But here’s the thing: the book banners have already lost. I know it’s not obvious, and their mean-spirited, authoritarian demands make life hell for large numbers of people while they have political power, but the history of censorship says that censors are always fighting a rear-guard action. (Don’t take my word for it; I’m basing this on something the historian Ada Palmer, an expert on the history of censorship, said at a conference a year ago: Censors have always censored the wrong things, because the cat is out of the bag.) The fact that the information they want to suppress is already out in public is what sends the censors into a tizzy. Who would bother making a fuss over something no one has ever heard of?
Information about systemic racism is widely available and easily accessed by anyone with a connection to the internet, and efforts to deny students access to that information tend to only make teens more determined to find out what their elders don’t want them to know. (That’s just normal teen behaviour, isn’t it?) The same is true for LGBTQ+ material.
The censors will, of course, succeed for a while in making the information they need much less accessible to the children who need it the most, like trans kids whose parents aren’t understanding. But in the long run, the censors always lose.
Tides of Magic and Tides of Change are the first two books in a series of fantasy novellas by New Zealand author Andi R. Christopher. Both are charming, feel good stories; a pleasant antidote when the tidal wave of bad news threatens to become overwhelming.
Tides of Magic
A young woman, Melissa Deacon, is missing, but both the police and her parents dismiss the oddities involved in her disappearance. Her sister Charley worries about those oddities, and seeks help from a private investigator. The PI is an old woman, Thalassa, who may be a psychic, or perhaps even a witch. Charley makes a possibly unwise deal with Thalassa, and they work together to find Melissa.
This story is more successful as a journey of self-discovery than as a mystery. What actually happened to Melissa didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But that’s OK, as the focus is really on Charley learning that she has both sea magic—despite the sea making her ill—and ADHD. Under Thalassa’s watchful eye, she begins to grasp what she’s capable of, and undo the damage done by emotionally abusive parents telling her she’s a failure.
This is a comfort read, a story with gentle magic, small-scale problems, hints of found family, LGBTQ+ representation, and a neurodivergent main character. The crotchety Thalassa is great, and the small town setting on New Zealand’s South Island gives the book a distinct Kiwi flavour.
The only thing I found really annoying was that no one had identified Charley, an adult, as being ADHD earlier. (Including her medical student sister, who should have had some idea.) Which is, ironically, a positive, as it indicates how much I came to care about the character.
Tides of Change
The sequel to Tides of Magic finds Charley beginning to feel more at home in the small town where she is now an apprentice witch, and becoming more comfortable with her magic powers. The plot this time revolves around two missing twelve-year-old runaway girls. This missing person story is more coherent than the one in Tides of Magic, and the selkie involvement was quite interesting. (Selkies are creatures of Northern European myth that can shapeshift between human and seal forms.)
We meet a few more local characters, Thalassa continues to entertain, and there is the beginning of a sweet, sapphic romance between Charley and one of her neighbours. To be continued, I presume.
The news recently included an item from the South Island about the mayor of Invercargill, Nobby Clark, spouting a lot of nonsense. The bit that caught my eye in particular was his complaint about “the bastardisation of the English language,” specifically with respect to mixing te reo Māori and English.
That was screamingly funny.
Well, not the fact that that’s racist as f**k. That’s not funny. Not at all.
But he’s complaining about the bastardisation of English? How do you bastardise something that’s already a bastard? (And not a “love child” either, if you get my drift.)
English has been a Heinz 57 mongrel cur from the time of the Norman Conquest, mixing Old French, Proto-Germanic, Latin, and Old Norse. As the language evolved, it has stolen borrowed freely from every other language English speakers came in contact with. Its willingness to absorb new terms and idioms is one of its most salient characteristics, giving it an immense and highly expressive vocabulary.
As James D. Nicoll put it,
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
Just for fun, I pulled an old dictionary (Britannica World Language, Vol. 1, 1963) off the shelf and turned to a random page (700, in the Ks). On that single page, I found words coming from Russian, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Dravidian, Chinese, Welsh, Yiddish, and Algonquian.
