The Green Man’s Foe – Juliet E McKenna (Spoilers)

The Green Mans Foe

Last year, Juliet E McKenna published The Green Man’s Heir (Review), which has sold over 10,000 copies in all formats and has twice been chosen for special promotion by Amazon. It is a finalist in the Best Fantasy Novel (Robert Holdstock Award) category of the 2019 British Fantasy Awards. I was not the only person who immediately clamoured for a sequel to this brilliant book, and fortunately its success meant that a second novel featuring Daniel Mackmain, son of a dryad, is out on August 15 (the first day of the 2019 World Science Fiction Convention, as it happens!). I was lucky enough to receive an e-ARC of the book from its publishers, Wizard’s Tower Press, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Daniel is busy at work at Blithehurst, anticipating the start of the season of the house and grounds being open to visitors, when he has a dream about a house where an old man is dying. The dream has been sent by the Green Man, who wants Daniel to go to Brightwell to deal with a particularly nasty individual who has joined forces with a nix, a shape-shifting water spirit that is poisoning the local lake. Aiden has some of the local teenagers in thrall to him, and thinks himself a ceremonial magician of the Aleister Crowley sort. He claims descent from one Mungo Peploe who was responsible for causing a great scandal at Brightwell in the past – Aiden wants some occult books, which the then-owner of Brightwell, Constance Sutton, purchased, and a Hand of Glory, which Aiden thinks will give him even greater powers.

Daniel is invited to become the project manager of Brightwell’s conversion into a hotel, his skills having been recommended by the brother of Eleanor Beauchen, who is a friend of the current owners of Brightwell. Daniel gets Eleanor’s approval before taking the job since it will require him to be absent from his job at  Blithehurst House for three months.

Once there, Daniel finds himself meeting a swan maiden, as well as a couple of locals who are attuned to the supernatural world. Between Finele (Fin) the swan maiden, Rufus Standlake (who is protected by The Hunter in a similar way to Daniel being protected by the Green Man), Daniel, and Sineya (one of the dryads from Blithehurst), they take on both the nix and its disciple, Aiden, and Daniel kills the nix, while Aiden winds up dead as a consequence of defying the Hunter and the Green Man. (Daniel doesn’t kill Aiden – the Hunter ensures he dies in a fire inside his caravan.)

I loved The Green Man’s Heir, and while I expected to thoroughly enjoy The Green Man’s Foe, I did not expect it to be even more satisfying than its forerunner. Which was foolish of me, I admit – I should know by now that McKenna is more capable of outdoing her previous tales in a series.

I very much hope that we’ll see more of Daniel Mackmain in the future modern day urban-rural fantasy very much needs less grimdark and more hopefulness, and McKenna is more than capable of providing that hopefulness.

The Green Man’s Foe is forthcoming this month from Wizard’s Tower Press, and is available to purchase from Amazon and Kobo.

Cover art is by Ben Baldwin.

Thornbound – Stephanie Burgis (No Spoilers)

Thornbound - Stephanie Burgis

Do you like your heroines feisty, passionate, clever, strong-willed, a little flawed, and more than a little impatient of convention?

Do you like your history alternate, with a women-only government named after Boudicca because she threw out the Romans and went on to rule?

Do you like your fantasy magical, and featuring both elves and fey?

If you answered yes, then you need to be reading Stephanie Burgis’ Harwood Spellbook series. Thornbound, the second book (technically the third as Burgis has published a prequel novella Spellswept), is out in late February but I was fortunate enough to get hold of an ARC.

Cassandra Harwood, only 5 weeks married and yet to have a ‘wedding night’ with her brand new husband, Wrexham, thanks to the machinations of her opponents, is about to open Thornfell, her magic school for young women – to the horror of both the women of the Boudiccate (the governing body of Angland) and the magicians of the Great Library for in Angland (similar to Regency England) because only men do magic and only women are politicians. And if the first is overturned by Cassandra’s school, then the second could be overturned by men who want to rule. (In Angland men are considered ‘too emotional’ to be politicians, which I confess to finding highly amusing!)

