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Eponymosity!

A quickie blog post today, inspired by Benjamin Dreyer’s entertaining rant on the distinction between eponymous and titular (it’s in footnote 1 for a clearer explanation than I am inclined/able to provide), and also by the fact that one of these sneaky little bastards nearly got me in a recent book.

So. An eponym is simply a word taken from a person’s name. Obamacare is an eponym, so is Reaganomics. If you hoover your carpets, the verb comes from the eponymous brand of vacuum cleaner. (We do not use the capital letter, no matter what the Hoover corporation may think: that ship has sailed, as demonstrated by the fact that I hoover with a Dyson.)

If you write historical novels, eponyms are one of those damn things. They tend to be extremely and usefully specific in meaning, but they are also extremely specific in dates, meaning you can’t rely on the old “well it was probably around for decades before it made it into the dictionary” line.

Here for your advisory is an incomplete list of eponyms that may trip you up, depending on period.

Boycott

The name comes from 1880 (Ireland, Charles Boycott, a shitty land agent who was socially and economically ostracised). The practice is older: there was a widespread boycott in the UK of slavery-produced sugar starting in 1791, during which sales plummeted by something like 40%. It is totally historically plausible to have a consumer or personal boycott in your Georgian or Regency novel, but you can’t call it a boycott for several decades more

Chauvinist

Named for a French vaudeville character. Meaning ‘blinkered nationalist’ it dates from 1840; you can’t use it for a male pig until 1960.

Fedora                                                                                                         

The hat beloved of men who spend too long on the internet getting angry about Star Wars sequels actually used to be a symbol of female liberation and cross dressing. Comes from the 1887 play Fédora starring Sarah Bernhardt.

Fuchsia

You will be able to spell this if you remember it’s an eponym for Mr Fuchs. The flowers are so named in the UK in the 1750s, the colour not till the 1920s. Do not put your Regency heroine in fuchsia, is what I mean.

Maverick

Supposedly from a US cattle owner, Samuel Maverick, who let his calves run wild. 1880s US at the very earliest, more probably 1930s. Yes, that is irritating.

Mesmeric

He may have compelling eyes but they ain’t mesmeric before the 1860s. The hypnotist Mesmer flourished in the late 1700s, giving us mesmerism (hypnosis); mesmerise wasn’t a verb till the end of the Regency, and even then it still meant ‘to put into a hypnotic trance’.

Sadistic

Marquis de Sade, as you already know, but NB that sadist/sadistic aren’t in general use till the 1890s or so when sexology got going, along with masochism (also an eponym).

Sandwich

1762 since you ask.

Silhouette

The outline picture is named for French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. Used in France from 1760. However, despite there being a craze for silhouettes in England, the actual word didn’t come here till the mid 1820s, which is sodding annoying if your novel about a silhouette cutter happens to be set in 1819 I’M JUST SAYING.

Sweet Fanny Adams

This UK usage originally referring to something no good, now often used as an alternative to ‘sweet FA/fuck all’, came in from 1869 and cannot be used before 1867. You really don’t want to know where it comes from but here if you must (be warned, it’s genuinely grim).

Thug

Originally from India. Used to describe the Thuggee (as Brits then called it) sect from 1810. Didn’t become generalised to all violent lowlifes till 1839. You can’t be assaulted by thugs in a Regency unless they are actually Thugs.

Trilby

Another hat your Regency gentleman can’t wear. Comes from George du Maurier’s mega hit Trilby published 1894, which also gave us svengali (the name of the baddie in the book).


Feel free to add to this in the comments, there’s always something!

Death in the Spires, my Oxford-set historical murder mystery, is out now. The silhouette book, The Duke at Hazard, publishes in July: more later!

Death In the Spires is out!

Today is the official publication date of my very first murder mystery. Obviously I have written many (many) murders, some of them mysterious, but this is my first genre murder. Which is to say, it’s not a romance novel. Do not go in expecting a HEA, okay?

Death in the Spires is very much a book of my heart. It is, in fact, the book I was discussing with Mr KJC one summer afternoon in the pub about eight years ago, just before I told him that I would rather eat out of bins than keep doing my then job till Christmas as planned, and he said, “Put in your notice tomorrow.” So I did, and moved to being a freelance writer/editor, and then a full time writer, and you can thank/blame Mr KJC for the thirty-odd novels I now have under my belt.

If you’re wondering about ‘eight years ago’: I wrote it, and it didn’t quite work. Couldn’t put my finger on it, so I shoved the MS to one side for five minutes because I was building my career in romance, and then Brexit, Trump, pandemic, before you know it six years have elapsed. But then last year I sent it to exciting new publisher Storm, and they liked it. A terrifically brutal/brutally terrific edit by Kathryn Taussig and Natasha Hodgson later, it did work, and here we are.

It’s a mystery starring an intense group of friends whose glittering Oxford and future careers are abruptly cut short when one of them is murdered…by one of them. Ten years on, scholarship boy turned drab clerk Jem sets out to discover who did it.

It’s running at an average five stars on NetGalley, which is nice. A few review quotes:

One of the best books I have read so far this year. The people and places all feel so real. Even though the setting is historical so many of the issues are ones that are completely relevant now just with a slightly different slant.

This is a mystery story but it is also a beautiful love story. I loved the character of Jem and was with him every painful step of the way

This is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best book K.J. Charles has written so far

A great, satisfying mystery. I read the whole thing in a day

KJ pivots toward a more classic murder mystery, but still gives us strong, nuanced characters in whose emotional lives we can’t help but be invested. As always, her eye for detail and twisty plotting result in a brilliant story that will keep readers breathlessly barreling toward the satisfying conclusion.

Why yes, I do have my usual K.J. Charles book hangover. Thanks for asking.

Clicky for content warnings. Again: not a romance. Available in print and e, and audio read by Tom Lawrence.

Buy links here!

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Character In Action: A close reading exercise

So I did a class on character building for a writing conference recently, which was an interesting experience, especially since it forced me to think about what I do instead of just doing it. (Which, as regular readers will know, ends up being the root of all my advice anyway. Think harder, look deeper.)

As one exercise, I took the opening of a book I wrote and did a deep dive into analysing how it builds character. (I don’t use my own work for examples because I think I’m all that as a writer, by the way. I do it because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to type long passages out from scratch when I could just copy paste my MSS.)

