This column features some good reads for all ages which are not currently available in the US. Many US fans are traveling to the UK for conventions and holidays during the summer months so Your Humble Reviewers thought to provide some suggestions for book souvenirs and gifts.
For the middle grades, we highly recommend The Book of Beasts (paperback from Head of Zeus) by John and Carole Barrowman which is the third volume in their Hollow Earth trilogy. The first two books are available in the US, but volume three has not reached the American side of the Atlantic yet. These books are very fast-paced fantasy adventures featuring twins who magically animate through their art. They are set on an island off the coast of Scotland (it doesn’t really exist but features of it come from real Scottish places). The third volume sees the twins separated for most of the book, and so makes the characters change quite a bit and grow in unexpected ways. This is our favorite currently ongoing middle grades series. The pacing and excitement make this a good choice for reluctant readers and since the twins are Emily and Matt, it is a good choice for either sex. Plotting is good enough that older teens and adults will enjoy it too. And yes, if you Doctor Who and Torchwood fans thought the name was familiar, that is the actor who plays Captain Jack Harkness and his older sister who write the series.
For all ages over about ten years, we recommend the War-Fighting Manuals (small hardbacks from Gollancz), an interesting series of little handbooks set in a fantasy world where Orcs, Elves and Dwarves are constantly at war and the humans are sort of bystanders. Den Patrick has written 3 very engrossing little books called, Elves War-Fighting Manual, Dwarves War-Fighting Manual, and Orcs War-Fighting Manual. The manuals are from the viewpoint of a human named Sebastian Venghaus, who has extensively researched the three cultures by living with them for an extended period of time. Each book talks about the weapons, armor, and culture of the race plus you get an idea of how the human is treated when he is a guest. The setting is very interesting, the writing humorous but clean and the books written in such a way that you can open the book to almost any section an enjoy reading from there. As pencil and paper roleplaying gamers since the 1970s, we immediately thought these looked like excellent reference material to run a fantasy adventure campaign, as well as providing some much needed fun reading as an escape from the difficult reading in many of today’s fantasy volumes.
For young adults and adults, we recommend The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick (Gollancz), a coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world with an Italian flavor. It tells the story of Lucien, who is an Orfano, a mutated person. Mutations are cared for by society because the king demands they do so, but they grow up alone and isolated because society doesn’t include them. This is a fascinating setting with a dark tone to it, but it doesn’t have an overall depressing or hopeless feeling; the main character has hope throughout the book, so for those not thrilled with today’s dark fantasy it is still a good read. One of the main activities in the society is fencing, and Patrick provides enough detail to make it feel real but not so much that it feels like the sword is a character in the story. There is quite a bit of death and destruction in the book, but it isn’t gory. However, it is perhaps not a good choice for the very squeamish.
Note that for those of you not traveling, you can still buy these volumes in the US by going online to a British bookseller. Most of the major ones ship internationally.