Thirteen Orphans

Years ago, in the Land Born of Smoke and Sacrifice, a China-like alternate reality, the winners in a war exiled the losers into our reality. The exiles—the young emperor and his twelve advisors, each personifying an animal in the Chinese zodiac—went first to China, but most eventually arrived in the United States, where their oddities were less apparent, and settled down, blending in but not forgetting.

But now, something is attacking the 21st-century descendants of those exiles. The ones attacked are not dead, but have had memories stolen, and it is evident to those who knew them that they are not the same people they once were.

Gaheris Morris, the Rat, is one of those attacked. His 19-year-old daughter, Brenda,  joins forces with the other exiles as the Tiger—Pearl, an elderly half-Jewish former actress—calls them together to defend themselves. Their battles play out among the shopping malls and suburban streets of San Jose, California, with weapons ranging from swords to thrown spell papers. Brenda, who had known nothing about her father’s heritage, receives a crash course on magic and history. If she is going to restore her father’s memories and protect her new friends, she will have to grow into the role of the Rat, and she’ll have to do it fast.

The urban fantasy Thirteen Orphans, by Jane Lindskold, is slow moving and much too talky. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like. The cast is intelligent, diverse, and well-drawn, with both Brenda and Pearl formidable women. The book is filled with details that ground the story in modern America, San Jose in particular, and the Chinese culture-based magic, like divination using personalised mah-jong sets, was appealing. (Lindskold has gotten some flak, I believe, for cultural appropriation. I can’t say whether or not that’s justified. I just know I found it a nice change from the seemingly ubiquitous medieval European-based fantasies.)

But most of all I liked that the Orphans acted like rational adults, banding together and working as a team, something that doesn’t seem to happen often in modern fantasy. (Yes, I know, conflict is necessary for dramatic tension, but some writers throw in so many personality quirks and conflicts that I want to shake their characters and say, “Grow up!”) Even the Orphans’ opponents, once revealed, are mostly honourable people dealing as best they can with a bad situation. That made for a more complex and satisfying conclusion than banishing yet another one-dimensional evil villain would have.

Thirteen Orphans is the first in a trilogy. I haven’t read the others yet, but the second book, Nine Gates, is waiting in my To Be Read pile.

Audience: Adults down through mid-teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence but no gore.

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The Lord of Dreams

Be careful what you wish for, as you will surely get it.

Claire Delaney, normal American teenager, wishes she could be a hero. She is immediately snatched out of her bedroom by a delightfully dangerous figure, transported into the world of the fae, and sent on a mission to rescue an imprisoned fairy. In the next few chapters of The Lord of Dreams by C J Brightley, we follow the disoriented Claire as she wanders randomly through a kaleidoscopic and strangely barren dreamscape. Nothing makes much sense; the fae king who sends her into this world calls himself her villain and the other few characters she interacts with seem determined to insult her and avoid telling her anything useful. She does eventually find and rescue the fairy, without understanding who he is or why he was imprisoned.

I struggled with that bit, the first 20% or so of the book. I didn’t like not understanding what was going on, and it annoyed me that Claire never stopped to ask herself why she should obey the fae king’s order if he was the villain. She seemed passive, letting herself be pushed around and not thinking things through. I was about to toss the book on the Did Not Finish pile, when things changed. For a few chapters the story bounces back and forth between strange dreams and normal life. Claire grows up and is in grad school when the fae come to her again, asking for her help. They are at war, their king—the nightmare figure from her dreams—has been captured, and he had predicted that she would be the one to rescue him.

From then on, the story’s focus is more clear, and I devoured the rest of the book in one Sunday afternoon and evening. It’s a nice combination of heroic quest, self-discovery, and gentle romance set in the world of the Seelie and Unseelie from the folklore of the British Isles.

Claire improves, acting with more agency, learning to ask the right questions, and overcoming her initial prejudice against the fae king. By a third of the way through, I had also learned to roll with unanswered questions. I did eventually get answers, but some of them were a long time coming. That was OK, as the gist of the story was about Claire making sense of this strange world she’s been thrown into, and understanding the full import of the breathtaking gamble the king has made. If we’re not a bit disoriented, too, how can we appreciate the mental leaps she has to make?

