Tangled Webs by Lee Bross

tangled webs

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

Arista was raised as a thief and pickpocket and now is one of London’s most recognizable criminal figures: Lady A, who will pay generously for the secrets of the nobility. What most people do not know is that Lady A is just a puppet for Bones, the man who rescued her from poverty-filled death, but was still really abusive.

Another criminal, Wild, offers her a way out of Bones’ clutches, but into his. Caught between a rock and a hard place Arista takes his offer and is placed in the home of a wealthy merchant. She continues to deal in secrets, but slowly comes to love the son of the merchant, Grae. She desperately wants to escape with him, but Bones and Wild are both unwilling to let her go.

This book started off looking like it was going to lead to a love triangle, but it actually did not really end there, which I appreciate. But, there was a lot more relationship time than I would have wanted given the premise of the novel. I wanted a historical novel about a cool, brave heroine who sneaks around and blackmails the aristocracy. I wanted political and social tensions and then some action. What I got was romance, more romance, and a bit of sneaking and lying. Everything about Arista’s criminal life seemed just like set dressing for the romance and relationship stuff.

What I did get of the crime plot line was neat. Lady A trades secrets amongst aristocracy. Someone will pay her big to find out that one of their rivals is illegitimate, but will have to pay for that secret with one of their own. Bones ends up collecting the money, but Lady A is the one who physically goes out and meets the customers at fancy balls and dinners. She is a street urchin made up like a lady, trying to pass as belonging to a world she can only briefly visit. She eventually wants to escape to India with her maid, and she takes the deal with Wild, hoping she can save enough to catch a ship over one day. Her two lives as Lady A and a pauper collide when she is set up in a household and expected to act like a well bred young lady, but not reveal that she is the infamous blackmailer.

Arista is a proactive enough protagonist that I really enjoyed reading about her exploits, but she does spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about boys. That is where this book really failed me. The action parts were great, but too few and far between. Read  this if you want a lot of romance in your historical fiction. If not, maybe give it a miss.


Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra

mad miss mimic

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

For those of you who do not think historical fiction gets enough representation in this blog, here you go, something historical! It does not even have any time travel!

Leo is beautiful, young, and an heiress to a large fortune. She should be swarmed with eager suitors, but they keep getting scared away by her speech problems. Not only does she have a stutter, but she also has the ability to perfectly mimic the speech of others. This crops up at the most inopportune times, leading Leo’s sister to nickname her rude and mimicking alter-ego “miss mimic”. Her sister is eager to marry her off, and now there seems to be the perfect man. Mr. Thornfax is gorgeous, wealthy, and does not seem to mind her speech problems. If only her thoughts did not keep wandering to her brother-in-law’s assistant Tom. If only opium was not becoming a serious social problem. If only a random terrorist organization wasn’t blowing things up.

Given how much I love Jane Austen and other classic books about young women struggling to get married, this was a pretty good match for me. A lot of this book is about someone struggling to fit into society and make an advantageous marriage. It describes gowns, social outings and gossip. I know that sounds boring for some of you science fiction and fantasy fans, but for you that is compensated for by the action-packed opium plot where Leo is pulled into the search for the Black Glove gang that insists on blowing up parts of the city. I would have been fine with just the marriage and stuttering plot line, but others may need more action.

The whole book has opium strewn throughout it. Characters ingest it, people die from overdoses and Parliament is debating whether or not to ban it. Writing about opium from a more historical perspective (a lot more medical than now) was a part of the work I enjoyed. It has a very Sherlock Holmes/ 19th century starving poet in a gutter feel about it.

Leo does not have a great personality, only showing interest in a  few things, but that may also be a side-effect of an impersonal and straightforward prose style. We spend a lot of time looking at what Leo does and feels about her speech problem and romantic life, but we do not see a lot of the rest of her. Because of her abnormality, she does not interact with a wide variety of characters so we cannot figure out a lot about her from her friends and family. Leo is a fairly flat character with some interests tacked on.

What really carried this story was its resemblance to other novels of manners, with the added twist of a protagonist with a speech disorder. I probably would have enjoyed it as much, if not more, without the Black Hand plot line. It mixed too much action and fast-pacing into a story that resembles the type of books that traditionally have little to no action at all.

This was not bad for a first novel. The mixing of action with close inspections of manners and daily social life was not done fabulously, but I still would like to see more from this author. Her premises are unique and intriguing.

All Clear by Connie Willis

blackout all clear

4 out of 5 stars

I think I finally found a science fiction book that my history-loving mother would like.

It is 2060 in Oxford. Time travel is begin used by historians to observe and document key events in human history (though some are so critical time travellers are not allowed near). 3 students have gone back to observe World War 2. Merope (Eileen) is in the British countryside taking care of war evacuees. Polly is watching the blitz as a shopgirl in London, and Michael is watching the evacuation of Dunkirk. All three complete their assignments when it becomes clear that the time travel drops to take them home are malfunctioning. They are all stuck in the middle of one of the deadliest wars in human history, with only a limited knowledge of upcoming bombings and troop movements.

