The Red Threads of Fortune – J. Y. Yang

33099586And back to a book club book! It feels ages since I did one of these. And this one is kinda cheating, because it was my nomination, and I would totally have read it anyway, even if it didn’t win. But hey ho.

The thing that lured me in (other than the good reviews I kept seeing) about this is how the “series” is set up. The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven aren’t set in a sequence, per se, but rather exist as two complementary books set in the same universe. They were released on the same day, and are both novella length, and definitely related, but what all the blurbs told me is that they were a series exactly. And well, that intrigues me, as a conceit. Also the Kindle book was so cheap. Given that neither of the two books technically comes first (and at the time, I did not know that The Black Tides of Heaven is billed as #1 on Goodreads)… I may have made an arbitrary choice about which to read, entirely based on the fact that red is my favourite colour. Never let it be said that I am not a shallow woman.

Speaking of which, the other thing that really lured me into reading this/the other one is just how stunningly beautiful the cover art is. It makes me tempted to buy them in hard copy just to possess them, which I may yet do if I like the other as much as this one. But they’re both just LOVELY and I am, as I have said before, a sucker for a good cover.

And, as quite often happens in these cases, I was not disappointed by the pretty book. I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

We follow a woman called Mokoya who is struggling with the losses in her life and running away from it all to a dangerous line of work in the wilderness – hunting naga, dangerous, flying predators. She’s a trained Tensor (able to manipulate the stuff of the world) and very able to handle herself, but is plagued with visions of her past and drifting, uncontrollable emotions that make her unstable and troubled. We watch as one of her naga hunts leads her back to the stuff of her life before, and into something bigger and wider-reaching. As a basic plot premise, it’s not the newest thing ever, but the execution is what lets it rise above. Mokoya is brilliantly written as a deeply troubled woman struggling with her life and her own thoughts – there is something horrible and compelling about watching her try to stuff away her intrusive thoughts with recitations, with how often it happens and how deeply it affects her, even before you know the full extent of the source of those thoughts and feelings.

What strikes me most about Yang’s portrayal of Mokoya is how they’ve managed to make her both so unpredictable and yet believable, and still someone we sympathise with, all in so little space. The book is only a novella – 208 pages I believe in hard copy – and yet we get fully acquainted with Mokoya as a person and a perspective, and I very keenly want to read more about her.

And she’s not a solo character either. There’s a decent supporting cast who likewise manage to push forward as real and compelling people with a small amount of page time, from Adi, the quiet, pragmatic hunting-team leader, Akeha, Mokoya’s restless brother, the mysterious Rider, and Thennjay, the head of the Monastery where Tensors train, with his seemingly unlimited calm and patience. I love Thennjay… quite a lot. He’s the sort of character I tend to enjoy anyway (see whatsisname the kindly professor in The Black Magician Trilogy), but it’s a very well executed example of the type, and we get some really compelling insight on what might be below the surface of his calm later on from Mokoya.

The plot is great too. Sure, it’s not hugely convoluted – because it’s novella length – but it does what it does in the space it has at a reasonable, measured pace and without feeling like it’s making leaps over necessary parts in order to cram more in. It definitely feels like it’s the length it was meant to be, and it does a lot but not too much with what it’s got. Sure, like a lot that’s going on, it’s not the most stunningly, never before-seen, shocking thing out there. But it avoids being tropey and it does what it does incredibly well (and I say this as someone not always super keen on the novella as a form – I tend to finish them feeling unsatisfied – but this one feels properly complete).

The things it does do particularly worth noting are firstly the gender stuff. It’s only touched on slightly a few times, but this is a world in which children are not assigned gender at birth or otherwise by someone else. They are accorded gender neutral “they” pronouns until they reach an age (unspecified in this but I believe discussed in The Black Tides of Heaven) wherein they make their own decision about their gender. I like this as a system, and a concept. One of the characters – Rider – is also identified as taking “they” pronouns, but their form of “I” (this is as discussed, very much intimating to the reader that this novel’s dialogue is “in translation”, rather than a different form in the English) is one which has an archaic adult gender-neutral form. This hints at more about the world in terms of its gendering system, and I hope the other book will clue me in on this (why yes, I’m gonna read it pretty promptly, it’s already sitting on my Kindle).

Secondly, it’s woo, non-Western world-building time again. The internet specifically tells me that The Read Threads of Fortune is “silkpunk”, which I’d not heard of before but which apparently Ken Liu used to describe The Grace of Kings:

Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes as its inspiration the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity.

The Red Threads of Fortune is a little more technologically advanced in some ways (as Yang themself puts it, especially in the areas of biotechnology), but very much draws on similar aesthetics and the authors own cultural background.

