Injection – Ellis, Shalvey, Bellaire

injection_01-1I have spent today sitting under a blanket eating bacon flavoured crisps, drinking tea and generally not doing much*, so I thought I should maybe try to achieve something**. Since I have now read a book, I feel like this has been done. Good job me.

I mean, actually good job, as it was really rather good.

I like going into books not knowing what I’m getting. Sometimes, it means you read a dud, and you wonder why on earth it even got published. But then, sometimes, you find something brilliant that you might not ever have read if you hadn’t gone, go on then. In this instance, it wasn’t me doing the blind picking, as I just borrowed it off Boyfriend, but he followed the same general principle. When I picked it up today, all I knew was that he’d liked it. Nothing about what it was about, the art style, nothing. And I really enjoyed that – no pre-conceived notions of what the book was supposed to be, just enjoying the thing presented in front of me. Especially as that thing turned out to be really cool.

But how to blurb it? It’s hard, because it’s very much the first volume of a series, and is doing a lot of setup work without any of the explanation stuff (mostly), so I have a lot of questions without really any of the answers. So my blurb will be heavy on speculation. Or vague. Let’s go with that.

Imagine a world where, for some reason, incursions of mythological stuff occur in the UK. Now imagine that the people best placed to fix this may be doing so out of vague guilt that they caused the issue in the first place. Back when they were some sort of government think-tank. Obviously.

So far, it’s really really interesting, and the setup it’s doing is really promising. And I am super hopeful it can build on that… but it’s all in the future. Which is kinda frustrating? Don’t get me wrong, what we have is really enjoyable, but this is the issue with graphic novels – you don’t get enough in the first trade of most things to get a secure idea of whether the story is going to be able to sustain. You don’t know if it’s only ever going to be good setup, or if the next three volumes are going to carry you through glorious storyline. Or if it’ll be cancelled, and you’ll never know if they had the ability to follow it through. And for all I love comics some of the time, this is why I’ll always prefer book-books. You have, most of the time, the guarantee that there’s enough space to answer that question.

But, such is the medium, and I can hardly hold one example responsible for the flaws of all.

From what we have… I think there’s a lot to be excited about. There are at least three characters that show real promise for being developed into sympathetic, real and enjoyable people. With magic! There are two who are currently quite… unknown. One of them seems to have a massive risk of just being a Sherlock Holmes duplicate, so I’m hoping the next volume does some work to mitigate that. There’s also not a lot done in tying the disparate threads together – it’s just several people’s stories that sort of relate because [shared past thing].

But… massive but… the world-building is tremendous. Properly excellent. And between that and the promise of the characters… I am definitely sold.

Fundamentally, I do just like magical realism and the such. It’s why I like Urban Fantasy so much, probably. And so this plays right into my preferences because the fundamental concept of the magic in it is bound to realism, and people using real things to fix it. Sure, it’s also totally improbable and silly. But that veneer of sensible is enough – it forces the narrative to ground itself in a lot of areas where less… realistic… genres don’t feel the need. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, because the need to keep an eye on realism forces a degree of self-analysis that I find endearing. That and the fact that when character dialogue reads like actual people talking to one another, it’s just so much better.

Alas, however, I did find the art another let down. There’s nothing wrong with it. It serves its purpose well. But it’s very competently functional rather than inspiring. It doesn’t step outside the bounds of what’s pretty normal, at any point. Yes, it conveys what it wants to convey, and is basically attractive and balanced. But it’s not special. And that’s kinda sad too.

Overall, I gave it 4/5. It’s got a huge amount of promise, and I am very keen to read the next volume, but there’s a lot riding on how that plays out, so I don’t feel like I can commit to full marks without knowing if the pay-off works. If it does, I will be really really pleased, because that promise is of things I love… but it needs that back up. We shall see. Hopefully the boyfriend will buy volume two soon… hint hint?

Next up – more Romans, probably. I got bored of things that weren’t Cicero.

*Sadly, this was now several days ago. Today, I went to work, got confused by things and did spreadsheets. It was a much less satisfying day.

