Abraham's tale of war and banking in a not-quite-Renaissance empire gathers strength in this, the penultimate volume.
THE TYRANT'S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin volume 3)
by Daniel Abraham
Previous books built his world in such concrete detail that the magic – a possibly mythical history of rule by dragons, and the very tangible threat from a totalitarian spider cult – occupied its edges, and the characters and institutions of a teeming, vivid society its centre.
This is the book on the cusp, where deep magic moves centre stage, and Abraham manages the transition deftly, sustaining tension and mystery almost to the last line. But there are other gripping transformations along the way: Cithrin the young banker, forced to grow up too fast and finding her best prop and insulation at the bottom of a wine glass, begins to learn about other people, and middle-aged widow Clara Kalliam starts to master the skills of becoming a rebel leader.
On the throne, regent Geder Palliako – one of the most bumbling monsters ever encountered in heroic fantasy – continues to grow into his skin: his character, at once pathetic and repellent, is Abraham's masterwork. Add the plot motor of an imperialist war aimed at enforcing peace and order however many atrocities it takes (Palliako is an avid student of his world's theorists of power) and the series remains a winner.
PROMISE OF BLOOD
by Brian McClellan (Orbit)
McClellan's debut, first of a planned series, starts as bog-standard military fantasy. A harshly moralistic general overthrows a shallow, extravagant king and executes almost his entire court.
He struggles to restore order and fend off rapacious neighbours with their eyes on the land. This is a world where the magically endowed possess enhanced senses, and gunpowder mages are vital for war.
But wait: there was (as there usually is) a prophecy. That's where McClellan's plot becomes more interesting, as old gods return in capricious and dangerous guises, and the good guys struggle to put the genie back in the bottle. His skill as a writer handles the action, and the investigative tensions as layers of history are peeled back to reveal truth, very well indeed. But the tale's weakness is its characters, none of whom, hero or villain, is particularly memorable or sympathetic. McClellan tells us about their emotions and personalities, but rarely shows us, and for that reason the narrative never grips as it might.
THE EXILED BLADE (Assassini Book 3)
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
It's sad to say goodbye to Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 14th-century Venice: a place where Teutonic werewolves are the Holy Roman Empire's weapon of mass destruction; where a dowager Mongolian queen uses strange little winged lizards as her salamander spies; and where, as in history, assassins still lurk behind grubby tapestries.
But this is a good conclusion. The writing never flags: richly evocative of place and action, and authentic of voice. Villains get as much of their just deserts as realpolitik will ever allow, and true love triumphs in unexpected ways. Happily, this may not be the end for the series's protagonist, the vampire Tycho, who moves into the future with something even more unexpected by his side: a friend. Read all three books, in order.
QUEEN OF NOWHERE
by Jaine Fenn (Gollancz)
This is the fifth book in Fenn's series about a universe controlled by the inhuman Sidhe. Popular wisdom says the Sidhe were defeated and driven off long ago, but the Sidhe created and spread the meme of their own demise. They have stayed in charge, monitoring all communications, manipulating decisions and ruthlessly eliminating not only dissent but even mildly dangerous curiosity. Post-Edward Snowden, that doesn't feel quite as fantastic as it might have.
Each book in Fenn's series has had a slightly different character: futuristic street-punk tale, trans-planetary detective novel, space opera, and more. With Queen of Nowhere, we're in a William Gibson world where lone hacker Bez is spinning a web of finance, weapons, sources and allies from which, this time, the Sidhe cannot escape. The real need for isolation, anonymity and secrecy this work creates melds imperceptibly with Bez's near-autistic personality, fuelled by her grief, fear and hatred. Much as this is a tale of digital warfare that intermittently gets real and bloody, it is also an exploration of what friendship might mean when it is built through avatars and words on a screen. – Gwen Ansell