The story was not entirely successful. In particular, Claire’s relationship with her family was unsatisfying. I wish that plot thread had either been given more attention or dropped. Concern over the deprivations she was suffering from being unable to eat or drink anything in the world of the fae kept pulling me out of the story, too. In Chapter 4 she’s about to collapse from dehydration, but then trudges on for hours (days?) more. (Magical sustenance? Yeah, sure.)

Despite those quibbles, it was a satisfying adventure. Perhaps I liked it as much as I did because I kept seeing parallels with my own novel, The Locksmith: Something valuable is hidden so well its existence is forgotten. A magical entity may or may not be sentient. Magic is shaped by imagination and willpower. Powerful wishes take on a life of their own. Men in peril are rescued by women.

And finally, I learned that if I’m ever pulled into the world of the fae, I should bring along a butter knife…

Audience: Teens and up. Some pain and violence (there is, after all, a war on) but no sex or bad language.

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Have His Carcase

What would you do if you came across the body of a man with his throat cut, so recently dead that the still-liquid blood is running in a glistening stream down the side of the rock he is lying on?

This is the situation facing Harriet Vane in the opening chapter of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers. Harriet, Sayer’s alter ego and a fictional writer of crime fiction, is on a solitary walking tour of the southern English coast, having finished one novel and not yet ready to start the next. The corpse and its perch are below the high-tide line, and the tide is coming in. Harriet, being a sensible sort, takes several photographs of the corpse and the footprints leading to the rock—hers and the dead man’s are the only ones visible—retrieves the razor responsible for the deed, and sets off to summon the police. (Sayers was writing in the 1930s. There were no cell phones, even landlines were uncommon along a sparsely populated region of the coast, Harriet was on foot, and the nearest town was eight miles away. The corpse was carried away by the tide before she was able to reach the police. If she hadn’t taken pictures they might not have believed her story.)

Have His Carcase is a classic plot-driven story from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. It is slower moving and more complex, plot-wise, than most mysteries being published now, but many people still enjoy those mysteries for the puzzles they present. Sayers plays by the rules, giving us the clues to match wits with Lord Peter Wimsey and the police as they seek answers to questions: Is Paul Alexis’ death suicide or murder? And if murder, who did it? We discover early on that there is a someone who had good reason to want Alexis dead, and he has been acting suspiciously, but the investigators can’t figure out how he could have had a hand in a murder. In fact, the more they dig, the more they seem to solidify his alibi.

I first read Have His Carcase decades ago, shortly after reading Gaudy Nightwhere Sayers shifts her focus and delves more deeply into character, making Vane and Wimsey much closer to living, breathing people. Compared to that gem, Have His Carcase was a disappointment. I have reread Gaudy Night several times since, but only recently picked up Have His Carcase for the second time. I admit to being pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. Not as good as Gaudy Night, but fine in its own right. I only have two quibbles with it:

  • There is a chapter describing, in eye-glazing detail, how Wimsey and Vane crack a cipher. If you’re keen on ciphers, you can get the gist of it in a few pages. If you’re not, the entire chapter can be skipped without missing anything important.
  • The exchanges between Wimsey and Vane are entertaining, as one might expect. I just wish there were more of them. In fact, after a strong beginning, focusing on Harriet as an active and intelligent participant in the investigation, she rather fades from view. By the end, the focus has shifted to Lord Peter, and he ultimately unravels exactly what did happen with Harriet listening. Sigh.

I mentioned a strong beginning. The opening paragraph has to be one of my all-time favourites:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Audience: Adult or older teens. No sex or bad language. There is a bit of gore (Alexis did get his throat cut) but the act itself takes place offscreen.

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Léon and Louise

Category: Historical fiction

Audience: Adults and older teens. A little mild sex and impersonal violence.

Léon and Louise, by Alex Capus, is a charming love story, but is not a formulaic romance. The book spans decades and two wars, and the two title characters spend far more time apart than they do together. They meet in the final year of World War I, and are both gravely injured in the German final offensive. Léon, believing Louise dead, goes on with his life. The story skips ahead a decade, and he has a wife and children before discovering Louise alive on a passing train in the Paris Metro. From there on, Léon’s wife, Yvonne, is as strong a presence in the book as is Louise, and it becomes a story more about three people discovering the complexities of love and coming to terms with their own and their partners’ idiosyncrasies than it is about youthful passion.

