Tag Archives: alternate history

The Queen’s Poisoner (Kingfountain #1)

Title: The Queen’s Poisoner

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #1

Owen never asked for this. Because his father hung back during a crucial battle, preferring to support the challenger to the throne instead of the current king (albeit indirectly), Owen has now been chosen to live as the king’s hostage for his family’s good behavior. It’s a role his eldest brother had until recently. Until the king killed him.  Now 8-year-old Owen is caught in a web of adult alliances and betrayals, just trying to stay alive . . .

This book surprised me several times, in good ways. Owen is largely ignorant of the political structure he’s been dumped into, which makes it a good way to find out not only what’s being said, but in the end, that the real story is more complicated than that. King Severn has a reputation for being a monster, and not without reason. But he’s also a man, in a position of power that precludes most friendship, and even the crown can’t protect him from other people’s wagging tongues. I liked all the different angles the book gave to a man who otherwise might have been nothing more than a villain.

Other characters, especially the Queen’s Poisoner of the title, are also very well drawn. The setting, too, has solid detail without ever being overwhelming. Other reviews have mentioned knowing history as background, but I don’t think that’s necessary (I didn’t even catch any connections others mentioned, but it didn’t preclude me from enjoying the story).

I do wish the magic system had gotten more development, although what was there made sense for the story. Owen will likely find out a lot more about this in the future, so I’m content to wait for the next book. The images of the Fountain as a source of magic and life, and the types of power that flow from it, are intriguing.

Overall this is an excellent book. It wraps up decently well, but I certainly am interested to see how Owen grows into his role and abilities. I rate this book Recommended.

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The Invisible Library (Invisible Library #1)

Title: The Invisible Library

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Series: Invisible Library #1

Irene is a Librarian for an unusual Library, one that exists outside time and space and worlds, in its own reality. Mostly she infiltrates alternate worlds and collects unique books for its collection. But her latest assignment reeks of secrets and politics, and may be rather more dangerous than she’s been told. She’s supposed to train a junior assistant, the book she’s looking for has already been stolen, and the Library’s greatest enemies also want what she’s after . . .

This was mostly fun, with a few places where I just had to roll my eyes. Fun stuff first. Irene is a very likeable lead. She tries hard to stay cool and in control even when the situation has exploded away from her. She’s aware of what being a leader entails, and she tries to be responsible to that ideal. Kai’s presence tends to exaggerate that in her, too, as she both wants and needs to be a good superior for him. I was particularly impressed that she refuses to bed him after his explicit invitation (although other aspects of that scene were part of the eye-rolling bits). It wouldn’t have been a good idea, but I can’t say I remember the last book where that actually stopped the characters.

The world she ends up on has a lot of steampunk with a dash of mad science. Mechanical creatures! Zeppelins! Victorian fashion sense! Also werewolves and vampires and Fae (who are creepy, dangerous, and strongly magical). And I really liked the detective she meets, and how he engages the mysteries before him with his own skills, even though he’s got no idea of most of what she’s caught up in.

I wasn’t all that fond of Kai, though. His character is all over the place (although to be fair, Irene notices this too and remarks on it). Once more of his secrets come out, some of his behavior makes even less sense.

And the few personal nits: why does Kai have to be devastatingly handsome, with perfect looks, perfect voice, etc? I’m getting tired of “perfect boyfriend” type characters. (Irene subverts this somewhat by falling for the detective instead of her trainee, which made me very happy.) And the scene where he invites her to bed involves the two of them comparing the amount of sexual experience they’ve had, which also makes me roll my eyes. For one, it absolutely doesn’t suit Kai, whose nature is order, whose firm commitment is to family no matter what, to be such a player he might have spawned half a hundred offspring without knowing it. And then just moved on. Because the family he’s so emotionally invested in apparently doesn’t include people he sleeps with and definitely doesn’t include himself as a possible father. Does this strike anyone else as a total betrayal of the character’s deepest beliefs? The alternative is that he’s lying about said experience, which I don’t really buy either, or he wouldn’t have been so casual about asking Irene. And the way the whole scene plays out feels really pointless, except to have both the characters bragging about how much sex they’ve had, as if that somehow makes them better people. It has nothing to do with the story.

Overall this was a pretty good adventure, and although things wrap up in one sense, the deeper threads point towards a series. I rate this book Recommended.

