historical fantasy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.14.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The Lies of Locke Lamora features long cons, crime-boss uprisings, and bloody revenge plots amid the cluttered criminal underworld of a bustling, sweltering, alchemy-infused alternative medieval Venice. Our heroes: the Gentleman Bastards, a tiny brotherhood of con artists, led by the unparalleled liar Locke Lamora.

One of my good reading buddies went crazy for this novel shortly after it came out, and I had always wanted to read it since, especially because the title was so mischievous, lyrical, and evocative. The fact that it continually resurfaces as a fan favorite 10 years on also piqued my interest. (e.g., it’s still on the bestseller list at my local sff bookstore, Pandemonium.)

Based on the hoopla, I’d been expecting something Dorothy Sayers-esque – exceptionally witty and elegant – but unfortunately found this, prose-wise, to be a solid B+ at best. Lynch’s writing is markedly juvenile: he overuses italics and parentheticals, and treats profanity in large quantities as funny per se. Characters emote by gritting their teeth, gulping, and squeaking. I would describe the humor as geekily goofy, rather than witty. His descriptions are colorful and involving, but not sharply observed. He does a good job of conveying personality more through dialogue than exposition, but again, isn’t quite sharp enough to fully resolve characters purely through these means. I wouldn’t say the characters feel hollow, as they often do in mediocre fantasy – symbols of people rather than people – but there’s a general feeling of a slightly unfocused photograph about the whole thing. The villains in particular are dreadfully boilerplate.

That said, I stuck it out, and had a lot of fun with it. This book has vim – it has bounce and fun and grit and texture – qualities that are helped along by Lynch’s obvious enjoyment at sharing his created city, and a greater part of lightheartedness than grimness. Read the rest of this entry »

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More tidying of the drafts backlog. I read this issue back in 2011, holy crap; I’m not sure why I wrote about only these two stories. I did note that in the two old MF&SF issues that I own from the 1980’s, there wasn’t a single female writer, out of 17 total authors and several more columnists (also there were these spectacular ads).

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“From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton,” Gene Wolfe: This was a terrible way to first read Wolfe. (I read The Wizard Knight duology, a very distinctive Arthurian retelling, shortly afterwards and liked it quite well.) The story is an extended and unfunny joke about sf&f publishing.

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“Down Among the Dead Men,” Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann: Vampiric Jew in a concentration camp. I say “vampiric Jew” rather than “Jewish vampire” because Dozois and Dann don’t seem to have put any effort into making this at all a particularly Jewish story, which seemed thoughtless and insensitive. The vampire character, and the narrator’s reactions to him, are clearly the products of western fictional conventions by way of Bram Stoker, which seems idiotic when you consider the wealth of fascinating, terrifying eastern European and specifically Jewish vampire folklore. The only Jewish thing the narrator does is participate in observance of Passover; otherwise we see him thinking about how he used to venerate another character as a “saint” and a makeshift weapon as a “holy relic.”

  • Encyclopedia Britannica: “The cult of saints in terms of veneration was not a part of the monotheistic religion of Israel.”
  • jewishvirtuallibrary.org: “Judaism, as a general rule, rejects physical manifestations of spirituality … perhaps the greatest sin the Israelites collectively committed was the construction of the Golden Calf … Today, Jews do not venerate any holy relics or man-made symbols.”

Encountering the vampire seems to have no spiritual repercussions for the narrator (which I have a hard time believing would happen even if he were a secular Jew – wouldn’t it make you start thinking hard thoughts if you were suffering at the hands of both mundane and supernatural embodiments of evil?); again his Jewishness is ignored, and the vampire trope is ultimately mined only to make fairly banal points about the contagiousness of violence and what people are willing to do to survive. All told, I had a hard time not seeing this as a by-the-book vampire story, with a distasteful veneer of seriousness and importance.

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men
More from the annals of F&SF

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.4.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I began Gerald Morris’ series of Arthurian retellings (collectively called The Squires’ Tales and The Knights’ Tales) back when they first started coming out in the late ’90’s/early 2000’s. I remember starting with The Savage Damsel & the Dwarf in the yellow-lit, air-conditioned cool of the nearest public library when I was 16ish, and shortly thereafter hunched crosslegged in sticky summer weather over the pages of The Squire’s Tale. In a few weeks I’d read all the way up to Parsifal’s Page. Swift, witty, musing, and surprisingly gentle in moral tone despite their sharp humor and the grim fates that befall many characters, Morris’ novels fell in closely alongside my love of Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction, and of C. S. Lewis.