It is also a story about ordinary people struggling to carry on normal lives under extraordinary circumstances. While Louise travels to Africa during World War II as part of the Bank of France contingent safeguarding the French gold reserves from the Nazis, Léon and Yvonne remain in Paris under the thumb of the occupying Germans.

I was left with several indelible images, among them Louise, with no hands on the handlebars, pedalling a rusty, squeaking bicycle and easily passing Léon puffing away on his. Léon searching station after station of the Paris Metro for Louise while the strawberry tarts he had bought for Yvonne slowly disintegrate. Léon stuffing 100-franc notes into strangers’ letterboxes, dispersing the bribes forced on him by his despised German overseer.

Written in German by a Swiss author, based on events in his French grandfather’s life, the book has been beautifully translated into English. The story is told with a light touch, almost breezy in places, with only glancing references to the emotional weight of some of the events. Because we must read between the lines and fill in the gaps from our own experience, different readers may have widely varying perceptions of the emotional depth of the story. For example, when an SS agent coerces Léon into line through deliberate cruelty to his daughter, all we are given of Léon’s reaction is that he pushed his chair back with a jerk. Some readers may think him cold and detached. Others, like me, who have had a visceral reaction to the threats expressed in the previous paragraph and who know what we would do for our own children in such circumstances, approve of his self-control in not giving voice to the hot rage and cold horror he must have been feeling.

Like any story where there is as much going on under the surface as above, Léon and Louise benefits from a slow reading. This is a book to savour, not rush through.

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A Short Rant About ‘Home’

I recently started reading a book where the otherwise fine opening scene was marred, for me, by one little detail: the narrator kept referring to the place she lived as a treehome. This irritated me for a couple of reasons. First, she lived in a village of tree houses. Everyone she knew lived in a tree house. When one option dominates the market, and may be the only option available, you don’t need to qualify it. It’s the oddballs that earn the qualifiers. It’s of interest when a friend or neighbour buys an electric car, but who talks about buying a gasoline-powered (or petrol-powered) car? Or who mentions that their new car has four wheels? You assume it has four wheels unless told otherwise.

In this case, by describing her home as a tree house from the start, the author deprives us of that little thrill of discovery that we might get from figuring out for ourselves from context that the narrator lives in a tree house. Think how much more satisfying that would be.

And there’s another thing: that word, treehome. I don’t like the term townhome either, used to describe the type of structure I call a townhouse. In both cases the writer has fallen victim to the realtors’ spin that tries to make the products they sell (land and physical buildings) more appealing by getting the customers to imagine them as homes. But as the adage goes, a house is not a home. That’s not quite true; it may be a home, but it’s not yours, not until you move in with the expectation of staying awhile.

A house is something tangible, a building that may or may not be someone’s home. A home is intangible; it’s a place where someone lives, which may or may not be a house. A dwelling is only a home in relation to one or more people—my home, your home, our neighbours’ homes—so don’t use it to describe structure, please.

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Cunning Devil

Category: Urban fantasy

Audience: Adults and late teens. Gory violence but no sex.

Ozzy Turner is a man you don’t want to cross. He is a cunning man, aka white witch; a magic user specialising in breaking curses and finding lost items or people. A man dedicated to protecting his community, the town of Lost Falls. What’s the difference between the white magic he uses and black magic? Nothing. The only distinction is in what the magic is used for, and the line between is thin. Ozzy is human enough to sometimes step over that line, especially when given a good, hard shove.

In Chris Underwood’s debut novel, Cunning Devil, Ozzy takes on a charity case, going in search of a stolen family heirloom—an antique silver child’s rattle—after the death of a man’s son. But nothing in this case is what it seems, and instead of thanking him for finding the rattle, the man turns on him. Shot and left for dead, Ozzy makes a devil’s bargain to buy enough life to get revenge. His quest leads him deeper into trouble—literally, in an underground goblins’ lair—as the battle he is caught up in wreaks destruction on Lost Falls.

The story is a fast-paced thriller, focusing on some other preternatural creatures rather than the ubiquitous werewolves and vampires. There’s violence and gore but no sex, and the understated almost-romance has a certain squick factor to it. Other reviewers have compared the book to the Harry Dresden series, but I thought it closer in spirit to the Mercedes Thompson series, which I prefer.