Anyway, it was a really useful exercise (for me at least), so I’m going to reproduce it here.

Okay. So the thing is, people often think of character as a collection of traits. (“My hero is a recovering alcoholic who has tragically lost his wife. He’s half Swedish and collects Ottoman pottery.”) But that isn’t character. Character is how that person behaves, including how they speak because speech is an action, and how they think in a book where we have access to their thoughts. That behaviour/speech/thought is influenced by their past, their traits etc.

And therefore, when we’re trying to convey character, it has to influence, and thus seep into, every aspect of the book—dialogue and narrative. You can’t just reserve chapter 4 for character development. Every sentence in a character’s POV is an opportunity to show character, and so is every sentence about them.

To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to reproduce the opening of Slippery Creatures here. I’m then going to break it down line by line with what I think is pretty much every piece of character work in the passage.

And then, for your delectation, I will provide you with a version from which I have stripped out all the character work, so you can compare and contrast.

Note: this is very far from the only way to build character, and this example is specific to writing in deep 3rd person (that is, where we are inside the character’s head). This is incredibly far from a be-all and end-all. But it is a close work exercise that I found useful even though I’d written the damn thing in the first place, so I’m sharing it for what that’s worth.

OK. Here’s the passage. You might, if keen, want to write down any character notes you pick up as you go along. I found 16.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

It hadn’t always felt this way. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of them looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies. So much that, when Uncle William had died, Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees, and he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

He was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill such as it was, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him.

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

The place reeked of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, just stop noticing it, and then he’d be doomed.

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

He was damned lucky to be here, even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide. Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that felt like decades ago: all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

OK? Right. I shall insert a separator in case you need a moment to think and then give my breakdown.


Here we go.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

‘Outnumbered’ is an odd word choice for books. It’s adversarial: we gather Will is an ‘us and them’ kind of guy. But obviously he’s not at war with books, so there’s a suggestion of humour in his response.

looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies

This isn’t the response of a bibliophile. ‘Looming’ feels slightly threatening. We deduce Will isn’t an intellectual: he’s no Belle whizzing happily around on her rolly ladder. (We might also suspect foreshadowing in the books full of ‘secrets and lies’.)

Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees

Why does he know obscure folklore? It hints that he’s not a modern city type.  

he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

There’s a sense here of Will doing the ‘proper’ thing with the throat-clearing. Ceremony, a sense of doing the right thing, or superstition?

goodwill such as it was

A dryly amused thought: along with ‘outnumbered’ we’re building a picture of his sense of humour.

a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life

We get a sense of the uncle living in a hole among the books, and deduce that Will is not of his ilk.

he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him

Will has an imagination which tends to the sinister. ‘Loomed’ again, which might be a deliberate echo to amplify the sense of oppression, or might be an unconscious repetition the author failed to pick up before now, who can say. 

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

Will is a man very much out of his depth, aware of it, and perhaps slightly worried about the viability of his new business.

He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible

He’s practical, doing the necessary stuff.

then he’d be doomed.

Dark imagination again, and the same half-joking sense of ‘us and them’ as in the first line: Will in battle with life.  

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair

The casual action doesn’t match ‘doomed’ or ‘gloomy’. Despite the preceding paragraphs, Will isn’t letting the oppression of books get him down.

and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

Not a man of exacting standards as long as things work.

He was damned lucky to be here

He does in fact have a sense of proportion about his situation. He has also sworn twice in a short passage of thought, which may or may not be noteworthy.

even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide

His sardonic/gloomy sense of humour again, which we may now be seeing as characteristic

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience.

And here we see what his dark humour is characteristic of, as well as his adversarial cast of mind. He’s survived the First World War (quite possibly in the trenches because Flanders) and had his entire adult life shaped by it; he’s now adrift and disconcerted by his experiences, not quite fitting in with peacetime life or normality.

all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

An important piece of information about Will’s particular skill set, which you may suspect is likely to come up in the plot. Also another touch of his sense of humour in the sardonic word choice ‘discouraged’.


Now, obviously nobody reads the opening of a romantic suspense novel that closely. The reader isn’t scribbling down character notes. The vast majority of people, asked what they have learned from that passage, will say, “Well, he’s an ex soldier who owns a bookshop,” and a few more will add “and he’s not super happy about it”. Some people will be more like, “I don’t know, is he a beekeeper?”

But. But.

But readers do take this stuff in, even if they don’t realise they’re taking this stuff in. (That’s not a snark. Critical analysis is a learned skill: we can be affected by things without knowing how.) And it works by accumulation: you keep on drip feeding the information, infusing it through the book. When we see him stubbornly going toe to toe with a criminal gang and the War Office even though he’s completely outnumbered, we won’t find his attitude surprising.

We can show that people take this stuff in by seeing the response when we take it out.

I now present the opening of Slippery Creatures with exactly the same information and text but without the character notes. Read carefully. See what you think.

Will Darling had a lot of books.

He hadn’t always noticed. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of just how many there were.

Now his uncle was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back where his uncle had lived. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books.

He occupied some of the periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had left him, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory: he doubted his uncle had made one. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows.

The place smelled of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably just get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, and not notice it any more.

He put his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable.

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. He’d been an experienced soldier, but back in England he was starting again, with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that was a long time ago: all he knew how to do now was kill people, which was illegal.

I mean, that could have been written by AI. We learn that Will is a soldier turned bookseller and that he’s practical but inexperienced, and that’s your lot. There is very little in the writing to interest or detain us, no depth of personality. It has, in fact, no character.

(It is possible to write entire books like this on purpose, of course, giving the reader only surface facts and letting them infer the character from the actions. Don’t let me stop you. It’s not going to fly in romance, though.)

But if you’re actively trying to build character? Remember it’s there all the time, and let it percolate throughout the whole book—action, speech, infodumps, description, to build up to a whole.


Slippery Creatures is available from all the usual places. Note for romance readers that it’s the first in a trilogy and you don’t get the HEA till book 3.

A Nobeleman''s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel

It’s Book Release Day!

