alternate history


The third and final book in the Blackthorn and Grim fantasy series.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 16 hours 17 minutes
Narrators: Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan, Scott Aiello, Susannah Jones

Blackthorn and Grim are former convicts who don’t trust anyone but each other. They’re both deeply wounded people. Slowly, they’ve come to realize that Prince Oran is an honorable man and to trust him a little. They’ve settled living on his lands. Blackthorn is the local wisewoman, a healer, and Grim is her confidant and reliable worker.

Cara is a 15-year old girl who lives with her dad and aunt in Wolf Den. Her dad, Tóla, is a rich and grumpy landowner who guards his privacy jealously. In recent years, Cara has become more insular, preferring the company of birds and nature to humans. She even has difficulty talking with people, even her dad and aunt. One day, her father unexpectedly decides that Cara must learn better behavior and sends her to Prince Oran’s household. Cara doesn’t want to go but she has no choice. The Prince’s wife is concerned about the girl and asks Blackthorn to spend time with her.

Tóla has decided to finish building a Heartwood House. The house was started years ago but was never completed because the main architect, then only one knows how to build it properly, vanished. Now that builder, Bardán, has returned as mysteriously as he vanished, with broken hands. He’s also confused in his mind. Tóla thinks that Bardán’s ambandonement of the project brought ill luck on Tóla’s family and is responsible for Tóla’s wife dying.

However, Bardán can’t build it himself so Tóla hires a man to help: Grim. Tóla demands that Grim can’t tell anyone anything about what he’s doing. Reluctantly, Grim agrees because he’s concerned how Tóla treats Bardán. But as months go by, Grim realizes that something really strange is going on.

Once again, Marillier has created a lush fantasy tale. It’s not fast-paced but lingers with people and places. Grim and Blackthorn are at the heart of the tale. They can’t trust anyone else and when Grim accepts the job and they must be separated every day for months on end, it tears them up inside, although neither wants to show it. Their shared experiences have made them very close and in this book they finally realize that they love each other. Personally, I was somewhat disappointed in such a convenient turn, but it’s understandable and pretty much inevitable.

Once again, the story has very dark elements, such as abuse. Grim and Blackthorn must make difficult decisions. Once again, I quickly thought I knew what was going on and the story takes it’s leisurely time until it unravels the mystery. And once again I liked the characters and the story so much that I didn’t mind. In fact, I was as a little sorry when it ended.

This was a wonderful ending to the lovely series.

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The second book in the fantasy series Blackthorn and Grim.

Publication year: 2013
Format: Audio
Running time: 15 hours 54 minutes
Narrators: Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan, Susannah Jones

Blackthorn and Grim are former convicts. Blackthorn made a deal with a fae to get out of prison and is still bound by her promise to help everyone who asks for her help and not to go to after Mathuin for seven years. Mathuin is the cruel ruler who killed Blackthorn’s family and put her behind bars.

They both have difficult pasts and don’t want to reveal them to anyone, including each other. They’re not lovers but they can’t trust anyone else. For now, they’ve settled in Dalriada with the local prince and his new wife as their allies or perhaps even their friends. However, one day lady Geiléis rides to the prince and asks desperately for help. It seems that a monster lives near her lands, in the Tower of Thorns, behind an impenetrable wall of thorns. The monster can’t leave the tower and its howls drive everyone to depression and madness because they’re forced to relive their most depressing memories again and again. The prince asks Blackthorn’s thoughts and reluctantly she agrees to travel to lady Geiléis’ lands and try to get rid of the monster. Grim goes with her, even though he has lots of reservations about the whole thing.

Also, a childhood friend of Blackthorn’s appears. She thought Flannan was dead, too, but it turns out that he’s a traveling scholar and had been away when Blackthorn’s family died. She’s more than happy to see him but he has a new plan to bring down Mathuin. She wants badly to do that, but it would break her word to the fae. Flannan is going to a monastery near lady Geiléis’ lands and so they travel together. The more Blackthorn hears about his plans to go against Mathuin, the more she wants to help. Soon, she intends to follow Flannan south and help him bring down Mathuin.

This was a wonderful book, written in a very lush and evocative manner. It draws on many fairy tales, as can be seen from lady Geiléis’ chapters where she tells us the tale of young lady Lily and the young man she met in a mysterious tower. The fae of this world are very much from the fairy tales; mysterious, sometimes cruel, and they have their own rules.