Ozzy is a promising, likeable character, capable of both deadly revenge and acts of great kindness and compassion, including to a creature that had just attacked him and gouged him with its claws. His uneasy alliance with a former enemy makes for amusing reading. The second book in the series, Pay Dirt, has just been released; it will be interesting to see where this series goes.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Categories: Fantasy, historical fiction.

Audience: Anyone who has the patience to read it. No sex or bad language, the barest hint of romance, and minimal violence.

Imagine a world where a human raised by fairies rules three kingdoms: one in Faerie, one in the human realm of northern England, and the third on the far side of Hell. During his three hundred year reign in the human world, the sky, the trees, the rocks—the whole of the natural world—are his willing allies. But when the Raven King is gone, the magic fades, until there are no practical magicians left, only theoretical ones who meet to present scholarly papers full of theories of things outside their understanding, and to lament the loss of English magic.

No history of England in this world would be complete without an account of the two great magicians of the 19th century and the revival of English magic they brought about. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is that account, beginning with Gilbert Norrell taking up the challenge to show that he can do magic and bringing the stones of York cathedral to cacophonous life.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a crossover tour de force, as much a masterpiece of historical fiction or alternative history as it is an engrossing journey into the fantastic. Fairies and magicians mingle with real historical figures—prime ministers, royalty, generals, and lords of the admiralty—and the story is packed with rich details of everyday life, from the social whirl of the landed gentry down to derelicts asleep under hedgerows. It reads like historical writing[1], too, as if the author was channeling the ghosts of 19th century writers.

The reviews I’ve read have differing opinions on what the book is actually about.[2] The most common view focuses on the complicated relationship between Norrell and Strange, involving friendship and rivalry, struggle for dominance, alienation and reconciliation. That’s certainly a very large part of the story, but to my mind an equally important theme, if perhaps less immediately obvious, is the suppression of marginalised groups: women, non-whites, and the poor. The main plot drivers are the damage the two upper class magicians inflict on the less powerful through their arrogance and self-absorption. This is particularly true of Norrell who, early in the book, makes a devil’s bargain with a fairy, selling something—a woman’s life—that was not his to give. Once invited in, the fairy ensnares one person after another, with only the powerless and voiceless women and servants aware of the danger he presents. By the time Strange comprehends this danger, it is almost too late. The end, with its partial resolution, seems particularly fitting. Mouse over for spoiler.

This is an astounding book, especially for a debut novel, but it has flaws. It starts off slowly, then nearly grinds to a complete halt. I almost gave up on it in the first 100 (out of 800[3]) pages. The first 200 pages relate Norrell’s attempts to make himself useful—and, not incidentally, to build his reputation as England’s finest magician—in the war against Napoleon. Norrell is not pleasant company. Whenever he takes centre stage, the story drags. It picks up when the more appealing character, Jonathan Strange, is introduced, but it doesn’t become compelling until nearly 500 pages in, when tragedy strikes the Strange family. But the tension builds, and by 100 pages from the end, the book becomes unputdownable, and makes up for the tedium that has gone before.

A Cast of Characters would have helped, too. For the first half, I dipped in, reading a chapter or two at a time, and never sat down with it for a long stretch of concentrated reading. Perhaps as a consequence, I tended to forget the secondary characters, especially when they disappeared for 100 pages or more at a time. I had to keep flipping back to remind myself who they were.[4]

Despite the flaws, I’m glad I stuck with it. There are beauties there; the blockade of the French fleet is among the best I’ve ever read capturing the wonder and mystery of magic. There is plenty of humour, too, of a subtle variety. Strange’s encounters with the Duke of Wellington are small comic gems. Wellington isn’t intimidated by the magician in the slightest, or interested in magic unless it can help him in the war against Napoleon.

This is a book I can foresee rereading with pleasure, to revel in details I missed the significance of the first time around, and to recapture the feeling of wonder it inspired the first time through.


[1] Not to mention the footnotes, which lend weight to the feeling that this is a work of scholarly research. Ignore them if you want, but many of them are worth the short detour.