A Nobeleman''s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel

It’s finally here! A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, the second in my Doomsday Books duo, is out at last. Featuring a soldier-turned-earl with a temper, a smuggler-turned-secretary with a secret, a lot of sneaking around ancient manor houses and playing around with droit du seigneur, Gothic novels, probably too many references to the Angevin dynasty, and some serious angst.

“Masterfully crafted, deliciously adventurous and so, so horny”–BookPage

If you’ve read The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, you will recall Luke Doomsday (Goldie), a snotty adolescent with an abusive father. Luke goes through a lot in that book, and this one, set thirteen years later, is partly about exploring the aftereffects of that damage (aka ‘just how bad is it to be a secondary character in a KJ Charles romance novel? Oh, that bad.’).

Fortunately, Luke meets his match in Rufus, a nobleman in training with no tact, a tendency to shout, and the kindest heart on Romney Marsh. Have some Luke and Rufus.

“About the matter of you going to London. Is that your plan?”

“Of course not. Can’t stand it, stinking filthy pit. What the blazes would I do there?”

“I think you’re intended to court ladies at Almack’s.”

“No,” Rufus said firmly. “Damned if I’m going, even if they’d let me in.”

“Why would they not let you in? You’re an earl.”

“Wouldn’t do me any good. I’ve heard about that place. Fancy manners and no trousers.”

Doomsday spluttered. Rufus pointed a warning finger at him, grinning. “I meant, you have to wear black silk knee-breeches and dress up as though it was the last century. Drink ratafia and mind your language. Bugger that. And how am I supposed to take charge of the estate from London?”

“Well, you couldn’t, that’s the point. And it doesn’t have to be Almack’s; the purpose is very much the courting of ladies. You are the earl, and, well, heirs.”

“I couldn’t give two shits for that,” Rufus said, once again forgetting he was an earl, although in fairness, the most foul-mouthed of his fellow officers had been a marquess’s son. “And I’m not courting anyone. Wouldn’t know how to start.”

“You could court!” Doomsday said with a touch of indignation. “Perhaps not in the most conventional manner, but you’d have no trouble.”

“I would. I never learned to dance—would you believe that’s all but demanded of officers? Bloody ridiculous cavalry twiddle-poop.” As a proud member of the 54th Foot, Rufus had views on cavalry officers. “And I’ve no idea about fine words or wooing, and I’m cursed if I know what one’s meant to do. If you want me to continue the d’Aumesty line, Christ knows what for, you’ll need to give me a list of instructions, or find me an etiquette guide or some damn thing.”

“A nobleman’s guide to courting a countess? Step one, take the lady’s hand and praise the delicacy of her skin with a salute.” Doomsday adopted a decidedly effete upper-class voice for that, simultaneously turning his hand and arm in a wonderfully elegant manner, offering Rufus his palm just like a lady.

Rufus took it, bowed over it, and kissed it.

He hadn’t intended to do that. It was just a joke, spur-of-the-moment, continuing the banter, except that he’d kissed Doomsday’s hand, not just the hand but the sensitive palm, had pressed his lips against warm skin, and even as he stood bowed over it wondering at his own incredible stupidity, he still held that hand in his. “Uh—”

“That’s very good.” Doomsday’s fingers rested lightly in Rufus’s, so that all Rufus would need to do was close his own fingers on them and pull. His long eyelashes were lowered modestly, as part of the joke. His voice sounded a bit constricted. “Perhaps a little forceful, but flattering enthusiasm is very hard to resist.”

“I’m glad it meets your approval,” Rufus managed. Play along, he told himself. Banter. “What’s step two?”

“That would be a compliment on the radiance of her complexion, or perhaps the lustre of her eyes.”

“Madam, your eyes are as brown as, uh. I don’t know. Bread?”

Doomsday’s downswept eyes swept right back up. “Bread?

“I couldn’t think of anything else brown. Hot chocolate? A good beef stew?”

“Stop talking now,” Doomsday said, extracting his hand. “And by that I meant, Maybe I should send for an etiquette guide, my lord.”

Out now, have at it!

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What Is He Thinking? (or, how to make non POV characters show themselves)

On one of my regular forays onto Twitter begging for blog post ideas, Sarah Drew asked “How do you subtly suggest what a non POV character is thinking?”

That is an excellent question, and one that looms large in the minds of anyone writing single POV romance: how do we ensure we know what the other MC thinks and feels? I think the difficulties with that are an excellent reason for the popularity of dual POV romance.

Here I will note that it’s not unknown to do scenes from one POV and then repeat them from the second person’s point of view to give the reader full information. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a terrible idea. I can imagine good reasons to do it and when it might work. But I cannot currently think of a romance where it is anything other than a terrible idea in practice, so, you know, there’s a rec challenge.

Right. So, how do you get into the feelz of a non-viewpoint (NVP) character?

Well, the first question is: do you want to? Presumably you picked your POV character for a reason, if it’s single POV, or if you’re alternating, you decided that this scene had to be played from A’s perspective. So it’s worth considering how much of B’s feelings you actually want to give away, either to A or to the reader.

This can vary dramatically. My book Any Old Diamonds is narrated entirely from the POV of Alec, who hires jewel thief Jerry to rob his father. Jerry is presented as very hard for Alec to read, and because he is very deliberately excluding Alec from his feelings, we the reader are excluded too. They have sex, and Jerry teases out Alec’s wants and also listens to him, but we’re in chapter six (of 14) before they kiss. This is very much a book where, like the hapless viewpoint character, the reader can only look at the moments of consideration or tenderness on Jerry’s part and hope they add up to something. And thus, this is very much a book where you can’t skip the sex scenes.

Are you hard now?” Alec grunted affirmatively. “Good. Don’t touch yourself. Christ, you’re beautiful.”

Alec looked up sharply. Jerry’s eyes were wide and startled, as if he was shocked by his own words, then his lips curled deliberately. “With a cock in your mouth, I meant to say.”

I did it this way for three reasons.

  • Alec is carrying a huge amount of damage and insecurity. We go deep into that. If I’d also dug directly into what the hell is wrong with Jerry (a lot) it would have been 500 pages and glacially paced.  
  • This book is very much about how hard it is to know the truth of people. So it’s important thematically that the only head we’re in is Alec’s, and all we see of Jerry is what Alec sees (from which we can draw our own conclusions).
  • Let’s be real, Jerry the enigmatic, sexually dominating jewel thief is just more fun than “Jerry Gets In Touch with His Feelings”.

