The Great Troll War, by Jasper Fforde – It’s been eight years since the previous book in the Chronicles of Kazam, but we finally have the conclusion to this series. Set in a version of Britain that’s made up of many small kingdoms, and where wizards and dragons co-exist with some modern pop culture and technology, it starts out with a bunch of human-eating trolls having invaded the UnUnited Kingdoms. They’re only kept at bay due to their fear of buttons, and it’s clear that their appearance is part of a plot by the evil magician Shandar. He’s also weakened other people’s magic, and demands that Kazam turn over the Quarkbeast. On the bright side, the princess who’s befriended Jennifer Strange has a valid claim to rule over all of the kingdoms. But there’s a problem with that, too, as an impostor and a handsome but sleazy knight have taken advantage of this claim. The author, or at least an alternate-universe version of him, puts in an appearance, describing the plots of his other books and using his penchant for weird ideas to correctly guess at Shandar’s scheme. Jennifer eventually learns both her origin and her destiny, as well as why the number of trolls seems to vary considerably depending on where they are.
The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller – I’d read Miller’s Circe, and I’ve heard good things about this earlier one, so I finally got around to reading it. It tells the story of the greatest Greek warrior of his time from the perspective of Patroclus, his companion who’s probably also his lover, although the ancient writers didn’t exactly specify. Since Achilles is often portrayed as proud and stubborn, I was almost expecting it to be a tumultuous relationship, but Achilles feels genuine respect and affection for Patroclus, treating him as an equal despite his higher rank and greater fame. That’s not to say they don’t have fights, but it’s a genuinely loving relationship. It sticks to the general plot of the Iliad, but reinterprets some of its aspects. I appreciated how Achilles’ insistence on keeping Briseis as a prize is here said to be to protect her, as per Patroclus’ suggestion. The narrative includes the deaths of both men, but it’s still told in first person even after that, using ancient Greek beliefs on the afterlife as an explanation for how this is possible. The gods are mostly downplayed, but they do show up, with significant roles for Chiron and Thetis, the latter of whom really doesn’t approve of her son’s choice of partner. Miller chose not to include the part about Achilles dying from being shot in the heel, although it’s mentioned by Paris as a common rumor that he can only die that way.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher – This is actually a pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, who mostly writes children’s books, but uses this name when writing for older audiences. Not THAT much older, perhaps, as the hero of this book is fourteen, but still. It’s the first thing I’ve read by this writer under any name. Mona works in a bakery owned by her aunt, and has magic that she can use to control dough. She can animate gingerbread men, and has created a sourdough creature that lives in the basement. When a dead body shows up in the bakery, Mona is arrested, but the case is pretty much immediately dismissed by the Duchess who rules the city and the wizard-knight who leads her army. The inquisitor turns out to have more tricks up his sleeve, however, trying to convince the people of the city to distrust and turn in wizards. He’s also teamed up with a magical assassin known as the Spring Green Man. Mona has to use her baking magic to defend her hometown against invaders. The idea of bread-based magic is used quite interestingly. I did think there were some elements that were rushed a bit, particularly how the suspicion of wizards is kind of only there to set up why there aren’t any other magic-workers to defend the city rather than being a recurring plot element. It made the villains seem a little less competent, but the story wasn’t really about them anyway.