The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins #1)

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Author: Phil Rickman

Synopsis: The Rev. Merrily Watkins had never wanted a picture-postcard parish- or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she particularly wanted to walk straight into a local dispute over a controversial play about a strange seventeenth-century clergyman accused of witchcraft… a story that certain old-established families would rather remained obscure.

But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also- as Merrily and her teenage daughter Jane discover- a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.

My Thoughts: An idyllic English village, a haunted orchard and a local legend about a devil-worshipping vicar…  you don’t even need to read the first chapter to know that this book is positively ideal for a Halloween read. The story is centred on Merrily as she moves into the village parish of Ledwardine and tries to fit in with the locals, who are very set in tradition and aren’t too keen on strangers to the town. Meanwhile her teenage daughter Jane is enchanted by the superstitions surrounding the village and stumbles upon long-buried, supernatural secrets.

I’m not sure if this book can truly be classed as fantasy, but there is certainly an element of the supernatural about it. It’s a dark and subtle ghost story, without going into keep-you-up-at-night territory. The author is also really good at cliff-hangers, and there’s a perfect balance of revealing just enough to keep the tension going. I love the motif of apples and cider that runs throughout- though I’m not sure it’s possible to make a fruit truly menacing.

As a mystery story set in a small village, there are a lot of characters to be introduced. This is slightly confusing to begin with, but the author gives small clues to remind us of who each person is (though I could have done with a few more to jog my memory later on).  Merrily is a refreshing change to the usual action-hero types you see a lot of in fantasy; she doesn’t go looking for trouble and isn’t particularly brave, and yet she still holds her own despite the difficulties she faces. Her daughter Jane initially feels like a stereotypical teenager, but she grew on me as I read. The village characters all have secrets and motives of their own, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the quiet and awkward Lol Robinson.

There are so many threads of plot woven through the story, and in the last few chapters the author ties them all up brilliantly in a way that I didn’t see coming. The last few pages seem to end a little abruptly, but this made it more memorable. I’m interested to see where the series will lead after this- apparently there are twelve books in total, and since everything appears to have been tied off neatly I’m not sure how the story will pick up again, but I’ll certainly give them a try in the future. If you like mysteries or want something creepy to read for October, I would really recommend this series.

In Short: Creepy supernatural mystery complete with a not-so-idyllic English village and a haunted orchard. The author reveals just enough of the supernatural to keep tension high, and the ultimate tying-up in the last few chapters is absolutely riveting. A great Halloween read. 8/10

The weather’s growing colder and the sky is getting darker… October has arrived, and with Halloween only a few weeks away I thought I’d put together a few recommendations for those who fancy a bit of dark magic to see them through the month. These reads are full of zombies and vampires and things that go bump in the night, perfect for reading by the light of a bubbling cauldron- or an electric light, whichever you prefer. Just don’t forget to take some garlic with you…

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill:  Retired rock star Judas Coyne buys a ghost on the internet, which turns out to be the real deal and is set on tearing his life apart.  It’s a dark and creepy story, with a ghost that means business. It’s more psychological than gory, but by the end you can really feel the characters’ desperation to stay alive. Gripping and suspenseful, but not so scary that it’ll keep you up at night.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher: A professional wizard living in Chicago solves mysteries of the supernatural kind. The Dresden Files books are packed full of monsters and spooks, making them an ideal casual read for Halloween. It’s your traditional, gritty urban fantasy “detective” genre but with plenty of humour and the magical beings are each given unique little twists that make everything feel fresh. If you’re familiar with the series, I’d recommend Fool Moon for the brutal packs of werewolves (there’s certainly a lot of blood in this one!) but it’s a series worth trying if you haven’t seen it before.In any case, how could you not love a character who lives in a basement apartment with a giant cat and a talking skull?