**I mean, I did some laundry too but that mainly involved effort on the part of the washing machine rather than me.

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The Voyage of the Basilisk – Marie Brennan

voyage-basilisk_lockwood_brennan

You get the whole cover picture here because the art on these books is just beautiful.

I have been egregiously long in getting to this, especially given I very much enjoyed the first two. I was even longer, because I was an utter fool last time I was in a bookshop. I saw they had the whole series and I wanted to buy a book while I was there (to encourage them to think that bookclub turning up once a month is a good thing for them) so I thought, oooh, go on then, it’s the sort of book I want to read next. So I bought what I thought was the next one. Turns out, two of the volumes have bluey-purple illustrations on the cover and maybe I should pay attention. I had to then buy the actual third volume online, because I’d decided I wanted to read it and damnit now I wasn’t going to be bested by my own idiocy. So yeah… lesson of the day is “read the front cover of books you buy”. Who’d have thought?

However, once I actually got to read the book I intended to read, it was very good. Ok, no, not exactly. But it was very fun.

This is something of an interesting contrast to the last book I read, where it was exceedingly good, but not exactly happy-making. I felt I couldn’t admit to having “liked” it, because that felt too much like a positive emotion, in a book that evoked so much sadness, but was forced to appreciate it because it was so bloody brilliantly executed. Here… I feel very happy that I’ve read it. I do. It was joyous fun. But I’m going to have to admit that it’s hardly ground-breaking literature. It’s very silly. The prose is hardly going to shock the world, and for all that it has an excellent idea at the core, the good it give is the escapism and the fun, rather than any real excess of skill in the execution. I’m ok with that – I don’t feel the need to read excellent examples of literature every time I pick up a book – but it’s a very different sort of appreciation going on here, and I feel like I need to draw the line, if only for clarity.

But by god it is fun.

Isabella, the narrator, is just excellent to listen to, as her older, narrator self tuts along with the reader at the follies of her younger self. You can hear the eye-rolling sometimes. She has an amusing way of glossing over things she isn’t interested in, and a fun way of describing things that does feel something like a Victorian travelogue. The blatantly real countries that crop up under different names are likewise amusing in their obviousness (a lot of this book is set in the Totally-Not-Pacific-Islands) and the people are fleshed out enough to feel like people. And all those feed into the pleasing, happy fun times.

But this the thing I really like about this, and bear with me here, is that it’s not Steampunk, or any of the other associated Victoriana-stylee subgenres that make me grumpy because they’ve magically and without any actual explanation filtered out all the racism, sexism, homophobia and other issues that would have actually been there in real Victorian-world. Because, let’s face it, the Victorians were pretty awful by modern standards in a lot of ways. Colonialism was a thing, so I hear. And the thing that really gets me about most stuff set in pseudo-Victoriana (Everfair by Nisi Shawl being a prominent exception, as is Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho*), is that it’s just… excised all that. You have women in corsetry going off to be pirate captains or whatever, with no censure or judgment. Or if there is some, it’s cursory at best. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy that the past was somewhat more misogynistic and racist than the now often is. I’m not looking for more of that. But I find silent erasure of it to be… well… offensive. It puts a higher value on the aesthetics of a period than on what those associations might mean to people who would not have thrived in those times.

To diverge even more wildly before I get to the point, it is best explained, for me, by an episode of Star Trek DS9. If someone can quote me chapter and verse on this I’d be exceedingly grateful because I cannot for the life of me remember what the episode is called. There is a holodeck programme frequently used on DS9, which is set in a bar in Las Vegas in the… 60s, I think? There’s a singer called Vic, and he’s a source of advice and friendship for a lot of the crew at various times, filling the niche the holodeck often does in Trek. A group of the crew are going to the holodeck to enjoy this programme, and invite Commander Sisko along. He says no thanks, because it’s set in a period when he would have been heavily discriminated against. The crew assure him that, no, that won’t happen in the holodeck, that bit has been removed. He still refuses, not wanting to pretend that a time that would have been deeply uncomfortable and dangerous for him in reality would have been anything else.