This was an excellent continuation to the series. This time we find out more about Grim’s tortured past. He’s fixated on Blackthorn as the person who can keep him grounded and the only person he can truly trust. He’s taciturn and other people consider him stupid and slow. Blackthorn herself is torn between wanting to keep her word to the fae and wanting to see justice done on Mathuin. She’s a determined and passionate woman who has been deeply hurt and is now suspicious of everyone, except Grim. When she realizes that she must keep her plan of leaving with Flannan secret from Grim, she feels very guilty and tries to reason to herself that Grim will be better off without her. This puts a lot of strain on Grim’s and Blackthorn’s friendship.

The book has three POV characters: lady Geiléis, Blackthorn, and Grim. The audio book has a different reader for each and that worked very well.

The first book in the fantasy series Thieves of Fate.

Publication year: 2017
Format: print
Publisher: Pyr
Page count: 366

This isn’t the ordinary fantasy world set in pseudo Medieval or Renaissance setting. It’s got two other sentient races but it’s far more technologically advanced than usual fantasy worlds. Most people use guns, not swords. All sorts of mechanical contraptions are become more frequent, at least for the wealthier people.

But what really sets this world apart is its religious philosophy. The Theosophy declares that God and Reason are one. Science and religion are one. God is a scientist, and some believe that life is an experiment. The Reverend Doctors are scientists. There’s no magic as such and the book has only one magical element.

This is a very dark world. Poor people are living on the streets and if you take a loan and can’t pay it, you’re thrown into prison and most likely die there. If you have enough money or right connections, you can do any crime you want. The police are corrupt. Some reviews said the world is Dickensian and that’s a good description.

The story has a lot of POV characters and some of them just disappear before the end. One of those was my favorite character and while I really enjoyed the beginning of the story, I was less enthusiastic with the ending. I found the characters sufficient different from each other that I had no problems following who was who.

Rowena Downshire is thirteen and working as a messenger girl for Ivor who handles both legal and illegal post. Ivor’s got a nasty temper and he feeds and pays the kids who works for him as little as possible. Rowena’s mother is in debtors’ prison and she’s trying to earn enough for both keeping fees and for buying her out. When Ivor’s best messenger girl goes missing, Rowena is sent in her place to Reverend Chalmers’ home with important letters. After receiving the letters, Chalmers sends her to the notorious Alchemist. Unfortunately, a lot of people want the book Rowena is now carrying and she’s robbed of the book.

Rare is a thief. She’s been a thief for most of her young life. While she’s been with her master (and lover) at the start of her career, she’s more independent now. She gets some (or most/all?) of her info from her lover Anselm and uses for her own gain. She’s pretty ruthless and when she gets wind of a prize that many people want, she thinks that she can get it first and sell it to the highest bidder.

Anselm Meteron is a retired thief and now owns several legal places in the city. Rare is his primary mistress and while she infuriates her, he’s very fond of her. When the chief inspector of the city, who is in Anselm’s payroll, comes over and acts strangely, Anselm realizes something is wrong.

Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers is doing important and controversial work with a book that he thinks will change the dominant religion in the world. He’s also nervous because he knows that not everyone will be pleased with that. When the delivery girl finally brings the letters from his partner, he panics and sends the book to the Alchemist. Just in time, because he’s attacked and imprisoned.

Bess is Ivor’s former delivery girl. Now, she’s a courtesan for smallduke Regenzi and he’s young and handsome and doesn’t want anything too difficult. She’s happy to be in a place which feels much safer to her. However, when Regenzi goes to buy something from the Alchemist, that mysterious old man warns Bess that her companion is far more dangerous than she could have guessed.

These are just the POV characters at start of the book. A couple of more are added later.
The two other sentient races in this world are quite clearly not human. The aigamuxa (aiga) are very strong and they’ve been used as slaves before. Their eyes are on their heels and their heads are eyeless. They usually travel by swinging from trees, like apes. The lanyani are tree-like creatures which are used as servants by some richer people. We don’t get much info about the lanyani but the aiga don’t care for humans. However, the human nations have trampled their habitats so some of them no choice but to live in cities. They can be aggressive and use brute strength in combat. While I love weird creatures (Barsoom’s kaldane and rykors!), I’m afraid the aigas’ lack of sight made them some what ridiculous as a credible threat.