I love the balance Willis has struck between the science fiction and historical elements in these books. On one side, the time travellers have an advantage over the contemporaries in that, for the time they were scheduled to be in the past, they have memorized which areas of the country get bombed and burned, so they are pre warned, for a while, of where is safe. On the downside, they live in fear of inadvertently changing the course of history. Time travel is supposed to prevent paradoxes and major changes to history, but small, worrying discrepancies start showing up. Each character experiences World War II both through the eyes of the people around them in the time period, and as a historian with the knowledge of the 21st century.

Willis does a great job of taking readers through the terror and tedium of being in London during the Blitz. People are terrified for their lives as bombs reign down, but also have to cope with how boring it is to be stuck in the dark every evening with nothing to do. Little details, like how precious pantyhose become and how difficult it is to navigate when all the road signs are blacked out really add a realism to the text. All three characters have to survive the war, try to find a way back to the future, not get arrested as spies, and try not to wreck history.

There are a lot of complaints on Goodreads about these books being tedious, but I found the pacing to be in line with other historical fiction I have read. Willis does go into a lot of detail about the day-to-day doings of the characters, but that makes the setting real. There is not as much action as science fiction fans might expect, but there is a lot of character development that kept me interested.

I really enjoyed learning about World War II through a science fiction lens. I was constantly popping onto Wikipedia to read articles about the events and people. These are great for historical fiction buffs or anyone who loves time travel.

W.A.R.P. by Eoin Colfer

reluctant assassin  the hangman's revolution

4 out of 5 stars.

Eoin Colfer finally strikes out into the world of young adult. The novels I know him for are all for junior-aged people, so these are a little different. The villains are a little scarier and the characters are a little more mature. It does still have all the creativity you would expect from Colfer though.

In the first volume, Riley is a Dickensian orphan who is pressed into service by a serial-killer magician who needs an assistant both for his act and his murdering. Chevron is a 21st century Native American (hooray for a diverse cast) FBI agent who is ordered to guard a time machine. Worlds collide when Riley and his horrible boss are sucked through to the present day. Now Riley and Chevron have to escape a madman who is slowly manipulating his way into the FBI, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

The second one is a lot more Dystopian, where the first one was very solidly time travel/ historical fiction. In the second, Chevron travels back to her time, only the future has been changed into a bleak, fascist society. The Chevron of that future now has to deal with the FBI Chevron popping up in her head and demanding things like basic freedoms. Chevron is able to escape into the past and hook up with Riley, all with the goal of stopping the terrible future from happening.

One thing Colfer really excels at is writing very sympathetic male characters. They have personality, strengths, and weaknesses. They aren’t just structures to pin action onto, but boys that are allowed to have emotions. Similar with his female characters, who tend to be very strong and independent. Colfer has a great talent for making characters of both genders that will appeal to both genders. His books have enough action and enough character development to keep everyone happy.

I also really appreciate a Native American main character. I live very close to one of Canada’s largest reserves, and there are very few books about Native Americans, especially ones that don’t have the character’s Native-ness as the whole point of the work. It is so nice as a librarian to have minority characters so that I can have all my patrons reading about kids like them having adventures and being awesome.

The two books actually read very differently. The first one actually really reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms (good guys chase down a psycopath in a Dickens-like landscape) and the second is a lot more dystopian. The second is a lot more political and reads a lot more like a YA, whereas the first could still pass as an older junior work. Despite this, the two are very good, just quite different for being in the same series.

I am delighted that kids that read Artemis Fowl now have a series by the same author to keep them company as they grow older. I have yet to read something by this author that I did not like.

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

madman's daughterher dark curiositycold legacy

4 out of 5 stars.

This trilogy is a rewrite of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and, later, “Frankenstein”. It answers the age-old question that seems to be on every YA writer’s mind. What if a famous character had a teenage daughter? In this case, what if the insane scientist Dr. Moreau had a daughter, Juliet, who loved science as much as he did?

While I did not love the original by H.G. Wells, though it was interesting, Shepherd did a great job preserving the mystery and tension of the original. Even if you already know the ending from reading the classic, you are still caught up in the story and want to know how it happens in this version. The character of the novel is transferred very accurately for a teen rewrite of an older book. The language is not totally accurate for the late 19th century, but it is close enough, and the prose is accessible to a teen audience.

Juliet Moreau and her mother were abandoned by Dr. Moreau when he was run out of England for illegal experiments. After running into her father’s servant (Montgomery), she bullies him into taking her to the infamous island from the Well’s novel. They run into another handsome young man (there tend to be a lot of those in YA novels) adrift in the ocean (Edward) and he also accompanies them to the mysterious, spooky island where mysterious spooky things are happening. For those of you who are familiar with Wells, you know what the island’s secret is. For the rest, go Wikipedia it or watch the Simpson’s episode.