Purity of the English language is just not a thing. (Whether the Māori should be complaining about cultural appropriation is a different question, and one I’m not qualified to address.)
Personally, I prefer the name Aotearoa for this island nation. It just seems so much more appropriate than a name bestowed by a Dutch explorer—not even English!—who had nothing else to add to our history.
I have retired from my day job. Shortly after my last day, we flew to the United States for our grandson’s second birthday. We’re back home now in New Zealand, slowly recovering from jet lag and the effects of weeks of non-stop talk with family and friends. As much as I love them all, I’m too much of an introvert to not find that intense contact exhausting.
At my retirement luncheon back in April, my colleagues at Wētā Digital/Unity gave me this lovely hei matau (pounamu fishhook) pendant. This is waaaaay better than a gold watch! The fishhook catches good luck and prosperity. It also represents safe travel over water—quite appropriate, given the timing of our trip.
Now that I’m retired, I’ll have lots more free time to write, yes? Well, maybe. If I’m lucky. We have some family health issues to deal with that are likely to be serious, ongoing, and draining.
I started this blog six years ago in a state of enthusiasm, posting something nearly every week. I soon discovered I couldn’t keep that pace up and get anything else useful done while I was still working full time. Lately, one post a month is about all I’ve been able to do.
I am still writing, but I will be focusing on my current project: the Monster Duke saga. This will be a fantasy duology, unrelated to the Reforging series, set in a world with sentient castles and early 20th-century technology. There is a fanatical king determined to exterminate the fae, an imprisoned prince equally determined to prevent their genocide, and a subversive, sadistic duke. There are assassination attempts, a jailbreak, and a Beauty-and-the-Beast-style romance. The working titles for the two books are Skin Deep and To the Bone, and I’m 130,000 words into the first draft.
I may post something on this blog occasionally, if I stumble across a book that excites me enough to draw my attention away from my Monster Duke, but for now I’m having much more fun fleshing out that story.
The time and place: early 19th century England, during the Napoleonic Wars. Miss Elinor Rochdale, on her way to take up a post of governess, alights from a stagecoach in the village of Billingshurst. She is expecting to be met—by a servant of course, not by Mrs Maccelsfield, the wealthy mother who is her new employer—so when the driver of the only other conveyance in sight asks if she is the young lady who had come down from London in answer to the advertisement, she answers that she is, and climbs into the coach. The Maccelsfield’s home is only a short distance from Billingshurst. Miles later, with the evening turning to night, she has become apprehensive. Her apprehension deepens when she is delivered to an estate in a shockingly neglected condition, and finds herself having a farcical and confusing conversation with a gentleman who knows nothing about Mrs Maccelsfield. There has been a mixup; the gentleman, Lord Carlyon (Ned), had advertised not for a governess but for a woman to marry his dissipated and disreputable cousin, Eustace Cheviot.
They are beginning to untangle the situation when Lord Carlyon’s younger brother, Nicky, bursts in with the news that Eustace is dying. The cause: he lost the fight that he provoked with Nicky—a fact that surprises no one who knows him. If Eustace is to be married, as Lord Carlyon insists on for reasons relating to an unusual inheritance, it must be immediately. The imperious aristocrat talks the confused and exhausted Elinor, against her better judgement, into marrying Eustace. (Although, to be fair, being an independent widow with a modest income isn’t a bad deal, compared to a life of drudgery as a governess.) The ceremony, performed by a clergyman also under the high-handed Carlyon’s spell, takes place in the middle of the night; by dawn Elinor is a widow.
This wedding, with its dubious rationale, is all setup for the real plot in Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow. Elinor, as inheritor of Eustace’s estate, is beset. At midnight, she discovers a stranger snooping in the locked-up house. Her late husband’s relatives descend on her, and appear to be searching the house for something. Shots are fired. A murder occurs (off-screen). Elinor would rather not have anything to do with the maddeningly competent and unflappable Lord Carlyon, but she comes to rely on his good sense as what at first appeared to be a small matter grows into one with international repercussions.
