The magic’s in the fine print in ‘Ink & Sigil’

Aloysius MacBharrais has a problem. Every apprentice he’s taken on to learn his job as a sigil agent — essentially a human who “writes and enforces magical contracts using sigils, which are symbols infused with power that do some remarkable stuff” — has died in one type of accident or another. Seven of them, in fact, the most recent being Gordie, who choked to death on a raisin scone. What makes this latest setback a more serious problem is that it seems Gordie was trafficking Fae creatures like the hobgoblin he had caged in his apartment when he died.

(Let’s pause here to get this out of the way: Different from pure goblins and more mischievous than outright malevolent, hobgoblins were extraordinarily difficult to capture as a rule, since they could teleport short distances and were agile creatures as well, with impressive vertical leaps aided by their thick thighs. If you didn’t know, now you know.)

What was Gordie up to? Who was he selling the Fae creatures to, and for what nefarious purpose? It’s up to Al to find out, before the delicate détente between the Fae and humans is broken forever.

That’s the set-up for Kevin Hearne’s highly entertaining fantasy novel, Ink & Sigil (2020). It’s the first in a new series (the next book set to be published in August 2021), but it’s set in the same universe as Hearne’s previous Iron Druid Chronicles series. Sadly, Atticus and his amazing Irish wolfhound Oberon have only a cameo appearance here, but I found the new cast of characters — Al, the Scot who runs a printing company in Glasgow between writing sigils for interactions between humans and Fae; his indispensable assistant Nadia, who has her own secret abilities; even that hobgoblin, a three-foot tall pink creature who goes by the name Buck Foi — a fun bunch to hang out with, and I was fully engaged in how Al would solve the mystery at the book’s heart and set things right.

The pen-and-stationery aficionado in me loves the idea of specially formulated inks imbuing drawn symbols with power. I could use a few Sigils of Agile Grace myself, to be honest. It’s especially pleasing that one doesn’t need to be a magical creature one’s own self to do magic — it can be learned, like any other skill. I hope Al acquires a new, less evil, apprentice in a future book and we get more details of the way sigils work.

And while this new cast stands well on its own without needing to lean on guest appearances from the Iron Druid or Oberon, I can’t help hoping we get more glimpses of them in future volumes. Although at least we did get this lovely canine tribute in Ink & Sigil:

“He survived because of a very good dug named Oberon. Dogs are beings of pure love and devotion and broadcast hope to those of us who have only memories of such things, for they demonstrate by their existence that love and devotion still walk abroad in the world, and therefore it’s worthwhile to live in it.”

Nero and Archie are bullish on catching a murderer in ‘Some Buried Caesar’

It’s the late 1930s and the normally agoraphobic Wolfe has ventured out of his beloved New York City brownstone to upstate New York, where a feud with a fellow amateur orchid grower has provoked him to exhibit his prized albino hybrids at a county agricultural exhibition. He’s not looking for work, but when the scion of the local gentry is found dead in the pasture where a grand champion bull is penned, Wolfe finds himself trading his sleuthing skills for the opportunity to avoid an uncomfortable, dirty hotel room. Or, as Archie puts it, “this case you’ve dragged us into through your absolute frenzy to find an adequate chair to sit on.”

image of book cover, Some Buried Caesar by Rex StoutSome Buried Caesar (1939) is one of the earliest Wolfe novels but already all the essential elements are in place: Wolfe’s reluctance to leave home, his extreme dislike of riding in a car (see the quote below), the rat-a-tat-tat banter between him and Archie, his ability to solve mysteries well before anyone else, his reluctance to share the solution unless there’s something in it for him. Caesar is also notable for being the book in which Archie first meets Lily Rowan, the ultra-rich New York socialite who becomes his steady companion and partner in witty banter throughout the series.

The setting outside of New York City and the brownstone means Caesar can’t truly be considered an archetype of the series, but in every other element it is a more than worthy entry in the canon of Wolfe and Archie.

I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may act at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”

— Nero Wolfe

Cold case heats up in ‘This Is How I Lied’

Eve Knox disappeared just before Christmas from her small town in Iowa. She was a high school sophomore, and her body was found later that night in a cave outside of town. Despite a number of suspects, including an abusive high-school boyfriend, the killer was never found. Now it’s 25 years later, and Eve’s best friend Maggie, who along with Eve’s sister found her body in the cave that long-ago night, is a police detective in their hometown. New evidence has been found, leading to a re-opening of the case. Can Maggie, seven months pregnant after years of trying to have a baby, find the killer without turning her own life upside down?