Of course, you have to make up for this sort of thing. Jerry eventually comes up with a multi-page grovel/declaration of feelings, plus a massive Grand Gesture. It felt the least I could do.

So: you might not want to clue the reader in with more than direct visuals of how the NVP character looks. Or, you may. Let’s now look at how we might do that.

My latest book Masters In This Hall is a single viewpoint. John (VP) is a hotel detective who lost his job when Barnaby seduced him to distract him from a jewel theft. (I do actually write books that aren’t about jewel thieves occasionally but this one is in the same series as Any Old Diamonds.) Masters is single viewpoint because the main plotline is John starting off devastated by Barnaby’s betrayal (they were just starting a relationship), and the mystery / gradual reveal of why Barnaby did it. If I’d done Barnaby POV I’d have had to spend a lot of the time in Barnaby’s head while deliberately holding back that information from the reader and it’s possible for that to get annoying.

So I went for single POV. But honestly, it’s a Christmas romance novel, we all know Barnaby must have had a good reason, so let’s see how we know what he’s feeling. Deep dive ahoy!

(They are both in Abel Garland’s country house where Barnaby Littimer is master of ceremonies for the medieval-style Christmas celebrations and John Garland is the uninvited poor relation.)

Littimer leapt lightly onto a chair like the hero in a pantomime, tossing his over-long hair back. The arrant ponce. … Littimer’s grin glittered in the candlelight. “A programme of festivities with roles for all who wish them, and enjoyment for everyone. As your Lord of Misrule, I shall direct the house, and I must implore the fullest obedience. All will be revealed, lords, ladies—”

His gaze swept the room, and snagged on John at the back. Their eyes locked. The smile died on Littimer’s face for a full half second.

Then it returned in full force as though he’d never stopped. “And gentlemen!” he concluded, and swept a dramatic bow.

Here we see John”s mere existence shake Barnaby’s confidence and polished persona. This guy is no Jerry, able to control his emotional display, but he’s very good at performing and John nevertheless puts him off his stride.

That sets the tone. We have a couple of exchanges where Barnaby is being irritatingly mysterious and trying to get John to leave. Is he trying to clear the decks for a robbery, or something else?

Littimer made a strangled noise. “If I swear to you that I don’t want to rob your uncle, or your cousin, if I promise on my life not to do anything that will harm you or your family—”

“As if I’d believe you.”

“—is there any chance you’d go away?”

John struggled to form words. Finally he managed, “You actually think I’m that gullible?”

“I’m not trying to gull you. But I really do promise it would be better if you just go home and let events take their course.”

“Why?”

Littimer gave a mirthless smile. “Because I’m trying to keep several balls in the air at the moment, most of them made of nitro-glycerine, and I’d prefer you to be somewhere else when I drop them.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m facing the immediate and unpleasant consequences of my own stupidity. If you think you fell into a trap and brought trouble on yourself, I can only say you are speaking to a master of that art. I’ve bollocksed things up so badly that all I can hope to do now is limit the damage. I think I owe you that.”

That had come out in a raw-voiced rush. John had no idea what to make of it. “Are you in trouble?”

Littimer swallowed, hard; John saw his throat move, and remembered how he’d kissed it, how it had convulsed when Barnaby spent. “A quite remarkable amount.”

His words say he’s sorry and cares about John still. He could be lying. But we’ve also got some clear physical indications of Barnaby’s distress (strangled noise, mirthless smile, rushed speech, swallow) along with the dialogue to support the idea that he’s telling the truth. Also, that he’s actually not very good at this stuff and not coping very well. He’s visibly frustrated and unhappy, which allows us to believe that he’s telling the truth with his indiscreet confession. The final para gives us a physical movement that emphasises the desire between them, but also gently nudges the reader to believe Barnaby is telling the truth: we’re being specifically shown it was an involuntary reaction that betrays his feelings.

Small touches, but they set John, and us, up to believe that Barnaby is yearning to tell John the truth, that he’s every bit as unhappy as John, that they are on their way back together. And thus, when he does confess all, we’re primed for belief and reunion.

The physical underpins the dialogue. Even showing an absence of reaction does something. Here’s Jerry again, looking through Alec’s sketchbook when they’ve had a massive break-up because of a terrible thing Alec did.

Jerry leafed through the book, page after page, unspeaking. There were the face studies, various sketches of eyes and eyebrows, and then he turned the page to reveal that accursed full-face drawing, and Alec decided he really did now want to die. He’d tried to catch Jerry’s expression in that long moment after they’d made love kissing—that intent look, the tenderness—and he’d put so much of his own yearning on the page that he didn’t believe any viewer could miss it.

Jerry looked at that picture for what seemed hours, face unreadable. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move, and Alec watched him, throat as constricted as though Jerry’s hand was gripping it tight.

At last he closed the sketchbook, though he still didn’t look up. “You’ll have to take a few of those out.”

The absence of reaction is a reaction, and the reader can draw their own conclusions onto that blankness. Here it’s crucial to show not tell (a maxim for which I have little time otherwise) because this passage would really not be improved by a detailed explanation of his probable feelings. Jerry is hanging on to his emotional coolth by his fingernails, as we see from the fact that he doesn’t look up: we may well conclude he can’t control his features.

Which leads to an important point: if you want the reader to know what the NVP character is thinking, you have to know what they’re thinking. I knew what was going on in Jerry and Barnaby’s heads throughout, and one of the things I looked for in editing was making sure their (offpage) motivations and thoughts were as sharply defined and consistent as any onpage ones. If you have a NVP character come in being offensive because the plot requires it, rather than because you know what put them in that place, it won’t convince.

That’s MCs. What about showing other, minor characters’ feelings? I’m going to cherrypick a few more examples from Masters In This Hall. Here’s Lord Sidney Box talking about his host (Abel Garland who is an industrial millionaire), whose daughter is to marry Lord Dombey, Lord Sidney’s best friend.