I first read The Reluctant Widow years ago. It was, in fact, the first book I read by Georgette Heyer. (Heyer is considered the founder of the Regency Romance subgenre. She wrote in the mid-20th century, publishing several dozen historical novels, plus another dozen or so contemporary detective novels.) I picked the book up again recently when I needed something light and soothing to de-stress with. (The U.S. Income tax season always has me reaching for comfort reads. Not because I mind paying the tax I owe; it’s the complexity of the paperwork that drives me nuts.)
The Reluctant Widow is an old-fashioned romantic adventure. There’s no sex, and only one chaste kiss, but I’ll always prefer a slow-building romance based on good humour and compatible personalities over lust-driven insta-love stories. The romance here is actually quite subtle. (Some goodreads reviewers claim it is non-existent; YMMV.) Elinor will try to get a rise out of Ned by making an exaggerated complaint about his behaviour—usually with some valid basis—and then spoil the effect by laughing at his deadpan answer. The dialogue sparkles, and there’s a lot of humour, a good bit supplied by one charmingly volatile teenage boy (Nicky) and his independent-minded dog. Plus there’s a murderer I have difficulty labelling a villain—one of the story’s most interesting characters.
Assuming you can put up with 19th-century patronising male attitudes, the only really annoying bit was Ned’s reaction to Elinor being hit over the head; there’s a big difference between unflappable and unfeeling. And avoid the Arrow edition; it is riddled with typos.
December 1192. Twenty-year-old Justin de Quincy, unacknowledged bastard son of a bishop, is on the road to London in search of gainful employment when he interrupts a violent robbery in progress. The robbers flee, scared off by the approach of the mounted, armed de Quincy. He stops to help the man they attacked rather than pursue the robbers. The dying man, a goldsmith, begs de Quincy to deliver to the queen the letter he is carrying.
The queen is the Dowager Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of England’s Henry II and mother of King Richard the Lionheart. She is a very worried mother, because King Richard has disappeared on his way back to England from the Crusades. There has been no news of him for three months, and his brother John, Count of Mortain and later King John, is spreading rumours that Richard is dead. The political situation in England is precarious, and ripe for a coup.
The letter that de Quincy delivers, with the help of a pretty widow among the queen’s attendants, brings important news: King Richard is alive, but held captive by his enemy the Holy Roman Emperor, who may or may not be willing to ransom him.
The queen, pleased with what she sees in de Quincy, gives him an assignment to find out who killed the goldsmith, and why. Was the attack simple robbery? Or was it part of a plot to sabotage the king’s safe return to England?
This is the beginning of The Queen’s Man by Sharon Kay Penman. De Quincy makes enemies and friends as he settles into life in London, nosing into both palace intrigues and the criminal underworld. His quest for justice puts him in danger and draws him further into the queen’s confidence. Too principled and honest to be a good spy, he serves her well as a private investigator.
The Queen’s Man is the first of four historical mysteries featuring Justin de Quincy. They are lighter weight than the author’s better known but longer historical novels about English monarchs and Welsh princes. (Those have been sitting on my bookshelves for years, waiting for some future day when I could manage the sustained attention span.) Penman started writing the Justin de Quincy mysteries to give herself a break from the larger historical novels, but apparently her publisher discouraged her from writing any more of them. (Dang.) They aren’t heavy on historical detail, but her understanding of the politics and personalities of the major players is evident. (Justin de Quincy and the letter he delivers are fictional; King Richard’s captivity and John’s scheming are real.)
The plotting of the mysteries is adequate but not outstanding, and de Quincy doesn’t develop much of a personality in the first book. That improves as the series progresses. The second book, Cruel as the Grave, has a bit of a cozy mystery feel, with most of the action taking place in London, where de Quincy solves a murder involving his new friends and neighbours.
The action goes further afield, though, in the third and fourth books, with the queen sending him to northwest England and Wales in Dragon’s Lair (my favourite of the four books in the series) to investigate the theft of a portion of the ransom she is collecting to free King Richard. In the fourth book, Prince of Darkness, she sends him to France, where he has to collaborate with his personal nemesis—a spy for the queen named Durand—to clear Prince John of a charge of attempted murder.
