The Kingfisher’s Debt

“Aunty Tamsin, was Billy my dad?”

I stopped applying my lipstick and and angled the rear-view mirror. … With grey eyes and auburn hair framing her face, Gwyn looked like her mother. She hadn’t inherited the blonde hair and blue eyes I shared in common with my older brother Billy, her dad.

“Well, was he?”

“No, sweetheart.”

From the opening paragraphs of The Kingfisher’s Debt, New Zealand author Kura Carpenter’s debut novel, I was hooked. Who was this Tamsin and why was she lying to her niece? The answer to that question is a long time coming, and lots of other questions are raised along the way.

The main plot driver of this urban fantasy, set in the city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, is a mystery involving forbidden bloodmagic. The police call in Tamsin Fairchild, translator and presumed psychic, to help when a dead baby is found with a knife through a pentagram drawn on its chest. Another baby is missing. Kidnapped.

Tamsin is not a psychic. She’s not human, either. She is, however, in debt to the Chief of Police R. Wiremu Jackson, and can’t refuse when he pairs her with new cop Scott Gale and sends them off to research the ritual sacrifice angle. It soon becomes clear that someone from the shadowy world of Fair Folk, elementals, and witches that Tamsin inhabits is involved, and she has to find out who is responsible for the kidnapping, before she and Gale are framed for the crime.

For about three quarters of the book, this present-day storyline taking place around the Winter Solstice alternates chapters with a summer romance twelve years earlier, providing much-needed backstory. The secondary thread draws the reader into the extended family of Tamsin’s clan, and its Capulet vs. Montague world of Fair Folk vs. Elementals, and cops vs. criminals. Both threads are engaging, and at the end, with the focus back solely on the mystery, I didn’t want to put the book down.

The things you get from this novel include an intriguing mystery and a sweet romance, fine writing, great characterisations, some terrific dialog, and snark. Lots of snark.

And there are some things you don’t get:

  • Filler, fluff, or info dumps. You do have to be willing to work at figuring out what’s going on, but the payoff is worth it. (Reminds me of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. They both throw you into a fantasy environment and write as if they are talking to a friend, expecting you to keep up.)
  • All your questions answered and all the dangling plot threads neatly tied up. The end is a bit messy, like real life.
  • Fairies that fit cleanly into the established folklore. (Fairies drive hot muscle cars? Who knew?)

I had to read this through twice for it to really make sense. The first time through, I skimmed, and that was a mistake. Important details are embedded in what look like throwaway lines. (Embedded in the prologue, too. Don’t skip it.) After the first reading I was a bit frustrated with all my unanswered questions, but my second, closer reading answered some (not all), and convinced me this is a terrific story despite the loose ends.

The things I like include the acknowledgement that family ties are sometimes lifelines, sometimes shackles. Also the richness of the imagined world and the feeling of depth in Tamsin’s history. Some events that must have been traumatic—life with her grandmother, her boyfriend’s sister’s death, among others—were just touched on in a couple of sentences.

There’s enough meat there for many more stories in this world. I will be looking forward to them.

Trigger warning: a brief mention of non-sexual child abuse, and some swearing.

Posted in Kiwi author, Urban Fantasy | Leave a comment

Lutapolii: White Dragon of the South

Winner of the 2019 Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel, Lutapolii: White Dragon of the South by New Zealand author Deryn Pittar is a story of a young dragon’s efforts to escape the tyranny of his flight’s abusive monarch and to establish his own flight in a new territory.

It’s a pretty predictable story line, but nicely told. The solutions Lutapolii comes up with for his problems are rather clever, and I enjoyed the descriptions of his new home in a cold climate, where hot springs keep him and the dragons who join him warm through the harsh winters.

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Abandoning Books

For most of my life, I would plow through and finish every novel I started, even if it wasn’t very good and/or I wasn’t enjoying it. I’d feel guilty if I abandoned one partway through.

Those guilty feelings were probably the result of ingrained habit from years of required reading in school, where I sometimes had to slog through stories with the expectation that someone with more experience saw something of value in them and eventually I would, too. In general, that’s a good thing; cultural literacy is important, as is the broadening of outlook we get by dipping into different genres and perspectives we wouldn’t notice on our own. (That doesn’t mean I liked all their choices. I still can’t stand one classic my 7th-grade teacher inflicted on us, and I’ve not read anything—and probably never will—by Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck since I graduated from high school.) But once I was out of school and reading on my own, without a teacher filtering out the dreck and guiding me towards the good stuff, I still read everything all the way through, somehow believing that I might miss something valuable if I didn’t.