“Garland’s a fool as well as a vulgarian. But, a rich fool. And to be just, he is lavish to his daughter. One cannot fault Miss Garland’s dress, whatever one might think of her breeding, or looks.” They both chuckled again. “Well, Dombey’s not much of a judge of horseflesh, so it scarcely matters, and I trust her to forget her origins once she has her coronet. The ironmonger will have to celebrate his pagan festivities alone next year, and one can only hope he ceases to make a mockery of a house that deserves to be treated with a little more dignity.”

The bite in his voice was startling. The other man said, “Yes, this was your place, wasn’t it? I say, Box—”

“I really don’t care,” Lord Sidney drawled. “I regret seeing it in such ludicrous hands, or course—like witnessing a lady of whom one was once fond plying her trade on the street with a painted face. But it was always inconvenient and really, we barely used it. My father was lucky to get it off his hands, and Garland paid through the nose for it. I won’t deny that it stings to see part of our family history lost in such a way and to such a vulgarian, but it’s all of a piece.”

What do we know now about Lord Sidney from these two paragraphs? He will sneer at a man while living off his lavish hospitality. He’s got a pretty grim attitude to women, and a strong belief in the superiority of the upper classes. And he is trying to sound sophisticated and blasé with all his drawling, but we see the flash of uncontrolled temper when he reflects that his old family home has been sold to an industrialist. You are unlikely to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain.

Or how about Abel’s daughter Ivy? She is a formidable woman making an exceedingly calculated marriage to an earl:

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

She manages her father ruthlessly, and she will clearly manage Dombey ruthlessly. He is without question an inbred idiot and she’s marrying him to become a Countess. But she’s on John’s side (ish) and it’s a Christmas book. So I put in this tiny sequence at the Christmas table:

“That footman’s got a nerve.”

It was Barnaby Littimer. John ought to have told him to find another seat, clear off, go to the devil. Since all his energies were being spent on digestion, leaving very little for thought, and his general mood was of befuddled benevolence, he said, “Which?”

“The one who just offered Lady Jarndyce gin-punch. I bet she’s never touched gin in her life. No, you fool, don’t offer it to Box. Argh.”

At the far end of the table, Lord Sidney Box recoiled from the steaming jug with a pantomime of dismay. “He could just say no,” John remarked. “You’d think they were giving him horse piss.”

“If only,” Barnaby said. “Look, Dombey’s having some. I didn’t expect that.”

John watched the peer take a glass of gin-punch and raise it to Abel. “Good for him. Though he’d probably drink horse piss if you gave it to him. Jolly good vintage, eh what?”

Ostensibly this is showing us John and Barnaby ganging up to mock the toffs, enjoying one another’s company, the start of a reconciliation. But we also see that Lord Sidney deliberately make a point of his contempt for the working-class gin punch favoured by their host, whereas Lord Dombey shows fellowship and courtesy.

And then at the end, when Lord Sidney is exposed as the villain, we see Dombey’s reaction.

Dombey nodded slowly. “Yes. I beg your pardon, Garland: I believed him. My friend, you see.”

Ivy squeezed his arm. “I’m so very sorry, my dear. This is dreadful for you.”

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

He may be thick as mince, but he’s decent, and he recognises that Ivy is the brains of their outfit, and that plus the moment of mutual linking fingers—comfort, allegiance, relying on one another—tells the reader that in fact there’s more to this marriage than exchanging money for title.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it; it’s not their story. I absolutely did not want to hammer the point home because urgh.

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

John sighed with relief. It looked as though his cousin might even be making a love match in her own way after all.

There’s no need to explain everything. As with any lie, fiction becomes less plausible if you overdo the supporting details. Just drop the hint and let the reader pick it up.

And that, I think, is the key to clueing us in to NVP characters’ thoughts. Don’t over-egg it. Trust the reader, show us words and reactions, and let us draw our conclusions even if we’re not in their heads. After all, that’s how we understand people every day.


Any Old Diamonds and Masters In This Hall are both in the Lilywhite Boys series. Get your Victorian jewel thieves here.

My Best Books of 2022

Inexplicably, we’re once again trundling towards the end of the year so it’s time for my annual books post. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 248 books, although that omits the rereads: the Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers that were all I could manage during the worst weeks of Covid, the Murderbot and Kate Griffin reread in Covid recovery, and the huge Terry Pratchett glom after reading the bio.

My romance list is very sparse. This is because, with deep regret, I am excluding all HarperCollins books (which includes Mills & Boon and Avon) since the union, currently on strike with incredibly reasonable demands that the company is ignoring, have asked that people don’t review/promo HarperCollins titles for the duration of the strike. HarperCollins: start negotiating and pay your staff properly because this sucks for staff and authors alike. (I think I caught all the imprints but if I’ve messed up let me know in the comments.)

(It is absolutely fine to buy HC books, the union has just asked for a hold on reviews and promo, btw. Do not boycott.)

Romance

Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake. Wonderfully real contemporary f/f, messy characters, super queer, with glorious female friendships as well as the central romance. And very well written, too. A fabulous and hugely enjoyable story of people finding their place and each other. Enormously recommended.

Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin. M/f romance with a melancholy feel–a magistrate and a courtesan, both of them haunted by their pasts. Low-key a lot of the time but no less passionate and intense for that. The historical detail rings wonderfully true while never overwhelming the story, and it’s a gorgeous understated romance between two hurt people who can stand for themselves but still need each other. The Pingkang li series has got better with every book, and this one is a triumph.

What a Match by Mimi Grace. Absolutely delightful contemporary m/f romance. The tropes are deployed cleverly and enjoyably, the characters are real and terrifically likeable, and the romance feels really well developed. Most of all, the writing is funny, assured, with a light touch and a great line in dialogue, and the editing is top notch (rare and precious). And the cover is gorgeous.

Honey and Pepper by AJ Demas. A new AJ Demas book is always a delight. I adore the alt-ancient Mediterranean world with its cats-in-a-sack politics, sexual fluidity, very dark elements, and wonderfully realised setting. This is the very sweet and tender m/m love story of a cinnamon roll cook and a twisty lawyer-type finding one another, while both coping with their recent freedom from enslavement (very sensitively handled).

A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Lovely m/f Regency with a trans woman lead. Starts with a certain amount of angst, none of it centred on the heroine’s transness but rather on the hero’s war trauma and bereavement, then morphs into a delightfully fluffy romp with a delicious secondary cast.