The tantalising glimpses into the characters of real historical figures are what intrigued me the most about this series. Her Prince John is a ruthless, conniving scoundrel with a chip on his shoulder and a sense of humour that almost—almost!—redeems him. Makes him seem like a real person, anyway. Llewelyn the Great, the outlaw Welsh prince in Dragon’s Lair, also comes to life, as an intelligent, principled man with a better grasp of the nature of leadership and the responsibilities of government than the uncle he is in conflict with.
Some day I will read Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy. The first book, Here Be Dragons, about the marriage of Llewelyn and Joanna, Prince John’s illegitimate daughter, is only 800 pages. Retirement beckons…
The Queen’s Man is only 300 pages, and the other three mysteries are similar lengths. The non-mysteries are much longer. The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, is 900 pages. When Christ and His Saints Slept, about the Anarchy—the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude, and the time period for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries—is also 900 pages. I started reading When Christ and His Saints Slept in January and still have about a hundred pages to go. It’s rewarding, but definitely not unputdownable.
I was as captivated by When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, the second novella in the Singing Hills Cycle by American writer Nghi Vo, as I was by the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Like that one, this book is a story within a story; in this case the framing device has a certain Scheherazade-like quality, with the cleric Chih spinning an entertaining tale to avoid being eaten.
The story opens with Chih travelling over a snowy mountain pass on the back of a mammoth, hoping to reach the shelter of a way station before dark. As they approach the way station, tigers attack out of the deepening dusk. Chih’s party reaches the shelter of a barn, and achieves a standoff: three hungry, ferocious, talking tigers on one side, and on the other, an unarmed cleric, the wounded and unconscious station keeper, the mammoth’s handler, and the mammoth. Wisely, Chih de-escalates, accepting the tigers’ claim of sovereignty over the mountains, and asking for their histories to record and take back to the abbey at Singing Hills.
The name of an illustrious tiger ancestress is mentioned; the tigers’ ears perk up. After some negotiation, the tigers settle down to hear the human’s version of the story of the shape-shifting tiger Ho Thi That and the human scholar Dieu. But, of course, the story-telling doesn’t go quite as Chih intended:
“Well,” said Sinh Loan, her voice as taut as a zither string. “Is that what they say happened?”
“It is,” said Chih. …
“How awful!” said Sinh Cam, shaking her head. “How could they, that’s the best part and they ruined it, that’s not how it went at all.”
Sinh Cam came to her feet, forcing Sinh Loan to sit up in irritation, and she packed back and forth, occasionally biting the cold air as if she wanted to get a bad taste out of her mouth.
[For context, the Sinhs are the tigers.]
The narrative shifts back and forth, Chih telling one side, the tigers telling the other, of a legend full of cultural misunderstandings, confusion, betrayal, and courtship. The mammoth handler declares that she likes the tigers’ version better, and I can see why, but both versions have their good points. The larger story, of course, is about how stories are shaped by cultural practices, and that different observers of the same events can have wildly different interpretations of them.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, while equally rich and atmospheric, is a more straight-forward story than The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and with considerably lower stakes. (Although with higher stakes for Chih! But the stakes are the lives of a few individuals rather than the obliteration of an entire culture.) It is a fine successor to the first book. There will be at least two, possibly more, other books in the Singing Hills Cycle: Into the Riverlands, already published, and Mammoths at the Gate, to be published sometime this year. I am looking forward to reading more of them.
On his way to the British town of New Braybourne, where he is supposed to be studying art, twenty-year-old William (Willie) Banks hitchhikes to save money, instead of taking the train. (This story is set in the 1970s, when hitchhiking was still common, although already in decline.) Willie’s journey with Alf, the driver who picks him up, seems pleasant enough, but when they arrive in New Braybourne, it’s late. Too late to expect that Willie’s new landlady, only spoken to over the phone, would still be up and willing to let him in. Alf makes an offer: if Willie will save Alf some time by delivering a package to Alf’s sister’s flat, a few blocks from the middle of town, Willie can spend the night there. Alf’s sister and brother-in-law are away; all Willie has to do is lock up in the morning and drop the spare key in the letter box. Willie agrees. Alf drops him off in the middle of town with his suitcase and the package, and hurries on his way home.
