James Lovegrove, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon (2019)

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon

Author: James Lovegrove

Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 384

Series: Sherlock Holmes (Titan Books)

Right on time for the fast-approaching Christmas season, a new Sherlock Holmes novel hit the shelves this October. It is quite an eye-candy: a wonderfully bright and festive cover draws the eye and at the first glance invokes the spirit of Yuletide, and the interior is equally lovingly arranged. A nice gift for any bookworm, and especially for all those Sherlock Holmes fans out there 🙂

As for the content, well… 🙂 I must admit, I am always a bit wary of books utilizing characters created by someone else – especially characters like Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world’s most famous detective, whose existence is irrevocably and undeniably bound with that of his creator, sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Books about such renowned characters, written by other authors, always seem to me slightly too close to fan fiction for my liking. In that context, Gaiman’s and Albuquerque’s A Study in Emerald is a notable exception here, offering a very welcome and impeccably executed twist on the Holmesian (or should it rather be Sherlockian?) lore, masterfully intertwined with Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. But in case of Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon, I didn’t mind the fanfic associations in the slightest: the author was respectful but not overly fawning over its source material, managing to strike a nice balance between the spirit of original Sherlock Holmes novels and his own voice and delivering a pleasant new storyline to the ever-growing Holmesian. Plus, the book came with recommendation from Aaron at Swords and Spectres, and I learned to trust his tastes (…well, in most cases! :D).

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Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

A Natural History of Dragons

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 335

Series: Memoirs of Lady Trent, 1

An American folklorist and anthropologist turned writer, Marie Brennan aka Bryn Neuenschwander is an author known to many in the blogosphere for her entertaining and quite educational – if in the tongue in cheek style – series titled Memoirs of Lady Trent. For example, you can read the enthusiastic review by Bookforager here 🙂 Written from a first person perspective it grants us a rather unique narrative; for Lady Trent is an elderly and eccentric personage, whose old age coupled with enormous experience, accomplishments in the field of natural science, considerable wealth and status as well as an aristocratic background, free her entirely from fears of the sanctimonious outrage and possible sanctions of her society. This perspective lends the novels an air of unforced entertainment; a light, gossipy feel to what otherwise might have been a bit too heavy imitation of travel chronicles and taxonomy efforts of the nineteenth century naturalists and anthropologists. But most importantly – and incidentally it is where Brennan truly excels – the series is in essence a long, superbly meandering and convoluted love letter to dragons, envisioned as a family of species not unlike dolphins or apes: possessed of intelligence and – possibly – sentience, with their own rituals and traditions, and what at a first glance resembles the beginnings of a culture.

How it will all pan out, I don’t rightly know – yet, I might add – as I’ve only read two books so far. But I can already say with certainty that Brennan’s treatment of dragons, while fully indebted to Darwin, owes an equally great deal to Jane Goodall. The overwhelming sense of kinship with a family of species so different to ours is something I truly treasure here, particularly because Isabella Trent’s feisty and inquisitive nature easily lends herself to seeing the world around as a whole, all life irrevocably intertwined and interdependent.

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Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight (2004)

Gene Wolfe was (he died this year) a prolific and acknowledged American fantasy writer. His short stories (I have one anthology, but it’s still waiting its turn), and novels have many admirers, among them Le Guin, Gaiman and Ellison. His signature? Unreliable narrators, selling you their version of very complicated stories. It’s not his invention, but I have to agree I really have to pay attention when reading Wolfe, not to get totally lost. I find it impossible not to get lost a bit 😉

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My first encounter with Wolfe, though, was when I read his Soldier of the Mist, a novel (part of a trilogy, but I only have volumes one and two, the third part was published years later) about a young Greek mercenary who, after suffering a head wound, is only able to remember event of a current day. Not knowing who he is and pretty little about the world around him, he couldn’t be a reliable narrator if he tried to 😉 Fantasy element is added when he discovers he’s able to communicate with gods and other supernatural beings. I liked it, but couldn’t find any of Wolfe’s other works. A few years later, The Book of the New Sun was recommended to me, and these tomes I devoured with great taste. Story of Severian, young (Wolfe’s heroes do have a few things in common, and not only their youth 😉 ) torturer (!) exiled for showing mercy – and wondering the dying Earth of far future. Quite soon after that I ordered a cheap, used copy of The Wizard Knight, for when I have a fancy to read more Wolfe. I finally read it earlier this year and with a great pleasure, although with a feeling it’s mostly more of the same.

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Giles Kristian, Lancelot (2018)

Lancelot

Author: Giles Kristian

Title: Lancelot

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 500

I will start with an honest admission, as befits a review of the retelling of Arthurian mythos. Arthurian myths are very important to me – as are Greek and Norse, Slavic and Celtic, Sumerian and Egyptian myths, which all together form a still incredibly significant foundation of European culture. And within the wide realm of Arthurian myths, rooted in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which in itself was a reworking of earlier tales, I have pledged my allegiance to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I don’t care it’s misogynist. I don’t mind that parts of it are not on par with the rest (I’m looking at you, The Book of Merlyn!). I fully believe it’s the most beautiful and heartfelt retelling of the Arthurian mythos, full of passion – and compassion – and understanding of human nature.