SF / Fantasy

She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I actually read this last December but after my books of the year post, and it’s too good to miss out. Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother’s name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Terrific sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast.

Kundo Wakes Up by Saad Z. Hossain. A wonderful, strange addition to Hossain’s climate-collapsed world of djinn and nanotech. A strikingly moving story of loss, love, friendship, and building something real in a broken world. Can be read as a standalone, but read the whole lot anyway (start with Djinn City, thank me later).

The Devourers by Indra Das. Proper werewolves. Very intense writing, lush and horrific and physical, about love and exploitation, colonialism and queerness, myth and culture. Magical, compelling, tremendous stuff. I loved it. CWs for on page rape, violence, and body horror.

Dust-Up At The Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Think the Chalet School on Mars, with schoolgirl hijinks aplenty, including here a couple of pupils quietly but determinedly pursuing their own genders. Also, Russian spies, dust storms, midnight feasts, and aliens. Huge fun.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. SFF f/f (say that after a drink) with a gaslamp Holmes and Watson on a planet spanned by rails. A magnificently imaginative setting, a nicely developed and satisfyingly resolved mystery, a beautifully understated central romance, and a lot of thought-provoking ideas make this an immensely satisfying read. Does more at novella length than many books manage in three times as much.  

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Absurdly, gloriously entertaining. A story that hits all the beats and tropes you might think, and that’s not a criticism: you read this book with a knowing expectation of what will happen, plus gleeful anticipation for how you’re going to get there. Diverse cast, entertaining banter, lots of good swearing, cathartic dealing with 2020, and just massive enormous-monster-based fun.

The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. A wonderful read. Intense, slightly dreamlike story structure with marvellous characters, telling a fable about toxic masculinity and how it could just not. It’s a classic fantasy plotwise, and the anti/hero becoming a decent person through his magically enforced cowardice is a profound pleasure to watch. Hugely readable, excellent translation.

Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings. A crappy and chaotic set of space bums and criminals on a junk ship in the middle of a terrible war find themselves 150 years in the future … where they are the sanctified heroes who ended the war. Beautiful world-building and terrific construction of the time travel plot plus a wonderfully human story. This is very much a book about allowing people nuance and failings and redemption: lovely.

Nettle & Bone by T Kingfisher. Classic T Kingfisher – a fairy tale that delves deep into the darkness and horror that underlies those stories, both in sinister magic and in human cruelty. But there is also kindness, and friendship, and love, and hope. A magical tale with high stakes and a lot of humour.

Literature, basically

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. A glorious translation that hits a perfect balance between modern language (“bro!”) and archaisms. Brings gender to the forefront, including the less and more toxic varieties of masculinity, making it feel very much in the vein of the cowboy poet or pub storyteller. Triumphant.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I enjoyed this enormously. A disparate group of deserters, criminals and people escaping violence stick together to survive homelessness in unfamiliar, desperate Lagos. It’s a scary world where terrible things happen, but also a place where people can be kind, and loyal, and loving. A hugely engaging read with characters about whom we care intensely, and a really satisfying plot.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Brilliant in the full meaning of the word. Structurally clever and adventurous–two chapters composed entirely of ellipses, which works perfectly. Staggeringly good characterisation of the self-centred, self-regarding, worthless Brás Cubas. Really funny observations. Massive moral heft in the casual asides regarding poverty, slavery, inhumanity. Intensely readable and just so good.

The Movement by Ayisha Malik. Woman inadvertently starts the #ShutTheFuckUp movement, and Non-Verbalism sweeps the globe. In the olden days this would have been called a Novel of Ideas: it’s an intriguing concept, brilliantly explored from multiple angles, with a gloriously sour view of people underpinned by a profound need for improvement and justice. Also highly entertaining on book-publishing bullshit. Funny, absorbing, and thought-provoking.

Vetaal and Vikram by Gayathri Prabhu. Retelling/reframing of a set of Indian stories that have been retold and reframed for centuries by Indian writers, and were then retold and reframed by Richard Burton. The stories are excellently told, with a strong queer sensibility (including trans and queer protagonists, most of them misbehaving because most people in these stories are misbehaving, but with a couple of achingly lovely moments of hope and yearning too) and a powerful feminist feel.

Non Fiction

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Excellent reportage account of the Theranos startup, aka massive scam. Reads like a thriller, and genuinely shocking.

Vagabonds by Oskar Jensen. Fascinating look at London street life and how the poor survived in the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Social history as it should be: fascinating, inclusive, well-written, passionate, revelatory, and deeply humane. A necessary read if you’re at all into London history.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Truly horrifying account of the nuclear disaster. There’s a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context, and the details of the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, but the book never loses sight of the individual human stories, of people, mostly trying to do their jobs well, who did not deserve this.

The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak. Extremely interesting book on two Merovingian queens. If you don’t have a clue what a Merovingian might be, don’t worry about it, nor did I. Nasty and brutish story of two powerful women scrabbling for supremacy, and very well told with loads of atmosphere and world-building. Fascinating stuff.

The Devil is a Gentleman by Phil Baker. Excellent bio of a hack writer. Dennis Wheatley was a towering figure of popular writing, and pretty much invented the British occult. This is a fascinating deep dive into his life, British publishing, the wine trade, implausible true crime, wartime shenanigans including being part of the deception teams that helped D-Day happen, and the business of being a mega-author. Wheatley himself kind of sucked but this is great.

Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin. Very well written set of essays covering different aspects of Africa and its relationship with the West. Evocative, vivid, often extremely funny, with biting sarcasm but also immense generosity of spirit, which really makes you read with a sense of hope as well as fury. Compelling reading, highly informative, and highly recommended.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. A great biography and discussion of the books, but also a dreadful account of what dementia did to a wonderful brain. Intensely moving and deeply upsetting. A great tribute to a marvellous author and very kind/grumpy man.

Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan. A much-more-interesting-than-you’d-think history of the index. Fascinating book stuff, and hands down the best title ever.