Willie looks for the flat but misses a landmark, and asks the first pedestrian he sees—Calli, a young woman on her way home from a dance club—for directions. Interest sparks between the two. He tells her what he’s doing, and she smells something fishy—who trusts a total stranger enough to let them spend the night alone in their, or their sister’s, flat? She convinces him it’s not a good idea to spend the night there, although she’s not certain why. Together, they deliver the package and continue on to her flat, where he spends the night on her sofa. (Who trusts a total stranger…? Hmm. Anyway, the romance in this story is squeaky clean.)
In the morning, the news reports a fire in the flat they delivered the package to, and that a body, charred beyond recognition, was found after the fire was extinguished. The police think that the dead man is Alf’s brother-in-law, Stan Bastable. Stan was a fugitive, wanted for his part in a successful bank burglary a few years earlier. The money was never recovered, and with rumours flying in the criminal underworld that Stan was back in town, the other men involved in the theft and several members of a London-based organised-crime family have converged on New Braybourne. They, plus his abandoned wife, all want a share in the stolen fortune.
Willie and Callie, of course, go to the police, after realising that the package they delivered was probably the incendiary device. The fire was carefully planned to make the police think that Stan was dead, and Willie was supposed to have been the dead body. But then, who really was the victim of the fire? And is Willie in danger, if Alf discovers that he is still alive?
Ellis Peters is better known for her series of Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries, but Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers is a standalone novel in a more modern setting, contemporary with the 1970s, when it was published. The story is nicely plotted, but once the question of the identity of the dead body is answered, it isn’t much of a mystery. We’re shown who commits murder, and why, as the story progresses. The unanswered questions become: Where is the stolen money hidden? Who will find it first, Stan or Willie? And if Willie finds it before the thieves do, will he survive?
Despite gunshots and stabbings (thankfully not gory), this isn’t much of a thriller, either. In fact, it feels more like a farce, with swapped handbags, mistaken identities, a confused landlady, and our two innocents, Willie and Calli, stumbling onto important clues. There is a nighttime procession of criminals and police through the town’s streets and back alleys, and a wonderfully comic encounter in a restaurant between most of the players, not all of them aware of who the others are.
It is, in short, a quick, easy, lightweight story, though somewhat old-fashioned, with several memorable characters and a sweet romance. What more can one ask for in entertainment?
Ten years ago, Nina Parvati Rai vanished without a trace, taking with her a quarter of a million dollars in cash. Her disappearance was assumed to be an act of defiance: a bored socialite’s revenge on her wealthy, controlling husband. The furious husband, industrialist Ishaan Rai, initiates divorce proceedings, and remarries shortly afterwards.
But now, Nina’s Jaguar, with her remains in the passenger’s seat, has been discovered not far from home, where it had lain hidden in the New Zealand bush for the past ten years. The police begin a murder investigation, but her son doesn’t trust them to find the right answers, and begins his own investigation.
This is the start of Quiet in Her Bones by New Zealand author Nalini Singh, one of the most enjoyable mysteries/psychological dramas I have had the pleasure of reading in some time. There’s a lot I like here, from the plot that was satisfyingly complex without being impossible to follow, to the atmospheric evocation of the dense New Zealand bush and the multi-ethnic flavour with a Hindu family at the story’s centre.
The Rais are residents of a gated community known only as the Cul-de-Sac (as if it’s the only one, or the exemplar) nestled against the New Zealand bush in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, forty minutes from downtown Auckland. Everyone in the Cul-de-Sac is wealthy. Nearly all have festering secrets—adultery, gambling debts, toxic relationships of all kinds—hidden under a well-maintained facade.
Aarav Rai, Nina and Ishaan’s 26-year-old son, is only recently out of the hospital after a car crash left him with a pulverised foot and a piece of metal embedded in his brain. His intelligence and identity don’t seem to be affected by the brain damage, but his memories clearly are. All he can remember of that violent night so long ago is a scream, the front door slamming twice, and watching the taillights of his mother’s car receding into the rain. He has no idea why his father blames him for the disappearance of the expensive rug that used to lie in front of the fireplace, or why he has nightmares of a motorcycle skidding out of control.
