Book cover: The Time of the Dark - Barbara HamblyThis is traditional portal fantasy: two outsiders from our world are sucked into a conflict with an ancient, (literally) nebulous enemy in a parallel fantasy world. Darwath is losing the war, its King is dead, his heir a baby, and the political powers are at one another’s throats as they vie for control in spite of ongoing assaults. This first installment sets the scene and embeds the offworlders for (presumably) future glory.

This sadly turned out not to be for me – unexpectedly, I actually got more out of Francine Prose. Prose’s work may have felt snobby, but it was passionate and honest; I don’t share her taste in Chekhov, but I understand her love of books. Leto’s work reads (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background) like a snarky collection of blog posts for a select audience in on some joke that I never quite grasped.

I’ve been reading The Time Traveler’s Almanac since February, and I’ve finally reached the end of the enormous time travel compendium. There’s a reason this is printed as 4 separate volumes – I don’t like to think how heavy the physical edition would have been. 65 stories and 5 essays by different authors old and new explore the concept of time travel, gathered around 4 themes. Following some excellent advice not to read from start to finish, I zipped from point to point like the various protagonists, reading a story from each theme and then putting the book down for a while so that it didn’t get stale.

Snowblind has several things going for it. Firstly, the central character, Ari Thor. Young, smart, impetuous, and deeply confused, he’s a convincing mid-20s bloke tackling his first job – all desire to prove himself and no common sense. Secondly, the location. I have developed a big soft spot for Iceland, and Siglufjordur is a perfect pot-boiler setting – a small settlement on the north coast, which is inaccessible in deep winter as the sea is wild, the mountain pass iced closed, and the single-lane tunnel through the mountain gets blocked by avalanches.

Book cover: Green SmokeOkay, I admit it – there’s some long-term fuzzies for me in this reread, which may be skewing my star rating. You know what? I don’t care.

Young Sue stumbles across Mr R Dragon on her first day of a 2-week visit to Constantine Bay, and the two quickly forge a friendship based on a shared love of iced buns, stories, and genteel politeness (they meet when Sue buries a paper bag that the dragon has accidentally sneezed out of his cave).

My second whole-hearted 5★ read of the year comes from the irrepressible Randall Munroe of XKCD (my favourite stick figure strip – sorry OOTS). This book applies almost serious science to daft questions, although Munroe reserves the right to adapt both the question and the answer for scientific and comedic effect. Also, better stick (wo)man diagrams.