[2] Besides friendship and oppression of the powerless, themes I’ve seen mentioned include the nature of “Englishness”, reason versus madness, and the sterility of modern life cut off from the natural world.

[3] Yes, yes, I know. 800 pages is middling for a fantasy story, but I keep wondering, why does fantasy have to be so ridiculously long? I’ll save that rant for another day.

[4] If you read it, keep an eye out for Vinculus, the street magician, in particular. He’s more important than he first appears.

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Engine of Lies preorder offer

Engine of Lies, the second book in my Reforging series, can be preordered now through the publisher: https://ifwgaustralia.com/2018/04/21/preorder-offer-engine-of-lies-by-barbara-howe/

The offer ends 30 June 2018.


He never promised happily ever after, but Lucinda is still dismayed by how quickly reality intrudes on her fairy tale. Assassination attempts and lightning strikes disturb her honeymoon, but the return home brings no peace of mind. When the discovery of a magical conspiracy shakes her faith in everything she trusts, she vows to expose the Fire Warlock’s most shameful secret and see justice done.

As a hot summer draws towards a violent end, Lucinda teeters between terror and rage. She’d be less angry about risking her life if she didn’t suspect her husband—her hero!—intends to step aside and let her die.

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The Traitor and the Thief

Category: Fantasy / steampunk

Audience: Pre-teens and teens primarily, but a fun, light read for adults, too. Minimal violence and no sex or foul language.

In The Traitor and the Thief, Gareth Ward’s debut novel, a fourteen-year-old boy named Sin is plucked off the streets and given an opportunity to earn a place in the Covert Operations Group (COG). COG is a clandestine organisation dedicated to preventing war, even though it puts them at odds with their own government’s plan for word domination. Despite the dangers, Sin jumps at the chance—anything is better than living on the streets—and soon finds himself at a school for spies. But not all is well at the school. He becomes embroiled in a hunt for a traitor against COG, with one revelation after another making all his newfound friends suspect. Sin has to use his street smarts to catch the traitor, and to find out why he, specifically, was targeted for recruitment.

This book, a fast-paced romp through a steampunk alternate universe, won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel. It is a bit of a mashup of other sources, including at least Spy Kids, Dickens, J K Rowling, and maybe Girl Genuis (the description of a battle with a training bot reminded me of this), but it’s well done, and the author has his own playful flair for language. He follows in the tradition of Dickens and Rowling in giving his characters entertaining names: Nimrod Barm, the loony genius. The staff at the school: Eldritch Moons, Noir, Stoneheart, and the aristocrat Lillith Von Darque.

The dialog is also very good, and there’s never doubt about which character is speaking:

“Cat got your tonguearooney?” said Zonda.
“You what? I ain’t seen no cat,” said Sin.
“I mean you’re not your usual epigrammatic self.”
“Still not getting your puff.”

I did have some difficulties with the name ‘Sin’. Not because of the religious connotations—I got past those within a couple of pages—but because my eyes kept playing tricks on me, and reading the name as ‘She’, especially at the beginning of sentences. She hauled himself… Wait, what? Oh, that was Sin hauled himself… Having to back up and reread was weird, and distracting.

Other than that little glitch, and one place where I was jolted out of my willing suspension of disbelief (Mouse over for spoiler.), I enjoyed it, and look forward to the sequel.

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Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body

Category: Hard Science Fiction/ Mystery

Audience: Suitable for teens and up. No sex and minimal implied violence.

In Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body by New Zealand-born author Simon Petrie, hard science fiction intersects with another of my favourite genres, crime fiction. In a mining colony on Titan, Saturn’s moon, a young woman, Tanja Morgenstein, walks out of an air lock and takes off her helmet. Psychologist Guerline Scarfe is simply doing her job, as required by the local law, in investigating the reasons for Tanja’s suicide. She is not, at first, overly surprised by Tanja’s wealthy parents’ resistance—they are, after all, in shock over losing their daughter—but her concern grows as she probes deeper and their hostility turns to threats.

Throw in a dead brother, a traumatised boyfriend, pressure from Gureline’s boss to drop the investigation, and a nail-biting nighttime flight across Titan’s frozen landscape, and you have a classic detective story with a savage, high-tech twist. It’s no surprise to me that the story won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Novella. I look forward to reading more about Guerline Scarfe.

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