He loved his mother. He would never have done anything to hurt her. Would he?
Aarav is the story’s unreliable narrator. He knows he is unreliable, and we feel his alarm as the evidence of his unreliability mounts. (View spoiler.) If he is to find out who killed his mother, he has to do it soon, before his abused brain and leg give out. Before the police arrest him for the murder. Before the real killer—if someone other than Aarav himself—decides he’s too much of a threat.
Aarav is an interesting character, a mama’s boy with an adversarial relationship to his father. He calls himself a sociopath wearing masks to hide his true self, and while some of his actions would justify calling him an arrogant, privileged asshole, he does other things that earn him our (or at least, my) sympathy. His relationships with his stepmother, Shanti, and his sister, Pari, in particular, involve a good deal more kindness than would be expected from someone out just to butter a person up before taking advantage of them.
For an intelligent character, though, he does do a few stupid things, which is usually a red flag for me. (Can’t the author find a better way out of the plot hole they dug?) I was willing to overlook that here, given the already established fact that he’s not fully in control of own actions. It is his search for answers, and his struggles with his own limitations, that make the book interesting.
The story wasn’t flawless. The ending left a few questions unanswered. (View spoiler.) And for a book advertised as a thriller, it got off to a quite leisurely start. The pace picked up eventually, but never quite reached thriller territory. If that’s what you’re expecting, you might be a bit disappointed. And finally, there’s the shear number of characters. I counted forty-two named characters, plus three dogs, and I’m not sure I didn’t miss a few (people, not dogs). By a quarter of the way in, I simply couldn’t remember who was who in the Cul-de-Sac, and whether or not they were a suspect, so I went back to the beginning and started making notes. Here’s the cast of characters for the benefit of anyone else in danger of getting lost in the details:
Inhabitants of the Cul-de-Sac:
The Rais: Nina (mother, murder victim), Ishaan (father), Aarav (son, narrator), Shanti (Ishaan’s second wife), and 7-year-old Pari (Shanti’s daughter, Aarav’s half-sister).
The Lius: Calvin (father, surgeon), Diana (mother, Nina’s best friend), Mia and Beau (teenage children), and Charlie (elderly bulldog).
The Henares: Hemi (father, school principle), Tia (mother, with inherited wealth), Ariki (son in the army), Mihirangi (daughter, lawyer), and Rima (daughter in med school).
The Dixons: Paul (retired rock musician) and Margaret (financial whiz).
The Fitzpatricks: Brett and Veda, the neighbours who annoy everyone else, plus their German Shepherd.
The Savea-Duncans: Cora (aeronautical computer specialist), Alice (nurse), Elei (Alice’s Samoan mother), Manaia (Alice’s 13-year-old daughter), and Princess (poodle).
The Brennans: Isaac (owns an ad agency), Mellie (Isaac’s 4th wife), and Phil (Isaac’s elderly father).
Leonid and Anastasia (newcomers, Russian Mafia?), with twin toddlers.
Police: Detective Senior Sergeant Oliver Regan and Constable Sefina Neri.
I love mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction, so what could be better than a good murder mystery in a fantasy or science fiction setting? There are a number of those in my TBR pile, so it’s not surprising they figure heavily in this selection of recent speculative fiction books I’m looking forward to reading in 2023:
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: A human scholar and a transport spaceship avatar join forces to solve a murder in a Vietnamese-flavoured interstellar society.
A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys: Aliens arrive to save humanity—whether we want to be saved or not.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd: A contemporary fantasy thriller about the power of maps.
The Peacekeeper by B. L. Blanchard: A murder mystery with a Native American detective in an alternate history timeline where North America was never colonised.
The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield: Imagine Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and her sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, casting spells, and attempting to deal with the unintended consequences.
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. This is not the start of a joke. It is the start of an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. By the same author as The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.
The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter by Amberley Martin: A fairy-tale mashup of Macbeth with Beauty and the Beast, and the sequel to The Rogue and the Peasant.