Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


Polluted town, polluted lives

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a mystery with a strong sense of place and pacing set in Leeds in 1822.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 238

Publisher: Severn House

Series: Simon Westow

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

From the publisher: Leeds, 1822. The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

This murder mystery is definitely atmospheric, as the darkness, pollution, and smell of industrial Leeds is hammered home. The pace is like a thrum of a machine, the beat of it steady and measured. Chris Nickson does an excellent job of creating a sense of place.

All her anger and frustration had faded, hammered down in footstep after footstep. Men would always think the worst of women. There was nothing she could do to alter their minds.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Simon Westow and Jane are living through their slow season when they are enlisted by the unfriendly constable to investigate the murder of the small-time thief. The phrase “to the dark” is repeatedly used, but the mystery is not solved—not in this book, at least, which is disappointing when it is built up as part of the focal point of the story.

She ran her fingertips over the scars on her forearm. A rising ladder of lines, the places where she’d cut herself. Her catalogue of failures, the punishments she’d inflicted.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

The characters are not all that well-developed. Simon and Jane are explained by the significant traumas in their pasts, but not much else. Rosie, Simon’s wife, is mostly a placeholder. The bad guys are pretty much all stock characters. Perhaps there will be more in later installments, but there was little depth or growth from the characters.

At their age his home was in the workhouse, every daylight hour spent working in the mill. Beaten, abused, feeling like he was going to be trapped there for the rest of his life and wanting to die so it would be over.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Despite these shortcomings, the murder mystery and the atmosphere are enough to carry the book, making it worth finishing, and the writing itself is strong enough that I’d check out another installment.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

Spotlight on: Mint by S.R. Wilsher

Historical Thriller

From the publisher: It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother. A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide. His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Excerpt from Mint

The shop is all so familiar. This place I should have called home, yet only ever thought of as a place to return to. The address where my mother and half-siblings lived. Never home, more an approximation. I’m not connected to it like I imagine others are theirs. I hadn’t been safe here, nor welcome. My mother had been too controlled by her husband, and Sam too in his thrall. Lara had kept me here. All the time, I’d felt like the small bird being pushed from the nest by the bullying interloper. While he’d called me the cuckoo.

I restock the fridge with some milk and butter from the nearby shop and put the bread and cereal on the worktop. I open a new jar of coffee and put the kettle on.

Outside, I hear the whine of heavy machinery starting up, and the contact of whirring metal on stone.

I leave the kitchen and go out into the back yard, through the gate and into the alleyway running along the back of the houses before entering the yard of the Mason’s next door.

Along one side, slabs of rough-cut granite lean against the high wall, while black marble and white marble are stocked horizontally, kept apart by thick wood battens.  A corrugated plastic roof built off the garden wall opposite the stacked stone extends over the yard, shielding the work bench and tools and bench-saw from the elements.

White dust fills the air, billows fussily around the head of a man in a grubby blacksmith’s apron, safety goggles, and blue facemask, who’s guiding a huge slab of white stone along a bench and through a whirling rotary saw. Water sprays onto the slab and throws globules of wet white dust onto the floor. The saw reaches the end of the cut and, as the slab breaks free, he presses a red button on the wall and the machine shuts off.

The man notices me but doesn’t pause to invite me to speak, or offer to himself.

“I’m Abigail’s son,” I say, when the whine of the slowing blade ends. The dust has reached me and the air clears slowly with little breeze to disrupt it.

The man pulls the mask free. Dust has turned his thick black hair grey and clogged the deep lines of a weathered face. Years of wrangling stone slabs has built a powerful upper body with square shoulders, and large hands that hang at the end of strong forearms.

“I know who you are. I have to make the noise. Can’t work without it. That’s the last of the cutting,” he offers, as if there’s one purpose for my visit. “Your mother didn’t mind the noise, it soothed her.”

“I’m not here about the noise.”

“She liked the idea of hearing there were other people about.”

