Right, as part of a new year’s resolution to blog a bit more about what I’m actually reading, I’ve chosen an indie author and an mainstream author I’ve been enjoying this month to write about, so sit up straight, do not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once, and pay attention!
Jim lives in Cumbria and farms, which might contribute to the rich landscape of his fantasy world. I love the details, the different names of playing cards, the odd animals, the casually-mentioned regional differences and customs. In fact, the author's real skill is to make, with a casual remark, the reader nod and agree as if they know the world just as well as the author does. His main character, Benor Dorfingil, is a Toelar roof-runner and cartographer – the former is a native of Toelar whose principal hobby is running about the roofs by night seducing lovely ladies who leave their windows open. One has to do something with one’s downtime. But all his characters are strong, and the busy plots are thick with a fantastic dry humour: they are hard books to put down. Here’s what I’ve read so far (though I’m pleased to say there’s more to go):
The Cartographer's Apprentice
Three stories, all linked with the same hero (Benor) moving from one to the next. The last one was less typical and more tantalising: the first two had mysteries to solve in the fantasy world inhabited by Benor the roofrunner. These are hugely enjoyable books, very amusing in a dry fashion, with very engaging characters.
It doesn’t take long for the dry humour to kick in in this shortish story and the plot is in there even before that, with a complicated case of bigamy. I love the style and the whole thing finished very satisfactorily.
This is the first full length Benor story I’ve read and I enjoyed it just as much as the others. It’s a well-plotted adventure set in a realistic and appealing world. I loved the description of the marshlands – can I move there? As long as I can go to a Thaw Ball, too. Being full length it allowed the writer to show his skills more broadly, including some very moving moments and complex fight scenes.
This story includes Tallis, a poet, his ever-practical wife Shena, and her, um, henchman?, a child known as Mutt, endowed with cynicism beyond his years. Benor stays with them while in Port Naain and becomes involved when Shena, who buys objects found on the beach, is offered a body by a man who is himself dead not long after. I'm pleased to say that Tallis, Shena and Mutt appear elsewhere in Webster's work - indeed, Mutt probably just goes where he pleases.
She writes the Gil Cunningham (I have to like a series with a Cunningham as a hero) murder mysteries set in mediaeval Glasgow. Again there is a rich vein of humour and the books are unashamedly intelligent – think Dorothy Dunnett meets Ellis Peters. Gil’s fiancée, later wife, Alys, is a superb foil to his sometimes slightly ponderous lawyerly ways, and her stolid French builder father is on hand to help Gil, too. The setting is well-portrayed without heavy description but with easy familiarity. I have an Omnibus at present and have just started the last one,
but here’s what I’ve thought so far.
The Harper’s Quine
I thoroughly enjoyed this. The setting was convincing, and what must have been detailed research was used with a light touch and a clear sense of affection for the background. Characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the hero particularly interesting in his scholarship and indecision about his future. I found the conversations witty and realistic and the plot was complex and convincing. Anyone concerned by the Scots or Gaelic terms will find they are smoothly explained in the text (along with the Latin, French and Italian!). I'm very much looking forward to the next in what I believe is already a long series. What happens in this plot will continue to have a considerable impact on Gil’s life in the series, in several ways.
The Nicholas Feast
Another (I think the second but I'm reading them out of order) excellent mediaeval mystery set in Glasgow with Gil Cunningham and his at this stage fiancée Alys, a strong character. The books are amusing and clever, and wear their intelligence lightly. The dog is particularly endearing as Gil investigates the murder of an unappealing Glasgow student.
The Merchant’s Mark
This novel takes Gil and his soon-to-be father-in-law out of Glasgow as far as Roslin Chapel, where we find out something new about the big builder Pierre. Gil’s disabled sister, a ferocious but lovable woman, and her terrifying maid are also key characters as we learn just what travels in barrels around Scotland. Gil’s encounters with the royal court, as he rises higher in his chosen profession, are as edifying as such things usually are, and the ongoing arrangements for Gil and Alys’ marriage are entertaining and frustrating by turns.
Well, there we are - and lots more books besides! Thanks to the authors for their hard work and all it does for us.
Meanwhile, The Necessary Tale has reached end-of-first-draft stage and is sitting looking menacing waiting for me to revise it, but the next Murray is calling, too!