Pretty silly, eh? I also seemed to feel that I owed the author the time, especially if I’d bought the book, rather than borrowing it from the library. Maybe I felt that if I’d spent money on it, it had to be worth something. Or, more likely, I’m just borderline obsessive-compulsive.

I no longer have the time to waste on uninspiring fiction. A sense of mortality is creeping up on me; I’m old enough to accept that my time on this earth is limited. If I’m fortunate I may have another thirty years, possibly even more, given good genes and continuing advances in medical science. But at the current rate I’m reading, and the number of books already on my shelves and e-reader, I already own enough books to keep me busy for the next twenty years. Twenty years! (How’s that for an overflowing TBR pile?) And there’s the library, and new books being published all the time. Hundreds of thousands of them every year.

So many books, so little time.

I’m reading now mainly for fun, and trusting my own judgement about what’s good and what’s not. I will still keep plugging on a novel that has some dead spots if it has enough substance and originality to convince me it is worth the slog—An Instance of the Fingerpost, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Doomsday Book are good examples—but I am becoming much more ruthless about most novels, particularly run-of-the-mill genre fiction, even if they come highly recommended. If the writing’s bad, if it’s a thinly disguised rehash of a story I’ve already read, if there aren’t any likeable characters, or if I’m just not enjoying it, for whatever reason, out it goes. A predominant theme of deception and betrayal usually earns a book a quick trip to the giveaway box by the back door. (I can’t stand spy novels, which are by definition about that.) So does plot-induced stupidity, failure of the imagination, or a sense of déjà vu.

Here are a few of the more memorable failures of imagination* that have led me to abandon a book:

  • A group of friends are staying at a resort hotel. One man who had been enjoying himself dies after drinking from a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The bottle had been left in another man’s room—a man who was known to favour the whiskey—but everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that the dead man had committed suicide. No investigation called for.
  • In a fantasy set amid merfolk, the author seems to frequently forget that they’re underwater. One character has blood trickle down her side. Another characters suggests it’s time for a cup of tea.
  • A supposedly experienced FBI agent acts like a green rookie. At home alone in an isolated farmhouse, threatened by a crazed and violent criminal, the agent answers a call from an unrecognised number and replies “Yes” to the question “Are you home?”

Some of these failures are screamingly funny, but that’s probably not the effect the author wanted. It’s not what I’m after, either, when I pick up a mystery or fantasy. I’d rather just move on to something better, and find my comedy in sparkling dialog and characters aware of life’s absurdities.

* I haven’t identified these books because I don’t want to further embarrass their authors, or get into pissing contests with them. I’d usually rather use my airspace writing about books I enjoyed and would encourage others to seek out, but just because I don’t often write about them here doesn’t mean that I haven’t encountered some that were awful.

Posted in On Reading | 2 Comments

Restoration Day

Restoration Day: the ritual that Arcelia’s monarch performs every fifty years to replenish the ties between the land and its people. Without that ritual, the magic sustaining Arcelia will die.

With less than a month to go until Restoration Day, Arcelia’s rightful queen is not prepared. Since the death of her parents fifteen years ago, Lily, days away from her eighteenth birthday, has been kept hidden behind a magical hedge in the mountaintop castle of Candra. Naturally, she’s eager to assume her duties as queen, and escape the stultifying tyranny of her aunt’s regency. Aunt Hortensia has been doing a reasonable job of overseeing Lily’s education in the things a respectable young lady needs to know—the arts, sciences, deportment, dancing, elegant conversation, etc.—but what she has kept from Lily could have disastrous consequences.

Like the fact that, after having murdered her parents, Lily’s evil Uncle Phelan rules Arcelia, plundering it for profit, and will not be pleased when Lily, long thought dead, reappears. Or the fact that the land is already dying under his greedy abuse.

When Lily defies Aunt Hortensia and escapes through the hedge, she expects to be greeted by swarms of her loyal, cheering subjects. She’s not prepared to be a fugitive, attempting to stay one step ahead of Uncle Phelan brutal troops, on her quest to reclaim the throne and gather the magical artefacts needed to complete the ritual before it is too late.

Uncle Phelan, believing she has fled back to Candra, besieges the castle and demands the castle staff hand her over to him. The outmanned loyal retainers put up a strong defence, but will they be able to buy her enough time?

I confess I was not impressed with the opening of Restoration Day, by New Zealand author Deborah Makarios. I was afraid this was going to be one of those books that tries too hard for laughs by stretching clichés (the too-sheltered royal heir, the unwilling-to-let-go regent, etc.) to the breaking point. Lily seemed too childish for eighteen, and both too constrained and too clueless to be a respectable ruler. In our introduction to her, Aunt Hortensia is scolding her for even considering walking down the stairs by herself, as it’s too dangerous. Say what?