I really, really love the world they’ve built, more than anything else about this novella. The magic system is fascinating, in the way that sometimes they are when someone hits on just that right note – see Garth Nix’s bell system, for instance – and I just want to keep reading more. It’s got that balance between codified logic, with its five natures and the rules Mokoya chants to herself when she needs to calm down, but with intuitive leaps and things even the characters don’t seem to understand, but sit well with the reader as just… making sense. I don’t want a Sanderson-style chart at the back of my book with everything thoroughly explained… but I like the feeling that there’s some logic behind it all, even if the characters themselves don’t know it all. There needs to be mystery, and that feeling of “well, it just makes sense so let’s go with it”, and the Tensors are precisely that, from the very little we see of it through Mokoya.

Essentially, it’s a fantastic, wonderfully executed novella and one that absolutely inspires me to read the companion novella and seek out more by Yang. I’m really glad I nominated it for book club… if slightly amused that one of the shorter books I’ve read this year has produced one of the longer posts.

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The Spire – Simon Spurrier, Jeff Stokely, André May

51cjusngryl-_sx327_bo1204203200_This was a completely blind lend based on someone knowing I liked Monstress and Ms. Marvel (as well as him lending me more of both – he hasn’t even met me! People are great). I was immediately taken by the cover art, which has the nice balance of whimsy with potential seriousness, and the colour-scheming which just… I don’t know, the slightly out there pastels are just really quite attractive. And then the blurb is definitely selling it – it’s a crime mystery in an interesting fantasy setting… and I’m not totally averse to some mystery.

It’s also got that nice heft that a lot of first trades do, to hook you into buying more of them, which often makes it a more satisfying read because there’s enough substance to actually take you through more than a single sitting. Because sure, I can sit and appreciate the art and take my time (and occasionally I do)… but I want to know what happens next. In a way, that is a good thing – it means I care about the story. But it does often make comics not quite in there with the cost/enjoyment ratio. Aaand the heft fixes that (and, indeed, sucks you in… because marketers know what they’re on about).

That said… I still read it in one sitting.

But! But! It’s because it’s really good. I genuinely couldn’t put it down because I was totally sucked in. Because it has a really excellent, properly good mystery at the centre of it, which is… actually kinda surprising? I think I’ve got into the habit of assuming fantasy mysteries will use the fantasy stuff as a prop for a less than perfect mystery core. “Oh, sure, it was super obvious who dun the murder (that guy was shifty as from the beginning) but there were dragons to distract me so I’m cool with it” – that kind of thing. I’m not… totally sure where I got this assumption from, because I have definitely read some good fantasy mystery (isn’t there a mystery in Anno Dracula, for instance?). And yet. So once it became clear that’s what we were doing, I think I set my expectations to low. And I was wrong. The mystery is absolutely solid, with perfect pacing in the reveals and twists – and no twists just for the fun of it. It’s one of the ones where you look back at all the stuff that led you to the finale and see all the clues you missed, but in hindsight are so obvious. All the hints you might have picked up on and didn’t. It definitely manages some foreshadowing, and you do get a sense that x person is a shifty bugger… but it still pulls off some proper reveals and keeps you thinking up to the last minute.

And it doesn’t fall into the reverse problem either. The fantasy isn’t a thin facade over a definitely-murder-mystery-really plot. It’s integral to it, and really well done. Post-apocalyptic radioactive desert with single habitable city and nomads (some religious and nasty) isn’t a totally original setting, but the details are there, and brought out at the right moments, to make it feel unique. The political unrest and the way the non-human characters are prejudiced against are well done and realistic, not falling into the tropey stuff, while still being strongly present and central to the plot. You have a mixture of bigot and non-bigot views (and everything in the middle), and you get these from page 1… basically, it’s grounded fantasy. The people feel real, even while the setting is fantastical – you have real personalities that behave in plausible ways, which is the most important thing.

The main character is definitely a prominent force (the secondary ones suffer a bit at her expense) but she is very very good, and so I’m not totally upset by this. She’s the captain of the police, while also being a Sculpted (non-human, specifics left unclear), with a mysterious backstory (I know, I was shocked too). She’s definitely more towards the “maverick who gets results” end of the spectrum than I usually like, but she pulls it off, and definitely gets the reader on her side, especially with her humour. The royal family are also a good secondary cast, as are some of the subordinate police, many of whom do also undercut the serious parts of the plot by just being… funny. Not laughing at them, but bringing a sense of day-to-day-ness to the plot, puncturing a dramatic moment with mundanity, that sort of thing. It’s… the sort of humour that Pratchett does, for instance. Aggressively injecting the humdrum of realism into a fantasy setting that forces it not to take itself seriously, and I really like it.

That said, I have a couple of issues. The major one is that the messengers are tiny… homunculi I guess? They go around swearing, muttering, farting and emitting green gas from their arses. And it just struck me as childish. The joke wears off after… a page? I’m not generally a fan of the grosser end of humour, especially visual (Ren and Stimpy – the stuff of nightmares), and this definitely was a bit too far for me… but that’s more a personal preference than a proper failing on the book’s part. It fits into the general style of what they’re going for, but strikes me as a little clunkier than the rest.