I don’t enjoy things that glorify the Victorian world without acknowledging its harmful side, because it feels like a lie, and a lie that belies the struggle of people (not just people like me, but I would have been included, as a woman) against power structures that explicitly discriminated against them, or their submission to them and subsequently limited, harmed or otherwise less than ideal lives.

And so, to get back to a point, although it isn’t flawless, I do really enjoy the fact that the Lady Trent series acknowledges that the protagonist is held back in her pseudo-Victorian world by her gender. She manages to overcome some of her problems, and for some others, she achieves the best outcome available to her within those constraints. Likewise, her science-friend Tom has to struggle for recognition despite his working class background. We see tensions on board their ship between the Captain (who I take to be pseudo-Greek, though we don’t get much on him) and an archaeologist they take on board, who happens to be black. We see Isabella labelled as “preferring female company for more than friendship” and judged for it, when she chooses not to remarry after her husband’s death. Isabella herself is… far more modern in her sensibilities than is probably realistic, and though she does occasionally find herself wrong-footed by things, she always recovers to agree with modern ideals, more or less. And sure, that’s not hugely realistic, perhaps. But I’m not really after realism, per se. I’m after an acknowledgment of those hardships, rather than a prioritisation of a cool aesthetic over any sort of willingness to tackle the issues. And that… well… it’s something that has stood out for me in all three of the books in the series I’ve read so far. The author is willing to accept everything that comes with her setting and work with it to create something more honest, rather than cutting out the uncomfortable bits to avoid any hard thinking.

And that’s really valuable to me.

The rest of the book? Well, it’s a fun romp. There are adventures and dragons and danger and pretty illustrations and a lot of foreboding. No one is a super deep human being, but they all feel enough like people that you like them. You explore another section of Brennan’s recoloured Victorian world, which is beautifully described and gloriously unsubtle. And, for me, above all, I get to follow along the story of a woman with an intellectual passion, and her adventures in trying to realise it and become someone more than she’s been allowed to be, all safe in the cosy knowledge that she’ll succeed, because the narrator is her older self, telling us just that.

It’s that perfect balance of cosy, fun adventure with realistic acknowledgement of history. And this one has an archaeologist in it too (and I love him). It’s never going to break stunning new ground, but it will cheer me up and keep me reading and I love it for that. Also for the art, which remains stunning.

 

*It does seem notable that the two exceptions I have read in this vein are by WOC.

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A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

71yudyynaolThis was… weird.

(I got that far and then paused writing to do something else, and now it’s over a week later and I’m tempted to leave this post there… but I won’t).

I’m not sure if that is a totally positively or negatively charged weird. It was just fundamentally peculiar. And while I enjoyed the book as a whole, the fact that it took some amount of effort to get into is probably the reason I took it down to a four instead of a five.

Mainly, the weird is the writing style. It’s very very stream of consciousness, and in the early parts (where the narrator is a small child) feels as if it’s meant to reflect her childishness and language skills still developing. But the style remains as she ages, the only difference being the extent to which the reader has become used to it. There’s an immediacy to it, and an efficiency, with a lot being cut out in her language except what is absolutely necessary to convey ideas. She also cuts herself off mid-flow often, distracted by a new thought, or interrupted, and circles back round to previous thoughts, or hops to a new one without an obvious chain. It does, in the main, feel very true to how a person might actually think, but it’s quite a difficult thing to get into at the start, because it, by necessity, forces the reader to do more work to pick up on things. By the end of the book, I’d almost stopped noticing the effort I had to put in, and had very much come to appreciate what the style was giving me, but it was definitely a process, and in such a short book, the fact that you have that acclimatisation period feels like you’re slogging through a significant portion.

But, ultimately, I think it’s a pay off that’s worth it. You feel by the very end that you know the narrator intimately and totally, in a way I don’t often feel in stories narrated conventionally. And given that it’s so deeply a book about one person’s feelings and interaction with her family and her own emotions, that’s incredibly valuable.

And that’s what I enjoyed so much about this book. It’s so fundamentally about one person’s experiences, so tied to their feelings, their growth, their experiences and their decisions. You cannot help but sympathise with the narrator, even when she behaves in ways you might not, thinks things you would not. She’s in no way like me, and yet I loved her, and I wanted to help and protect her from the awful things that happen in her life.