Knightley Academy (Knightley Academy #1)

Title: Knightley Academy

Author: Violet Haberdasher

Series: Knightley Academy #1

Henry may only be a servant at the prestigious Midsummer School for Boys, but he’s not content to stay there for the rest of his life. So when a chance comes up to test for admittance to the prestigious Knightley Academy, he jumps at it. But not everyone is happy about the old class lines being broken down. Not everyone wants a commoner at the traditionally nobles-only Knightley Academy. And although Henry is in it for himself, he soon realizes he’s carrying much more than his own hopes and dreams.

I probably would’ve cared more about the overall class structure challenge part of the story (which is a large part) if the overall worldbuilding had been better. The focus stays on Henry and almost exclusively on the two schools he’s part of, as a servant and then a student. This was good for the schools, but not so great when trying to figure out how the world works. The Knights can function as detectives, policemen, and peacekeepers, but the only knight we ever see in action is just directing traffic at the train station. There’s no sense of the political landscape on the Knightley side, beyond the Knights themselves, but this becomes important when dealing with the neighboring country, the Nordlands. So I though the whole thing could’ve benefited from a bit more information on the rest of the setting. (I also didn’t buy that a treaty alone would convince multiple nations to basically disarm, but, well, I was reading a school story, so I let that one slide.)

The characters are well-done. I didn’t buy the ending twist about the ultimate villain, but I did appreciate how various characters—especially the unpleasant ones—were shown to be simply human. Even though the bullies can come across as rather one-dimensional in their defense of a system that mostly benefits them to the detriment of everyone else, they still aren’t entirely monsters. Henry does seem to blow off his earliest attempts to be friendly with the non-commoner students, which was a bit annoying, but understandable.

Overall this wasn’t a bad read, just one I thought could’ve used more worldbuilding to really ground the story in a country/place rather than just a building. I had trouble placing the existence of magic for a long time, since curses feature prominently in the beginning, but it appears this is more of an alternate-history than alternate-world. And despite the solid characters, not much grabbed me in the story overall. I rate this book Neutral.

Dreamwood

Title: Dreamwood

Author: Heather Mackey

Lucy is quite sure her father will forgive her for interpreting his note to mean he wants her to leave the boarding school she loathes and join him in Saarthe. Even if he hasn’t replied to the letter she sent warning him she was coming. But when she reaches the Northwest Territories, she discovers layers of mysteries—and her father’s whereabouts one of them. Still, she’s not about to back down, even if it means entering the most forbidden part of the area to find him . . .

The characters are the strongest part of the book. Lucy and Peter are each quite talented, in their own ways, but they need each other in order to get through the supernatural wilderness where they find themselves. For Lucy, who is used to being independent and always having the answers, working with another person is often hard and confusing. And Peter hardly appreciates her little digs or her air of superiority. They feel very solid, and it’s easy to see both the flaws and strengths in each of them.

I kind of expected the plot to go the way it did. I wish Niwa had more of a role, and that some of the odder things briefly mentioned—like men turning into wolves—got more than a nod. It was clear some forms of magic existed, but also easy to see that power is on the verge of extinction, or at least irrelevance.

So mostly this was more of a character journey than an adventure. Which is fine, as the characters were very well done, but does mean I probably won’t be rereading this. I rate this book Recommended.

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic #1)

Title: Thirteenth Child

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Series: Frontier Magic #1

Seven sons are lucky, and seventh sons of seventh sons (double sevens) are even better. But Eff is a thirteenth child—twin sister to Lan, the lucky double seventh. And her Uncle Earn in particular has been very clear about the evil he thinks being a thirteenth child will bring. Even when her family moves out west, closer to the great barrier separating the mostly safe and civilized lands from the wilds, Eff can’t forget about who she is and who she might become.

In this alternate early America, populated by steam dragons and mammoths and plenty of other things willing to eat settlers, expansion westward has been slow, as settlements face constant danger from the local wildlife. So it’s a lot like Little House on the Prairie, only with more interesting critter life and a healthy dose of magic. And the slow slice-of-life pacing goes along with that, as the book follows Eff from the ages of five to eighteen, showing how she grows up more than anything else.

I liked it well enough, though the pacing may be a turn off for some. Eff doesn’t have a lot of very interesting things happen throughout her life, so most of the drama comes from the antics of her large family, until the very end of the book introduces a new kind of conflict. If the sequel follows that line instead, I would be more interested in reading it. As it was, since so much of the book is Eff going through self-confidence issues, I’m not likely to read again anytime soon. I rate this book Neutral.