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: Post-apocalypse, a zombie falls in love with a human and rediscovers the importance of living. As love stories go, this isn’t your seduction-oozing Twilight but a touching and at times funny tale set in a dystopian world where pockets of humans are still surviving. It’s a story of survival and of humanity, and it totally blew me away the first time I read it. For anyone wanting something a little different from your usual zombie apocalypse, give this one a go.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: A scientist discovers the secret of creating life and constructs a body out of parts and brings it to life- and gets more than he bargained for. If you’re into the classics, this one is not to be missed. Although the story has been popularised as a Godzilla-type horror story, it’s actually a meaningful exploration of what it means to be human. When I read this book all my preconceptions were completely shattered and I fell in love with it. I especially loved the monster’s insights and the ending was just staggering. A gothic horror that has aged well and will stay with you long after finishing it.

Grave Peril (Dresden Files #3)

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Author: Jim Butcher

Synopsis: Harry Dresden’s faced some pretty terrifying foes during his career. Giant scorpions. Oversexed vampires. Psychotic werewolves. It comes with the territory when you’re the only professional wizard in the Chicago area phone book.

But in all Harry’s years of supernatural sleuthing, he’s never faced anything like this: the spirit world’s gone loco. All over Chicago, ghosts are causing trouble- and not just of the door-slamming, boo-shouting variety. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone- or something- is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? And why do so many of the victims have ties to Harry? If Harry doesn’t figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself…

My Thoughts: October has arrived, and what better way to celebrate the build-up to Halloween than to read some gritty urban fantasy? This month I’ll be posting reviews on spooky-themed books, and the Dresden Files series is a perfect place to start. It has been a year since the events of Fool Moon, and Harry’s been busy ghost-busting. With so many spirits coming back to haunt the living, it seems that something is stirring them into action. Something that is very interested in finding Harry…

I really love the format of the Dresden books, and Grave Peril is a great return to form. Now that we are familiar with Harry’s world there is no need for info-dumping and we can delve right into the story. In chapter one we’re placed straight into the action, and the author does a great job of getting us back up to speed once Harry takes a breather. We are introduced to more new things than before, which results in a few characters being sidelined. Murphy has less of a part to play here but her character is more agreeable than usual, and I hope this is something that will continue in future instalments. Bob the skull was reduced to the sidelines in book two, so it’s nice to see him have more to do- even if he is only capable of delivering information and witty remarks (but then, that’s his job).

Michael, a Knight of the Cross, is a new addition to the cast of regular characters and effectively takes the place of Murphy on many of Harry’s escapades. His honest bravery provides an interesting- and at times amusing- contrast with Harry’s cynicism, though his Christianity is effectively waved in the reader’s face. I didn’t find him a particularly compelling character, but for a single novel he’s a decent sidekick. I just hope that he won’t feature so prominently in the future.

In fantasy novels the rules of magic are often kept simple for ease of understanding, so it’s refreshing to read a series where they are more complicated- and handled well. And there’s still much more to learn. Here we learn more about magic in general and also about the Nevernever (the “shadow-dimension” beneath our world where magical beings live). There is also plenty of Harry’s past we still don’t know about, and we’re given a few more snippets thanks to the reappearance of his (evil) fairy godmother. The humour is as good as ever, and it really balances out the grittiness of the genre. Whilst so far each book has been a contained story, here Harry’s actions are shown to have far-reaching consequences in the magical world, which no doubt will be further explored in future books. For fans of the series, things are starting to get serious.

In Short: More mysteries for Harry Dresden, with a few changes to the usual format. The stakes are raised ever higher, and this time his actions have consequences. The beginning of something bigger. 8/10

The Magician’s Apprentice (The Black Magician Trilogy: Prequel)

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Author: Trudi Canavan

Synopsis: In the remote village of Mandryn, Tessia serves as assistant to her father, the village Healer. Despite knowing that women aren’t readily accepted by the Guild of Healers, Tessia is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps. But her life is about to take an unexpected turn.

When treating a patient at the residence of the local magician, Lord Dakon, Tessia fights off the advances of a visiting Sachakan mage- and instinctively uses magic. She now finds herself facing an entirely different future as Lord Dakon’s apprentice.