Spoilers (sorta): a lot of bad things happen to the narrator, both on the big scale and on the little scale. It is one of the books I’ve been closest to crying while reading (I don’t really cry at media, it’s just not something I experience, but I felt about as close as I ever do with this, in that I felt rather emotionally affected by it, and more attached to the narrator than I thought I was). It’s not a happy book in any way. It’s not an enjoyable book at all, and if what you look for in reading is to enjoy it, this is absolutely not for you. If The Handmaid’s Tale left you feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, and you didn’t want to keep reading it… yeah, skip this.

I… ok, so this is the hard part. Finding the language to say that I appreciated this book, when “like” and “enjoy” are so totally inappropriate. A lot of the words I normally use to describe my interest in and appreciation of books are rooted in happy feelings, and I think it’s entirely possible to really get on with a book that doesn’t make you feel happy at all. This book made me deeply, deeply sad. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed that; that would be weird of me, and “enjoy” is somewhat opposed to “sadness”, as concepts go. But I really, really connected with this book. It pushed exactly the right emotional buttons, because the author has latched onto a way of really pushing you into her narrator’s mind and becoming totally on board with who that narrator is and what she wants in life, and never gets. You sympathise with her so completely, you can’t help but keep reading. It’s not fun – I don’t like watching someone I sympathise with get dicked over by life – but by god it is compelling. And it’s beautifully done.

And so yes, I appreciated the book. I admire it. I found it compelling and addictive and sympathetic. I rated it very highly indeed. I maybe even loved it. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it.

What the author also manages to do is pack an awful lot of life an experience into such a tiny book. I don’t think it could or should have been any longer – it would have detracted from the immediacy that the language provides, among other things – but to have given you so much raw emotion and humanity in such a slim volume is quite a feat, and one I think I need to appreciate more. Because it did somehow feel longer than that – you have to take your time to read each sentence, each page to glean every piece of meaning out of it, and so you cannot skim through at a pace. It’s a book to be savoured, and as such manages to pack more into itself than there actually is.

Like many things tied into one narrator, and wrapped inside their head, it is very much rooted in a worldview that reduces all other characters to mere shadows. Often, their motivations are opaque to use, because they are opaque to the narrator. We feel as she feels, and are confused as she is confused. But this is taken as feature, not bug, and used as a tool in building the narrative. Not understanding those around our narrator is a source of suspense – there is little opportunity to predict, because we don’t understand. We must experience things as they happen, and assess them only at face value. And that’s really interesting too. It feeds once again into the immediacy of the novel, with a feeling that only the present time matters – there is no real future in the novel. No real aspiration or purpose. Only events and their effects.

Ultimately, as a piece of written art, it’s a glorious thing. The author has a nearly-magical way of pushing the reader’s emotional buttons, and has done something genuinely interesting and effective with her language choices. At times it is difficult, it is unclear, but those things give way in the end to a better understanding and a worthwhile conclusion, that makes you understand that you needed to get through the difficulty for the sake of the pay-off. It’s a brilliantly written book, and I am incredibly glad to have read it.

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The Silmarillion – J. R. R. Tolkien

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It was, unsurprisingly, a bit of a bugger finding a picture of the exact edition I read…

Oh. Em. Gee. I loved it so much. I mean, I kind of expected to enjoy it, given that I enjoy the world-building aspect of Tolkien more than the story-telling, but it was just brilliant. I have been way way too slow to get to this.

