historical fantasy


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.

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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.

A stand-alone secret history book.

Publication year: 1991
Format: Audio
Running time: 16 hours and 57 minutes
Narrator: Simon Vance

The book starts on that famous day in Switzerland in 1816 when Mary Shelly, Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and John Polidori decide to write ghost stories. But this time, a strange creature attacks them.

But to the main character Michael Crawford the story starts on his way to his second wedding. He’s heavily drunk and puts his bride’s wedding ring on a statue, for safekeeping. However, in the morning he can’t find the statue anymore and has to buy another ring. The wedding proceeds but in the morning, Crawford wakes next to his bride who has been brutally murdered. He has some strange memories about the night, too. However, he realizes that things look very bad for him not only because he didn’t wake up when Julia was butchered but because his first wife eloped with a sailor and died in a fire. People whisper that Crawford started that fire, even though that’s not true. So, Crawford runs away with the help of one of his friends.

Crawford is a former navy doctor but since then has specialized in obstetrics. He takes another name and poses as a medical student. He also gets work as a doctor’s assistant and meets John Keats. However, Julia’s mentally disturbed twin sister, Josephine, is on his trail and tries to murder him. But a strange apparition saves him, and then Keats tells about the nephillim, creatures who are attracted to writers. However, in Crawford’s case he apparently married himself to one of the nephillim by putting a ring into the statue’s ring finger. Now, the creature guards him jealously. Keats knows a possible way to get rid of the creature and Crawford has no choice but to try it.

Powers has created here a fascinating type of vampire. The nephillim act as more than muses to writers: without them, the men apparently can’t create much. The nephillim also drink blood from the men’s family members and manipulate political events. They pretend to care for the writers and other people they bite but don’t, really.

Lord Byron, Mary Shelly, and Percy Shelly are important characters in the book. I rather enjoyed reading about them.

However, I think this book was way too long. There are long passages where nothing really happens.

A stand-alone historical fantasy book set in Vienna 1529.

Publication year: 1979 (1999 reprint)
Format: print
Page count: 323
Publisher: Del Rey

Brian Duffy is a mercenary who has ended up in Venice after traveling around the world for years. After an unfortunate encounter with the Doge’s grandsons, he meets a strange old man Aurelianus who offers him a job in Vienna as a bouncer for Aurelianus’ tavern. Duffy has been in Vienna before and agrees, even though he finds it a bit strange that Aurelianus wants him.

Duffy buys a horse and starts the lengthy journey. But on the way, he sees and experiences strange things. Unknown people attack him and then in the Julian Alps he rides among weird creatures which, nevertheless, don’t harm him. Also, other strange, flying things attack his former traveling companions.

Finally in Vienna, he has to confront his past because after many years he again sees the woman whom he loved but who married another man. But more trouble comes when when Suleiman the Magnificent leads his army against the Christendom. His army marches to Vienna.

The setting is the siege of Vienna which turns out the be somewhat different than history books tell us. Quite a few mythological people and critters make an appearance in the book.

Brian Duffy has been traveling and fighting almost his whole life. He is also something of a drunk. He has a healthy suspicion of people and he’s afraid of anything supernatural. So, when he starts to see strange things, his first instinct is sheer terror and then denial. In fact, he’s so deep in denial that at first it was funny but then frustrating when I had already figured out most of what was going on.

Aurelianus is a strange old man. He smokes lizards, not pipe. He doesn’t bother to explain anything unless Duffy asks him directly and even then he tends to talk around the question. Both of these characters were fun at first but when the end approached, I was somewhat frustrated with both of them.

The plot is somewhat meandering; sometimes several months go by between chapters. But this is an enjoyable read for anyone wanting “secret history”; the happenings that history books don’t tell us. This isn’t the best Powers book I’ve read (that would be Anubis gates, still) but I’m left wanting to read more Powers.

The second book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 416
Publisher: Angry Robot

Acatl-tzin is the High Priest of the Dead, but in the Aztec society where warriors and the glory of warfare is the most valued, he’s not actually in a powerful position. After all, Mitctlantecuhtli governs over people who have not died in battle or as a sacrifice. Even his two fellow high priests look down on Acatl because the Lord of the Dead doesn’t have much influence and Acatl’s parents were peasants. In addition to doing the rites for the dead, Acatl investigates murders.