My mother had once admitted her weakness to me. ‘I don’t like being on my own, and I don’t like the company of women much. Which means I’m vulnerable to the attention of men. And women like her see only the baser reasons for that’. It had been her explanation for why Mrs Ayles had called her a harlot.

“Thought I should introduce myself, tell you I’ll be living in the shop while I’m here. In case you see the lights on.”

“None of my business.”

We face each other with our exhausted chitchat, whilst sensing there should be more.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” says the Mason, in the unpractised way of a man who doesn’t express emotion.

“I hear you found her?”

“Yes.”

“How come it was you?”

The Mason frowns, as if the answer has a multiplicity of paths for him to choose and he’s afraid he might opt for one it will be impossible to find his way back from.

“You mother and I…” He stops, already regretting the path taken. There is no way back. “We were friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since I arrived. More so after George moved out. Not before,” he adds, as if it might be important to me. “We were neighbours, so we’ve always talked. After George left, I used to go in and watch some TV with her in the evenings. She didn’t like being alone, certainly not since all you children have grown.” He stops talking abruptly, in the way of a man who’s aware he’s over explaining.

“Did George know?”

“He didn’t need to. Our relationship wasn’t improper. It was perfectly respectable.”

“I suspect George would see it differently.”

“I’m not afraid of him.” It’s a jarring boast, stuck into the conversation like a lone weed in a flowerbed. “We watched TV, that’s all.”

I don’t challenge his statement; can’t know if it’s truth or lie. It means little if it had amounted to more than his claim. My mother had been free to live the life she chose. But what had this reticent man talked to her about? Or had she talked and he simply listened. It struck me as the likely scenario of a relationship between them if sex wasn’t involved.

I catch movement in the right rear quarter of the image in front of me. A yellow flash through the doorway, and a slender woman wearing a sunny shirt tucked into jeans, bare ankles with flat shoes, and short brown hair hitched behind one ear, comes out.

“Dad, dinner’s ready,” she declares, before turning to me. “Hello,” she says shyly, and steps forward to offer her hand.

I’m struck by the contradiction of the diffidence set against the confidence of instigating a handshake. The skin is dry and the hand firm.

“Mint,” I say, and feel stupid, as if it’s a meaningless bark of a word. “Jimmy Minter,” I explain.

“Beth. Elizabeth Green.” She mimics my awkward delivery and smiles.

I’m not sure if she’s mocking me, or sympathising with me. I’ve spent nine years apart from women and I’m like a man who’s forgotten how to walk in a straight line. The need to leave overwhelms me, her presence making me feel unwelcome.

“Anyway, I’d better go. If your dinner’s ready.” I recall a long-forgotten line from the manual of social interaction.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

Their eyes are on my back as I leave the way I came, and I’m in the shop before I remember my unasked questions. I want to return, need to get to the end of that particular conversation. I battle with the pull of curiosity and the contra-tug of my self-consciousness. 

I’ll go back tomorrow, when my sudden retreat has faded from their minds.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tours

Spotlight on: Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty

From the publisher

Murder, conspiracy, radicalism, poverty, riot, violence, capitalism, technology: everything is up for grabs in the early part of Victoria’s reign.

Radical politicians, constitutional activists and trade unionists are being professionally assassinated. When Josiah Ainscough of the Stockport Police thwarts an attempt on the life of the Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, he receives public praise, but earns the enmity of the assassin, who vows to kill him.

Circles of Deceit, the second of Paul CW Beatty’s Constable Josiah Ainscough’s historical murder mysteries, gives a superb and electric picture of what it was to live in 1840s England. The novel is set in one of the most turbulent political periods in British history, 1842-1843, when liberties and constitutional change were at the top of the political agenda, pursued using methods fair or foul.

About the author

Paul CW Beatty is an unusual combination of a novelist and a research scientist. Having worked for many years in medical research in the UK NHS and Universities, a few years ago he took an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University emerging with a distinction.

His latest novel, Children of Fire, is a Victorian murder mystery set in 1841 at the height of the industrial revolution. It won the Writing Magazine’s Best Novel Award in November 2017 and is published by The Book Guild Ltd. 