Not surprisingly (to me) but maybe to some other people, I liked this a lot, lot more than The Lord of the Rings itself. There was something incredibly joyous about Tolkien abandoning any pretense, any show, any sop to people wanting other things, and just doing exactly what Tolkien wanted to do – revel in his intricately created pseudo-Saxonish world and its mythos/language/everything else. This is obviously self-indulgent Tolkien time, but it’s so much that that you can tell how much he enjoys it, how much this stuff and getting right into the details matters to him, and I love that. I love the extent to which he’s made this feel really… real? Not like books about characters feel real, but that this could plausibly be the “history” of a real ancient people, as their stories would tell it, and as an academic would translate and collect them for modern consumption. It’s… I don’t know, it’s a very specific thing, and I think part of me appreciates it purely as a classicist, but fuck it, who cares, I loved it. I loved the appendices (the linguistic one needed to be WAY LONGER PLS). I loved the fact there was a chapter that was essentially “the catalogue of ships but for geography” (I’ll admit, I skimmed that bit, but I skim the Catalogue of Ships). I  loved that… Tolkien, in every word and on every page, is showing – is screaming at – us that he is a massive, massive ASNaC nerd. This is just him nerding his nerd face all over the place. And that’s brilliant.

And yes, some of that is because it’s Tolkien doing it. There are a lot of authors, the vast, overwhelming majority of them, who if they tried this I would absolutely rip the shit out of the book on here*. But well… it’s Tolkien. For all his flaws, this is what he does amazingly. It was his studies made mythical. And that matters.

So, I don’t normally like conlangs. They annoy me. They don’t feel… right? Part of this is just I’m like that, so whatever, but I think part of it is that I love so much the historical bonkersness of natural languages that taking that away ruins the fun, for me. It’s not as interesting if you don’t have to try to explain why there’s a silent “b” in this word which makes no immediate sense. But then you let Tolkien – who actually has a vague, rough idea how languages actually work – make a conlang (or five), and you get something different. Because he’s making his conlang(s) with the express intent of them having that historical shit in, because that’s how he rolls. And he knows how language change /actually/ works. So his conlangs feel like things people might ever actually be able to use.

This is why I wanted there to be a bigger linguistics appendix…

Anyway, I digress wildly.

If I were to assess this like I assess all the other novels I read, it would come out doing shit. Character development? Pff. That’s not a thing. But it’s not trying to be a novel, and so long as I assess it as what it’s actually trying to be, it does a lot, lot better. Because it’s a very good chunk of world building and background info to the stories I already know. And it just feels… right. Often, I dislike books that lean too heavily on the world-building at the expense of all else, but again, those are generally books trying to be novels, and this isn’t what Tolkien is doing here. It’s pure, unadulterated, self-indulgent world-building, no more, no less. And by admitting that and committing to it, it manages to be a much better thing than had it tried to make itself be a novel.

I think I honestly loved it far, far more than any of the Lord of the Rings books. Partly because yes, I just appreciated the severe nerding that went into it. Top level, much kudos. But also he does just have a way of making plausible worlds like this, because you can feel the weight of years and years of work and revisions and rethinking and effort that went into this. You see it connecting with all his other stories. And that’s just glorious.

Fundamentally, I love it when things commit to what they’re doing wholeheartedly, without reservation, and I don’t think you can claim much does that more than the Silmarillion.

 

*Those are the fun posts, not gonna lie. Not always worth having to read the book for, admittedly, but it’s a nice antidote when you’re already gone and done it.

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Provenance – Ann Leckie

unnamedI’m both comforted and disappointed by the new Leckie book. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. It was decent, readable, well-balanced and clever political space opera. I can get behind that. But the Ancillary series is such a high place to come from, there’s not much chance of equalling it, especially if you’re working within the same world – you’re never going to have that same impact of newness. And the lack of that is both palpable and distressing in Provenance. It feels very familiar, not just in that it is set in the same world as her previous works, but in that it has some of the same ideas running throughout, and while there’s a bit of comfort in that – you can just jump right in and not worry about who the Raadchai are and why the Presger matter – there’s none of the excitement of a new book, of that slow uncovering of understanding about the world-building. And yes, Provenance is set on a new world… within that universe. So you have a sense of how she’s going to build her story and reveal things and all that. It’s not the same, but it is very familiar.