Almost 10 years later, I finally started catching up again with the series, and was delighted to find that Morris’ humanity as a storyteller registers even more deeply with me as an older reader. As my friend E. put it, the series is wonderful in embracing and illustrating “all kinds of different ways of being.”

The previous novels had as their protagonists fairly common YA types, though warmly realized: a half-fey squire navigating both mundane & otherworldly affairs, a whip-witted anti-damsel, and a Eustace Scrubb-ish prig who of course discovers valiance & humility under duress.

By contrast, Sir Dinadan’s major interests in life begin with drifting peacefully alone in the forest, and end with peacefully music-making (again, preferably alone) in the forest. I can’t recall another YA novel (suggestions welcome!) whose main character was so centrally concerned with solitude, and – crucially – was allowed to remain that way. Most children’s literature has social aims: the protagonists negotiate relationships (friends, family, romances), and struggle to assume positions of greater social responsibility.

Dinadan does indeed venture forth and meet all sorts of people, befriending some and looking askance at others. And, as Sir Tristan’s younger brother, he is dragged again and again towards the center of that most outrageously tragic of romances. But what he sees of Tristan & Iseult’s violent folly ultimately leads him to affirm his sense of sufficiency in himself and his art – even though his friendship with another “savage damsel,” as skeptic-minded as Dinadan, presents a tantalizing romantic charge throughout.

Without trivializing the essential tragedy of the violence and human wastefulness of Tristan & Iseult’s tale, Sir Dinadan affirms those who prefer to live small, live quietly and inwardly. I laughed often while reading, and closed the book feeling both heartened and melancholy. I plan to revisit Sir Dinadan often, especially since his quietness, skepticism, and steadfast unconcern with dramatic involvement reminded me of a very dear mentor of mine, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. In Dinadan, Morris combines elements both of the fool and the hermit: capable of moving in society, he evenly judges the people and hierarchies he encounters there, but ultimately, contentedly, remains a man apart.

Go to:
Gerald Morris: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.2.2013
Book from: Personal collection

Louisa the Poisoner: cover

‘There are three things that grow in March Mire,’ said the aunt, in a silly sing-song voice, her eyes half closed, ‘and that grow nowhere else together, and seldom anywhere. Find them in one spot, take them and make them up. From them comes this dew. Oh Louisa. Listen carefully. This stuff grants the gift of death.’
Louisa widened her eyes but she was not actually impressed. Death was everywhere in the mire and especially often in her aunt’s nasty bottles.
‘Listen,’ said the aunt again, ‘the poison in this bottle leaves no trace as it kills. In the world beyond the mire this can mean much. I’ve told you, there are towns along the moors, and great houses piled up with money and jewels. If every cobweb on that ceiling was changed to bank notes it would be nothing to them … We’ll seek for just such a rich place. Then I’ll know how to go on. You shall pretend to be a lost lady, as I’ve trained you. You’ll do as I say, and our fortunes will be made.’
‘But how, Aunt?’
‘They’ll fall in love, and make over their goods through wills, which I’ve told you of. And then I’ll see them off …’

This standalone Tanith Lee novella from Wildside Press is quite as wicked and frivolous as it sounds. There’re vile aristocrats, bloody deaths, and incidental madmen and ghost horses; there’s brooding architecture (a manor called Maskullance!) and one of Lee’s trademark canny and uncanny heroines – those women who enter into society at an angle, slice their way in quietly. Also, George Barr provides some beautifully pulpy illustrations; his Louisa has a great Vivian Leigh-ish thing going on:

Unfortunately, the prose isn’t quite as effortless as it so often is in Lee’s work – the little twists of syntax often feel worked over, rather than sinuous and startling, and the dialogue frequently falls short of wittiness. And I think the story would have worked better at shorter length, given that a reading a detailed accounting of the sequential deaths of a bunch of boorish aristocrats entails spending a depressing amount of time with those aristocrats.

Still, the last few pages work up to a tremor of dreadful sublimity, and feature one of the best descriptions of hell I’ve ever read. If not one of Lee’s strongest works, this is nonetheless a fun treat for a cloudy autumn afternoon.