When the story starts, the ruler of the Mexica empire, the Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin, has just died from wounds in battle. The Reverend Speaker is also the representative of his god on Earth which means that his death weakens the magical protections of the capital and in time star-demons can break through to travel to Earth and start killing people.

But the politically (and religiously) powerful people are far more interested in fighting for earthly power than appointing the next ruler before the protections fail. The just dead ruler had been a respected warrior but his chosen heir, his older brother, is a weak man who has wanted the throne his whole life and schemed to get it. Other men desire the throne, too, and poor Acatl is caught in the middle, trying to warn people about the magical consequences if the next ruler isn’t appointed quickly.

Also, the same day when the Revered Speaker dies, another man is found dead, brutally torn to pieces, right in the royal palace. Acatl is convinced that it’s the work of the star-demons which means that someone is summoning these enemies of humanity right inside the palace. The summonings weaken the buckling protections so Acatl wants to find the sorcerer as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have political clout or diplomatic skills so questioning the most powerful men in the Empire is rather difficult. However, he has a couple of trusted friend he can rely on. One of them is his student Teomitl, the younger brother of the former Revered Speaker.

This is a setting where the gods are very much alive and sometimes even walk among humans. Almost all of them are cruel and hungry for blood; they require blood sacrifices to work magic. I found the explanation for this (near the end) fascinating.

This time we meet the people at the very top of Aztec society – and they’re not nice men. Pretty much all of them scheme and backstab to their heart’s content. (In fact, I felt rather sorry for Axayacatl who seemed like a decent person and had to deal with this lot on a daily basis. Or maybe he fought in wars so often to get away from them?) Also, magical, religious, and political power is intertwined and inseparable. This is quite a dark society and the storyline is also very dark, punctuated by human and animal sacrifice. The Lord of the Dead doesn’t require human sacrifices, though, but Acatl does have to use his own blood for spells and worship.

The Aztec society in this book has just as strong a division between the worlds of men and women as the Greeks did; women don’t participate in public life. I find this curious because I didn’t see similar division between the male and female deities; all seem equally aggressive, cruel, and bloody. But the book has only three named mortal women and I strongly suspect that only one of them (if any) is going to be seen again.

De Bodard has created a fascinating culture. Interesting enough, the book doesn’t have much violence at all but blood rituals are used often. Unfortunately, the omnibus version I’m reading doesn’t have her notes but her website has some background stuff. The mystery is pretty convoluted and because of the unfamiliar setting I don’t think the reader has a chance to solve it before Acatl.

Acatl is mostly comfortable with his life and his position as a humble priest. But now he’s taken far out of his comfort zone and forced to deal with people he comes to despise and distrust. He’s determined to do what he feels is right and to protect the people near him, and also the whole Empire. Teomitl is another honorable character trying to do the right thing, but he can also be arrogant and overconfident. After all, he is a warrior and also part of the emperor’s family. Most of the other characters have their own agendas but because of their high positions they also tend to be rather arrogant.

This is a great continuation to the series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but it’s clear that the solutions are only temporary. I recommend reading the first book, Servant of the Underworld, first because it introduces the characters and the setting.

The second hardcover collection.
Writer and artist: Harold Foster
Publisher: Fantagraphics


The second collection starts with action when King Arthur’s knights battle the invading Saxons. The king follows Prince Valiant’s plan and because it works flawlessly, Arthur knights Valiant, starting the prince’s career as a knight errant. But first Valiant brings to his father a plan to get back his throne on Thule. Val, his father, and their twenty loyal soldiers return secretly to Thule and get to work.

After winning back the throne, Valiant settles a few disputes but quickly grows bored with the peaceful country. His father forbids his only son and heir to leave but Val leaves anyway, heading towards Europe looking for adventure. Soon, he hears that Rome has fallen to the Huns. In fact, the Huns have conquered almost all of Europe: only one proud castle remains and Val hurries to defend Anderkrag and its merry lord Camoran.

This time, King Arthur’s court doesn’t play much of a role at all. Valiant goes to the continental Europe and fights against the Huns. Later, he’s joined by Sir Tristam and Sir Gawain and they adventure together for a while. Again, the collection ends in a cliffhanger: Val in a small boat headed towards a storm.