So it’s never going to hit full marks for me – it doesn’t have the impact. But once you get over that, there is a lot that it does very well. Sure, it’s all stuff I expected, but it’s still very satisfying. The main character is very sympathetic, the world she’s on is interesting and differs from ours in some fundamental social stuff, as well as the aesthetics, she reveals the differences gently and subtly, so nothing ever feels like “here is the exposition paragraph”, and a lot of it is never perfectly explained, but you somehow have a sense of it anyway. The politics make actual sense, and the people involved in them actually feel like people who would choose to make the decisions they have made, in their circumstances, even if I wouldn’t. Things aren’t perfect or precisely awful – just different. And these are the fundamentals of why I like Leckie – excellent character work and plausible yet inventive world building.

In this particular book, I think the main character is the real draw for me; I found her very sympathetic. She’s not a “I hardcore love her” character, but she is just… lovely. She has some internal contradictions, but they all make sense and don’t get in the way of enjoying who she is. And you fundamentally want her to succeed… but in a different way to the Ancillary books, because the driving forces behind what she wants are totally different. Provenance isn’t an angry book. It’s much more about wanting to be recognised for your own talents, and working hard and being a good person in a complex and flawed world, and about family and acceptance, so it feels like a gentler plot, but not in a way that lacks any impact whatsoever – it’s just less punchy than Breq’s story.

Ingray (the main character) has either the charm or flaw, depending on your point of view, of not being a particularly remarkable person. She’s nothing really very special, within her family or within the plot, and that’s one of the things I found quite compelling about her. She’s still a real person, not just an every-person generic reader-slot like the lead of Neuromancer (whose name I’ve already forgotten), but a really real person has to be… quite a lot like everyone else. Her mundanity is her charm.

Especially since nearly everyone else in the book is exceptional. Some of them because they’re inscrutable alien ambassadors, some because they’re very high-flying politicians, some because they have a unique background. And having this one, very normal character amid all that exceptional-ness… grounds it nicely. I never felt that Ingray was insufficient when compared to them, because it’s her who does a lot of the leg-work that they need doing. She’s necessary, and thus important, for what she does, not what she is. Which I really enjoyed.

Then of course, because it’s Leckie, one of the things that is different (both to us and to the Ancillary books) is the use of pronouns. On Ingray’s world, you have three pronoun genders, and it becomes clear through the book that children/young adults/grown ups choose their pronoun when they decide which one they want to be known as, and it is a mark of their passage into adulthood. There is also commentary on this from the perspective of the Raadchai, where the ambassador is struggling through her auto-translate to pronoun people right because she doesn’t quite understand – her culture only has one third person singular pronoun. And it’s just another thread of why I like Leckie so much, because I really enjoy the amount of thought she puts into how social structures work in her worlds. It’s not science fiction where the tech has changed but we still have 1970s gender roles… but in space! She acknowledges that change and difference has to be in the whole underwriting of society, as well as the tech, and it feels like a more complete world that she’s built because of it.

That all being said, I think the force of Breq’s story and her anger really lift the Ancillary series, and it’s not just the impact of its newness. I like Provenance a lot, and really enjoyed reading it, but its cosyness couldn’t quite stand up alongside the story of someone fighting for all that Breq fights for. It’s a difference of four stars to five, so still a clear enjoyment, and if it ends up in the Hugo nominations, I’ll be very happy – depending what it’s against, I may well be hoping it’ll win – but it’s not quite the levels of “push the book into the hands of any persuadable friend” that the Ancillary series was.

So yeah, still good, still making me want to buy any new Leckie just on the strength of being Leckie… but not quite the amazing she’s managed before.

 

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The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 5: Imperial Phase Part 1 – Gillen, McKelvie, Wilson, Cowles

33585540I’m not 100% sure what keeps pulling me back to this series. I’ve said before how I’m not super in love with it, I’ve critiqued it, I’ve said how I’ve read much better comics than this… but I do keep coming back. I guess there’s something to be said for its persistence. Ody-C would definitely be further up my list if a third volume would deign to exist, for instance. Plus all the stuff that’s happened with Rat Queens. And so there’s something alluring about the series having got to five volumes, when a lot of the stuff I’ve read and liked hasn’t, or hasn’t yet. Because it means there’s been space for the story to develop, and for me to keep wanting to find out what’s going to happen next. And it’s proved it can continue beyond the initial set up, beyond the first brace of answering some questions, of continuing and developing… and still be pretty much the same thing it started out as being, more or less. For all that I’ve not loved it, it has demonstrated it has the power to keep on being exactly what it wants to be, and that’s pretty worthwhile.

