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Some Books That I Read When I Had A Cold (and Before)

Guy Gavriel Kay - the Last Light of the Sun   
I liked the setting of this novel - a slightly alternative universe version of Wales, England and Scandinavia around the 9th Century AD. Viking raids are going on, there is an English king who is clearly a version of Alfred, a bunch of feuding Welsh princes, and a little taste of Faerie. There's no Christianity, but the English and Welsh worship a god called Jad, whose church seems to be prone to similar arguments over the date of Easter and so on. Good setting. More novels should be set in pre-Norman Europe!

The story is told from a lot of different viewpoints. For me, that didn't quite work. There are just too many characters, most of them not very clearly differentiated in terms of personality. I also thought the plot seemed a bit weak in places - a bit too much charging about for the sake of it. There is a Viking Baddie called Ivarr who I just couldn't help imagining as Nogbad the Bad. Which is not in itself a Bad Thing, but did slightly detract from his scariness.

Robin McKinley : The Outlaws of Sherwood  
It must be awfully difficult to tell the Robin Hood stories yet again. Everything in this book has multiple echoes from other retellings and interpretations. McKinley's Robin is a rather down to earth and doubting individual, much concerned with latrines and manpower allocation among the Merry Men. I'm not sure that this really improved the story though probably it's quite realistic!  

 I kept noticing the language, breaking the spell of belief for me a little.  There are quite a number of scenes where characters talk about 'romance' in the nineteenth century sense of 'emotional dramatic story that has little to do with real life'.   Saxon liberation is a 'romantic' but not 'realistic' idea. Living in Sherwood is 'romantic' but impractical.  I'm not sure that this is a concept that is entirely wrong for the setting, in the sense of observing a discontinuity between life and story -  but the word 'romance' has too many specific associations, I think. 

Fly By Night - Frances Hardinge  
This tale of an adventuring urchin child and her goose is a lot of fun. And there is a wonderful scene where a pair of sailing coffee shops race, at less than the speed of a wheelbarrow.  Which is excellent.

The Wolf Hunt - Gillian Bradshaw  
I'm starting to really like Gillian Bradshaw's writing. The more I read, the more I like! This is another retelling, this time of a tale called the Lai de Bisclavret by Marie de France, of which I'm afraid I had not previously heard. It's a werewolf story set in 11th century Brittany. I thought it felt perhaps a little predictable in terms of its shape, but then I realised that it was a retelling of a very old story rather than a new story, which is more than enough excuse. Beautifully written and very likeable characters.

Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay  
Rather lovely complex political plot about a country which is conquered and removed from the map by magic so thorough that only those born there before the conquest can say the name of the place.

Like the Last Light of the Sun, this is a complex plot told via many point of view characters, though for some reason these characters seemed a bit better differentiated and more individual. There are some very silly moments, notably the one where two virgins seduce each other in total silence and darkness in a cupboard, in an attempt by one of them to prevent the other one from hearing what is going on outside. But on the whole, a likeable and readable book.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner  
Maiden aunt goes to the bad in the English countryside and finally finds her freedom. Beautifully written in a quiet sort of way. Reminded me a little of Saki, except that I don't think middle aged aunts in Saki are generally supposed to have urges to independence.

Witch World - Andre Norton  
Simon Tregarth , a mercenary on the run, is of Cornish descent - wooo-ooo! He escapes by uncanny means to a new universe where a queendom led by witches is under siege by Forces of Evil! It's all very melodramatic and rather silly, but it charges along at a good pace and if you aren't quite convinced by any section, keep reading because the action will be off to somewhere else very shortly. An interesting reminder of how much it is possible to pack into a fairly thin paperback, 60's style.

The Perilous Gard - Elizabeth Marie Pope  
More Faerie and devilish doings in the English countryside - this time investigated by a very down to earth Tudor lass, Kate Sutton, banished from attendance on the young Elizabeth by Mary Tudor. You could probably argue this is another retelling - of Tam Lin this time - but it goes into a lot of detail about what exactly goes on inside a Faerie Hill which I think gives it a claim to a degree of originality. A lovely fairy tale, with a genuinely scary fairy queen.

Cartomancy - Mary Gentle  
A series of short stories set in several different worlds. A magnificently OTT intro story (complete with nubile halfling woman in minimal leather armour and an elf with spectacular hair riding a hovering dragon) leads into a bunch of stories (including one that has backstory for Ash). She writes well, as always and really the reason I didn't entirely enjoy this book was more about my tastes than her writing. I am not particularly keen on the 'female soldier' characters that she explores in several of them - nothing wrong with the stories, I'm just not a big fan of army stories generally. One of the stories is the most horrific account of science-enabled child abuse I've ever come across, and was well written, but no fun to read.

The Beacon at Alexandria - Gillian Bradshaw 
Yay, more Gillian Bradshaw. This time a story about Charis of Ephesus, who flees an unwelcome marriage to pose as a eunuch and train as a doctor in fourth century AD Alexandria. Possibly the happy ever after is just a little conventional, just a little dull, but overall the whole thing is brilliant. Very Rosemary Sutcliff in feel, and that has to be a good thing.

Kraken - China Miéville  
A London-based fantasy novel filled with small gods, the angels of museums, and apocalypses. I was a little disappointed in this compared to The City and The City. It was similarly meandering, but I didn't care for the setting so much - I suspect this would appeal more to Londoners. There's a lot of quite graphic violence and pain, and I don't like that much. But there are some clever ideas too: the interaction between the evil Tattoo which controls the person on whose skin he lives, and his host Paul is inspired.
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