(Aside: stairs are dangerous in both make-believe and real worlds. People die or are seriously injured in falls on them fairly regularly. But forbidding children to learn how to handle themselves on hazards they encounter as part of everyday life isn’t a good way to encourage self-confidence and responsible behaviour. If their guardians insist some behaviour is too dangerous, when they see others doing it all the time, why should they believe warnings about other, more risky behaviours? What’s to dissuade them from scrambling across the castle roofs, as Lily does a few pages later to escape her overbearing aunt?)

Despite my misgivings, I skimmed the first two chapters, was intrigued by the third, and by the end of the fourth I was hooked. Lily grew on me, especially once she had left Aunt Hortensia behind and traded her frothy pink princess gown for more practical clothes. She makes some friends, and collects a champion—an unwilling and skeptical champion—who is not a bog standard fairytale handsome prince. As she continues on her quest, she learns a few hard lessons, grows up a bit, and displays a sense of responsibility towards Arcelia and its people that makes up for her other faults.

There are a few standard tropes, but some others are playfully subverted. Some of the dialog, particularly between Lily and the dwarf Malin, had me laughing out loud, and the Home Alone-style defence of Candra had some clever touches. This clean, noblebright fairytale is a fast, easy read with a happy ending.

Audience: fairytale enthusiasts from teens and up.

Posted in Kiwi author, Noblebright Fantasy | 4 Comments

GeyserCon 2019

I went to GeyserCon—New Zealand’s 40th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention—in Rotorua this past weekend, and came home with a bagful of new books to balance on top of my already teetering TBR piles. Now if I can just find time to read them…

I also came back with print copies of the third book in my Reforging series, The Blacksmith, direct from the publisher’s hands. Woo-hoo! The series is looking pretty good, wouldn’t you agree?

The conference itself was well-run and a lot of fun, with a good crowd of old and new faces and a schedule full of interesting speakers and informative panels. Taking 3rd place in the fiction contest felt pretty good, too. You can read my entry here. (Okay, so it wasn’t as good as winning a Sir Julius Vogel award would have been, but every little bit helps.) When I got home after a weekend focusing on writing speculative fiction, knocking out a pivotal scene in my next book was trivial.

Looking forward to the WorldCon next year, to be held here in Wellington.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 2 Comments

Book Announcement: The Blacksmith

How is the king like a blacksmith? He has a hammer as well as a sword.

Duncan Archer has heard that riddle many times, but he doesn’t know what it means. No one does, not even the members of the Royal Guild of Swordsmiths. It isn’t Duncan’s business anyway. Good sense tells him to stick to beating iron into shape for the residents of his backwater village, and not worry about the king and his nobles pounding Frankland into the ground.

But good sense never stopped Duncan from poking his nose into everyone else’s business. If it had, he might not be a fugitive, the subject of the biggest manhunt in the country’s history.

With a charge of murder hanging over his head like a sword, understanding that riddle becomes much more urgent.

The Blacksmith, book three of my five book Reforging series, is available now for non-US customers from as an ebook; the printed version will be available soon.

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Have you heard of the Fugue? You may have caught glimpses in other stories of that alternate magical world overlapping our own. It is a fecund land filled with wonders and peopled by almost human creatures known as the Seerkind. When ordinary bloke Cal Mooney by accident tumbles into it and out again, it breaks his heart.

But the Fugue is not now a very happy place. An unseen force known only as the Scourge despises all magic and is determined to obliterate them all. Humans persecute them, calling them fairies or demons. And one of their own kind, the exiled sorceress Immacolata, wants revenge. In the face of these threats, the Seerkind have taken cover, weaving themselves—people, landscapes, magic, and all—into a carpet that was left in the hands of a few dedicated guardians in the mundane world—the Kingdom of the Cuckoos, as they call it—to be released in a few years after the danger from the Scourge has passed.

Decades later, the all-clear signal still has not come, and the carpet is almost within Immacolata’s grasp. The last guardian is hospitalised, and dying. She has left it too late to tell her granddaughter, Suzanna Parish, what she needs to know to protect the Fugue.

This is the situation at the start of Clive Barker’s 1987 award-winning novel, Weaveworld. It’s a thick book (my edition is 720 pages) but it covers a lot of ground without much flab. The story moves along fairly briskly, only getting bogged down in a few places. We follow Cal and Suzanna as their paths converge, split apart, and re-converge, and their respectable, boring lives are upended in their struggles against the magical and mundane forces that would destroy the Seerkind.