It is a position of great privilege, but Tessia is about to discover that her magical gifts also bring with them a heavy responsibility. For events are brewing that will lead nations into war and rival magicians into conflict- and spark an act of sorcery so brutal that its effects will be felt for centuries…

My Thoughts: After finishing all six books of the main Kyralia series, I was looking forward to revisiting Trudi Canavan’s world in this prequel novel. Spanning 700 pages, it may be a little daunting to those who aren’t (yet!) fans of the series, but I was happy to have plenty to read. In the same tradition as the rest of the series, the book moves between various viewpoints with a focus on the main character, in this case Tessia. Without any of the familiar characters of the main series Kyralia feels new and strange, but Tessia soon proves herself to be a strong and likeable protagonist in her own right. The other characters lack empathy at times- I didn’t take to Jayen or Dakon in the same way I did to Dannyl and Rothen in The Black Magician Trilogy- but in only one novel there is less room for gradual character development, and the main part of the book is effectively Tessia’s story of discovering her magic and adapting to the new demands of being a magician.

For those who have read the first two trilogies, there are many elements that will seem familiar: a novice from a humble background who discovers her powers by accident, a fellow novice who is initially disliked but later befriended,a kind older magician and a possible war with Sachaka. After reading similar plots in both The Black Magician Trilogy and the Traitor Spy Trilogy, the story feels predictable and overused at times, though it is different enough to still be interesting. The story is set several centuries before the main series, prior to the discovery of healing magic and the formation of the Magicians’ Guild, and there are references to historical events which will hold particular significance for long-term readers. Trudi Canavan does a good job of balancing between little nods that only the fans will pick up and introducing Kyralia to new readers. Due to the book’s size and it being split into five “parts”, the book reads like a condensed trilogy. Whilst it can certainly be read as a standalone, I’d say that it is best enjoyed after reading at least as far as The Black Magician Trilogy- otherwise some of the info-dumping may be a little overwhelming.

Although her back story is in some ways similar to Sonea’s, Tessia is a different character with her own ideas, and I liked her strong will and interest in healing which borders on obsession. Other characters are less interesting, but Stara provides an interesting viewpoint separate from the others as she struggles to settle into Sachakan society. Towards the end I felt that there wasn’t enough focus on Tessia’s character and events are resolved a little too hastily, but overall I was satisfied and there were some moments that I found particularly touching. It probably isn’t the strongest book in the series, but as a revisit to the world of Kyralia and a glance into some of the significant historical events mentioned in the main series, it certainly proves to be an engaging read.

In Short: An intriguing glimpse into the history of Kyralia. Fans of the series may find it a little formulaic, but it’s a decent place to start the series if you don’t mind its length. 8/10

The Traitor Queen (Traitor Spy Trilogy #3)

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Author: Trudi Canavan

Synopsis: Events are building to a climax in Sachaka as Lorkin returns from his exile with the Traitor rebels. The Traitor Queen has given Lorkin the task of brokering an alliance between his people and the Traitors, and Lorkin has had to become a feared black magician in order to harness the power of an entirely new kind of gemstone magic. This knowledge could transform the Guild of Magicians- or make Lorkin an outcast forever.

My Thoughts: After positively devouring this series almost as soon as I’d laid hands on it, I held off from reading this one for a few weeks after I finished The Rogue because I just didn’t want this series to finish (reviews are posted out of order, and are usually written a week or two in advance). Now that I’ve started university reviews might be less regular, but I’ll do my best to post every week. After returning from the Traitor Sanctuary Lorkin is imprisoned by the Sachakan King because of the valuable information he now holds, and the uneasy peace over the land becomes threatened. With so many Kyralian magicians in Sachaka, it seems inevitable that someone will be caught in the crossfire…

After taking more of a backseat role in The Rogue, Sonea returns to the forefront of the story and leaves the city for the first time since The Black Magician Trilogy. There are many parallels that can be drawn with The High Lord, and she reflects on the time spent in the Sachakan wasteland with Akkarin. Regin also plays a more significant role, and we get to see more of his changed personality since his novice-day antics. As a reader who loved to hate him back in The Novice, I was surprised to find myself taking more of a liking to him as he and Sonea build a shaky friendship on their journey.

