alternate history

The first book in a French historical fantasy series. Original title: Les lames du Cardinal. Finnish title: Kardinaalin miekat.

Publication year: 2007
Publication year in Finnish: 2010
Publisher in Finland: Gummer kustannus oy
Finnish translator: Taina Helkama
Page count: 383

The book is set in Paris in 1633 with Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu ruling the country, in their own ways. Paval has done meticulous research. Indeed, he sometimes interrupts the story to tell us details about Paris and the historical characters at the time. A couple of Dumas characters make cameos.

As a powerful man with many enemies, both personal and France’s enemies, Richelieu employs swordsmen. Some of the best were known as the Cardinal’s Blades but some five years ago the Cardinal had to disband them because of political reasons after a disaster at La Rochelle. Now, he has summoned them to serve him again.

Captain Étienne-Louis de la Fargue isn’t happy to serve and Richelieu has to resort to some blackmail to get the elderly captain back, and soon la Fargue is gathering his group together again. The womanizing, hard-drinking Nicolas Marciac who is also a doctor. The elderly Spanish master swordsman Anibal Antonio Almadès de Carlio. Young Baroness Agnés de Vaudreuil who is headstrong and independent. And a couple of others. All of them respect and love the captain and follow him willingly, even though most have reservations about the Cardinal.

On the other side are the forces of the Black Claw, a secretive Spanish group of people descendent from dragons. They use magic and small pet dragons as well as manipulation and assassinations to infiltrate France. And perhaps the Cardinal who is ruthless when it comes to keeping France safe.

In this world, dragons are real and there are different kinds of dragons. The smallest ones some people keep them as pets and a few can be trained as couriers. Some dragons are larger than horses and willing to carry people. A few people have dragons as ancestors so they are “half bloods”. They have lizardlike eyes and many people shun them. A few were described as lizard men. Apparently, the ancient, huge dragons were very intelligent and malevolent. Also, close contact with dragons can infect people with incurable disease.

And yet, all these dragons don’t seem to have affected the flow of history much. Also, dragon couriers are apparently not trustworthy because important messages are still sent in horseback. Indeed, one of our heroes is carrying such a message and is followed and attacked. I would have thought that following a flying courier would have been much harder.

Pevel has lots of action with daring escapes, duels, and swordfights. He also describes the Paris of the time wonderfully: it has both mansions were the rich and powerful live, the secret courts where the beggars and criminals meet, and filth-ridden streets. The Finnish translation includes a map of Paris in 1633.

The pace of the story is quick with short chapters that sometimes end in cliffhangers. There are a lot of POV characters: in addition to all the blades, there’s the Cardinal, two or three antagonists, and a surprising number of only once-seen characters. This made it sometimes a bit hard to remember who the characters were.

The characters are painted with broad strokes and are epic swordsmen who can handle a dozen enemies at once. In contrast, the plot has lots of twists and turns, keeping this reader guessing. There are also a couple of surprise revelations, one which I guessed beforehand and one which I didn’t see coming at all.

I didn’t like this as much as I wanted to but I might read the next in the series. Hopefully that one doesn’t end in a cliffhanger because the rest haven’t been translated to Finnish.


Set in 1878 in Rapid City in Washington State, it’s a steampunk Western detective story.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Page count: 351
Publisher: TOR

Let’s get something out of the way: Karen Memory is a prostitute and she lives in a brothel. She’s also around 17 and not the youngest girl there. She’s also smart and loyal and cares for the other girls. But she prefers to work in Madame Damnable’s brothel to working in a factory, which was at the time dangerous and very dirty.

The book is Karen’s journal and so written in first person and with a dialect.

There are (at least) two main brothels in Rapid City. Hôtel Mon Cherie is run by Madame Damnable who doesn’t allow the girls to drink too much and keeps her place clean. The girls are like family to each other. Also, one of them was born a man. The girls also gather around at evenings, after the clients have gone, and read different sorts of books.