Cassandra had already turned the idea that women can’t do magic on its head in Snowspelled, the previous book in this series, by gaining admittance, despite considerable opposition, to study magic at the Great Library. After seemingly destroying her own magic by trying to cast a spell that was too large and complicated for her to work alone, she’s now turning her formidable energies and talents to teaching other young women of Angland how to do magic.

But the Boudiccate is not going to accept this easily so they send four inspectors – three women from the Boudiccate and a magical officer (the supervisor of her own husband no less) – to carry out an inspection of the school and her curriculum.

Unfortunately for Cassandra, someone has entered into a blood pact with a fey living in the woods that border Thornfell’s grounds, and the fey begins sending tendrils of thorn-filled vines towards the house from the wood – vines which are perfectly capable of tearing down a building, or even stealing a person from inside the house.

What follows is a tense, tightly-written, engaging, and utterly gripping narrative featuring a race against time wherein Cassandra must figure out how to stop the fey from destroying her school and keep her brand-new students safe, yet she is one magician alone: her husband isn’t around because his supervisor, Lionel Westgate, suspects Wrexham will offer to teach at Cassandra’s school – which Westgate considers would be throwing away his career prospects since the magicians of the Great Library have decreed that any magician who teaches at Thornfell will be struck off their list of alumni. But Cassandra, as she is reminded, is not as alone as she thinks she is – and it’s just possible that she can save her school, her students, and her husband, after all.

Thornbound is as much thriller as it is fantasy or romance, and it should not be missed if you’re looking for an exciting and engaging read, or if you’re looking for a series featuring capable young women who are ready to overturn centuries of tradition, while supporting both each other and their peers. The sense of sisterhood between Cassandra and her older sister-in-law, Amy, is something I particularly value in the Harwood Spellbook series.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (Spoilers)

outlaw and upstart king

Every time I think Rod Duncan’s written his best book, he writes another one and proves me utterly wrong.

Elizabeth Barnabus, her newly-married best friend Julia, and the orphan boy Tinker, having escaped a battle between the Company (of the Gas-Lit Empire) and the women of Freedom Island in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, have washed up on the shores of what they think is north America, only to discover it’s Newfoundland, and they’re about to be made slaves, according to Newfoundland Law (such as it is).

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

What unfolds is an account of how Elizabeth desperately tries to find a way to get the three of them to freedom, sometimes aided, and sometimes obstructed, by Elias No Thumbs, formerly of the Blood, a son of the ruling class of Newfoundland, who was set up in rigged card game and accused of cheating in punishment for his previous cheating at cards. He loses both his thumbs before being Outlawed by the Blood. He manages to escape from Newfoundland to mainland America in a smugglers’ submarine and once in the Yukon finds work making ‘glycer-fortis’ (the equivalent of gelignite). He’s sent back to Newfoundland after 18 months to persuade one of the Patrons (heads of the different Blood clans) to join forces with the smugglers in Yukon so that they can open up a trade route between the two.

What follows is weeks of crawling tension (I was forcibly reminded of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the land of Mordor) as Elias tries to fulfil his task without being killed outright, and Elizabeth seeks to find a way to get herself, Julia, and Tinker, safely to the Americas. There’s a battle, and explosions, there’s pain and misery, there’s hope and friendship, and the whole is wrapped up in Duncan’s trademark character-driven, immersive narrative style. A truly excellent book.

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik (Spoilers)

Spinning Silver

Oh I absolutely love this book!

Three young women: Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter; Irina, the unwanted daughter of a Duke; and Wanda, a peasant girl – stand up to three different men (the Staryk (Winter) King, the demon-possessed Tsar, and her own father, respectively), and in doing so, gain power and discover their own strength, courage, and self-respect. Miryem first takes up her father’s work, hardening her heart to demand of his debtors the money or goods that are due to pay off their debts, so that she can earn the money to help her sick mother grow well again.