Whilst the focus is very much on Sachaka, there is plenty going on back in Kyralia. Cery, Anyi and Gol are still in hiding from the rogue Skellin, who is hunting them. Since a lot of their time is spent in various hiding places planning what to do, I’m not sure why there is more of a focus on them. Lilia proves she can defend herself against the bullies, and it’s interesting to see how she’s adapting to the status of Black Magician. We never saw the way it affected Sonea in the aftermath of the High Lord, and it is here that she proves she is a different character in that she isn’t afraid to fend for herself. I would have liked to have read more about Lilia; she is effectively sidelined towards the end of the novel in order to maintain focus on Sachakan events.

As with all of Trudi Canavan’s books, The Traitor Queen is a fluid, easy read. There’s something so addictive about her writing; I read long into the night to finish The Traitor Queen. This trilogy mirrors the first one in many ways, but not so much that it feels like reading a copy. A war in Sachaka isn’t quite as exciting as a war in Kyralia, but with so many characters based there the danger is still apparent. Dannyl is there to see much of the action, and his relationship with Achaki Achati adds an interesting layer to the political difficulties. After coming so far with all of these characters I feel really close to them, and even after six books they are still far from indispensable. The ending is satisfying, though I would have liked a few more chapters for a more thorough closure, particularly since this is most likely to be the last book in the series. However, whether you have been reading since book one or book four, The Traitor Queen is a suitable ending to such a wonderful series.

In Short: Sonea returns to lead the finale as Sachaka goes to war. There are many similarities to The High Lord, but not so much that it distracts from the plot. A fitting end to a brilliant series. 8/10

The Rogue (Traitor Spy Trilogy #2)

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Author: Trudi Canavan

Synopsis: Living among the Sachakan rebels, Lorkin does his best to learn about their unique magic. But the Traitors are reluctant to trade their secrets for the Healing they so desperately want.

Meanwhile, Sonea searches for the rogue, knowing that Cery cannot avoid assassination for ever- but the rogue’s influence over the city’s underworld is far greater than she feared.

And in the University, two female novices are about to remind the Guild that sometimes their worst enemy is found within…

My Thoughts: Now that events have been established in the first book, it’s here that the trilogy picks up speed, and it certainly gets going quickly. So far, alterations to the existing cast of viewpoint characters have been minor, so it was interesting to see Lilia added to the mix. Here we have a character who has no direct contact with the other viewpoint characters- at least at first- and also poses a possible threat to the Guild. Anyi is given a more prominent role to play here, and her playful banter with her father Cery is fun to read. It’s interesting to see the children of the original characters taking after their parents- or not, as the case may be.

After a slightly shaky start with the first instalment of this trilogy, I think this one is an improvement. In many ways I’m reminded of The Black Magician Trilogy, which precedes this: the first book was okay and I enjoyed it sufficiently to try the next one, which I enjoyed a lot more. The author is really good at jumping between viewpoints and keeping each one interesting, though I found some of Lorkin’s parts a bit slow. She’s also good at the subtle interconnections between characters as friendships waver or deepen. I was pleased to see Tayend return to have more of a role, playing the comic relief and accidental (and sometimes deliberate) gooseberry in the relationship between Dannyl and Ashaki Achati.

Once again, I’m reminded of The Novice when talking about this book. Lilia’s predicament has interesting parallels with the difficulties Sonea had as a young novice, and the age gap between the two is similar to that of Sonea and Rothen. The book also features a character discovering their sexuality, much as Dannyl did before. I was pleased to see homosexuality continue to be represented in this book (it was included in The Ambassador’s Mission but much more briefly- here it is given more attention). In my experience it’s rare to see these characters represented in fantasy, especially in those who have more than a minor role to play in events.