Glomming of Obscure Authors

I read a somewhat bonkers ten books by DE Stevenson this year, all of them feelgood, gentle-but-with-an-edge stories set in the 30s to 50s. If you need a place of safety, these are great. Start with the utterly delightful Miss Buncle’s Book, in which a woman of no importance writes a roman a clef about her English village, causing total mayhem but also significant improvements. One of those books you just hide in for a while.

I also read, and I am struggling to believe this myself, eighteen Tommy Hambledon thrillers by Manning Coles, including three I had to order second hand in print (and I have three more in my TBR pile right now). I have no excuses. Spyish stories starting in WW1 and going on till the 1960s with a bit of sleight-of-hand on the main character’s age. If you too have lost your marbles, try the delightful Without Lawful Authority, the story of a disgraced Army officer who meets a burglar (officer class but down on his luck), as they form a dynamic duo who go after Nazi spies in the run up to war. A bit of regrettable period-typical bigotry, sadly, but 97% fun.  

I would also commend Now or Never, a bonkers post-war one which is not such a good book overall but which does have the spectacular recurring secondary characters Campbell and Forgan, a heftily coded gay couple who make model trains for a living and annoy Nazis/bad guys/the police for a hobby. They’re introduced in the fantastic A Brother for Hugh/An Intent to Deceive but that hasn’t been digitised, inexplicably. I’m going to stop talking about this now.

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If that isn’t enough books for you, try Masters In this Hall, by me, out now!

Masters In This Hall: New book out now!

So I wrote a surprise book, as you do. (I didn’t announce it because I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do it. Then I realised I absolutely didn’t have time to do it. So I did it. Huge thanks to Kanaxa, who created the lovely cover in an afternoon to make this possible!)

Cover has a sepia look and Victorian-medievalist text, plus flower and greenery garlands in deep reds, greens, gold. two newspaper-sketch style Victorian gentlemen with somewhat shifty expressions in the foreground, an old house in the background. General look of a Victorian illustrated paper or possibly Christmas card.

Masters In This Hall is a 30K story set in England, December 1899. John Garland is a disgraced hotel detective, sacked from his job because of the callous actions of stage designer/jewel thief Barnaby Littimer. Now Barnaby has a job managing the Christmas celebrations at John’s millionaire uncle’s home. And John intends to stop whatever he’s up to…

This is set in the world of the Lilywhite Boys, some four years after the end of Gilded Cage. It’s a standalone story so you don’t need to have read that series, but if you have, you may see cameos.

I’m not religious, but I like carols (not the ‘sweet baby Jesus’ ones, the ‘It’s very cold outside and we’re going medieval on your arse’ ones). Masters In This Hall is named after my favourite carol and I made a Spotify playlist with all the carols mentioned in the book, for your enhanced reading experience.

There are many Dickens references, and I am waiting with anticipation for the first person to complain about the particularly inexcusable pun.  

It’s out now on all the usual e-stores (some are taking a bit longer to come through). Enjoy!

Seven for a secret: a covers gallery

I was overjoyed this week when I got the Japanese cover of The Magpie Lord. This is my most-translated book and one of my chat group commented it would be a good idea to do a gallery. Which, clearly, it is. Herewith the various incarnations of the Charm of Magpies series: six full versions plus the first in the Japanese series.

The first are my Samhain covers from the original edition; the second are by Lexiconic Design for my self pubbed edition. We then have the wonderfully moody Hebrew (compare to the self pubs: super ingenious), the even moodier French, the Thai set for which I would quite literally die, and the abstract and swoony Taiwanese. At the bottom you can see the first of the Japanese ones, and it is worth waiting for. [Edit: I have now added the other two and nnngh.]

And finally the Japanese covers. Good lord.

Amazing. I have always felt blessed in my covers for this series, but seeing them together is…yeah, I’m a jammy cow.

A Thief in the Night is out!

I have a release day, for the first time in a very long while. (This is basically because I’ve started going with publishers instead of self publishing. When you finish a book that you’re doing yourself you can get it out in a very short time: I had Subtle Blood out in less than a month after I finally signed off the MS. Publishers take the best part of 18 months for print. You see the problem.)

Anyway, we’re slowly getting back into a schedule, and here’s the first: A Thief in the Night, a Regency romance starring Toby, who you may remember as Robin’s long-vanished brother from The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting.

“Toby left us. Up and vanished one day. He was our big brother, our best friend, the one who stood in front of us when Lordship was free with his fists, but he didn’t even say goodbye, and we have never heard from him again. He’d fought with Lordship every day of the five years before that, you’d have thought they hated each other, but Lordship was never the same once he’d gone. Well, he was worse.”

I always wanted to know what happened to Toby. Now I do, and you can find out too, simply by reading this!

Cover, in cartoon style. Old house with peeling wallpaper, a leaded window outside which we see a night sky with stars, a table covered in old books and a chipped cup. Toby has his back to the table. Miles (dark hair, smart Regency clothes, taller) is leaning over Toby looking menacing. Toby (sandy hair, no coat or cravat) does not look menaced. He's got one hand on Miles's hip in a trusting way. The other, behind his back, is concealing a gentleman's expensive fob watch.

You will have to read it with your ears initially because this is an Audible Original, ie an audio exclusive. The ebook will be out in April 2023, and I’m doing a print version in a short story bind-up then, but for now it’s only audio, ably read by Ryan Laughton and James Joseph. The lovely cover is Elizabeth Turner Stokes!

Here’s the link: I hope you enjoy it.

Best Books of 2021

Another year, another book post. (I know we still have most of December to get through but you might be looking for Christmas presents/holiday reads, and I’m procrastinating.)

Goodreads informs me I have read 283 books this year, not counting the DNFs I didn’t trouble to list or the rereads (Murderbot and T. Kingfisher, mostly). Hilariously, if you’d asked me, I would have said I found it very difficult to read this year: certainly there’s several highly regarded books on my TBR on which I am still inexplicably and depressingly blocked. Still, I read some crackers, so without further ado, my faves. This year I am confining myself to four per category.

Romance

Fine, I lied about four per category.

Strong Wine by AJ Demas. Third in the lovely alt-ancient Mediterranean trilogy with a retired soldier and a genderfluid eunuch sword dancer/part time spy. This is set around a murder but it’s really a domestic piece in a lovingly detailed world. Read the whole series.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall. Very funny ensemble romcom that still tackles some hard stuff about biphobia, with a bi single mum on an alt-Bake-Off finding love, trust, and confidence. Some really excellent swearing.  