Louisa the Poisoner - Illustration by George Barr

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Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.13.2013
Book from: Personal collection

The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer: two pale-faced girls, one blonde and one brunette, are poled in a gondola down a grey-green Venetian canal

“In Venice, magic is not unusual. Merle is apprenticed to a magic mirror maker, and Serafin – a boy who was once a master thief – works for a weaver of magic cloth. Merle and Serafin are used to the mermaids who live in the canals of the city — beautiful creatures with hideous mouths that split their faces from ear to ear.

But Venice is under siege by the Egyptian Empire; its terrifying mummy warriors and flying sunbarks are waiting to strike. All that protects the Venetians is the Flowing Queen. Nobody knows who or what she is – only that her power flows through the canals and keeps the Egyptians at bay. When Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen, they are catapulted into desperate danger. They must do everything they can to rescue the Queen and save the city – even if it means getting help from the Ancient Traitor himself.”

Disappointing. I glommed onto this while bookshopping with Kakaner when I saw the cover art (by Jonathan Weiner), and couldn’t put it back on the shelf. This could have been a very nice dark-fantasy YA morsel – fast-paced, with a motley cast and an alternate Venice satisfyingly redolent of wartime paranoia and esoteric secrets whispered in clammy alleyways.

Unfortunately, the setting proved to be more interesting and memorable than the perfunctorily developed characters, and the prose is often awkwardly juvenile, e.g.,

“Merle appeared to be spellbound by the disgusting appearance of the fiery figure.”

Note that this is written from Merle’s perspective, so it makes no sense that she should “appear” to be spellbound. Of course it’s hard to say whether choices like these are original to the (German) text, or due to the translator, but there are also occasional outbreaks of ridiculousness that are more easily attributed to the translator, as when a mermaid’s skeleton is described as resembling a “supergigantic fish bone.” SUPERGIGANTIC. Boo, translator. This makes me curious about the editorial process for works in translation.

In any case, good brain candy if you’re one for intriguing world-building, but I didn’t find too much else of substance to enjoy. I’m still thinking about framing the cover art, though! That mermaid, boy o boy.

Go to:

Kai Meyer: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.9.2013
Read it online here – and don’t forget the preface!

I can’t call myself a Hawthorne fan – I would compare the charm that his prose has for me to that of a room full of massive and hideously overcarved ancestral furniture. I can’t help but succumb to the effect of somber impressiveness at times, and the proceedings are occasionally enlivened by a sly wit snaking through (e.g. the self-reviewing preface to “Rappacini’s Daughter,” linked above – aubépine is French for hawthorn) – but I still remember rolling my eyes through the entirety of The House of the Seven Gables. But in smaller doses? I saw a not-too-battered Dover Thrift edition of selected Hawthorne short stories – with a scratchily rendered cover image of very New Englandy headstone ornaments, which I loved – at Lorem Ipsum last weekend, and couldn’t resist adding it to my pile of Gothic stuff.

The romantic melodrama of “Rappacini’s Daughter” is great fun. I think I’d watched the 1980 made-for-TV adaptation before (which appears to have become visually confused in my head with the 2004 film adaptation of the Merchant of Venice? forbidden daughters and Renaissance Italy and all that), but never actually read the story. I still had to haul myself over some of the more pompous prose, but the air of darkly glowing, morbid eroticism and the portrait of perverse desire – with its distorted echoes of Dante and Beatrice, and Romeo and Juliet – are a fair trade for enduring the stiff, orotund moral tone. (Hawthorne points a condemning finger at the corruptibility of the intellect and the imagination, whereas nature he roots in Godly love.)

And Hawthorne creates fantastically sensual effects in the elegant, grotesque confusion of woman and flower:

“Night was already closing in; oppressive exhalations seemed to proceed from the plants and steal upward past the open window; and Giovanni, closing the lattice, went to his couch and dreamed of a rich flower and beautiful girl. Flower and maiden were different, and yet the same, and fraught with some strange peril in either shape.”

“Nor did he fail again to observe, or imagine, an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gemlike flowers over the fountain, — a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening, both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.