She also employs Wanda to help her on her rounds to her father’s debtors, as well as to help about the house, doing the heavy work to spare her mother. Wanda also earns money (as well as helping to pay off her drunken, loutish father’s debt to Miryem’s father), and when her brother Sergey is also taken on by Miryem’s family, the pair decide not to give their wages to their father who will only spend it on drink. The self-respect they both gain from being paid for their work gives them the courage to stand up to their father when he later tries to marry Wanda off against her wishes. He drunkenly lashes out at them both, and their younger brother Stepon, and is accidentally killed when he falls over one of the boys, whom he’d beaten to the ground, then falls into the fire, pulling a pot of hot soup down onto his face, burning it hideously. He dies almost immediately from his injuries.

Miryem mistakenly boasts to her mother than she can change silver into gold while the pair are driving back from a visit to her grandfather, on a road that runs near to the Staryk King’s road. He learns of her boast and gives her some silver coins which she takes to a jeweller in the Jewish Quarter of the town where her grandfather lives. The jeweller melts the coins down and turns them into a silver ring, for which Irina’s father pays him handsomely in gold. The jeweller pays Miryem for the silver coins with some of the gold coins, and she gives them to the Staryk King. He leaves considerably more coins with her the next time, and they are turned into a silver necklace, which the Duke buys for Irina, deciding to marry her to the Tsar, if he can. A third purse of silver coins become a crown, which Irina wears to her wedding.

The Staryk King then captures Miryem and takes her back to his Kingdom, where it’s perpetually winter and tells her she must turn 3 storerooms full of silver coins into gold – but by doing so she will create a perpetual winter in her homeland, where the winters have already been growing consistently longer and harder, with crop and food shortages that afflict everyone.

Meanwhile, Irina marries the Tsar, who’s possessed by a fire demon called Chernobog, with whom his mother made a deal to give him gifts, including beauty, before he was born. Irina has no desire to lie with such a man, and she discovers that when she’s wearing the ring, necklace and crown made from Staryk silver she can pass through any reflective surface into a frozen world which she later discovers is the Staryk Kingdom (she has Staryk blood in her from her mother, which doubtless helps). She flees there at night to avoid sharing a bed with Mirnatius, the Tsar, and eventually takes through her serving woman, Magreta, where she encounters Miryem. The two young women, both wedded to men who are deadly to their people, conspire to bring the Staryk King and the Tsar to Vysnia in the hope that both will be rid of their unwanted husbands when the fire demon consumes the Winter King.

Because the Staryk can make people forget them, Miryem’s parents, who’ve taken in Stepon after Wanda and Sergey flea for fear of being hung for causing the death of their father,  forget about her existence for a while, until her mother suddenly remembers and the pair, along with Stepon, immediately set out to Vysnia, thinking Miryem is there, staying with her maternal grandparents. En route, they encounter Wanda and Sergey, who are staying in a house that exists on the border between the Staryk kingdom and their own country, Lithvas.

The five of them travel on to Vysnia where Miryem’s cousin is to be married to the jeweller who turned the Staryk silver into jeweller for Irina’s father, and Miryem gets the Staryk king to bring her to the wedding, while Irina brings Mirnatius there also. The demon-possessed Tsar and the Winter king fight, and eventually Miryem and Irina, together with Miryem’s parents, and Wanda and her brothers, managed to bind the Staryk king with a silver chain and he is taken down a secret tunnel and left bound in a ruined tower at the edge of the town. Chernobog feeds from the Staryk king, but doesn’t outright kill him, and Miryem decides that she cannot destroy all of the Staryk kingdom, not after three of the King’s servants risked helping her when she had to change 3 storerooms’ worth of silver coins into gold ones in only 3 days, and she had named the daughter of one of the servants who had helped her. So she sets the King free again, but because nothing can be given freely by a Staryk, Miryem gives him her help in return for a promise that the King will no longer attempt to destroy Lithvas with an eternal winter.