Then there’s Peter Bantle’s place where the girls are kept prisoners, underfed, and beaten. Unfortunately, Bantle is quite influential. One Chinese woman, Merry Lee, tries and sometimes succeeds in freeing Bantle’s girls.

The story starts when Merry Lee comes into Mon Cherie shot and supported by one of Bantle’s escaped slaves. Bantle follows with his goons but Karen and a couple of the other girls and Madame manage to send them away. But a war starts between the two brothels.

Also, a new marshal is in town following a man who murders prostitutes gruesomely. Marshal Bass Reeves is black and he isn’t going to get much help from the locals, except from Karen and her friends.

I really enjoyed this tale a lot. I did have difficulty with the language sometimes, though. I also really enjoyed the side characters and the references to earlier steampunk books, such as to Jules Verne’s books.

The final Temeraire book.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 417 + an excerpt of Uprooted

What can I say? I started reading the series in 2009 lured in by the promise of dragons. And oh boy did this series deliver! I fell in love with Temeraire, Maximus, Excidium, Lily, and their captains. But all good things must come to an end and so it is with this series, too.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, I believe the ending won’t disappoint. It had some things which I expected, a few which I didn’t, and it’s bittersweet, much like the series as a whole. In fact, I kind of want to reread it now, knowing where things will lead.

I’m happy with this ending, although I’d love to see more of this world.

Fantasy book about a spy/librarian who works for the Library which has access points to many alternate worlds. To get books!

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 329
Publisher: TOR

Irene is a junior Librarian in the Library which exists between alternate worlds. Her mission is to save books from various worlds. To do that, she often has to use cover identities and get into places where she shouldn’t be. The book starts with the end of one mission. After Irene returns to the Library, she’s immediately given her next assignment: to get one of the collected fairy tales of Grimm from an alternate world. She isn’t told what is special about it. Instead, her supervisor gives her a trainee, the handsome and mysterious Kai. She’s used to working alone, so she isn’t happy about it, but she can’t say no.

So, Kai and Irene head over to an alternate London to steal the book. However, the owner of the book has been murdered and the book stolen, so their mission becomes far more dangerous and difficult than they thought. Also, a famous private detective notices them, and Irene has to decide if she can trust him or not. Another shadowy character is Silver, a fae noble who is also after the book.

This setting has a wealth of possibilities and it fascinated me. However, Irene is pretty standard plucky heroine. She loves books and has a special love for detective stories. Her specialty seems to be more in spying and acting than fighting, though. She’s dedicated to the Library and its mission of preserving fiction from various alternate worlds. However, at the same time she doesn’t really know the senior Librarians nor does she know their real goals. Her beliefs about the Library and Librarians are challenged in the book, though. This clearly isn’t her first mission and references are made to her previous jobs, especially one involving a charming cat burglar and her fellow Librarian, Bradamant, which made her and Bradamant mortal enemies.

Kai is a very handsome and elegant young man who is more than you’d think at first glance. He’s a trainee who hasn’t yet sworn himself to the Library. This is his first fieldwork assignment. There’s no romance in the book, despite this obvious set up, which was very refreshing.

The Librarians use Language, the primal Language of everything. They use it to command stuff but they’re very limited in what they can do with it. The alternate worlds are battle grounds for order and chaos. Dragons are on the side of order (along with the Library) and the fae on the side of chaos. This London has steampunk technology side by side with vampires and werewolf, who aren’t hiding from the general public. Oh and time doesn’t flow inside the Library, so most of the Librarians are several decades or centuries old.

This was a fun book but clearly first in a series. There are hints about lot of things, such as just what the senior Librarians are up to and about the main villain, a former Librarian. However, the Librarians come across as very focused on books, to the exclusion of everything else, and even cruel towards people outside their company.

A standalone alternate history book set in a secondary fantasy world which was inspired by the Byzantine Empire and the lives of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.