The second book deals with the aftermath of the island and some health problems of various characters, which Juliet has to struggle to solve. The third ties in the “Frankenstein” plot from Shelley.

Juliet Moreau is caught in between her love of science and her fear that her father’s madness will lead her down the same dark path. She sees the potential for good in her father’s research, but also the huge destructive power. In many points in the books, she has to decide whether to attempt to duplicate Moreau’s procedures to try to do good, or if all of his work is tainted and will lead to nothing but sorrow.

There is romance in the books. It starts out as a very predictable love triangle but actually turns into something sweeter and more realistic as the trilogy wears on. I found this was true of many of the elements of these books. They got even better as the series went on.

These are great for lovers of classics being revisited, or historical science fiction. They are suspenseful and atmospheric and the ending is so well done.

Also, if you enjoy these, go ahead and check out Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Very similar feel.

Rivals in the City by Y.S. Lee

rivals in the city

3 out of 5 stars.
I was given an ARC of this work.

This book is the fourth instalment in “The Agency” series. The premise of the entire series is that there is a secret agency in London that trains young girls to be spies and detectives, on the premise that, at the time, no one really expected women to do anything, so they are perfect operatives. The series follows the adventure of one such young woman, Mary Quinn, from her introduction to the Agency in the first book, through to this fourth one, where a villain from an earlier adventure reappears and threatens Mary’s hard won happiness.

The books tend to be on the short side, and the setting isn’t too distinct, but the books are fun. They are a nice, light mix of mystery and historical fiction. Perfect for a vacation or weekend read. It took me only a couple of hours to get through this one, so not a huge time commitment.

The premise is endearing (women sleuths and spies in petticoats), the adventures are fantastical, and some of the dialogue is clever. The books are not deep works of art, but are a fun read. It would be nicer if they were longer, though. It seems like you just sit down to read and then the book is over. There is not a lot of time to get to know the characters deeply. The books are action, with a little romance. There is just not a lot of space for anything else, which is too bad. I would love to know more about the Agency and some of its other missions and operatives. Lots of day-to-day details that tend to make worlds and situations “pop” are missing. The tension also does not have a lot of time to build up. By the time you start worrying about the characters and their situations, we are already at the climax.

The most historically interesting thing for me is that the main character is half-Chinese, so the books portray racial tensions, as well as gendered ones, in Victorian society. I appreciated the author including this, since books from the female point of view set in this time period tend to focus pretty exclusively on gender issues. The inclusion of race issues was nice, and historically pertinent.

I always wonder, with Victorian era books, how much of the “adventurous woman wanting to leap out of the constraints of the rigid society in which she finds herself” are accurate to the time, or are our 21st century notions imposed on a character in a certain piece of history. I do not doubt that there were some women in Victorian England who saw the unfairness in an extremely sexist society and wanted out, but how many and how did they express themselves? The heroines in these types of books seem to go from “maybe same basic liberties please?” to “dangerous action and adventure” without really stopping in between. Would Victorian women really have wanted the ability to conduct investigations and capture criminals, or would their concerns be more about greater political liberty and more equality in social contracts like marriage?

For hard-core fantasy and science fiction geeks who want something different as a break, these are books in a different genre that still preserve the well-loved tradition of adventure and speculation.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly


4 out of 5 stars.

This book is Jane Eyre with Faeries. For those of you with exquisite taste, that should have been enough and by the time everyone else has read to the end of this sentence, you are already rushing to your library’s homepage to put this on hold. The rest of you appear to need more convincing. I am slightly disappointed in you all.

This book is an historical fantasy set in the post-WWI era (as far as I can tell from the descriptions of technology and fashion). Instead of European countries bashing at each other, the Great War was fought against the Fey, whose main tactic is to set off bombs embedded with their magic around large groups of people, so the embedded magical shrapnel will give the Fey access to take over the now-fairy-magic-riddled corpses. Those that were hit by the bombs but survived now have little bits of fairy magic cursing them (with anger, hunger, violence, etc.) and are forced to wear iron over their affected parts to keep the curse from leaking out. Our protagonist Jane’s curse is anger and she wears and iron mask to both cover her scars and keep her rage in check. She responds to an add for a governess position in the country, taken out by a mysterious widower whose only daughter is also Fey-cursed.

The language in this book is really reminiscent of Bronte-era writing, which I adore and the addition of an anger curse gives the Jane character a bit more backbone than she had in the original novel. It is not a long read, unfortunately, but there are two more in the series already published. I liked the old-fashioned feel to the novel and the close resemblance to one of my favourite classical novels. A rare rewrite indeed that manages to preserve the character of the original so closely while still adding so many interesting plot elements.