The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Beautiful storytelling makes this novel, set mostly in Cornwall and Peru in 1859, compelling reading. Adventure, magical secrets, betrayal, and a different sense of time are all part of the adventure. Readers of Pulley’s first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, may suspect that the large moving statues guarding the salt line of the forest in Peru are clockwork, especially as there are windup lanterns filled with glowing pollen. But Pulley’s imagination takes the story in a very different direction, in a village set on stacks of volcanic glass. Botanist Merrick Tremayne, whose father and grandfather spent time in Peru, is recruited for an expedition to Peru to smuggle cuttings of cinchona trees, the source of quinine, badly needed in India for a malaria epidemic. The risk is high, and Merrick’s leg was badly injured while working for the East India Company. Watchmaker Keita Mori of the first book makes a cameo appearance, but Merrick’s intriguing guide/priest Raphael takes center stage here, bridging the border of the Spanish and Quechua speaking worlds, and with a poignant connection to Merrick’s grandfather. Creative and unpredictable, I look forward to more from this enchanting author. For readers of historical fiction and fantasy.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Tristan Lyons recruits Boston linguist Melisande Stokes for a top secret government project, translating modern and ancient documents. Their research shows that magic did exist, but abruptly stopped in 1851. Mel gets absorbed into D.O.D.O. (so secretive that it’s months before she learns she works for the Department of Diachronic Operations) as the pair work with physicist Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca to build an ODEC. At first, the office memos and messages are just something to get through between Melisande’s diary and action scenes. As the pace picks up, the messages get funnier and wilder as the improbable becomes mundane, even as the acronyms pile up. The ODEC is a time travel machine that can only be operated by a witch, and the person sent through time by the witch arrives empty handed and naked. Melisande tries repeatedly to acquire a rare book to help fund their work, Tristan learns to fence, an Irish witch plots to stop the end of magic, Vikings plunder Wal-Mart, and Melisande gets stuck in Victorian London, close to the ending of magic. A complicated, mostly entertaining, and lengthy tale that blends technology, history, and fantasy, along with a good dose of humor.
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
A fantasy novel set in an alternate version of the American West, this sequel to Silver on the Road lives up to the promise of the first book. Teen Isobel and her mentor Gabriel, along with two horses and a mule, are traveling through the Territory, as Isobel learns the land, the people, and her new role as Left Hand for the Master of the Territory. Alone temporarily, Isobel comes upon a field of slaughtered bison, and promises to remember them. Small animals and birds are strangely absent, and it’s as if the land is poisoned. Gabriel can sense water, but neither can sense the main road for a while, and then the earthquakes begin. Something is very wrong, and it’s Isobel’s charge to investigate. They find a Marshall who’s arrested two scouts from east of the Mississippi, probably sent by President Jefferson. They are accused of encouraging a group of magicians to work together to trap a spirit. Isobel and Gabriel, with the remaining magicians, join the Marshall in a journey to a small, warded town for a trial. Although Isobel seems more mature than most 16-year-olds, it’s fascinating seeing the Territory through her eyes. The writing is compelling, the characters fully realized, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next, while dreading what they might encounter. Clearly, Isobel and Gabriel are living in an unsettled and unpredictable time, and there are likely several more adventures ahead for them. Here’s my review of Silver on the Road, which I suggest reading first.
I enjoyed these three fantasy novellas, set in the World of the Five Gods. The first book in the loosely connected series is The Curse of Chalion, but the Penric novellas are a good place to start.
Lord Penric is the younger son of a minor noble, and is on the way to his betrothal to a cheesemaker’s daughter when he stops to help an elderly lady who’s fallen ill. She is a temple divine and when she dies, her demon unexpectedly transfers to Penric. Penric names the demon Desdemona, and her previous hosts, all female, tell him amazing stories. No one expects the demon to be allowed to stay with young, untrained Penric, except the reader. Penric has always wanted to go to university, and is happy to get the education he needs for his new station in life, and gradually learns to cope with the demon.
Penric and the Shaman
Several years later, Penric’s education is complete, and he is sent on a mission to help locate Inglis, a runaway shaman accused of murder. There are magical dogs, an avalanche, and adventures in the mountains and a small town. This is the shortest of the novellas. Penric is learning to use Desdemona’s powers when necessary, but there are consequences, so he must get creative.
In Penric’s Mission, Penric is an agent for the Duke of Adria. He is travelling by sea to Cedonia, home of an earlier host of Desdemona, to meet with a young general. Instead, Penric is imprisoned, and General Arisaydia is arrested and badly injured. Using Desdemona’s skills, Penric escapes, and finds that the general has been released to the care of his widowed sister, Nikys. Penric uses his healing skills, and the trio have a cross country adventure escaping their enemies, and Penric gets to battle another wizard. This story was great fun, and I liked the possibility of a future romance with Nikys. So far, Penric’s Mission is only available as an ebook.
Updraft by Fran Wilde
Kirit Densira lives in a remarkable world, high above the clouds, in towers made of living, growing bone. She is ready for her wing test, and hopes to be her mother’s apprentice. Ezarit is a trader who soars between towers. Kirit’s curiosity puts her in danger, and causes heavy penalties for her and her wing brother Nat. Kirit’s harsh singing voice may be surprisingly useful, and the Singers of the Spire want her to join them, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Full of adventure and intrigue, soaring heights and monsters in a suspenseful and compelling fantasy. I really enjoyed Kirit’s story, and look forward to reading about Nat in Cloudbound. I think fans of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, which begins with Dragonsong, would enjoy Updraft, which won the Andre Norton award.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice are a devoted couple who decide to leave their cave dwelling to go on a journey to visit their son in another village. Why leave now? Beatrice is clearly upset at losing the privilege of a candle in their room at night, and would like advice for a pain in her side. We gradually learn that there is a mist of forgetfulness throughout the land. What secrets are Axl and Beatrice forgetting, and is there a valid reason for the mist? Axl begins to worry that Beatrice will stop loving him if she remembers their past, and they both wonder if their long-lost son will welcome their visit. Traveling slowly, they encounter wonders, terrors, and adventures, but the pacing never increases in this dreamlike fable for grown-ups, set in the fifth or sixth century, decades after the death of Arthur, a leader of the Britons. There is an uneasy peace between the Celtic Britons and the Saxon invaders. In a Saxon village, Axl and Beatrice hear of a boy stolen by ogres. Edwin is rescued by Wistan, and the four journey together for a while. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, is determined to find and slay the dragon Querig, but elderly knight Gawain claims that quest for himself. A leisurely read, this is a beautiful portrait of an elderly couple and their quest to remember their past, no matter what happens.
Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman
Isobel is turning 16 and has to decide if she wants to work for the boss or leave the Territory, a reimagined American West full of magic. She has grown up in a saloon, where the Devil lets you gamble at the tables, but is willing to make a bargain if desired. And the Devil always keeps his word and honors his bargains. Isobel decides to stay, but instead is sent out on the road on horseback with mentor Gabriel to learn the Territory and to become the Devil’s Left Hand, a job that doesn’t come with a manual. Isobel and Gabriel encounter talking animals, a traveling magician, shamans, terrifying supernatural winds, and small towns completely empty of people. Young as she is, Isobel needs to take responsibility and find out what is going on in the Territory. A sequel, The Cold Eye, is being published in January, and I’m intrigued to find out what Isobel will encounter next.