Paul lives near Manchester in the northwest of England. Children of Fire is set against the hills of the Peak District as well as the canals and other industrial infrastructure of the Cottonopolis know as the City of Manchester.

Selected quotes

Hands were steadied by friends so that older Chartists might sign for themselves. Those who could only make their mark had them attested by others, who initialed the petition forms.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Of all things, he’s a Policeman, even though he went to grammar school. It’s a very common sort of profession, if you can call it a profession; even lower than being a manufacturer like Pappa.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

So now I know you, in your black and silver uniform. You who have only your fists and your pathetic stick with which to demand obedience. No rifle nor musket. No sharp sword or dagger. Nothing to protect you but the respect of the people. You are a servant, a humble servant, not a soldier, not a man of honour. You know nothing of true honour, nothing of true respect.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Josiah had often heard it said that good news travels fast, but his own experience was that good news did not often travel faster than bad news.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Fiction most truthful

Big 4+ review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a reimagined history of slavery that illuminates individual and group brutality as seen through the eyes of a young enslaved woman.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Audiobook: 10 hours and 43 minutes

Publisher: Doubleday

2017 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction

From the publisher: In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

I decided to read this book after seeing it on a list of historical fiction must-reads and didn’t look into it any further. For a change, I decided to try the audiobook (and it was available sooner from my library). Bahni Turpin is an amazing narrator. She did a great job with the voices, making each character distinct. She got through all the brutality without ever overdoing it and turning it into a mockery, which would have been tempting, as harsh as it gets at times. And the writing? Gorgeous.

Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The first section of the book, about 1/5 of the overall text, is straight historical recreation. Colson Whitehead makes sure that we’ve adequately toured the degradation of field hands in Georgia’s cotton fields. What was unexpected was that, unlike other books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, Whitehead delves into the relationships between the enslaved—not the typical house vs. field, but among those working the fields—and how the cruelty of their environment poisoned the relations among them. Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained didn’t go nearly this far, so be prepared for a shit ton of violence. Is it unwarranted? I think not, given what the reality was.

Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than the one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America, the quirk was that people were things.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So imagine my surprise when I get to the part where the railroad is literally carved underground. It’s not like they hide it in the description, so it’s my bad for not knowing. Not knowing that this was going to be more along the lines of alternate history, it was like taking a bite of what you thought was gravy and finding out it’s pudding. It’s not that you dislike the pudding; it’s just that you weren’t prepared for it.

The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating patter. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I do have some issues with the literal underground railroad, just because the world is so literal in most ways that it’s a strain on the suspension of disbelief. Creating tunnels that reach from Georgia to Indiana would be a feat of engineering far past the ordinary abilities of untrained labor, even today. In the period, the technology was just being invented after early attempts to tunnel under the Thames demonstrated the hazards of doing so–it’s not just a matter of enough brute strength to pick your way through the stone or earth.

But even that didn’t bother me so much as what anyone who watched enough WWII POW escape movies (or even Hogan’s Heroes) knows: What would they have done with all the debris? That’s always a big thing for those movies–or of prison escapes by tunneling. You have to have someplace to put the dirt you’ve taken out of the hole to avoid suspicion. So where the hell did they put the debris? It bothered me more than it should.

The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

But, okay, I got past that. The writing is beautiful, in contrast to the horror it invokes, and the pace is generally on point. I’m not crazy about the digressions into other points of view that don’t really lend themselves to moving the plot along; only two of them seem at all necessary to the story.

White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The use of other historical assaults on the health and integrity of Blacks in this country, although displaced in time and place to be included in this narrative, integrates the narrative of racism in an effective way. It’s not just evil slaveowners on the plantation, but reaches out across to those who are purportedly looking to advance Blacks.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tine moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

As a result, it’s easy to enter into the feelings of Cora, the protagonist, when she is suspicious of whites who say they’re going to help. It’s easy to say; hard to do. Even seemingly helpful whites offer betrayal at times, so it’s hard to know who to trust. But Whitehead doesn’t then elevate all Blacks to sainthood; there’s treachery there as well. Whitehead’s world in The Underground Railroad, bent and distorted by slavery and the concomitant racism, is a stunning feat of imagining oneself into another reality, informed by facts but turned into an immersive experience through his artful use of them.