Publication year: 2016
Format: epub ebook
Page count: 464
Publisher: Book View Café

I received this book in exchange for my honest review.
The book has mostly two narrators: Marcus and Simonis. Simonis is born to a poor bear keeper and Marcus’s uncle is wealthy. They both live in Visant, the City of Gold but experience it quite differently.

When Simonis is five years old, her father Batzas comes to the great city of Visant with his family because he has gotten a job as assistant bear keeper to one of the leading charioteer groups, the White Jewel. The city is huge and somewhat intimidating to the small family but Batzas is ambitious and willing to work hard and he dreams about bettering his life.

However, within a year Simonis’ father is dead and Simonis herself has found out how utterly dependent she and her family are on the benevolence of the rich and powerful. She resents that fiercely. When she catches the eye of a scarred soldier who has a network of spies, dancers and courtesans, Simonis eagerly agrees to work for him. When she’s 12, she’s already an accomplished dancer and starts her training as a courtesan. She’s determined to make a better life for herself in the only way she can.

Marcus is the son of a farmer who can read and, he reads a lot. His mother’s brother, Leontes, has risen high in the hierarchy of Visant: he’s the leader of the palace guard and now a count. He and his wife have no children so he sends for Marcus with the assumption that he will adopt the boy as his own heir. At age 15, Marcus leaves the life he’s always known and goes to Visant. He’s well cared for but because of his poorer upbringing, he makes few friends and is often humiliated. However, Leontes keeps his word and adopts him. Marcus takes a new name suitable for a Patrician: Maxentius. He works hard but some of the men in the palace don’t like his success.

This city and the surrounding countries are strongly inspired by the Byzantine Empire. In Visant, women don’t participate in public life: they’re essentially property, owned by a husband or a father. As part of the very lowest class of people, Simonis is actually freer to make her own decisions even if her options are very limited. As a courtesan, she has the chance of getting some wealth even though she can’t choose her clients. She’s also very loyal to her friends.

There’s a mention of a religious schism between the followers of the One God in Visant and in another city, Rhakotis. It appears that the religious orthodoxy practiced in Visant is, at least partly, responsible for women’s low position in society. In this world, there are also other cultures and other religions.

Marcus is pretty much on the other end of the spectrum: he becomes embroiled in court intrigue almost against his will. He’s also honest which is not a good trait in the court. Emperor Valerian is old and everyone is expecting him to name a successor, but he doesn’t have any children. He does have three nephews, generals, and other men willing to take on the imperial diadem.

The book is full of adventure and it’s very entertaining. It’s split in three parts and the latter half of the book has a couple of other narrators but mostly Simonis and Maxentius. The world-building is deep and the characters are complex. I enjoyed it a lot.

The third book in the Night’s Masque trilogy.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Page count: 538
Publisher: Angry Robot

The book starts two years after the end of the previous book, The Merchant of Dreams, and some things have changed for our intrepid heroes. After the events in Venice, Mal was knighted, his employer Walsingham died, and Mal is now working for Blaise Grey, the current duke of Suffolk who took over the spying business. Unfortunately, Grey and Mal loath each other, so their relationship is quite strained and Mal doesn’t trust Grey. Still, they have to work together to ferret out the plot against the throne. The villains are guisers, skraylings who have been reborn into human bodies. They can use dream magic to further their aims.

On personal side, things are going well: Sandy is much better, Mal and Coby are married and they adopted a Venetian boy as their heir. Ned and Gabriel live together and Ned has a printing press going while Gabriel is working with Shakespeare for large productions.

But things start to soon go downhill: Mal has decided to use his enemies, the violent and ruthless Huntsmen, and make them work for him. However, they exceed their orders. Soon, Ned and Gabriel are arrested and Grey orders Mal to kill them because they know too much. Instead, Mal breaks them out of prison and makes Grey more sour than ever. This makes his work harder.

This isn’t as episodic as the previous book but it has been divided into two parts and two years go by between them. The second part also has a significant new POV character. The book has several POV characters, but Mal is the one we spend the most time with so he’s more clearly the main character this time. Coby’s role is diminished a lot.