Approaching the shrub, she threw open her arms, as with a passionate ardor, and drew its branches into an intimate embrace — so intimate that her features were hidden in its leafy bosom and her glistening ringlets all intermingled with the flowers.”

Additionally – I can’t seem to stop referring to Poppy Brite and Storm Constantine lately – I could swear that one of the two wrote an retelling of this, or at least a short story inspired by, but a title properly suggestive of poisonous beauties isn’t jumping out at me from either of their bibliographies. Hmm.

Go to:
Nathaniel Hawthorne: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.24.2012
Book from: Personal collection

 “Strange things can happen at a crossroads, and the crossroads outside of Arcane, Missouri, is no exception. Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks knows all the odd, mysterious tales about her little town – she grew up hearing her mother tell them. But even Natalie is not prepared for the strangeness that’s unleashed when Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolls into Arcane with its bizarre tonics and elaborate, inexplicable machines. When Natalie finally gets a close look at the intricate maze of the medicine show, she knows in her gut that something about this caravan healers is not right… and that Arcane is in grave danger.”

Like Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker is a spooky circus mystery-adventure set in a Midwestern town, and featuring young protagonists who must reckon with the insinuation of evil into their lives. Realizations about both mortality and morality loom large. The Boneshaker has more of a Western feel, though, shaded with near-apocalyptic gloom; the seductions of the circus have an even more explicitly diabolical flavor. Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” would be right at home on a soundtrack for the novel, I think.

As protagonist, Natalie is an intriguing foil to the unearthly disruptions of Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair: inquisitive, skeptical, mechanically minded, a little bristly and imperious. Admirably, her inquisitiveness extends to the emotional realm, as increasingly throughout the book, she tries to get inside the heads of the people she’s known for all her life, but frequently taken for granted. From the townspeople who have encountered evil in its various forms before, including her own mother, she gleans haunting snatches of narrative that deepen the novel’s Biblical mythos and lend it an absorbing sense of grandeur and pathos.

Unfortunately, Milford’s prose, though carefully detailed, is on the flat and list-y side, even when she write scenes that should be demonically animated:

“She didn’t have to be told to run. The harlequin lunged after her.

She sprinted and dodged, not caring which twists and turns she took in the maze of tents. Bells jingled overhead; the harlequin had taken to the wires again.

Her feet kicked up dust and slid on old straw. The things in her arms stirred restlessly. The Amazing Quinn raced alongside and above on a wire parallel to her path.”

And so on; the rhythm and syntax remain monotonous, and the descriptive choices expected. It’s troublesome, too, that one of Natalie’s mentors seems to have been tipped out directly from the Magical Negro mold. “Nothing to do but play my guitar and dispense advice to white folks in need, doot de doo…”

What Milford does do beautifully is frame rational-minded Natalie’s collision with the realization that the world is insistently, terrifyingly irrational. Her town and the crossroads are much older and stranger than she thinks they are; many of the adults around her have known far more suffering and struggle than she could have imagined; and moreover – worst of all, even – they, too, are fallible and vulnerable. Milford has things to say, too, about the power of story and memory, and weaves in the usual YA subplot of learning to stand your ground in the face of fear, but Natalie’s coming to grips with the pervasiveness of evil and mortality is by far the most affecting narrative strand.

I won’t be seeking out the sequels, but all in all, The Boneshaker was an entertaining read, both thoughtful and goosebumpily suspenseful, with satisfying lashings of American folklore and Christian mythology. I’d recommend it as a companion for a thunderstormy summer afternoon.

For a previously reviewed dark fantasy also featuring Western and Biblical touches (and, coincidentally, a red-haired doctor of dubious humanity), see: The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers.

Go to:
Kate Milford: bio and works reviewed
The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers (2007): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.15.2012
Book from: Borrowed from cousin

or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia: being a revelation of matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, including extracts from the intimate diary of a Noblewoman and the sworn testimony of a Lady of Quality

Dear Reader,
We are having the most wonderful time on our tour of Europe with our new husbands, Thomas and James. We’ve been shopping in Paris, sightseeing in the Alps, and riding gondolas in Venice – there’s nothing like exploring the Continent!

However, there have been some troublesome moments. There was the midnight intruder who left behind a fashionable Turkish slipper. We also always seem to be running into the same peculiar people on our visits to ancient sites. And, oh yes, there was our discovery of the mysterious parcel that hints at a murderously magical plot of international importance!