The story weaves back and forth between the Fugue and the very concrete world of Liverpool. The characters are finely crafted, there are some evocative descriptions and gripping scenes, but I suspect that when most of the details fade I will still remember this story fondly, primarily for Cal’s quiet heroism. His actions at the climax are inevitable and awesome, and another character’s reaction—Is he out of his f***ing mind?—seems appropriate. And when the story ends, we’re left with one message that pretty well sums up the reasons we tell stories: What can be imagined is never entirely lost.

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre. I dip into it occasionally, and as often as not end up wishing I hadn’t, but this novel straddles fantasy and horror, and is (mostly) redeemed by Suzanna and Cal’s determination and devotion to the Seerkind, and to each other. But be aware that there are horrors here: fanaticism, monsters, violent sex, attempted genocide… There is also some very earthy language describing bodily functions, and some things that don’t quite work (the Menstruum, for one).

The story is full of religious language and motifs, some of them rather twisted: raptures and scourges, the Black Madonna and her dead, perverted sisters, an entity that calls itself the angel Uriel. But they are not always what they seem, and there’s little clear-cut black and white. No one, it seems, is beyond hope of redemption.

Audience: Adult. Contains everything: Violence, rape, bad language, horror. And heroism and hope.

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The 13 Clocks

I have tales to make a hangman weep, and tales to bring a tear of sorrow to a monster’s eye.
I have tales that would disturb a dragon’s sleep, and even make the Todal sigh.

I don’t remember exactly when I discovered The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber, but I believe it must have been while I was in elementary school. I loved it. Even now, decades later, it still charms me. Not so much for the story, which is rather forgettable, but for the wordplay, which fired my imagination.

Thurber adores alliteration, makes up words with abandon like a darker Seuss, and scatters internal rhymes in random sentences. There are no lines breaks to prime you for rhyme, you have to be on your toes to catch it as it goes. Cadence is important, too; this book begs to be read aloud.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a simple, straightforward fairytale. The villain is the evil Duke of Coffin Castle: His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes. When a prince appears, the duke assigns him an impossible task to prevent him from marrying the duke’s niece. There are classic fairytale elements: a prince dressed in rags, curses and spells, chests of jewels, and love at first sight between the prince and a passive princess. (So the story’s not perfect. Oh, well, it was written in 1950.) There are more unusual elements, too, primarily the clocks frozen at ten minutes to five. In the duke’s castle, it is always Then, never Now, after he murdered time. His sleeves are still stained with the blood from his crime.

And then there’s the Golux, the fairy godmother stand-in, who is on the side of Good, by accident and happenstance. He forgets things, and makes things up, and may or may not be able to help the prince out of his predicament.

There is, by the way, some violence in this story, with the duke feeding his enemies to the geese, and threatening to slit the prince from his guggle to his zatch. That’s not uncommon in fairytales. Any child who can handle, say, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel (remember the oven?) should be able to handle this charming little tale.

The illustrations by Marc Simont are pretty cool, too.

Audience: lovers of fairytales and wordplay of any age.

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Of all the settings in all the thousands of books I’ve read, Tamson House in Ottawa, Canada is among the ones I’d most like to visit. That world-straddling residence is a significant presence in the urban fantasy Moonheart by Charles de Lint. At least semi-sentient, it’s better developed than most of the human characters. It’s a massive structure, covering a full city block, but the facade facing the street presents it as a row of townhouses, camouflaging it’s true nature. The garden it surrounds is larger than any garden hemmed in by walls and streets could possibly be. The house is home to a collection of characters living more or less communally, including the owner, Jamie Tams, his niece, Sara Kendell, and a biker, a live-in gardener, and a few other oddballs. Various other visitors move in and out more or less at random—anyone the house takes a fancy to stays as long as they want. Neither Jamie nor Sara pay them much heed; the house itself seems to somehow enforce unspoken rules about residents cleaning up after themselves and playing nice with each other.

Besides owning Tamson House, Jamie and Sara own an antiques store. It’s more of a hobby than a real business, as they are independently wealthy and don’t need the extra income. (I kept thinking they had to be fabulously wealthy to afford the upkeep on this huge house, but perhaps the house itself has a hand in its own maintenance. I wasn’t quite sure about that.) The story opens when Sara uncovers some unexpected items in a recently-delivered box of knickknacks, items that draw the attention of the Horsemen (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

In another thread, the Horsemen are also showing interest in Kieran Foy, a wandering folk musician and wizard in training—even if he’s not sure exactly what the magic is—who has come to Ottawa in search of his missing mentor. When Kieran and Sara’s paths cross, trouble happens, in a big way, as a more than thousand-year-old feud goes critical. Kieran and Sara are spirited away to an Otherworld, populated by Native American shamans and manitou (spirits) interwoven with ancient Welsh bards, where they begin to piece together the clues needed to understand and counter the evil that is harming both worlds.