As the years pass, Valentine observed, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression. It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So, on the balance, I am in favor of this alternate reality, as it shines a light on truth through fiction. It’s not quite perfect, but, damn, it’s close.


DampPebbles Blog Tour Spotlight

Historical fiction: WWI

Pages: 228

Publisher: Brigand London

Advance Reading Copy provided by DampPebbles

From the publisher

1917: with her father in the British secret service and her brother Alfie in the trenches, under-age Poppy Loveday volunteers against her parents’ wishes to drive ambulances in France. We follow her adventures, racing to save wounded men driven to the Casualty Clearing Station, and back to the Base Hospital.

“Jon Wilkins gets to the very heart of the mud and the blood of the battlefields and then with the same ease the gaiety of the ballroom in a thriller that will keep you entertained for hours.” Stuart Hill, author of The Icemark Trilogy.

During one battle she finds Élodie Proux, a French nurse, at a roadside clutching a dead soldier. Poppy rescues her. Élodie becomes her dearest girl as they fall in love.

Poppy and Élodie encounter frightening adversaries at the Western Front as well as away from it during the closing weeks of World War One.


From the author

Jonathan loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for 20 years and coached women’s basketball for over 30 years. 

He regularly teaches creative writing workshops in and around Leicester.

You can follow him on social media at:


Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.

Want a different take? Check out Peat Long’s review of Zen Cho’s lovely book.


The Last King by M.J. Porter

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours: Spotlight

From the publisher:

They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.

Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.

Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.

To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 316

Publisher: Self

Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Last King by M.J. Porter. Two paperbacks are up for grabs. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on January 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the Author

I’m an author of fantasy (Viking age/dragon-themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest). I was born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since 1066. Raised in the shadow of a strange little building, told from a very young age that it housed the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia and that our garden was littered with old pieces of pottery from a long-ago battle, it’s little wonder that my curiosity in Early England ran riot. I can only blame my parents!

I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!

Not sure where to start your journey through Early England? Here are some pointers.

If you like action-adventure, with a heavy dose of violence, foul language and good old camaraderie – The Ninth Century series is for you, starting with The Last King, or The Seventh Century, starting with Pagan Warrior, has a little more politics to go with the set-piece battles.

If you like stories about the forgotten women of history, then the Tenth Century series, starting with The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, is a good place to begin. Or, The First Queen of England, with a little more romance.

If you’re interested in the last century of Early England (before 1066) then The Earls of Mercia series is for you.

If you want to read it all, then you can read in chronological order, or mix it up. The series weren’t written in chronological order.

 


Three girls dreaming of better lives

A Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour for The Tobacco Girls by Lizzie Lane

r/suggestmeabook: I want a familiar tale of three friends facing adulthood tinged with the imminent onset of WWII.

Movie rating: PG

Publisher: Boldwood Books

ARC courtesy of Rachel’s Random Resources

From the publisher: Bristol 1939. School leaver Maisie Miles suspects her father, a small-time crook, has an ulterior motive for insisting she gets a job at the W. D. & H. O. Wills tobacco factory but keeps it to herself.

She’s befriended by effervescent Phyllis Mason and kind-hearted Bridget Milligan who take pity on her and take Maisie under their wing.

But beneath their happy go lucky exteriors they all harbor dreams and worries about what the future holds. Engaged to be married, Phyllis dreams of romance and passion but when it comes there are dire consequences.

Bridget, seemingly the level-headed one, harbors a horror of something unspeakable that she cannot easily come to terms with. There’s great comradeship at the tobacco factory, and with the advent of war everything is about to change, and even the closest friendships are likely to be strained.


