriage of best friends rather than a grand romance.

I also really enjoy the glimpses of the wider world we get in this novel; Sir Thomas's business interests (and yes, the slavery that his wealth is founded on), the Navy in the Portsmouth scenes (which feel as though a Patrick O'Brien novel could be taking place only a few yards away). Like all Austen's novels, it also has interesting things to say about the position of women in English society in the early nineteenth century; the experiences of Maria and Julia Bertram, Mary Crawford's catalogue of the woes of her friends' marriages, and the pressure exerted on Fanny herself to marry Henry, despite her conviction that he is fickle and insincere (and while I think she is probably too hard on Henry, because she is so much in love with Edmund, his attachment to her clearly isn't all he would have her believe it to be), all show how constrained women's lives were, how the crucial question of marriage, answered on the basis of very little real information or knowledge, would make or break the rest of life.

I'm not sure I can have a favourite Jane Austen novel; there were moments during this re-read when I thought maybe Mansfield Park was my new favourite, but then I remembered Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; Pride and Prejudice is justly acclaimed a classic, and I really like Emma too, so I think all I can actually say for it is that it's definitely in my top five, though they are all so close, and the only one I think I actually like less than the others is Sense and Sensibility.
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Octavia E. Butler's Kindred is a classic time-slip fantasy with a twist. The narrator, Dana, is a black woman from 1970s California, who, in the space of a month of her own life, is transported back to a Maryland plantation a number of times across a period from about 1815 to 1830; a time and a place where, without papers to prove that she is a free woman, she is automatically assumed to be a slave, and treated as one.

As you might expect from that, it's a pretty harrowing read*, but I also found it utterly compelling reading, and an interesting and thought-provoking examination of slavery in the US and how the experience of being a slave might affect a person. I felt that it helped me to understand the emotional landscape underlying the current debates on race in the US in a way that just knowing the facts doesn't, and I couldn't help reading the physical and mental scars Dana's experience leaves both as literal scars and as a metaphor for the scars the experience of slavery has left on America. I was reminded several times of Granny Weatherwax's assertion that "evil is when you treat people as things"; Butler tries, and I think succeeds, at showing us just how evil a society which treated thousands of people as possessions was.

*although, having failed to get through Butler's Parable of the Sower a few years ago because it was so very dark, I found it easier to get through Kindred, possibly because it's easier to read about horrors in the past than horrors in the imagined near future.
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I posted on Facebook asking for recommendations for comforting and even fluffy reads, and someone suggested Georgette Heyer. I had mentally filed Heyer under "writers many people I know love but who I don't get on with", despite having quite enjoyed The Grand Sophy when I read it a few years ago, because I then tried reading Friday's Child and really didn't get on with it, and I'm not generally a fan of romance as a genre (I do quite like romcom films, if they're well done, and have no problem at all with romance subplots in books in other genres, but a romance on its own is generally not enough to keep me interested in a book), but I thought maybe I ought to give her another try (especially as someone else in the thread said she didn't much care for Friday's Child either) and downloaded a copy of These Old Shades and tried to approach it with an open mind.

Actually, I did rather enjoy it; the person who had recommeneded Heyer said they thought of her novels less as romance and more as comedy of manners with a love story thrown in, and that certainly seems to sum up These Old Shades, which features a girl dressed as a boy, children switched at birth, revenge, kidnapping and the flower of pre-Revolutionary Parisian high society. It is a love story, but it's also a story of family relationships and friendships, which I enjoyed much more. It's rather silly, in the way a lot of Shakespeare's comedies are silly, but it was a fun read and definitely fluffy and entertaining. I may well try more Heyer next time I'm in the mood for some fluff.
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The Star of the Sea is Una McCormack's sequel to The Baba Yaga (which I read last autumn). Both novels are set in a universe originally created by Eric Brown, though I haven't read Brown's books in the series, and take place in a far-future universe where both humanity and their traditional enemies the Vetch are threatened by the mysterious and massively deadly Weird. In this book, following the events of The Baba Yaga, the human Expansion mounts an expedition to Stella Maris, where humans, Vetch and Weird had been living in harmony, ostensibly to study the Weird but perhaps with more sinister motives. At the same time, Yale, one of the residents of Stella Maris, agrees to transport a mysterious human girl and a Vetch boy back to the Expansion for purposes that, at least initially, aren't clear to any of them, while information analyst Maxine Lee, working in the Expansion's capital, starts to suspect that some of the conspiracy theories she's meant to be monitoring may have more truth than she has been led to believe.

Like the first book, it's a plotty, compelling sf thriller with a strong cast of mostly-female characters. Also like the first book, this isn't a utopian Star Trek-type space opera; it's an examination of what it means to live in a society that's far more authoritarian than any of its citizens would care to admit, and of how an authoritarian regime can exploit the small (and not so small) differences between people to bring discord and division to a previously-harmonious society; and if I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I enjoyed The Baba Yaga, I think it's simply that the world I live in has shifted between last September, when I read that, and now, and I found it so dark that in places it was quite difficult to read, knowing what's going on in the world around me.
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Europe at Midnight is the second in Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe series; although it isn't quite a sequel to Europe in Autumn and could reasonably easily be read as a standalone novel, reading Europe in Autumn first fills in some of the background, and reading Europe at Midnight first would take away the impact of one of the major plot twists in Europe in Autumn.

