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The first in the Egyptian Mysteries series where the main character is the former scribe Huy.

Page count: 176
Publication year: 1991
Format: Print
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Huy is on the verge of disaster. He supported Akhenaten with his whole heart, and he was one of the first people to move to the pharaoh’s new city Akhetaten believing that the pharaoh will bring about a new era of light and justice. Huy was an apprentice scribe in his court.

However, Akhenaten and his follower Smenkhkare are both dead, and the next rulers are bringing back the old ways and the old gods. Some of the former scribes are forbidden to continue in their job. Huy is one of them. He thinks that it’s because he has always curious and so some people saw him as a troublemaker. But the fact is that at 29 years old Huy is a scribe who can’t work as a scribe. His wife divorced him some years back and took their son with her when she moved. Huy has no idea what to do. He sits in his small house in Akhetaten and is slowly starving.

Then a childhood friend appears and encourages Huy to move to the Southern Capital and continue with his life. Amotju has his own reasons: he’s convinced that his rival Rekhmire is trying to kill him and he wants Huy to prove it. Huy is at first reluctant to interfere but has no choice.

Amotju is a wealthy merchant who owns several ships. He was neutral during Akehanten’s reign and is prospering even under the new order. He has a wife, grown children, and concubines. He has also a mistress whom he’s in love with. His mistress Mutnefert has another man who is the high priest Rekhmire. In fact, the widow Mutnefert was Rekhmire’s official mistress before she met Amotju and Munefert needs Rekhmire’s influence to give her, too, some measure of social power. Amotju and Rekhmire appear to be rivals in business as well.

Because Huy is going to be Amotjus’s secret agent, so to speak, they can’t be seen together. So, Amotju arranges Huy to stay with Amotju’s unmarried sister Aset. Aset remembers Huy fondly from the past and Huy is also attracted to her.

Huy sets about to find clues about Rekhmire’s involvement. Instead, he stumbles into a tomb robbery, theft, and even murder. Also, unfortunately for Huy, the Egyptian police force doesn’t like that he’s nosing around their turf.

The setting is done very well. There’s an atmosphere of uneasiness and mild confusion when the people are settling back into their fathers’ ways, and are trying to get any advantage they can get. The book is set into the days between Smenkhkare’s death and before Tutankhmun is declared official king. The new king is just nine years old, so there’ also the question of who are going to be the real rulers.

The Egyptian weather here is very hot and dry. It was a bit amusing when Huy finds cool places a comfort; here it’s -18 Celsius now outside.

Huy is a very convincing character. At first he find the old gods and beliefs contemptible. However, he does care what happens to his Ka and Ba after death, and he worries about his own tomb. If he dies when he’s poor, he will end up in a group tomb without much food for the afterlife.

He’s also curious about many things but not foolhardy. He knows that he has no official position at all, so he must be careful in his investigation. He also care a lot about the people close to him and longs to see his son.

Amotju has currently a marriage of convenience with his wife. She’ a good businesswoman and a housekeeper and has also ambitions she can only realize through her husband. Meanwhile Amotju is falling more and more in love his secret mistress. Huy doesn’t want to come between the spouses.

Even though Amotju is supposed to be rich, we don’t see many servants at his place. Also, we don’t see his children at all. In fact, Aset is the one who orders her servants to do things.

Huy is the main point-of-view character but Amotju, Rekhmire, Mutnefert, and a couple of others are also POV characters briefly.

The plot moves somewhat slow especially at first, but it fits the setting and the characters. While the main plot is tied up at the end, the tensions between various characters are left wide open.

This is an interesting contrast to the Lord Meren series where Tutankhamun is already an established king even though he’s still young.

World’s first woman journalist investigates a murder mystery in 1889 Paris.

Page count: 565
Publication year: 2009
Format: Print
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Illustrations by Edouard Cucuel

The book is mostly set in 1889 Paris during the World Fair and an epidemic of Black Fever. It’s supposed to be the main character Nellie Bly’s manuscript which has been now found and published. There are even some footnotes from the Editors which usually tell more about things that are only lightly touched on or what happened later to other characters.