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron. Gorgeous contemporary with real, flawed, likeable characters, a lovely supporting cast, and a joyous romance. Heron’s greatest strength is her compulsive readability: I gulp her books.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. Deep kindness (especially about human flaws and quirks) without sentimentality, terrific snark, great one-liners, swoony and hot romance, assured writing, and two neurodivergent leads.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins. Tough heroine, cinnamon roll hero, fantastically realised historical setting, Beverly Jenkins, enough said.

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir. Delightful slow burn f/f romance with strongly realistic and likeably flawed leads and a beautifully depicted Delhi setting. Terrific writing.

Sweethand by Natalie Peltier. Zizzy, charming modern romance with a lovely slow burn and genuinely hilarious banter in a well-drawn Trinidad setting. (Talking of well drawn: the best illustrated cover of the year to my mind.)

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. Excellent contemporary romance with two Black writers with troubled pasts finding one another again. A lot of heavy stuff but a lot of joy, and a hilarious look at the US literary scene to boot.

Fantasy

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. Gorgeously written novella in a Vietnam-influenced world with a princess being used as a pawn, who finds a tiger spirit on her side. It’s about reclaiming yourself in the face of abuse, and hugely uplifting with it.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Urban fantasy set in modern Malaysia, with a young woman haunted by her grandmother and meddling in the affairs of gods. Funny, scary, angry, vivid, and brilliantly played out.

Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. Could have been in the romance section tbh. Second in this delightful series dealing with the paladins of a dead god, the oppression of gnoles, and in this case an order of shapeshifting bear-nuns. As ever the worldbuilding is effortlessly immersive, the mood sharp-edged but ultimately kind, and the characters a delight. Paladin’s Hope is also wonderful but this one had the edge for me.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Tremendous fantasy set in alt-America (pre and sans Columbus). Complex plot, characters, and worldbuilding, all effortlessly conveyed to make a marvellously readable story. Dying for the sequel.

SF

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Literally an old-fashioned girls’ school story set on Mars. Is everything you hope it will be from that description. Played absolutely straight and note perfect.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. This one is entirely a character piece. A group of people are stranded at an intergalactic truck stop and almost nothing happens. It’s compulsive reading and made me cry so hard (in a good way) that I could barely breathe. Vitally hopeful.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Just stunningly good. Cannot possibly sum up how good this and the first book are as a pair. I’d say it was a novel of ideas if it wasn’t a wonderful character exploration except it’s also a terrifically tense adventure as we race to stop a war. For heaven’s sake, read these.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I mean, this book is literally about giant spiders, but I nevertheless loved it, rooted for the spiders, and even read the sequel, which is also about giant spiders. Which should tell you how well plotted, clever, engaging, and thought-provoking it is, but I do not wish to think about spiders any longer so let’s move on.

Crime/thriller

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino. Epic scale thriller covering twenty years and a lot of changes in Japan. Violent, disturbing, compelling. I glommed this author’s backlist but I think this is his best. Hard-hitting stuff.

Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone. Gleefully evil revenge fantasy as sociopath Jane takes an abusive man apart by underhand means, which include not caring about his goddamn man-feelings. Good Lord, I needed that.

Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q Sutanto. A truly glorious caper comedy about a young Indonesian/Chinese American woman, her overbearing aunties/mum, and the disposal of a body. Of a guy they kind of accidentally killed. Whoops. Absurd and at points very dark farce plotting, but written with a light touch and a warm heart.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. Cracking superhero thriller from the perspective of a woman who temps as a villain’s henchperson. Funny, violent, dark, thought-provoking, and a hugely absorbing story. 

Litfic

Mostly a bit Shania Twain for me this year, but two cracking reads.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Astonishing novel covering a detransitioned man, a cis woman, and a trans woman, negotiating a very messy set of relationships. Sharply observed, nuanced, very intelligent, and deeply connecting. A must-read.

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu. Enthralling story of a blue-skinned boy touted by his father as the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. About family and faith and why people are so desperate to believe. Plus a really tender and human look at friendships and sexuality and gender.

Non Fiction

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask. Takes what seems to be a small topic and makes you see how big it is. Addresses are about state control, and society, and memory, and hope, and racism, and the wealth divide, and a shedload more. Genuinely fascinating, well written, and immensely readable.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Horrifying, compelling, rage-aneurysm-inducing account of the greed-monster Sackler family and how they pushed OxyContin. You need to read it, then you need to take some very deep breaths to calm down, then you need to overthrow capitalism and guillotine the bastards.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear by Lev Parikian. Memoir of an amateur birdwatcher’s efforts to spot 200 species in a year. Very British, very funny, really charming, with some lovely nature writing, and enormously absorbing. Also, genius earworm title.

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. An entire book about semicolons. Terrific on the history and the extremely weird and frankly scary ways people interact with semicolons; really interesting on the concept of punctuation in general.

History

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge. I went on a wild Angevin/Plantagenet binge this year, such that I briefly considered having a whole Angevin section in this list (I regained my senses). This is a terrific bio of a really impressive man at the heart of the period, which gives us a feel for the person as well as the culture, society, and turbulent politics of the time.

The Burgundians by Bart van Loo. Phenomenal history that reads like a saga novel and keeps you hooked. I didn’t know why I should care about the Burgundians, or indeed exactly who they were, and now I’m desperate to go to the Low Countries and see art galleries. Hugely engaging, exactly how history should be written.

The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris. Terrific in-depth look at the various little kingdoms that got merged into England. Morris is always highly readable, with a gift for description and a good sense of story. Highly informative, and does not leave you thinking that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was a descriptor to be proud of.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon. The story of Daniel Mendoza, and his life as a boxer, a Jew, and a sporting superstar in Georgian London. Deserves reading alongside Richmond Unchained to get a picture of life for marginalised Georgians who literally fought their way to wealth and fame.

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I would be promotionally remiss not to mention a couple of things:

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is one of the New York Public Library Best Books of 2021 (“A surprising, satisfying, and steamy Regency charmer”).

Subtle Blood is one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2021 (“wit, sexiness, humor, and heart”).