alternate history


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.

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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.

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.

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