The book starts in Paris where Nellie is in disguise as a prostitute and following the man she thinks is responsible for killing several women, mostly prostitutes. Then it jumps back to the start of Nellie’s career; how she got a job as a reporter because of her determination and because she’s a woman and can go to places where male reporters can’t go. One of her first stories is about the apalling conditions in a mental institution for women, the Blackwell’s Island. She pretends to be crazy and spends two weeks in the institution as a patient. There, she also encounters the mysterious Dr. Blum who is murdering the patients and throwing the bodies away. Unfortunately, Nellie doesn’t get a clear look at the Doctor, only a vague outline of a broad man with a black bear and long hair. She manages to escape his clutches but nobody believes her story.

The Doctor moves to London where he brutally cuts up several women. Nellie follows him and helps the police. Unfortunately, the man manages to flee, this time to Paris and Nellie follows him again.

After about eighty pages of Nellie’s previous career and adventures, we return to Paris where Nellie is convinced that she has just witnessed Dr. Blum killing another woman. However, the police doesn’t believe her and instead arrest her. She manages to escape and realizes that she will need a partner for the first time in her life. She’s always admired Jules Verne and read his books, so she turns to him for help. Unfortunately, Mr. Verne isn’t interested in helping her and she has to lie to get him even to talk to her. Eventually, Verne reluctantly agrees to help her and together they set out to search Paris for the mysterious man. Paris is suffering under the attack of the virulent Black Fever which is killing especially the poor people.

Most of the book is told in first person by Nellie. However, there are short but crucial passages in third point-of-view which tell about Dr. Pasteur’s and his assistants research about the Black Fever, and even the villains’ doings. No explanation is given for the inclusion of the scenes which Nellie isn’t present.

Nellie is a passionate and determined woman, and she has to be in order to get her job and then keep it. All the time, the men around her underestimate her and try to keep her safe. Some even tell her flat out that she should be at home caring for her (non-existent) husband and kids. She has to be very convincing to get men to believe her. The Paris police dismiss her out of hand although Nellie thinks that’s at least in part because they don’t want to disrupt the Fair and cause a panic.

Jules Verne is here in his sixties. He’s shaven his customary beard and is in Paris somewhat incognito. He tells Nellie that he’s there “to kill a man”. However, almost against his better judgment he’s drawn to the case and once he’s convinced that Dr. Blum must be stopped, he’s determined to do it. Still, for a famous author he’s pretty glum. He also constantly antagonized Nellie with his sexist opinions.

Dr. Pasteur is mostly doing his own research about microbiology and isn’t as involved as Verne. Oscar Wilde does appear but after the halfway point of the book.

The book has some illustrations by Edouard Cucuel which were apparently published in Bohemian Paris of Today in 1900. They complement nicely McCleary’s descriptions of the famous Parisian places such as the Moulin Rouge, Café Procope, and Le Chat Noire. Unlike most historical novels I’ve read, Nellie doesn’t move among the upper class but instead among the poor and the middle-class, and McCleary describes them well. Occasionally, Nellie reminds us about the differences in attitudes of the reader and the characters. For example, back then hospitals were only for poor people; doctors made house calls to other people. Also, many doctors simply don’t believe in Pasteur’s tiny animals and don’t wash hands between patients.

Anarchists play also a large part in the book. They threaten Paris with bombings and make passionate speeches on the street. Louise Michel and her group make an appearance.

Despite the descriptions of poverty and suffering, this isn’t a serious history book. It has an outrageous plot and the characters don’t really shine except for Nellie herself. Still, it’s fun, I enjoyed it, and I’m very likely to continue to the next one where Nellie travels around the world in 72 days.

Page count: 272 (329 in the translation)
Publication year: 2002
Format: Print, translated into Finnish as Maistaja
Publisher: Plume, Penguin Group

In the Finnish edition, the author on the cover is Ugo DiFonte, although the copyright is for Elbling.

According to the prologue someone sent this old manuscript to Elbling who then translated it from 16th century Italian to English and published it. It’s the life story of the peasant Ugo DiFonte who is writing five years after he became the local Duke’s food taster.

Ugo DiFonte starts the tale as a small boy in 1534 Corsoli in Italy. He’s born into a dirt-poor peasant family in the middle of the plague and witnesses his mother’s suicide. His father and older brother treat him badly; he has to do all the most unpleasant work and therefore he tries to go out herding the family’s sheep as often as he can. He’s also deliberately given less food than his brother and his father says that Ugo isn’t his son.