Looking back, it’s surprising to find that I’ve been with these characters for five books already. The next book, The Traitor Queen, is the last in this trilogy and also the last one in the series as of now. I’m sad that the end is so near, but Trudi Canavan has written several more books and is still going strong. If this series is anything to go by, then her other books are absolutely worth investigating. Book six is promising to be good.

In Short: New characters arrive and minor characters return for larger roles as the trilogy gathers speed. An improvement from book one, and there are some interesting parallels and nods to the first trilogy that long-time readers will enjoy. The Novice of the Traitor Spy Trilogy. 9/10

The Ambassador’s Mission (Traitor Spy Trilogy #1)

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Author: Trudi Canavan

Synopsis: Half the Thieves in the city are dead. Sonea, a Black Magician of Kyralia, knows that she is needed to help hunt down the rogue magician killing them. But Sonea has problems of her own. Her son is the assistant to the new Guild Ambassador to Sachaka and will be in deadly danger when he sets foot on their ancient enemy’s soil. As a Black Magician, however, Sonea’s every action is watched. Any attempt to leave the city will result in her exile, and lose her any chance of helping her friends- or her son.

My Thoughts: After the success I had with trying out The Black Magician Trilogy, the three books that are set before this, I was all too happy to try out the trilogy that continues the story. The events of The High Lord are now a thing of the past, and we rejoin Sonea twenty years later. She has become an official Black Magician of the Guild and opened up a place of Healing for those who can’t afford to pay for treatment, as well as raising a son who has now graduated from the Guild.

Despite my high hopes for this series, I have to admit that my initial impression was mild disappointment- but then after such a brilliant trilogy my expectations were pretty high. I couldn’t help but feel that the “happy ending” of the previous book had been somewhat undermined: although Sonea has achieved her wish that the Guild accept novices from humbler backgrounds there is discord amongst them, and she is distrusted amongst her peers despite her position of power as a Black Magician- and the fact that she saved the Guild from extinction during the Ichani invasion two decades previously. Dannyl and Tayend’s progressing and enduring relationship was one of my favourite parts of the original trilogy, so I was saddened to see that the two appear to be drifting apart. However, the main characters that were present throughout the series all resume their roles as viewpoint characters so in that respect little has changed, except for the addition of Sonea’s son Lorken. Dannyl plays a much more prominent part in proceedings, as does Cery, both characters who were effectively sidelined for much of the duration of The High Lord.

There is something addictive about Trudi Canavan’s writing, and this book is no exception. As before, the story moves between various character viewpoints which variously intertwine and coexist. Setting the story twenty years on meant that my mental images of the characters had to change, but it didn’t trip me up for long. The world of Kyralia and the Guild is still very much recognisable, with no major changes to upset fans of the first trilogy. Sonea seems to have been given less to do this time around, but I was pleased to see Dannyl given a more important role than wandering around collecting research (even if most of his time seems to be occupied drinking tea with the Sachakans). After hearing so much about the mysterious land of Sachaka and only glimpsing stretches of wasteland in The High Lord, it’s good to finally see more of the place. Not only do characters get to properly explore the exotic landscapes, they also learn some of the customs of the people who live there. I was surprised that there was more to learn about Akkarin’s story in his time spent there as a slave, and little discoveries of minor secrets made this feel more like a continuation of the first trilogy rather than simply an extension of it.

Despite an entertaining plot, I didn’t feel there was much of a build-up to the climax of the story, and I was surprised when I reached the final page. The ending is satisfactory however, and I was newly excited for the next instalment to see what would happen next. When I first started reading I wasn’t too sure whether it would be too different from the first series for me to enjoy, but it grew on me as I read. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t too dissimilar to the first trilogy, and I think I will continue reading this series. No doubt it will continue to grow in strength.

In Short: A welcome return to the land of Kyralia, with all the characters that made the first trilogy so successful- plus a few more. The “twenty years on” factor takes some getting used to, but there is plenty to enjoy for long-term fans of The Black Magician Trilogy. 8/10