And so I approached Kristian’s recent retelling, Lancelot, with no small amount of trepidation. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Aaron at the Swords and Spectres I hastened to read it, but remembering our previous differences of opinion, O gentle friend, I remained wary. And indeed, it took me some time to warm up to this reimagined Lancelot, from his difficult, heart-breaking childhood to his equally troubled adolescent years on Karrek Loos yn Koos, the island of Lady Nimue. For Kristian spins the story in the one direction that had been relatively less explored before – Lancelot’s past. We see him as a child cruelly and early bereft of childhood, only barely escaping the fate of his family – with an angry hunting bird and a promise of revenge as his sole possessions. We see him as a wild teenager, stubborn and prideful, separate from others and self-unaware to the point of naivety. We see him grow, and learn, and as we do, we begin to see the promise in him, the seed of the future first knight of Britain and the leader of men. We see him triumphant, we see him defeated, but to the end unbroken. What we see most clearly, however, is the unwavering love and loyalty that had become a staple of this paradoxical knight – and in this, Kristian’s retelling is as faithful to the spirit of Arthurian myths as it only could be.

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Jonathan French, The Grey Bastards (2015)

The Grey Bastards

Author: Jonathan French

Title: A The Grey Bastards

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 386

The Grey Bastards, French’s first installment in the Lot Lands series and the winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, has been steadily making its rounds around the blogosphere for a while, and became especially popular after the publication of the second installment, The True Bastards, earlier this year. The covers of both installments are really neat (I’d say “pretty” but somehow that word doesn’t seem to really fit fanged half-orcs) and give the reader a fair taste of the content. Which is, contrary to the expectations of some, less a story about nasty old pensioners, and more a curious mix of biker gang lore, bastardized Tolkien setting (well, I couldn’t resist) in a RPG-derived form, and some solid wordlbuilding.

The Lot Lands, previously called Ul-wundulas, are a domain ravaged and scarred by a war. The terrible orc Incursion into the greener and more fertile lands of the Hispartha kingdom a generation back had several unintended consequences: a swath of land between the kingdoms of humans and the domains of the orcs had been razed and destroyed, leaving it all but empty – a no-man’s land, vulnerable to another incursion and liable to start another war. In the wake of Incursion, the half-human, half-orc slaves of Hispartha had been freed and allotted a part of the empty lands, under the condition of protecting the border. Divided into several “hoofs”, a cross between a tribe, a warrior-group and a gang, they share the Lot Lands with insular and dangerous elves, unlucky and demoralized soldiers banished from Hispartha to the ungrateful task of manning the castilles along the border, religiously-minded Halflings defended by the world’s Tartars(!), called Unyars, blood-crazy centaurs, and Sludge Man – a dangerous demon inhabiting a fetid marsh and controlling moving masses of black, sticky goo.

Grey Bastards are one such hoof, consisting of several seasoned riders tasked with a double duty of patrolling the lands in the vicinity on the backs of great war hogs and with protecting a village of women and orphans which had symbiotically grown under their fortress. In this world, another conflict seems inevitable – and the protagonists of The Grey Bastards are in the middle of it all. Intrigued yet?

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Glen Cook, Soldiers Live (2000)

manydeaths

Author: Glen Cook

Title: Soldiers Live

Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company

Pages: 566

Format: Paperback Omnibus Edition

 Soldiers live, and wonder why.

Soldiers Live is the final installment in Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’ve read it over a year ago, but somehow couldn’t force myself to write down a review. Mostly, I think, because Soldiers Live is an elegy to Black Company so heartfelt and bittersweet and true – to its own history, sentiments, internal logic and the author’s worldview – that I found the necessary return to it surprisingly tasking. Over time this book came to resemble a tender spot one only gingerly agrees to touch, for it is a reminder of a past encounter with unyielding reality. What remains – a wound, a bruise, a slowly healing scratch – whatever the case, it’s a sign that reality won despite our best efforts of will 😉

And so it is for the Black Company. It still goes on, united by a common dream, but in nearly forty years of its history told by Cook over the course of nine books it has changed so profoundly it’s hardly recognizable for what it once was. And the crucial change is, obviously, its people. There are almost none of the old guard left, and whoever lives still, bruised and battered and exhausted by the constant struggle, has not much time left.

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Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, A Study in Emerald (2018)

A Study in Emerald

Author: Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque

Title: A Study in Emerald

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 88

Right in time for October spookiness, Gaiman’s cheeky and heartfelt tribute to both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is a lovingly crafted mystery clad in horror. Gaiman’s short story won 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette, and had been adapted to the comic book medium by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone,  and Dave Stewart over a decade later.

I must admit I did read the short story back in the time, but the comic book adaptation somehow made a much greater impression on me. Maybe it’s the Lovecraftian vibes, which so greatly lend themselves to the dark, shadowy frames filled with menacing tentacles and splotches of vivid green, or maybe it’s the structure of the story, beautifully misleading the readers, throwing red (or rather emerald) herrings left and right, only to reveal its true nature to the careful reader (and indeed, half the pleasure from reading Gaiman’s take on the world’s best detective stems from knowing all necessary facts about Sherlock Holmes ;))

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