Like Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight is basically a Le Carre-esque spy thriller which replaces the Cold War with the complicated politics of a fragmented near-future Europe. Its events take place on the same timeline as those of Europe in Autumn, with limited points of intersection. It's clever and plotty and interesting and I enjoyed it a great deal. I did, however, have one reservation, which was that I counted no fewer than three separate incidents where female characters who were important to the two male protagonists died violently in order to advance the men's plots (and a fourth where a woman was only seriously injured). It's true that the novel belongs to the gritty spy thriller genre and that comes with a lot of violence, death and general unpleasantness, and it gets points for having a reasonably wide range of female characters who are as likely to be dishing out the violence and general unpleasantness as on the receiving end of it, but by the third death I couldn't help feeling that this was starting to feel a bit like a pattern, especially as none of the deaths of men had the same emotional resonance for the two protagonists.


Rivers of London: Black Mould is the third Rivers of London graphic novel. I pre-ordered this in February when the release date was, I think, May; it was eventually released this week. Like the first two, it's a short standalone casefic which doesn't add to the wider arc of the series; fairly slight, but it was nice to see more of DC Guleed in particular, and it was entertaining enough.
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Seanan McGuire's Hugo-nominated novella Every Heart a Doorway is a school story with a twist: it's set in a boarding school specifically catering to young people who have visited the kind of other worlds familiar to readers of portal fantasy novels and who are struggling to adapt to real life on their return (most of the students at the school in this book long to return to their fantasy worlds, though we are told that there is a sister institution catering for those who need help to forget their more traumatic travels). Disbelieving parents send their children to the school hoping that they will receive therapy and recover from their breakdowns, but instead the school supports its students in understanding and integrating their experiences while still allowing them to hope that they will find their doors again one day.

The story mainly follows Nancy, who has returned from a sojourn in the Halls of the Dead with a preternaturally developed ability to stand still and a penchant for dressing in gauzy black and white clothing, to the distress of her parents who want their old daughter back. Shortly after Nancy's arrival at the school the first in a series of gruesome murders occurs; suspicion falls on Nancy, as a new girl and one whose world was a underworld, and she and a small group of other students have to work together to discover who the real murderer is. The murder mystery plot is really only a Macguffin, though (and I thought it was quite obvious from very early on who the murderer was); the book is really an exploration of identity and belonging, as the students try to deal with having found and lost worlds where they felt that they belonged much more than they ever had at home (each student went to a different world, uniquely suited to that individual). It's easy to see Nancy's parents' rejection of the changes in their daughter as parallelling more conventional rejections by parents' of their children's developing tastes and views. Identity politics writ larger also feature; Nancy explicitly identifies as asexual, while one of the friends she makes is a trans boy who was expelled from the fairyland he travelled to when he was discovered to be a prince and not the princess they thought he was.

Some of the reviews I'd read online had made me worry that this was going to be preachy, or at least a bit cringily identity-politics-by-numbers, but in fact I didn't find it that way at all; it was interesting, sensitive and thoughtful. I wasn't completely convinced by the way the murder plot was resolved, which seemed to owe rather more to the conventions of the students' fantasy worlds than to the real world in which the story takes place, but generally I really enjoyed the book and can absolutely see why it has won and been nominated for so many awards.
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I picked up Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders in the Oxfam bookshop, because I'm always interested to try new-to-me 1930s detective stories, and grabbed it off the top of my to-read pile last week when I was looking for an easy read to follow To Lie With Lions.

The Saltmarsh Murders is the fourth of 66 detective novels featuring Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, psychiatrist and amateur sleuth. In this novel, she turns her attention to the death of a young woman who has recently given birth to an illegitimate baby (and the disappearance of the baby) in the South Coast village of Saltmarsh, where she was paying a visit when the murder was discovered. She is aided in this by Noel Wells, the slightly dim curate of the village. Noel also narrates the novel in a first-person style which clearly owes a lot to Wodehouse, who he mentions being a fan of.

I wasn't sure the Bertie Wooster-esque narrative was a natural choice for a detective novel, and Noel is a very sloppy narrator, with events coming out of sequence in a way that made it quite hard to follow the plot at times. The book also features a black character and contains the kind of period-typical attitudes to and language about race that are pretty hard for a modern reader to stomach, as well as some period-typical attitudes to class and a couple of incidences of painfully rendered yokel accents. Most of the characters felt very two-dimensional, with the only one who really took on any life at all being the village madwoman, Mrs Gatty, and I didn't actually find the mystery plot particularly compelling. I don't think I'll be seeking out any more of Mitchell's books (although I think I might have at least one more that I bought as a Kindle bargain years ago...).


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