That being said, my issues with this volume remain much the same as the ones I had with previous. I like the art, I like the story, but it just doesn’t feel as interesting and innovative a take on the mythologies as other things I’ve read recently (this time Pantheon rather than Ody-C, but the point is the same). It’s not really dug any deeper than it had to, or made any interesting points… it’s just taken the myths as everyone knows them and that’s sort of it? There’s a thin coat of modern paint but nothing more – it’s not the fundamental rewrite (while maintaining the spirit of the original) that the best takes manage.

Likewise the art remains good but not stellar. This volume particularly lacks some of the spectacular full page spreads that have lifted the others towards excellence – especially because they do a really good job of page composition on those, generally… they make something you want to keep looking at. They do, to be honest, tend to be great at set piece art like the covers but it doesn’t quite bleed through to the main bulk of the comic – I think the chosen style just isn’t ideal for it. And, for me, this volume also suffered by choosing the begin with a few mocked up magazine interviews of some of the characters which, though the photoshoot parts were really very cool, lacked the dramatic impact some of the art you normally get at beginning and end does. The text content just didn’t feel sufficient to make up for it, even if it did give us some more Lucifer, which I was rather happy about.

Which I suppose brings me to my main niggle – I am definitely beginning to feel the absence of development we’re getting on Minerva. Steadily, we’re building up page time for the other characters. Even Sekhmet, who strikes me as World’s Dullest Protagonist – she has two settings! Sex and Violence! That’s it! – gets her moments. Woden, Notable Raging Shitlord. But Minerva, who’s the youngest of the lot, who’s distant from all of their sex and drugs and drink and partying because she’s so much younger, because they keep her safe and hold her away… surely she’d be brilliant to have some focus – to have that insight into a whole different view of this world. And maybe they will, in volumes to come. I hope so. But for now, it definitely feels like the point at which this ought to have happened but hasn’t. The end of this volume felt a little… shabby to me? Not the book itself but the characters, I guess through Urðr’s eyes more than anything, were looking a little sex-obsessed and shallow, and it feels like focusing on Urðr and Minerva might be an antidote to that. And for all that the story is hammering home how some of the root of that hedonism is the knowledge that they only have a limited span of time, the sheen is still starting to wear off.

But on the other hand, there was a renewed focus in this volume on the limited time, and a look to the future on how that might affect the dynamics of the characters, so there were definite ups on that front.

Essentially, the story continues to be sufficiently enthralling that there’s no chance of me stopping reading, and it’s definitely proved it can get past that first flush of “ooh look at the idea” and sustain a decent narrative afterwards, and there are some good building blocks here for future interest, but I’m starting to crave alternative perspectives, which I very much hope will get dragged out a little more as we go on. I likewise want a bit more of a return to playing to their strengths in the art, if we can have more of the extravagant full page art spreads, I’d be quite happy. But I’m going to keep reading regardless, so it remains perfectly enough for me. Good, but not great, and always pleasingly escapist.

Next up, Provenance by Ann Leckie, which I should have bought ages ago, but the height of my (structurally unsound) to read pile guilted me into not.

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Pantheon – Hamish Steele

61wkay9faplReading this book was like having a chat with a Classicist. Which sounds daft, I know, but hear me out.

One of the things I loved about my Classics friends at uni (and still do, however we may not see each other as often as we did then) is how absolutely bloody daft we all were. We went to the British Museum (after we’d all graduated and got proper grown up jobs I hasten to add) and were wandering around… making jokes about bums on the artefacts. We watched Troy and shouted at the screen. We knew all the words to the songs of Disney’s Hercules and demonstrated this fact with alarming regularity (sorry Gemma…). We did a little arm-wavy dance outside of the faculty building while discussing Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as an explanation for… I don’t know? It was something to do with atoms. But it somehow involved saying “the shape” in a funny accent. Anyway. We were daft idiots, and never more so than when we were talking about Classics. In a way that I wouldn’t take from someone who wasn’t a Classicist. It’s like your family. You can complain about them and say grumpy, stupid things, but if someone else dares? Outrage! Scandal! So you end up talking about this thing that you care passionately about as if it’s the stupidest thing in the world, because you’re so immersed in it, so completely tied up in every silly little detail, so intimately familiar with it… that while you’re there, in that moment… it is the stupidest thing in the world. And for me, that is a very comforting, happy feeling.