Unfortunately, when Irina realises what Miryem has done, she takes Chernobog through the looking glass in her mirror into the Staryk kingdom, and he sets about destroying it – a relatively easy task for a fire demon to accomplish in a kingdom that is made up entirely of ice and snow. Miryem gets the Staryk King back to his kingdom, and at his request, agrees to help him and his people against Chernobog. She is able to use her ability (which only exists in the Staryk kingdom) to turn silver coins into gold ones with a touch against Chernobog, reducing him to a mere ‘coal’ inside Mirnatius, and when he goes storming back to the Palace, Irina puts her Staryk silver ring on Mirnatius’ finger so the demon leaps out of him, landing on the carpet, which begins smouldering. A quick-thinking scullery-maid immediately up-ends a bucket of ash and sand on top of the coal, intending to stop it from causing a fire, and effectively putting out the demon, leaving Mirnatius free of it for the first time since before he was born.

After 6 months labouring to repair the damage done by Chernobog in the Staryk kingdom, the king takes Miryem to see her parents on the first day of snow, and he formally asks for her hand in marriage, having already stolen her away and forced her into the Staryk version of marriage without her consent. She agrees, so long as he will agree to be married according to Jewish custom, and so long as he will bring her to visit her family whenever she wishes during the winter months (since he cannot bring her back to Lithvas except via the Staryk road, which can only come to Lithvas during the winter) and two weeks later, they’re married.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Passing Strange – Ellen Klages (Spoilers)

Passing Strange

While Passing Strange opens and closes in the present day with Helen Young, the last of a group of queer ‘transgressive’ women of ‘the Circle’, the bulk of this tale centres around Haskell, a bisexual artist, and Emily, a lesbian English student and singer.

This is a tragic romance with a happy-ish ending. It’s a tale of a small group of queer women doing their best to live and love the way they chose despite draconian laws and homophobic attitudes to their existence: Franny and Babs, who teaches mathematics, are married; Helen Young, a Japanese lawyer who’s only just graduated a year earlier and is in a marriage of convenience with a gay man, also earns money dancing in the Forbidden City, Chinatown. Emily’s newly arrived in San Francisco having been kicked out of Wellesley College after being found in bed with her lover, Jilly. The latter is taken to a mental asylum to be ‘cured’ of her lesbianism before being married off to the man of her parents’ choice, but Emily walks out before her own parents can arrive and take her choices from her. An English student with literary aspirations and an amazing voice, she pitches up at Mona’s where she dresses in men’s clothing – apart from the obligatory three items of women’s clothing necessary to comply with the law that said women couldn’t dress as men – and sings as ‘Spike’, a nickname earned in honour of her legendary volleyball spike.

Haskell is legally married to a man named Len, an older man who was a poet and thought he was better than everyone else. He went for a sailor nearly four years before the story opens, and Haskell believes she’ll never see him again, but after a short period of domestic and sexual bliss with Emily, he rolls into town and demands money, claiming she must be coining it in because he’s seen her Weird Menace covers everywhere. She refuses him and tries to make him sign the divorce papers she’s had drawn up. Instead he attacks her and tears up the paperwork, and Emily comes home to find Haskell huddled up on the floor, suffering from flashbacks of her childhood beatings at the hands of her mother.

The couple head over to Forbidden City, with Emily dressed as Spike in a suit her brother Ned sent to her as it no longer fits him, and Haskell dressed in a blue jumpsuit and looking more feminine than is the norm for her. After a wonderfully romantic evening, they’re about to make their way home when Len accosts them, having followed them from Haskell’s apartment building. He’s drunk and aggressive, and Emily steps in to stop him from hitting Haskell again, but when she hits him he falls off the sidewalk into the path of a passing cab and the car hits him, catapulting him into the road where he’s instantly killed.

Haskell sends Emily to change her clothes as the detectives who will be showing up won’t take kindly to finding a woman dressed as a man, even if Emily is abiding by the three garment rule. Emily goes back into the club where Helen finds her some different, women’s,  clothes to wear and Helen’s husband Eddie escorts Emily from the club until she can take public transport across town to Franny’s.

The police, unfortunately, have a good description and a police artist sketch of Emily, so she remains at Franny’s while the cops hunt high and low for her. Then Helen reveals that Len had died owing the IRS nearly $2000, and because he’d completed his tax form with the information he was married and shared a joint account with Haskell, she’s now liable for his debt.