Excerpt

Slight of stature, dark-haired and dark-eyed, fifteen-year-old Maisie Miles was currently engrossed in a world of her own. Though the newspaper sellers and the wireless shouted warnings of war to come, it meant nothing to her.


The world, her surroundings and everything else, was blanked out by the letter she’d almost snatched from the postman’s hand. She’d bobbed out of that front door ten times at least that morning, waiting for him to come so she could grab the letter before he had chance to shove it through the letter box. Hopefully it would be her ticket out of York Street, the Dings and the larger area that was St Phillips’ Marsh.

The envelope was blue, the paper of a quality she’d never encountered before. The letter inside matched the envelope both in colour and quality.

Her brown eyes glowed and her creamy complexion burst into pinkness as she read the letter for the third time.

Dear Miss Miles,
In response to the reference I received from your teacher Miss Smith, and the fact that since leaving school you have experienced some domestic work in the kitchen of the Royal Hotel, in Bristol, I am delighted to offer you the position of kitchen maid at Priory House, Long Ashton, which, as I am sure you know, is just outside the city of Bristol and not far from Ashton Court…

Feeling sublimely happy, Maisie closed her eyes and held the letter to her heart. Bliss. Green fields and trees. She’d never been to Ashton Court, but the redoubtable Miss Smith had told her that the sumptuous mansion had been built with the proceeds of a vast sugar plantation on the island of Jamaica.

The letter had come from the housekeeper who was known personally to Miss Smith.

‘A much respected acquaintance,’ she had told Maisie. ‘It’s a private house, so only glimpsed through the gates.’

It was obvious from her tone that Miss Smith herself had never been into the house but would very much like to.

For her part, Maisie wasn’t interested in the house. It was the prospect of fresh air far away from the stink of York Street which attracted her.

The house she’d grown up in was situated in the Dings, a subdistrict of St Phillips, a less than salubrious area of Bristol, where the air was thick with the stench of bone yards, soap works and slaughter houses.

Added to the cloying stench was the deafening rattle from the marshalling yards stretching from Midland Road to Lawrence Hill, a sprawling expanse of glistening rails linking the Great Western Railway with the Midland Railway. Like the smell, the railway never ceased: the goods trucks shunting backwards and forwards, chains clanking, metal rails squealing beneath metal wheels. Of late it had been busier and nosier than usual. The old man, the old sod, her father, declared it was all to do with impending war because it said so in the papers. As if he would know! She’d never seen him read anything. It was more likely he’d heard the newspaper vendor shouting out the news from his pitch outside the Kings’ Cinema in Old Market.

Maisie didn’t care. All she wanted was to get away to something better.

There was nothing attractive about number five, York Street. It had a yard at the back, a patch of dusty dirt between the back of the house and the brick privy that lurched against the far wall. It was a place of mouldy walls and cramped rooms, packed with shabby furniture and a cold hearth that even when lit did little to warm one room, let alone the whole house.

‘What you got there?’ Suddenly the very air was ripe with menace.


Lizzie Lane is the author of over 50 books, a number of which have been bestsellers. She was born and bred in Bristol where many of her family worked in the cigarette and cigar factories. This has inspired her new saga series for Boldwood, The Tobacco Girls, the first part of which will be published in January 2021.


A man among women

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a WWI-era quest by a young man to be part of an elite magical rescue mission group which is only open to women.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Series: The Philosophers

From the publisher: Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is one of the few men who practice empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. He’s always dreamed of being the first man to join the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, an elite team of flying medics, but everyone knows that’s impossible: men can barely get off the ground. When a shocking tragedy puts Robert’s philosophical abilities to the test, he rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study philosophy at Radcliffe College—an all-women’s school. 

Tom Miller’s WWI-era world where magic is a gender-linked trait is an intriguing analogue to our own. Women have amazing powers through the exercise of the magic—practical philosophy, in the terms of that world—and yet they are still facing misogyny from a group that is eerily similar to the resurgent far right of our day.