The first part is set mostly in the Crown Prince Robert and his wife Julianne’s court. Also their young sons and Robert’s brother Prince Arthur are significant characters. The guisers are doing their best to manipulate every one and our heroes don’t know who to trust.

The book has a lot of twists I didn’t see coming which was a good thing. The character have (mostly) good relationships with each other which sustains them against the distrust. Indeed, I though they’re better friends than in the second book. I also loved the fact that Mal and Coby love their adopted kid unconditionally. On the other hand, the story also has a lot of unhappiness for them and the second part had lots of stuff I didn’t really care for.

The Prince of Lies is a satisfying conclusion to the series although the ending is open for further adventures and there are some long-term problems which aren’t solved.

The second book in the Elizabethian alternate history/fantasy Night Masque.

Publication year: 2012
Format: print
Page count: 526
Publisher: Angry Robot

This series is set in the latter years of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. However, this Elizabeth married Robert Dudley and has children with him. Now, Prince Consort Robert is dead and the Queen is in mourning while everyone flocks to their future ruler the Prince of Wales (also named Robert). But most of the book isn’t set in England so the English court isn’t a significant element in the book, except that the characters work for Lord Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster who is also elderly and in danger of dying.

Maliverny Catlyn, Mal, is a swordsman and a minor lord whose father is English and mother French. After the events in the “Alchemist of Souls” he had to flee England and spend time in France with his servant Coby. Coby is actually an orphaned girl who dresses as a boy in order to support herself. She’s also fallen in love with Mal and Mal with her. However, Coby doesn’t want to become officially a girl again, with all the limitations. So, she still keeps her disguise and they aren’t a couple.

The book starts with Mal and Coby sailing to Corsica. They’re looking for a lost skrayling ship and find out that the ship has been raided and the crew taken prisoner by the Corsicans. They save whom they can and head back to England.

Skraylings are strange creatures from the New World who use magic and most Europeans don’t want to deal with them. However, England has made a trade alliance with them which seems to be very profitable. But Walsingham has gotten word that now Venice is negotiating a treaty with the skraylings, as well. He fears that they will break their alliance with England, so he sends Mal to Venice to find out as much as he can.

Mal’s twin brother Sandy has been in a madhouse for the last decade but now he has gotten out and the skraylings have been healing his mental troubles. Mal is still very worried about Sandy and leaves Coby with him to London. Mal takes with him his old friend Ned Faulkner. But the way to Venice by ship isn’t easy. Soon after Mal and Ned leave, Coby, Sandy, and their friend Gabriel have to flee London, too.

We find out a bit more about the skrylings this time. They’re magic centers on dreams and they can also be reincarnated as a skryling or a human. Interestingly enough, I got the feeling from the first book that contact between humans and skrylings is a new thing but now we find out that there are skrylings who have been born into human bodies for centuries.

The best thing about this book was Venice. The descriptions were great and the city had the atmosphere of danger and scheming. We’re also introduced to a lot of new characters. I particularly liked the Hayreddin’s Captain Youssef whom we see only briefly.

The book has three POV characters: Mal, Coby, and Ned. Ned is a scribe turned into a spy. He’s Mal’s former lover and Gabriel’s current lover. He’s very suspicious of the skrylings and foreigners. But he’s a very loyal friend, even though and Mal even teaches him to use a sword. Gabriel is an actor and very handsome young man. He’s played a lot of women’s roles in the theater and when Coby thinks of using women’s clothing, she has to ask him to teach her how to act as a woman. This was very ironic but the we didn’t see much of it.

Some of the chapters felt a bit episodic and there were things which felt a bit out of place but I guess those will be resolved in the final book. I didn’t really care for the proposed love triangle and though that Mal was just being an ass. Otherwise, this was a very entertaining read and the plot moved along most of the time at a nice clip. The final couple of chapters set the stage for the next book.

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