After giving it some thought, Haskell decides the only thing she and Emily can do is use her bubbe’s (grandmother’s) secret recipe for tundérpör which will allow them to use a specific kind of magic to transfer them into a painting. She does a painting of herself and Emily, the latter wearing her ‘Spike’ outfit from the night of Len’s death, while she wears her blue jumpsuit, and with the help of Fran, Babs, Helen, and Fran’s newly evacuated great-niece, Polly, who’s an aspiring chemist, the couple arrange to have Haskell’s painting protected for as long as Fran, Babs and Helen live: Polly rigs the slender wooden glass-fronted case in which the painting will be kept with pepper along the lid’s hinges, meaning that as soon as the case is unsealed, a huge dose of pepper will be released, and the ensuing sneezing fit will ensure the painting will be destroyed as Haskell’s ‘paintings’ are actually done in pastel chalks not in oils or watercolours. Normally she treats them with a fixative, but in this instance she omits that step in order to booby-trap the picture, just in case it falls into the wrong hands.

Helen’s the last of the group still alive some 75 years after Haskell and Emily step into the painting and when she learns that she has a terminal illness (it’s not specified what), she retrieves the painting from its hiding spot, then sells it to one Martin Blake, a greedy speciality bookseller, and she uses some of the sale money to reimburse a friend of hers whom Blake had ripped off, then uses some more of it to give herself one final day of nice things, extravagantly tipping waiting staff and taxi drivers during the day, then she goes home and takes an overdose before slipping into bed and going to sleep for the last time.

Blake, meanwhile, wants to take photos of the Haskell painting to post them online, but because he can’t get any good shots with the painting inside the case, he breaks the seal on it, and opens it – and promptly destroys it with a violent sneezing fit, thereby ensuring justice is served, and bringing an end to Haskell and Emily’s 75 year romance inside the picture.

I love this tale. I’ve read it three times now. It’s queer, romantic, tragic, and yet somehow, hopeful too. It’s short enough to read in the space of a couple of hours if I’m uninterrupted, and it’s compelling enough that I do want to read it that fast.

And I appreciate the fact that the tale has a happy-ish ending. It’s implied that Helen’s lived a full and busy life, even if we don’t see the specifics of that since most of the tale takes place in her past, but more than that, Haskell and Emily have 75 years together inside the world of the painting (which can be seen as an alternate dimension). Too many stories about queer women end up with at least one of them dead, and it was good to see Klages bucking that trend.

Between the Blade and the Heart (Valkyrie #1) – Amanda Hocking (Spoilers)

Between the Blade and the Heart

Malin is a Valkyrie-in-training who’s being mentored by her Valkyrie mother, Marlow, whom she regards very highly, but is also frequently frustrated by as Marlow is very emotionless and stubborn. It’s a Valkyrie’s job to slay immortals, on the orders of the Vanir, as conveyed to them by the Eralim, the angelic beings who mediate between the Vanir and the Valkyrie. Immortals are ‘returned’ to the afterlife to maintain balance in the world that would otherwise become too overcrowded with both humans and immortal supernatural beings.

Malin is astonished when she discovers from the guy who breaks into her apartment, Asher Värja, that her mother recently failed to do her job, and instead of killing Tamerlane Fayette, she let him go – with the result that Tamerlane killed Asher’s Valkyrie mother. When Malin confronts Marlow about it, she learns that Marlow had decided that because he did good things, he shouldn’t die. Unfortunately, Tamerlane becomes a draugr – a far more dangerous immortal than ever before – and he visits Marlow, killing her.

Malin and Asher join forces to go after Tamerlane so they can finish the job Marlow failed to do. They team up with Malin’s roommate Oona Warren, who’s a thaumaturgy major, and Malin’s ex-girlfriend and fellow Valkyrie, Quinn Devane. Malin’s Eralim boss, Samael, sends along Atlas Malosi, one of his personal bodyguards as well, and the five of them make their way to the Gates of Kurugia, the Underworld to which the immortals slain by the Valkyrie go.

They must find their way within Kurugia – and back out again if they want to live – but that last part’s not easy since tradition has it that those who enter Kurugia do not leave, even mortal humans.

To make matters harder, Malin’s torn between her ex-girlfriend Quinn, who is still annoyed that Malin broke up with her, and her new not-quite-a-boyfriend, Asher.