Clearly, this isn’t quite the calm and relaxing journey we were expecting. But this Grand Tour is turning out to be the best adventure of our lives!

Love,
Cecy and Kate

The Grand Tour is an equally witty and fun sequel to the classic Regency fantasy Sorcery and Cecelia (my review). Plotwise, it’s over-reliant on convenient coincidences to move things along – the first half of the book verges on tiresome in this respect, as the girls and their husbands meander from attraction to attraction and just keep on bumping into those “peculiar people.” Eventually, though, the protagonists do go on the offensive and start trying to think one step ahead of the evil conspirators, as the extent of their plot becomes increasingly clear. But even before then, the affectionately combative dialogue, occasional brushes with danger (thieves! highwaymen! societal embarrassment!), and opportunities for secondhand touristry (there’s plenty of amusing and curious detail on 19th-century European travel, with the bonus of magical conveniences like anti-flea charms) kept me trundling on through the pages.

One of my only disappointments with Sorcery and Cecelia was the authors’ exceedingly light touch when it comes to fantastical worldbuilding, so I was gratified that The Grand Tour, with its international stakes and post-Napoleonic anxieties about war and rulership, goes a bit further in weaving magic into the world’s political and historical fabric. Its climax, especially, hints intriguingly at the depth of ancient magical practice.

Mostly, though, The Grand Tour is happy to remain a character-driven romp. The epistolary form rarely generates any real plot tension, since dramatic events are necessarily recounted after the fact, so I found that more tension arises from any distress the characters might be feeling during the events, than from the events themselves. This is especially so since the universe is a quite moral one, and threats to life and limb of the main characters are rarely serious and never permanent. Very comforting.

I did previously also complain about it being difficult to distinguish the personalities of the main characters; it turns out the nearly 500 pages’ worth of sequel is an effective cure for that, especially when one of the major subplots is Kate’s continued efforts to overcome her nervousness at all social obligations. This is resolved in a heavy-handed but still charming way.

The last page of the book suggests, of course, the possibility of another sequel, which I’ve only just realized was released in 2006: The Mislaid Magician, or, Ten Years After, which I’ll have to keep in mind for the next time I’m looking for the bookish equivalent of a frothy cup of hot chocolate. All three books have recently been released as ebooks with beautifully designed covers (link includes an interview with Stevermer on the trilogy).

Go to:

Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera

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Date read: 10.25.11
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

“… or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the Country.

Dear Reader,
A great deal is happening in London this Season. To begin with, there’s the wizard who tried to poison Kate at the Royal College – she must have mistaken Kate for the Mysterious Marquis (which is curious, as they look nothing alike). There’s also the man who seems to be spying on Cecelia, though he’s not doing a very good job of it – so just what are his intentions?
Then there’s the strange spell that has made our friend Dorothea the toast of the town. Could it possibly have something to do with the charm-bag under Oliver’s bed? (Speaking of Oliver, how long can we make excuses for him? Ever since he was turned into a tree, he hasn’t bothered to tell anyone where he is.)
Clearly, magic is a deadly and dangerous business. And we might be in fear for our lives . . .  if only we weren’t having so much fun!
Love, Cecy and Kate”

A mightily charming epistolary romp through magical Regency England, and a long overdue read for me. Sorcery and Cecelia is fast-paced and stuffed full of clever gambits, sardonic conversation, and plenty of historical slang and detail to please period buffs – the girls spend as much time outwitting fussy aunts and negotiating delicate social constraints as they do uncovering wizardly misdeeds. Also, there are jokes about Byron.

My one disappointment is that the book doesn’t make much room for character development beyond what’s necessary to move the plot along. Between that and the lack of detailed physical description I had trouble telling the girls, and their respective love interests, apart – everyone is witty, quirky, and dark-haired. I must also confess to fantasy-nerdly hankering for more detail about the magical system and the greater role of wizards (they seem to have curiously little influence on society) – but seeing as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also exists, I can hardly complain that that itch has gone unscratched.

In any case, S & C is a great divertissement: playful and vivid, with a lovable (if homogeneous) cast. Common sense says I shouldn’t (too much work to do these days!), but I’m already scheming about finding the sequel…

Go to:
Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (2004): review by Emera
The Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Kakaner
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera

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