During this time, Foster drew small, very detailed pictures on the four corners of the page: two on opposed ends of the headline and two near the end of the page. The pictures (called stamps even though I doubt they could have actually been used as stamps) depict various characters or gears such as saddles or stirrups. They showcase Foster’s eye for detail and research.

Val grows a bit. Some of his recklessness fades when he leads a group of men against the Huns and have to keep them fed and trained. But he’s still rather eager to kill and fights with a smile. This time, the Huns are just a pack of enemies to fight and not individuals at all.

Luckily, I can just dive into the next one (I bought used the first six collections at the same time).

The first hardcover collection.

Writer and artist: Harold Foster
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Prince Valiant is one of the comics I read when I was a kid (along with Asterix, Tintin, Donald Duck, Modesty Blaise, and others). Here in Finland only 9 albums were published in 1976-1979 and I still have them all, although bought from second hand bookstores. However, I was more than a bit surprised to start reading this English collection and find out that the Finnish albums didn’t start at the beginning of the comic but instead at near the beginning of Volume 3. So I was in the delightful position of reading new material from the beginning of Val’s tale. I did know that the Finnish albums don’t follow the whole tale so the final albums are also new to me.

Prince Valiant comic was originally published in newspapers. The first volume includes a brief biography of Foster and a rare interview. The hardcover collection is far larger in size than usual comic collections which allows the art of shine.

The comic follows the young Prince of Thule, Prince Valiant, and his adventures “in the times of King Arthur”. The comics have very little magic and are mostly a historical adventure tale. While Val is a swordsman and aspiring knight, he uses brains at least at often as brawn to win. This often leads to light-hearted and humorous situations. Since the comic follows Val’s life from a boy to old age, he grows and changes, and so do the people around him.

The tale starts with Valiant’s father who has was the king of Thule but he has just been overthrown by terrible tyrant. The king, along with his wife, son, and twenty loyal soldiers, flee across the sea to England. After battling the locals, the king is given a patch of land at the marches and the group settled down there. As the son of an exiled king, Val doesn’t grow up among luxuries; instead he explores the swamp and becomes an able hunter and learns to use his brains. He also encounters a witch who prophecies that he will have grand adventures but never happiness.

However, as a young man he yearns for adventure and leaves the swamplands after his mother dies. Soon he meets Sir Launcelot and has his heart set on becoming a knight of the Round Table. However, as a penniless exile that’s not easy. Fortunately, Val meets and quickly becomes friends with the young Sir Gawain who takes Val as his squire. Together, they have a couple of adventures until Val’s heart leads him to other places.

Foster established his characters quickly and, of course, uses the reader’s knowledge of the legends of king Arthur, as well. In this first volume the Arthurian characters are prominent but in the coming collections Val leaves Camelot behind and travels to other lands and continents.

While many of the stories are centered on knightly ideals and, one is even a contest between Merlin and Morgan Le Fay, often Val needs to use his brains to overcome obstacles. He also suffers setbacks and even tragedy. I was a bit worried that the stories would feel dated but they’re not, at least to me.

Val has many of the good qualities associated with an Arthurian knight: he’s almost fearless, loyal, good-natured, and defender of women and other less powerful people. On the other hand, he has faults, too: he has a quick temper, especially as a youth, reckless, is so proud that he’s arrogant, and stubborn.

Many of the side characters in the comic can be two-dimensional: the invading Saxons are unthinking horde, some people are conniving evil-doers, and Morgan Le Fay is just an evil sorceress. But sometimes enemies have a nobler side and can even become allies or friends.

Foster’s art is gorgeous. The only fault I can find is that all the women look the same: except for a few old crones, they’re all young, beautiful, and slim. From the facial features alone you can’t distinguish Queen Guinevere, Val’s first love maid Ilene, or Val’s eventual wife from each other, even though they’re supposed to be of different ages. While most males are also young or youngish, there are several prominent older male character, such as Merlin and Val’s father.

The collection ends in the middle of a storyline with two cliffhangers: Val has just started to inspire his father to take back Thule’s throne when he comes upon Saxon invaders and rushes to tell about them to King Arthur.

Fantagraphics has excerpts of the collections on its webpages.

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