And to complicate matters even further, Malin and her friends discover that Tamerlane’s working on the orders of someone even more powerful than him, his ‘Queen’, who wants to destroy all mortals.

This book was an engaging read, with interesting characters, and an equally interesting mythos, and I enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to the sequel, From the Earth to the Shadows, which is out in May. But be warned, this book ends on a cliffhanger!

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review.

The Green Man’s Heir – Juliet E McKenna (Spoilers)

The Green Man's Heir

I have been a fan of Juliet McKenna’s works for a long time, and I was delighted when she offered me an e-ARC of her newest book as I had been anticipating it ever since she announced it was coming.

McKenna is best known for her secondary world fantasy series, beginning with The Thief’s Gamble, but she has written short stories set in our world too, including the precursor to this novel (‘The Roots of Aston Quercus’ in The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity). The Green Man’s Heir is a thoroughly engaging, at times almost impossible to put down, tale which, despite its titular character being a man, is peopled with an impressive array of interesting and intriguing women.

Daniel, the eponymous Heir, is the son of a dryad and a human man. He has a talent for woodcarving, a peaceable nature (except around murdering bastards), and peripatetic tendencies. He can see dryads, naiads, and all manner of other supernatural beings, including the Green Man himself.

One day, while looking for fallen wood to use for his carvings, he gets caught up in a police investigation in the local woods after a young woman is found murdered. He soon learns that there is a second dead young woman in the woods, thanks to Tila, the dryad whose home is in that particular wood. He learns that the murderer, a human man, is in thrall to a Wood Wose, and he finds himself pitted against the creature in a fight to the death.

The Wood Wose isn’t Daniel’s worst enemy, however. He learns from Kalei, the local naiad, that there are more dryads at nearby Blithehurst House. The dryads there are kin to Tila, who is murdered at the instigation of the Wose, so Daniel goes to see them, to pass on the news of her passing, and also to see if they can put him in touch with other sons of dryads.

Daniel also meets Eleanor Beauchene at Blithehurst. She runs the house as a tourist attraction on behalf of her family, and like Daniel, she can see dryads and other supernatural creatures. She can also hear things – supernatural creatures such as a wyrmling* that’s lurking underground in the undercroft within the mediaeval manor at Blithehurst. Daniel is forced by events into killing the wyrmling, then into trying to kill the full-grown wyrm that had been making trouble for him in her guise of a human woman, but not before it makes trouble for Eleanor as well.

Daniel is an interesting character – a thoughtful, intelligent man who’s very in tune with Nature thanks to his dryad heritage. He’s also capable, both as a carpenter and a wood-worker, and considerate – a nice example of non-toxic masculinity (something I very much welcome these days). But Daniel’s almost the only really well-fleshed out male character in this novel as McKenna has peopled her tale with a number of interesting female characters: four dryads, one naiad, one Wyrm (who takes on a female human form to cause trouble for Daniel), and one actual female human, Eleanor Beauchene. The latter somewhat reluctantly manages Blithehurst Hall: she’d like to go and do a doctorate in mediaeval history, having already done a degree in the subject, but the dryads won’t agree to it – since she’s the last of the family who can see them, and has ‘greenwood’ blood, they’d rather she settled down and started producing heirs to the estate to ensure that their trees and pastures are properly cared for (rather than, for example, being sold off/cut down for profit). Eventually, after the wyrmling’s been killed and the Wyrm itself has escaped, Daniel and Eleanor come to an arrangement, with the approval of the dryads – he’ll live and work on the estate, and Eleanor will mostly run things remotely while she takes a doctorate at Durham. They don’t immediately jump into bed together – but there’s a possibility they might get together at a later date.

All in all The Green Man’s Heir is a compelling, engaging tale that delves deep into British folklore while being bang up-to-date. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am hoping that there’ll be a sequel.

(*See Lambton Wyrm for more on this particular specimen of British folklore)

The Green Man’s Heir is forthcoming this month from Wizard’s Tower Press. Links for places to buy The Green Man’s Heir can be found here.