The Hob’s Bargain by Patricia Briggs
Early Briggs, and second-world fantasy, and a re-read.
Aren is nearly 30, and in her world is a little old to be newly married. But, as her parents’ only suriving child, she must ensure that their land remains in the family and that requires a man. Fortunately, her parents found Daryn, a genuinely nice guy who really cares for Aren and would be a good husband if he weren’t killed by bandits, along with his brother and Aren’s parents, in the first five pages of the book.
To complicate things, Aren is a seer: visions of the near future come to her but they’re usually baffling images that she figures out the meaning of after. Such magic gifts run in her family: her grandmother was a healer and her brother was a finder. Most of those who have such gifts hide them for two reasons: one, the village recently (within the last couple of generations) converted to worship of the One God, who orders death for magic users, and two, the only allowed form of magic use is Blood Magic, and if a Blood Mage sees that you have a talent he can order you taken and turned into a Blood Mage (which is why Aren is now an only child. Her brother chose suicide rather than become a Blood Mage. Blood Mages are not nice people, they have short lives, and they get a lot less nice before they die). The Blood Mages did one good thing, though: ages ago they locked down the natural magic in the land, saving the humans from the attacks of wild magic creatures.
Until, as Aren hides in the cellar while the bandits raid her house, she has a vision of a Blood Mage stripping the defense from the land to power him in a final, massive act of death magic.
Now the village is in serious trouble. They have a few old, retired soldiers, plus Aren’s brother’s old friend Kith, who is a mixed bag (not so old, and a trained soldier with some magic added in by the Blood Mage who served their lord; but on the other hand he only has one arm, which is why he’s back home and not still serving in the army), but the bandits are all ex-mercenaries and trained killers, and the magic is coming back and with it creatures that will feed on their crops, their animals, and the villagers themselves.
On the nearby Hob’s Mountain, though, there dwells a Hob (not unexpectedly, he being in the title and all). No one knows what a Hob is (he has been asleep since the magic was locked down), but Aren has reason to believe that he will be helful, and such he proves to be. A trickster figure, the local last of his race, he offers the humans a bargain: his aid in exchange for a bride. Always an outsider among the humans, Aren volunteers.
But even the Hob might not be enough to fight off the enemy that is coming . . .
By this point in her career, Briggs has moved past the roughness that marked Masques/Wolfsbane and Dragon Bones/Dragon Blood. Aren is a hero in the mold of Mercy Thompson and Caefawn, the Hob, is a worthy match to her. The story goes in some frankly unexpected directions at times and though short, is engaging. I am torn between wanting a sequel and worrying that if one were written it just wouldn’t hold up.
Sparrow Falling by Gaie Sebold
Sequel to Shanghai Sparrow, this finds Eveline Sparrow trying to keep her school for girls of slightly-less-than-honest tendencies running, but she finds it hard to keep the money coming in without actually turning to crime. Trying to raise funds from a possible sponsor goes badly wrong, though, when the man turns out to have criminal plans of his own and a use for Eveline’s skills. With her fae friend Fox off dealing with problems of his own among the folk and her support among the other instructors at the school falling apart, can Eveline save her dream home?
This is a worthy sequel, and avoids one of the major problems I had with the first one by staying entirely within England rather than titling the book after a location that it barely goes to. It’s not exactly steampunk, though there are elements of steampunk in it; perhaps call it something like “etherpunk”? Anyway, for those who are concerned about steampunk not telling stories of the lower classes: this series does. My one complaint is that while Evvie’s money problems are solved by the end of the book, they aren’t solved by her own efforts, but rather by someone else. I would have preferred the former.
Recommended, but you have to have read Shanghai Sparrow first for it to make sense.