Sigilry only came into widespread use around 1750 and right from the start women were better at it than men. That upset a lot of folks, who thought sigils must be some form of witchcraft. Most people, though, saw the usefulness in empirical philosophy and were content to allow it.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The hero, Robert, is a talented philosopher, but he keeps bucking the status quo by being a guy. The “feel sorry for the man who’s being discriminated against” vibe got to me every so often, although the book is clearly sympathetic to women’s issues and paints the men who are opposed to the women’s power as irrational and evil. But it still bothered me from time to time to read about a man with discrimination issues. He’s not trans, he’s not BIPOC, he’s not gay—in our world, he’d be privileged as hell (except, perhaps, for the fact he’s from Montana). However, it is an avenue for a person who is usually privileged to look at what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot.

I sampled scoops of vanilla ice cream with an inner layer of insulated chocolate that protected a hot, molten caramel core. There was a ham smoked to taste like peaches accompanied by peaches smoked to taste like ham—more clever than delicious, but that didn’t prevent me from taking seconds.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

On the other hand, in the context of the novel, he has been raised in a family of women with far more strength in their magic and has been marginalized in his own way. It feels churlish to suggest that a man shouldn’t want to excel in a women’s field or that somehow he didn’t suffer because he is part of a privileged group. Comparing suffering as a form of competition generally doesn’t lead anywhere I want to go, and empathy is always the better choice, so, yes, this guy clearly has endured some harassment within the context of the novel. It bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me.

This is the story this author wanted to tell, his point of view is sympathetic, so why am I bitching about the fact that it’s from a man’s point of view? My reaction smacks of the attitudes that TERFs have about someone else discussing issues of exclusion, but this isn’t the same thing. I don’t really know, but I was comforted when I discussed it with my daughter and she could relate to the unease.

Aside from that, Robert’s quest to be a philosopher good enough to be in Rescue and Evacuation is well-structured and peopled with likable characters. It’s refreshing that the romantic interest is not objectified in the ordinary way, but is beautiful to Robert because of her character. There are plenty of strong women with different temperaments and personalities, which is a pleasure to read. On the other hand, there are several characters who seem to be created only to meet a particular plot point and not really developed; it would have been nice to either have them more fully realized or to consolidate them into fewer characters.

[I]f you and I hang back and do what’s comfortable, if philosophers wall themselves off and only associate with other philosophers, then the Zoning Act is going to sneak through and we’ll all shake our heads and say, “How did it happen?”

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

For example, Brock and Addams—I had a hell of a time keeping them straight. They didn’t seem to have much difference in personality, and although they were two different levels of academic authority, there wasn’t enough to make each one memorable in her own way.

A remarkable thing, the human hand. The infinite number of ways it fits together with another. Fingers interlaced, first with my thumb on the outside, and then rewoven so that hers was.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

One of my favorite characters, though, is Freddy Unger (I keep wanting to call him Felix, which is probably an age issue). Freddy is the guy who completely gets the theory behind it all, but can’t do anything practical to save his soul—yet he never seems bitter about it.

It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

Issues of class and race are hinted at, but not fully explored—the former particularly surprising, since the bulk of the action takes place at Radcliffe among the elite, and the hero is a relatively poor Westerner. The allusions to race tend to make me feel as though the early women’s movement in this reality was not as anti-Black as the one in ours, but there are enough racial tensions in it to make it an open question. The hero’s lack of exposure to racial issues because of his childhood in a white enclave could be an explanation for the oblique treatment, but it would have been interesting to see it more explicitly discussed.

We fought the wrong way. We always thought that if we killed enough of them—killed the right ones—that they would leave us in peace. All that got us was one cycle of violence after another.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The fact that I’m wanting this or that out of the book is, however, testimony to the fact that I enjoyed it, and the book that’s there is worth a read. It would provide excellent fodder for a book club discussion, particularly as it confronts a question that is relevant to our current difficulties: How do you come to a peaceful solution when two sides fundamentally disagree on reality?