While Sara and Kieran are in this Otherworld, learning how to handle newly-discovered powers as wizard and sorceress and falling in love—although not with each other—Tamson House is under attack. As Jamie comes to terms with the part his ancestors played in creating the situation they’re in, a multiway battle for control of the house is underway between a motley assemblage of residents, Horsemen, gangsters, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named The-Dread-That-Walks-Nameless. (Sorry, couldn’t resist, but Moonheart was published in 1984, long before that other story.)

This thread set in modern Ottawa, with its ensemble cast—sometimes working together, sometimes at cross purposes—was the more interesting storyline. The other threads didn’t move me as much. There was a bit too much New Age romanticism for lost Native American traditions for my taste in the interactions with the high-minded inhabitants of the Otherworld, and neither of the two romances felt particularly gripping or believable. Oddly, though, relationships between other, minor characters were more believable—the Mountie and his lawyer girlfriend, or the biker and his girlfriend—probably because the author was taking already established relationships as a given, and seeing how they changed under stress.

There were some minor flaws: a few continuity errors, so many characters I needed a scorecard to keep track of who’s who, and it’s at least fifty pages too long (out of 477), but overall it’s an intriguing story.

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Fallen Into the Pit

Before there was Brother Cadfael, there was Inspector Felse.

Ellis Peters is well known for her series of historical mysteries featuring the Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael. She began writing those in the late 1970s, but she honed her skills on an earlier series written between 1951 and 1978, featuring an English detective, George Felse. Anyone who likes Brother Cadfael and is not fixated on the Middle Ages might enjoy the thirteen books in this series, too. Set contemporaneously in the U.K., they were not written as historical novels, but given the span of time since then, one can enjoy them as period pieces, appreciating the window they provide into post-war life in Shropshire along the Welsh border.

In Fallen Into the Pit, the first book in the series, the war is over, but the peace is still fragile, and the Comerford village’s inhabitants are still struggling to come to grips with the changes it wrought, both for those families whose sons/husbands/brothers/fathers never came back, and those whose returning sons are all but unrecognisable. Among those is one Chad Wedderburn, a teacher at the school Felse’s thirteen-year-old son, Dominic, attends. Wedderburn is a hero with an impressive war record, but he confounds the villagers’ expectations by spurning their praise, refusing to join the British Legion, and taking an uncompromising stand rejecting all violence.

Some former prisoners of war are also in Comerford. With their homes in ruins and no jobs to return to, they have stayed and been put to work in the coal mines or as hired hands on nearby farms. Among them is Helmet Schauffler, a young German with an attitude problem. He bullies anyone he can, in one case driving a coal miner to take the first swing, then knifing him. To the local authorities he presents a polite face and avoids harsh penalties by pleading self-defence, blaming problems on his inadequate English and prejudice against Germans. But he has antagonised too many people, and when Dominic stumbles across a body lying half in a stream, George Felse is disturbed but not overly surprised that Schauffler has been murdered.

Wedderburn is one of several suspects, and when another man—Wedderburn’s rival for the town beauty’s affections—is found dead, the villagers’ suspicions focus on him. Dominic refuses to believe his teacher is the murderer, and sets out to prove his own theory, which may only make him victim number three…

I don’t love the Inspector Felse books as much as I love the Brother Cadfael mysteries, but there is still a lot to like in them. By current standards for mystery novels, they tend to start off slow, but the in-depth characterisations and descriptions of life in a village where everyone knows each other—and the toll suspicion takes on their sense of community—are significant contributions to the pleasures of reading this author’s work. Chad Wedderburn is an interesting character, as is Dominic Felse.

In an unusual twist, although George Felse is ostensibly the detective, and he and Dominic come to the same conclusion, it’s Dominic’s reasoning we get to follow in the final act. In some of the other books, the inspector’s wife is the main point of view character.

Be warned, however, that there is racist and anti-Semitic language in this particular book. It fits the character, but could be upsetting to some unprepared readers. There is also one minor character with a really unfortunate name. (A tween girl nicknamed Pussy. Ugh.) Despite those and a few other minor quibbles, I enjoyed this very British mystery.

Audience: adults and late teens. Off-screen violence but no sex. Some offensive language.

Posted in Mysteries | Leave a comment