The Unnaturalists (The Unnaturalists #1)

Title: The Unnaturalists

Author: Tiffany Trent

Series: The Unnaturalists #1

Vespa Nyx wants to become the second female Pedant, cataloging and displaying the Unnatural creatures at the museum where her father is head. But ominous things are happening. Charles, a Pedant who works for her father, is acting suspiciously, and another Pedant, Hal, is clearly not who he seems. Her family wants her to settle down, get married, and take her place in society. Then there’s the suggestion that she might be a witch, which is horrendously illegal . . .

Syrus, a Tinker who lives outside New London, hates the city. He prefers the company of the Elementals who live in the wilds. But when his family is captured and taken to be slaves, he has to find a way to free them, and to stop the atrocities the gentry inflict on both his people and the Elementals. To do that, he needs the help of a witch. . .

The setting is steampunk, with a bit of alternate history/alternate world thrown in. A few hundred years ago, Telsa somehow opened a gate to this place and dumped a chunk of London with it, stranding the survivors on the other side. In this new place, myths and legends walk (called Unnaturals by most of the cityfolks and Elementals by the Tinkers). Now New London, which runs on myth-powered machinery, is a thriving metropolis. But a dangerous black desert known as the Waste lies outside, and the Waste is overtaking the land.

This story is split between Vespa and Syrus. I really liked Syrus’s side. The Tinkers are despised by most of New London, but the city people take advantage of them all the same. When Syrus’s life falls apart around him, he rallies and does what he can—even if it is reckless. Even if he does get hurt. He’s willing to do whatever he can to help those of his people who have been taken, and those Elementals who need people to help them. I liked what happens to Syrus, and how his stubbornness lands him with something that may be as much a gift as it is a curse. I am very curious where his story will go in the future.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved Syrus, I hated Vespa. She’s in many ways his opposite: passive, reactionary instead of proactive, oblivious as well as blinding herself to what she could see, and allowing herself to be manipulated by a lot of people who clearly mean her no good. Completely rage-inducing. And yet the plot worships her, because she’s a witch and therefore really awesome because witches just ARE (no one ever says why male magic users are somehow not capable, and they are actually available and generally not stupid). So she does boneheaded thing after boneheaded thing, and plot twists like the frog that are completely obvious to the reader totally escape her (even if she gave no credence to Syrus’s warning, her own observations ought to have clued her in at least a LITTLE). And she pretty much falls instantly in love with someone and has a mess of a non-relationship with him before letting herself get taken in by a real jerk and manipulated (Vespa, THINK. If you actually have powers you could have tried to manipulate HER instead of doing what she wanted).

So, it’s hard to recommend this because Vespa is such a huge part of everything and she made me want to throw the book at the wall. I wish Syrus could get his own sequel so I could read his story and forget about the rest of them. I might try a bit of The Tinker King but if it looks like too much Vespa then I’m quitting. I rate this book Neutral.

To Hold the Bridge

Title: To Hold the Bridge

Author: Garth Nix

This is a collection of short stories from Garth Nix, some of which tie to novels and some of which are original (or have tie-ins to other established series, as the case may be). Overall it’s a pretty strong collection, and below were some of my favorites.

To Hold the Bridge – The story that gives the book its title is the Old Kingdom contribution for this book. But even if you’ve never read any of Nix’s Old Kingdom books, it’s still a winsome story. Morghan is hoping to join the Bridge Company, which is constructing what will become the great bridge leading across the river to the capital, mostly because he’s eager for the provided food and board. Although it wraps up well enough, it also makes me wish Morghan would get a novel, as I’d love to read more about him.

A Handful of Ashes – Mari is funding her college education in witchcraft though a servant’s position at her college, but not all of the high-born students like that tradition. I like the setting, and the little details in the magic and the college, which operates under various Bylaws. This is, like many other stories here, showcasing a world that teases a lot of depth.

The Heart of the City – France, in the time of Henri IV. A guard gets tangled up in magic and mayhem as a strange procession enters the city. Interesting magic system, which involves angels partnering with men, and I especially liked the end. It feels like a launching point for an alternate-history.

Holly and Iron – A retelling that blends a few different tales (saying which ones would spoil the surprise). Another interesting and completely different magic system, the holly magic of the Inglish and the iron magic of the Norman. And a shapeshifting squirrel. (That alone ought to sell the story.)

All in all, whether you’ve read Garth Nix before or not this is a great place to dig in. I rate this book Recommended.