The City & The City by China Miéville

Book – Tyador Bocity & cityrlú is a detective in Beszel, charged with investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found in one of their slums. His case would be much simpler if he did not believe she was murdered in Ul Quoma, the neighboring city and other half of Beszel, a city which intertwines with his own but whose borders are strictly policed by a shadowy force known as Breach. To unwind the mystery, he must travel across and between these borders, but carefully, because the murderers appear to be extremely powerful – and Breach is always watching.

Miéville’s books always revolve around cities, from the fantastical cities of Bas-Lag to a mystical London, but Beszel and Ul Quoma are perhaps the strangest yet, although there is almost fantastical about them, strictly speaking. This book also features two of the greatest chase scenes I’ve ever read, enabled by the cities’ particularly peculiar geography.

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

bone and jewelBook – Whatever assumptions you might have about fantasy novels, you can put them aside when reading something by Elizabeth Bear, because she will certainly do something different. Bone and Jewel Creatures packs a whole lot of different into a very few pages. The story revolves around Bijou the Artificer, an old, tired wizard who is ready to retire when she is given a feral child who has been poisoned by a mysterious agent. In healing the child, Bijou begins to unravel a plot rooted deep in her own past that threatens her home, the City of Jackals.

At only 136 pages, Bone and Jewel Creatures is slim, but not slight. Bijou and the feral child are both wonderfully realized characters with whom it’s a delight to spend an afternoon. My favorite part of the story, though, are Bijou’s artifices – creatures made up of bits and pieces, metal and bone and gemstones, to serve some purpose and then kept around long after their original use. There’s definitely a steampunk aesthetic, but it’s an unusual one. This is an engrossing short novel that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a unique world. The prequel, Book of Iron, was published in September, and both novellas are also set in the same universe as her Eternal Sky trilogy, which begins with Range of Ghosts.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

johanes cBook – Johannes Cabal has a problem with his soul. Namely, he doesn’t have it – he sold it to Satan some time ago in exchange for the secrets of necromancy. He’s decided that it was a bad deal, and he wants his soul back. Satan, of course, isn’t letting any souls go that easily, so he proposes a challenge: if Cabal can acquire 100 souls within a year, he can have his soul back. The Devil will even throw in a diabolical carnival to help. It’s not a great deal, but it’s the only one on offer, so Cabal enlists the help of his estranged brother and sets out across the countryside, carnival in tow, to race against the clock. Er, hourglass.

For the first fifty pages or so I kept trying to figure out what time period and what country this book was set in; eventually I realized that it just doesn’t matter, and I settled back to enjoy the ride. Johannes Cabal is delightfully deadpan and almost entirely unconcerned with the fates of other people. It’s the almost that makes it great: he shows flashes of humanity at the most inopportune times. This is the first in a series; the latest, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, was published in October.

Advent by James Treadwell

AdventBook – What would happen if magic came back into the world? That’s the driving question behind James Treadwell’s ongoing trilogy, which starts with Advent. Hundreds of years ago Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age, locked all the magic of the world away in two precious objects. In the present day, Gavin Stokes is fifteen, and he sees things that other people don’t. Unlike most teen protagonists, he refuses to shut up about it, and when it gets him suspended from school his parents send him his aunt in the country, where he finds that he is far from the only one.

I loved Advent for the feeling it has, a sense that magic is something very old and mysterious and dangerous which, though wonderful, might not actually be something that you want. This is magic by way of horror – too powerful to be simply charming. It reminds me a little of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a little of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and a little of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The sequel to Advent, Anarchy, was published in the US in September, and the third book in the trilogy is forthcoming.

Agyar by Steven Brust

agyar-197x300Book – Although my favorite books by Steven Brust are his Vlad Taltos series (ongoing, catch up now before Hawk comes out next year!), there’s no denying that his stand-alone novel Agyar is a remarkable piece of work. It’s also hard to review and hard to recommend, because the thing that you would usually use to describe it is the thing you can’t know ahead of time without completely changing your experience of reading it. Let’s just say it’s a truly spectacular example of what a talented writer can do with an ambiguously reliable narrator.

On the face of it, Agyar is the diary of a disillusioned, hedonistic young man, a classic anti-hero. It’s a very period novel, originally published in 1993, and it does kind of reek of that early nineties goth chic. That’s part of it’s charm, and I don’t think it would work nearly as well updated to the present day. But if the face of it was all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this incredibly roundabout review, would I? Brust plays with the reader’s expectations, and he knows exactly what to do with them. So here’s my recommendation: if you like urban fantasy, clever writing, or fascinating if unlikeable characters, pick up Agyar and start at page one. Do not read the back cover copy. Just trust in the author. He’s worth it.

Mélusine by Sarah Monette

melusineBook – The first of a four-volume series, Mélusine is not a gentle introduction to Sarah Monette’s elaborate, well-constructed fantasy world. For one thing, one of the point of view characters goes mad about fifty pages in. But for those who stick it out, it’s a rewarding book, and one of the most unique fantasy series of the last decade. Felix Harrowgate is a wizard of the Mirador, well-respected if not well-liked, but he has never let anyone know how far he had to climb to get there. A dark figure from his past frames him for a terrible treasonous magic – the casting of which has driven Felix insane, so he can mount no defense. At the same time, Mildmay the Fox, the most famous assassin of the Lower City, has fallen on hard times and is forced to flee the city of Mélusine. The two, thrown together by their desperate circumstances, undertake a journey to cure and redeem them both.

The narration switches back and forth between Felix and Mildmay, and as annoying (and depressing) as Felix’s madness can become, Mildmay’s humor, stubbornness, and wonderful felicity for storytelling more than make up for it. While the story is excellent, the characters are what really make this series: you come to know Felix and Mildmay both intimately, and it doesn’t take long for them to feel like old friends.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

thudBook – Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch and Duke of Ankh-Morpork, is having a rotten week. The anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley (when either the dwarfs ambushed the trolls, or the trolls ambushed the dwarfs, depending on who you ask) is approaching, and the city’s dwarfs and trolls are feeling particularly edgy about it this year. On top of that, a painting of the historic scene has (probably) been stolen, a dwarf leader has (probably) been murdered, and Sam has got to be home by 6:00. No excuses. Sam Vimes has long been one of my favorite Terry Pratchett characters, and Thud! has him at his best – overworked, overpaid, and overwhelmed, but still more than able to take on whole armies with the force of his belief in the power of a properly-run police force. While this is one of the later books in the City Watch Discworld series, it’s still entirely enjoyable by the first-time reader, particularly if you enjoy world-weary cops and a bit of bite with your laugh-out-loud humor.