The story has lots of mysteries and some are left for the rest of the series. I liked the beginning and the atmosphere of the book a lot. Most of the characters are also interesting, but my favorite character disappears too quickly. Many fantasy books shy away from religion, so it was interesting to see it explored at length here. And I loved the revelations about Anselm and the Alchemist so I won’t spoil them here.

Still, the ending was a bit too predictable and I couldn’t take the aiga as a threat. Almost every time I kept wondering how can they see to do that. It seems to me that they must have some other way to either see or sense their surroundings pretty well.

Still, I enjoyed the book and intend to pick up the next in the series.

I won this book from Books, Bones, and Buffy blog some months back.

The prequel book to a steampunk fantasy series the Guild Chronicles.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Publisher: Claymore Ulfberht & Xiphos LLC
Page count: 292 at GoodReads

Frederick “Dolly” Williamson is a detective at Scotland Yard, in Victorian London. When sir Francis Chilton, one of the senior partners in a highly influential bank, is found dried to a husk in his own house, Dolly is sent to investigate. He calls in Rose Caldwell, a former nun who has lots of skills and knowledge of the occult. Unfortunately, she’s also considered a witch by the public as well as Dolly’s colleagues and boss. However, Rose’s alchemical devices and magical talent turn out to be invaluable in the occult mystery. Another man is found similarly murdered, and the Home office hoists upon Dolly two French occultists who claim to know who is responsible and want to help in her capture. However, they have their own goals.

This story is set in quite a complex world with both steampunk devices and alchemical/magical devices. The occultists have variety of powers, able to take over another person’s mind, project themselves to astral plane, and even use devices to prolong their lives, but with the expense of another’s life essence. Rose can also summon angels to help her. But mostly she constructs and uses various magical devices. Some can see what magical events have happened in the past, others protect against spells.

While most people don’t know that magic really works, Dolly has had previous experience with them and knows that magic and magical threats are real. He works as best he can in the ordinary world and in the magical world. However, he’s not keeping the magic a secret nor is anyone expecting him to do so. Most people just don’t believe it. Dolly is a diligent detective and questions, as best he can, the wealthy and influential people affected by this case.

While Rose is a former nun, she didn’t quit because she lost faith. Quite the contrary: she was excommunicated because she dared to learn about the magic and use it. She’s very much out of her luck in this story, barely making enough money to rent a small apartment and drinking everything else. She has some quite interesting friends.

The cast is quite large. In addition to the people connected directly to the case such as the French Necronist guild members, we meet Chinese gangsters, Haitian Voodoo practitioners, London’s own occultists, and workers’ rights activists. The story has many POV characters, as well, even though Dolly and Rose are the main characters. A few characters aren’t directly related to the case, so I presume they play a large role in the series and so are introduced to us already.

While the main mystery is solved, this is obviously the first in series book. The ending opens up a couple of plot threads for the series.

This was an interesting read and a very imaginative setting. Rose was definitely my favorite character and the most distinct one, except for the murderer. I also really enjoyed the idea of the French necronists guild and that was expanded well near the end.

However, the book had a lot of minor errors with spelling, dialog tags, and more.

The third book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences steampunk series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Publisher: Ace
Page count: 374

Our colonial pepperpot and dashing archivist are heading to the US. During the airship voyage, a mysterious man tries to sabotage the ship but Agents Eliza Braun and Wellington Books manage to stop the sabotage. Otherwise, Eliza is unhappy with the voyage because Wellington kissed her previously and she’s expecting him to continue in the same way. Instead, Wellington labors with his steam powered motorcar.

In Norfolk, our intrepid agents are met by two agents from the US’ Office of the Supernatural and Metaphysical. Librarian Felicia Lovelace is on her first field assignment and she clearly doesn’t have any experience in spying, going so far as forgetting the others’ assumed names. On the other hand, her partner William “Will Bill” Wheatley is a very experienced field agent. The Ministry agents are supposed to just consult the Americans about why ocean and airships are disappearing. Soon, they uncover an ominous plot which seems to involve Thomas Edison and his inventions.