At the age of fourteen, Ugo leaves his home. His brother refuses to give him even a few sheep to start his own flock. Soon, he sees a girl for the first time and promptly falls in love with her. Elisabetta’s father hires Ugo to his farm in exchange for food and lodging. After a few years, Ugo and Elisabetta get married. She becomes pregnant and dies giving birth to Miranda.

Ugo and Miranda are desperately poor but still manage to be happy until a famine during which they didn’t eat anything for days. Then Corsoli’s Duke Federico Bassillione DiVinelli’s hunting party gallops through Ugo’s small garden. The Duke almost kills Ugo but instead an old hunter says that Ugo can take Lucca’s place. Ugo is desperate to save his eleven years old daughter and he agrees without knowing what Lucca’s job was.

Ugo and Miranda are taken to the Duke’s palace and there Ugo is shown his job rather brutally. On the courtyard he watches when the Duke cuts off a man’s tongue. Later, he finds out that the unfortunate man was Lucca, the previous food taster. Then he tries to refuse the job but it’s too late. The Duke forces him to taste the food. After that, he and Miranda are part of the court.

The court is small and there’s not much intrigue going on. The Duke is married but prefers to use whores and his wife resents that, of course. However, the food taster is rather seen as the Duke’s dog and not in a position to further his own lot in life. One young man, Tommaso, works in the kitchen. He promises to be Ugo’s eyes and ears there in exchange of a marriage contract with Miranda. Reluctantly Ugo agrees to marry her to Tommaso when she’s fifteen. Ugo is hoping that many things will change during the years and that he wouldn’t have to honor their arrangement.

Ugo tries his best to raise his daughter, and succeeds almost too well: she starts to resent him, their poverty, and her lowly position as the food taster’s daughter. She grows more beautiful every day and many young men are wooing her.

Ugo adapts quickly to his new life at court. The change from a starving peasant to a food taster is staggering. However, even though he can now taste magnificent foods he can’t enjoy them because he’s constantly afraid of being poisoned.

Ugo is also a very religious man. He prays almost constantly guidance from God and every event is apparently a message from Him. On the other hand, he curses a lot.

Some words here and there have been left in Italian (I presume, I don’t know any Italian) which is an interesting stylistic choice. Some are the curse words Ugo uses more often such as potta (which unfortunately means a bed pan in Finnish). Some I presume to be other words such as contadino and castello. This is hardly ever done in Finnish because we have a lot of translated works and the idea is to make them as idiomatically Finnish as possible. Only a few books are translated into English each year. I presume that the effect here is to bring attention to the presumed translated status of the book.

There a huge difference between the starving peasants, and the Duke and his court who seem to be eating several different kinds of meat on every meal. When Ugo goes to the court and is forced to taste veal as his first food, he remembers that before that he’s only eaten meat twice before in his life.

Ugo makes a point to describe foods offered at feasts. While some of them sound delicious, there are also foods I wouldn’t eat (calf’s brains, for example). However, he provides a list of ingredients to a serving only a few times. After all, he’s not a cook. His main worry is if he’s going to survive the meal or not, and that Miranda should have a good life.

The characters here are very human. The Duke is sometimes cruel and kills people who annoy him. Yet, he’s been raised to do that. He has no idea how the peasants truly live. Most of the people around him are trying to please him and therefore either survive or get more for themselves. Only one of them seems to care about the peasants, and only because if they tax the peasants too much, they will die and who will then pay for the upper classes meals?

Most of the people who we see here in the Duke’s court are not nobles themselves. There’s an astronomer, the fool, the cook, the scribe and so on. In fact, we see more about the lives of the servants than the upper class. Ugo isn’t really interested in mingling with the upper class. Even his romantic interest is a servant.

Ugo isn’t paid as such. Apparently, he works for food and board. He knows that he’s poor and without the duke he would be nothing. There’s no other job or profession he could go to.

There’s no adventure or mystery to solve here. Just Ugo writing down things that he finds worth telling about. Near the end the writing style changes when Ugo is writing things down every evening. This makes the story more immediate and was a good way to end the story.

The second book in the Vesper Holly adventure series.