6d8ac4a96e516015976777078414345412f5945_v5I’m always drawn to Heather Gudenkauf’s novels, including This Is How I Lied (2020), because they have interesting premises and they are set in my part of Iowa, in towns that are somewhat disguised but recognizable to me. And I always come away disappointed with vaguely drawn characters, some ridiculous plot points, and a general sloppiness that I’m more inclined to blame on her editor than on her, to be honest. Whenever an author writes in one paragraph that her character had reached through a picket fence and undone the latch to enter a backyard, then inexplicably two paragraphs later writes the character as looking into the backyard through the fence from the outside, an editor has not earned their wings. And the first-person narration shifts from present to past tense within the same sentence, then back again. Pick a lane, people!

For all of that, this is not a bad book. I never felt tempted to Pearl-rule it, and I don’t regret reading it. Indeed, someone less neurotic about grammar may well enjoy this book. I myself have often overlooked inconsistencies when a book is otherwise engaging. There’s a reason I read so many of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury mysteries: Grimes created memorably quirky characters and had a gift for scenic description that made me feel I was right there. Who was I to quibble if I finished the book unsure exactly why the Who had Dun It? Alas, Ms. Gudenkauf has many of the faults and few of the assets of Ms. Grimes.

I have decided I’m no longer going to fall for the “but it’s Iowa” urge and let this author go. Of course, I said that the last time, too …

They’re all good dogs in ‘Olive, Mabel & Me’

I really needed this book. It’s a gentle, often humorous and occasionally profound story of a man and his dogs, and a fair bit of mountain walking thrown in. If you were hanging around on Twitter last March, you may have come across a cute little video tweet featuring two dogs having an eating contest, as their sports commentator owner provided the play-by-play commentary, as seen here:

It’s a clever takeoff on traditional sports commentary but of course what makes it so charming (beyond the very appealing Scottish accent of Mr. Cotter) are those adorable Labradors, Olive (the black one) and Mabel. It went as viral as you’d expect, ricocheting around the Internet at a time when we were all just beginning to come to terms with what the pandemic had in store for us. I loved it, promptly began following Cotter (who I confess to never having heard of, not being privy to much in the way of overseas sports broadcasting) and delighted in the occasional videos he has posted since. (If you’d like to catch up, you can find them all on his YouTube channel.)

Really, there’s not much more to say. If you love dogs, I think you’d very much enjoy the book. The canine averse will probably want to give it a pass. It is not a book that will haunt your dreams or cause you to despair of the loss of our common humanity — that’s what the news is for. Indeed, it will not teach you much about the world, except that Dogs Are Very Good Boys and Girls. I deducted a half-star only because the author has an unfortunate fondness for sentence fragments that made my left eye twitch just a tiny bit. A few moments’ break to look at pictures of Olive and Mabel and all was well again.

Greed turns deadly in ‘The Benevent Treasure’

Candida Sayle and Stephen Eversley “meet cute,” as the kids say, when Candida gets stranded on an English beach as the high tide rolls in and threatens to drown her. At that exact moment, Stephen happens to be out birdwatching in a rowboat, as one does, and finds his damsel in distress clinging to a cliff face. He rescues her, they exchange names and then part, presumably never to meet again.

10B0FDAD-0967-493D-BB96-372113292CE6Oh, but that wouldn’t be much of a book, would it — let alone a mystery. And so our two young people meet again, this time at a very creepy old country house (honestly, is there any other kind in England?) that is rumored to house The Benevent Treasure (1954), brought to England when its aristocratic Italian owner fled Italy centuries ago. Candida is the black sheep of the Benevent family, through no fault of her own — her mother married a man the family did not approve of and cut all ties. Now all the Benevents are dead, except for two strange old sisters, Olivia and Cara, two strange old women who are the sisters of Candida’s long-dead grandmother. They reach out to young Candida to effect a reunion and she goes to visit, although she’s not sure what they want with her.

She meets up again with Stephen, who just happens to be in the neighborhood doing some architecting work (he’s a prime one for being on the spot), and they get reacquainted. But something is amiss inside Benevent House, and Candida seems to be its focus. And if there’s a mystery to be solved, it’s a fair bet that Miss Silver, intrepid governess-cum-private enquiry agent, will root out the truth.

Wentworth returns to her habit from earlier in the series of having Miss Silver acquire her client whilst riding the train. In this case, she is coincidentally traveling to Retley, where Benevent House is, in the same train carriage as the uncle of a young man who had previously worked for the Benevent sisters and disappeared mysteriously, supposedly after stealing jewels from the rumored treasure. Miss Silver agrees to look into the subject, not realizing she will need to solve a current mystery before she can find the truth about the cold case.

There are a lot of gothic elements here, including the way Candida and Stephen are lovestruck at virtually first sight. You know Stephen has it bad when meets Candida in a café shortly after her arrival.

Stephen, waiting in the Primrose Café, saw her come in with a glowing colour and starry eyes. She made a brightness in the shaded place. He had a rush of feeling which surprised him. It was as if a light had sprung up to meet her, and when she came to him and they look at each other the brightness was round them both.

More deaths will occur before Miss Silver wraps up all the mysteries and solves the case, but does it really matter as long as young love wins out in the end?