Cue, Hamish Steele, and his tales of the Egyptian gods, told with such utter, loving irreverence as only a proper devotee could muster. Pantheon is laughing at itself incredibly hard, because it knows it’s absolutely daft, it knows what a ridiculous story it tells… but it loves telling the story anyway, because that ridiculousness and that devotion are wrapped up inside one another. And I can think of no better charm, no greater praise than this to have for a book like this. It’s funny because it knows and loves its subject so dearly, it can take the absolute piss.

Which is exactly what you want, because to anyone with a bit of knowledge* about Egyptian mythology, very little of this is going to be new. It’s telling the biggest of the big Ancient Egyptian myths – the story of Ra, and of Horus and Set, and the death of Osiris. Which is pretty fundamental stuff. I suppose the difference is he tells the 15 rated version, not the PG one, so there are (quite cartoony) penises and at least one slightly distressing scene of sexual conduct (if only distressing for the facial expression). So because it’s so familiar, it needs to have some other charm – it’s likely not educating all or even most of its readership**. So it chooses to be funny instead. And it’s not all daft humour of “oh look, a bum!”. It’s charming and self-conscious and self-mocking, and the art style sits very well alongside that irreverence, so you can’t help but be sucked in.

Which seems odd, because the art style is incredibly simplistic. But it… works. The facial expressions particularly have a glorious efficiency to them, and the style really sits well with the tone of the whole book, especially the very child-book-style animal heads of some of the gods. Steele uses visual jokes (notably the decision to make a point when he moves away from facial profile) as well as telling jokes, and a lot of it is almost tone-of-voice level humour. You feel taken into his confidence, like you’re having a conversation – it’s familiar and casual and that’s again a lovely feeling.

The story itself is well-paced, and although the characters don’t get much depth (because a) mythology doesn’t always work that way and b) it’s mainly aiming to be funny) it’s still easy to follow them along because that light-hearted humour does work as a proxy for emotional depth.

What does help a lot in that regard too is having as much book as you do – because it’s not a slim volume, Steele’s got the time to tell the story how he wants to tell it, and the reader has the time to get properly sucked in and riveted, before the end has come – which is a problem I often find with graphic novels… there’s just not enough story to satisfy me before I come to wanting to read the next one. But for all that this won’t take you weeks to read, there’s enough to get to grips with and keep you interested for more than one short sitting. And it’s a very tactile book. You want to hold it and look at it and keep on reading.

Basically, it’s a fantastic book and I loved it.

And I acknowledge that a huge part of that is my own love of mythology and nostalgia for the stories I loved as a child. But it’s all overlain with that wonderful knowing tone Steele manages to take, where, if it’s something you’ve had too, you can’t help but smile and share his familiar irreverence for some stories that it seems, to me, he’s desperately keen on. I may be wrong, but that’s my take, because it feels so similar to something I’m quite used to. And if he has managed to put that feeling of loving mockery into a physical thing? Well that’s… really wonderful. Good job.

 

*Child me was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. I had a myth phase. I’m led to believe this is quite common, like having a horse phase or a dragons phase. Somewhere, I still have a copy of a large hardback with glossy pictures of ruins and slightly-too-grown-up-for-a-seven-year-old explanations of all this stuff that entranced me as a child. I drift away for a bit, but whenever I come back, it feels all warm and fuzzy and very nostalgic.

**I may be wrong here, but I’m assuming a) this is gonna be something nerdy folk read and b) a lot of nerdy folk did the mythology phase as kids. And also it’s going to be read by people already inclined to read about mythology. But hey, what do I know, maybe this is all brand new to people.

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