Page count: 164
Publication year: 1988
Format: Print
Publisher: Dell Publishing

The El Dorado Adventure starts a year after the previous book, the Illyrian Adventure. Vesper is now seventeen and just as bright and eager for adventure as before. She lives in Philadelphia with her guardians Professor Brinton Garrett and his wife Mary.

Vesper finds out that she owns a volcano and the surrounding lands in the small country of El Dorado, which was before a part of Spain. Then Alain de Rouchefort sends her a telegram that he needs to talk about that property immediately. He’s even paid for the journey. Soon, Vesper and Brinnie are on the way to Puerto Palmas. There, she comes fast friends with a people Brinne finds more than a little suspicious: a pair of identical twins, Smiler and Slider, who work on old steamship. Captain Blaizer O’Hare is an especially suspicious character and Brinnie is convinced that he’s a unscrupulous smuggler. Blaizer has also a talking parrot Adelita.

Blaizer tells Vesper and Brinnie that de Rouchefort is trying to build a canal which will drown out a local native tribe, the Chirians. The canal would go straight through Vesper’s lands. She, of course, will not allow that to happen.

This a short and entertaining adventure story filled with kidnappings, daring escapes, and running around in the jungle. However, most people turn out not to be what they seem to be at the first glance. It’s also full of what I would call endearing feminism where it’s enough to point out that sexism is silly, most people accept it, and they move on.

“What are you saying?”… “Are you asking men to do women’s work?”
“If they do it”, said Vesper,”it won’t be women’s work anymore. It will be everybody’s.”

If only that would work in the real world.

The story is written in first person. The storyteller is Brinnie who calls Vesper “dear girl” all the time and tries his best to protect her. He’s very much Watson to Vesper’s Holmes. Except that Vesper has actual human feelings.

This was nice, short, and funny, and exactly what I needed.

The second book in the Retrievers series.
Some spoilers for the first book, Staying Dead.

Page count: 432
Publication year: 2005
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Luna

Wren is a Talented, or magic-using, Retriever whose job is to retriever stolen or lost objects. Sergei is her partner who usually does the desk jobs; finding work, doing the paper work, and making sure they are paid. They’ve been in business together for ten years but have recently started having feelings for each other.

New York is suffering from a very hot summer which is getting on everyone’s nerves. Added to that is Wren’s and Sergei’s romantic relationship which is, at best, uncertain. They talked about their feelings near the end of the previous job but they’re hesitant to change their existing professional relationship and friendship to a romantic one.

Also, during their previous job they managed to anger the Mage Council who is now making sure that the duo aren’t getting any work. However, in the previous book they agreed to be on retainer for a secret organization called Silence and now Silence has given them a job. Someone has stolen an old, and possibly powerful, manuscript. Unfortunately, the theft happened in Italy and Wren has a phobia about flying. As a Talent Wren controls electricity. However, when she’s afraid she tends to short circuit electronic stuff, such as metal detectors, which makes it difficult for her and Sergei to leave the country.

But they manage to get to Italy where they investigate the site of the theft which is an old monastery. However, Wren notices that the monastery has been built in such a way that it blocks Talent and electricity. Wren and Sergei become convinced that they haven’t been told much about the job at all. Sergei is a former Silence agent and he’s very angry that they’ve been kept in the dark.

The third point-of-view character is Andre Felhim who works for Silence. I got the feeling that he’s a middle manager; he has both underlings and bosses. He’s trying his best to do the job which turns out to be very difficult. He’s also Sergei’s former boss.

In addition to their more immediate job, something else is brewing. Fatae, who are creatures that don’t look like humans, are being attacked and discriminated against. Humans have apparently never gotten really along with the fatae but the tensions are now escalating to violence. Also, some loner magic users are getting fed up with the way that the Council is trying to police them and they are trying to organize the others to rise against the Council.

We’re told more about the magic system in this book which also means that the system gets even more complicated. This slowed the pace somewhat. I didn’t mind; on the contrary I like complex magic systems. We’re also told more about the training of Talents. Each youngster is trained by a teacher who is willing to take him or her as a student. There are no other qualifying terms for the teacher so they can have very individual styles and they don’t teach about everything.