I really enjoyed the steampunk elements and the inventors, Edison and especially the others. Both new agents are also rather interesting characters and they play well against each other but their role in the story made me dislike them. I also rather enjoyed the Ministry’s own mad scientists Blackwell and Axlerod.

Also, the Ministry’s enemies are on the move. Almost every other chapter was an interlude focusing on a mysterious priest doing the House of Usher’s work or Sophia del Morte moving in on her newest target. I rather enjoyed these chapters as well. The story is fast-paced with lots of fight scenes.

Unfortunately for me, this book has not just one romantic triangle but two. That’s right: Bill/Eliza/Wellington and Eliza/Wellington/Felicity. Both American agents start to court a British agent amazingly quickly. Eliza and Wellington are unsure about each other’s feelings and Eliza is barely civil to Wellington. So, the story has lots of Eliza and Bill going off to do mayhem while Wellington and Felicia do scouting and other spy things. So, there’s plenty of time for Bill to make moves toward Eliza and likewise Felicity to Wellington. Unfortunately, it felt very contrived to me and went on for far too long.

Near the end, there are some revelations which will, no doubt, feature heavily in the next two books. It ends almost in a cliffhanger. I was thinking that I might not want to continue with this series but it seems that the jealousy and UST is now finally ended as major parts of the books, so I’m going to get the next two books, too.

First in a fantasy series set in a pseudo-Victorian world.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 333
Illustrated by Todd Lockwood

“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
Isabella is a child who is cursed with curiosity for the natural world. Cursed because she’s a girl and studying anatomy, of any creature, just isn’t proper for a young lady to do. However, Isabella is the only girl child in her family, with five brothers and they live in the countryside so there aren’t too many restrictions on her. At the tender age of seven, she becomes obsessed with dragons. And once she confesses to her father that she’s very interested in the natural sciences, he decides to help her. He allows her to borrow books from his library from time to time, provided that her mother doesn’t know about it.
But when she’s 12, the locals go out to hunt a wolf-drake, Isabella is determined to go with them. She knows how to ride but not how to shoot. She disguises herself as a boy and blackmails her way into the hunting party. Unfortunately, things don’t go well and she has to abandon her studies for years and become a proper lady instead. Then, she has to lure a husband.

This book is written as a memoir so we know that Isabella is able to do very impressive things and survive to a ripe old age to write the books. Often enough, she puts in small interjections, such as how foolish she was when she was young or how she didn’t know something that she knows now. If you don’t like that style, don’t pick up this book!

This also not an action book, either. It focuses on the relationships between the characters and on adventure and discovery. The dragons are very dangerous animals which eat humans and cattle, so it’s hard to observe them. Also, they’re more talked about than seen. But when we do seem them, it’s always special. As a wealthy gentlewoman at a time when she’s supposed to just stay at home and have kids, Isabella encounters and overcomes many obstacles. However, thanks to a supporting husband those obstacles aren’t too much (of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a book or it would a very different kind of book). To be fair, she also observes how the society restricts men as well.

Isabella is a smart woman but, like her older self admits, she’s also very young and inexperienced at this point. Her obsession with dragons takes over her life, leaving little time for anything else. She can be stand-offish to people around her. But she’s not deliberately cruel, just thoughtless and very, very imperialistic. She doesn’t bother to learn the names of some of her servants and describes them rather uncharitably. She’s also the only woman (or man for that matter) in this book who rises above society’s expectations.

There are several kinds of dragons in this world. Some we only see once and don’t know much more about them. Sparklings are the smallest, the size of insects. Indeed, they are classified as insects before Isabella starts to study them in earnest. Rock-wyrms are far larger and more dangerous to humans and other creatures. All the dragons seem to share a peculiar feature: their hollow bones disintegrate in sunlight, leaving nothing behind to study after they die. However, sparklings can be preserved in vinegar.

This is an alternate world fiction so things like religion are somewhat different than in our world but their inspirations are quite recognizable. I enjoyed the book and the writing style, which rather reminded me of Amelia Peabody.

I was expecting an excruciatingly long courtship with lots of unsuitable suitors but thankfully that didn’t happen. I’ve read a few reviews and knew beforehand that this first book at least wouldn’t have many dragons in it, despite the name. And I’m also fascinated by treating the dragons as wild, untamable animals. I can’t help but hope that in a later book they might turn out to be intelligent, after all. But I don’t really think that’s likely.

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.

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