Sergei’s and Wren’s relationship changes somewhat here. They are both used to being independent and doing things their own way, which means that the romance isn’t going to be an easy one. Sergei is the neat and tidy one who drinks tea, while Wren doesn’t care if she has a set of china or individual mugs, and she’s a coffee drinker. I really like this. It makes the relationship realistic.

While the start of the book is set in Italy, the duo soon returns to New York. Wren turned out to be a hero to the Italian lonejacks and I was very amused by the youngsters who tried to impress her.

Because of the several plot lines, the story feels a bit fragmented at places.

The people here aren’t black or white, and there aren’t clear good guys and bad guys.

Published in US under the name Those Who Hunt the Night

The first in the horror/fantasy series about former spy James Asher.

Page count: 306
Publication year: 1988
Format: Print
Publisher: Unwin paperbacks

James Asher is a former British spy. He used to travel around the world searching information and killing people for the betterment of UK. Finally, he was disgusted with his work and retired from the Service. Now he’s Philology don in Oxford and married to his youthful love Lydia.

It’s 1907 and Asher has lived a quiet life for seven years. One night he comes home and finds his household, including his wife, sleeping unnaturally. The cause is a vampire. Don Simon Ysidro wants Asher to work for him and if he doesn’t the vampire is going to kill his wife. Asher has no choice but to agree but he decides that he’s going to secretly gather information that will help him kill the vampire.

Ysidro tells Asher that there are several vampires in London and someone is killing them. So far, four vampires have been exposed to sunlight in their own, safe hiding places. However, Ysidro is very reluctant to tell Asher much about the killed vampires which is very frustrating to Asher. Slowly, he managed to find out more about the vampires, their habits, and even their physiology and powers. Unfortunately, Ysidro is the only vampire who wants Asher to investigate the case. The others, including the Master Vampire of London, would rather kill him. And of course, it’s quite possible that even if Asher manages to find the killer, the vampires aren’t going allow him to live with what he knows about them.

Asher is a very interesting character. He’s a scholar of linguistics and folk tales so he notes the speech patterns and accents of people around him. At the same time, he uses his skills as a spy and does his best find out everything he can about the vampires. One of his best assets in this is his wife Lydia. I loved the fact that the first thing he did was to tell her what is going on and she promptly becomes the main researcher.

He’s main goal, of course, is to keep Lydia safe but he starts to feel sort of comradely towards Ysidro. At the same time, he notices how unhuman all the vampires are: their stillness, paleness, how even Ysidro constantly thinks about what he should and should not tell to Asher. In the end, Asher can’t know if he can trust Ysidro.

Lydia is the second point-of-view character although she only gets a few, short POV scenes. Even though at the start of the story she seems like a victim or a plot device, she turns out to be a more interesting character. She’s a research doctor and once she realizes that vampires are real, she starts to research them from a medical point-of-view. She’s meticulous and determined which isn’t really a surprise because she had to battle her own father in order to get into Oxford university and become a doctor. I really liked how Asher and Lydia just matter-of-factly trusted each other to be cool and smart.

Now these are vampires I really enjoy reading about! They are monsters who feed on humans so that they can continue to live. Ysidro explains that they also need to kill humans or their minds become slow and dull, and they will become so careless that people will find them and kill them. Also, the blood must be fresh so it can be stored. They can also affect the minds of humans and control humans so that killing them isn’t a problem.

The vampires are helpless during the day because they are unconscious. In a bit of a twist, silver burns them. Asher didn’t try crucifixes so I don’t know if they would be effective. However, Asher researches vampire stories and points out that vampires appear in folk tales before Christianity.

Some of the vampires kill poor people off the streets while others want to “play with their food” and become close to their victims first. The killed vampires are the latter variety, and Asher and Lydia research their habits. They are mostly women vampires who lure rich men and get money off them before killing them. This is a chilling reminder that these vampires don’t think like humans and don’t have human emotions anymore.

The plot centers around two mysteries: who is the killer of vampires and what the vampires are in this world. Ysidro makes an off-hand comment that fairies aren’t real so apparently there aren’t other supernatural creatures about. There’s a lot of tension in the plot but not a lot of violence. Still, the plot moves at a brisk pace.

My newest review: Walter Greatshell’s Xombies: Apocalypticon

Horror sf, 4 starts out of 5.

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