There are also parts where the layout of the page made me read panels in the wrong order. Obviously I don’t think it should always be squares of panels reading left to right, top to bottom, all the way through, but you need to cue the direction of reading for the viewer. It drops you out of the flow of the story to have to go back and re-read a conversation in the right order having muddled it the first time, and this happened more than once to me (though the massive two page spread in the middle of the book was the worst, and I don’t think I actually got the conversation in the right order the second time either). It wasn’t an overwhelming issue – I did mostly manage to get it the second time – but I do feel this shouldn’t be a puzzle for the reader to solve.

But both are minor niggles, and I was entirely happy giving the book 4 stars on Goodreads. I will definitely continue the series and am really pleased I read it.

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Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

11806798I really rather love David Mitchell. No real qualification to that, he just writes really well and it pleases me. However, this was his first book, and often that is a bit of a disappointment compared to a favourite author’s later work – Sanderson, for instance, is not quite polished in Elantris when compared with his other works (Mistborn aside, as that’s just an aberration). So I may have been worried, a little… and as it turns out, totally without cause. I mean, sure, it’s not The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas, but it’s still really, really very good.

In some ways, it has a bit of a flavour of Cloud Atlas to it – the book is a collection of short stories that are connected in various ways to one another, following a tenuous thread throughout. There are a lot of very subtle connections, and I am certain I missed about half of them when I was reading too quickly, but they’re there all the way through… sometimes as little as a song two characters listen to, other times you see the character from one story passing by as you’re reading the next. There are definite thematic links too, but they become much more slowly apparent as you get through.

What I did find interesting with this one is it took me a while to decide how much I liked it. The initial read of the first story is great, because all you get there is the well-written prose and good character development in a fairly short space of time, and you get fully engrossed in that particular story… right up until you switch. And it took me a while to get fully on board with the disjoint going from story to story. If it had been billed as totally distinct short stories, then maybe things would be different, but knowing they were connected and having to wait to find the threads (maybe until another story even further on – there isn’t one solid, consistent pattern to it) is a little disconcerting, and I wasn’t sure until about half way whether I thought he’d pulled it off or not. But the effect is cumulative, and you realise by then that there is so much subtle work being done, pieces fitting together all over, that it’s hard not to be impressed.

It’s been too long since I read something else of his to really recall if this fits in neatly with the usual prose style Mitchell writes. It has a gentle, flowing quality throughout – one of the binding features through the whole book – that contrasts with some of the more dramatic stories and serves to bring them more tonally in line with the more gently paced ones. It gives a sense of wholeness that I think is really necessary, but also a sense of surrealism or abstraction… a detachment, much like what I enjoyed in Sailing to Sarantium, that feeling that you’re never going to get excited by the book, but that it doesn’t matter. It’s soothing.

Well, right up until the one story written differently.

And that was my only real problem with the book. There’s one story fairly near the end that is written as if all spoken aloud by mainly one character (with a few interjections from others). But being totally dialogue (and totally dialogue very much conveying a character’s own voice) it sits outside the tone of everything else in the book. And it feels weird. The overall themes shift in that story too, and it’s the point at which it feels like everything changes… but in a way I found slightly too unsubtle. Part of this is because I didn’t really like the character who forms the bulk of the dialogue of that story – he’s brash, sexist, self-important, and he’s a radio presenter so it’s written as a very constant flow of very nearly stream-of-consciousness, which is just… such an overload compared to the calmer pace of what came before. And, well, if you don’t like a character and they’re about 90% of what’s going on… But it wasn’t just that. I wonder if it came too late in the book – it’s the penultimate story – for there to be much contrast again after… or maybe it should have been all change from then on? It just doesn’t sit quite right for me, and I’m not wholly certain why.

It’s also the point where I actually became a little confused by the story. The stream-of-consciousness format and the particulars of the characters way of speaking just got in the way for me, and I did find myself having to go back and reread some parts to double check I’d got the right idea. Maybe that was because I was reading with a glass of wine and a lot of background noise, but at the same time, that doesn’t normally stop me. I don’t know.

But it’s one chapter out of a fair number, and with one after it going back to what you’ve been used to, so for all I found it notably disjointed from the rest of the book, it’s easy enough to slip back into the flow for that last little bit.

One of the things that stood out to me, thinking about the character’s voice in the less good story, is how distinct Mitchell manages to make his characters feel while preserving that thread of continuity throughout. They feel real and human from the get go, and you get a sense of them very quickly (as is of course necessary when you’re dealing with short stories). They’re all compelling in their own ways, and flawed, so you can’t like any of them wholeheartedly… but you find yourself liking many of them nonetheless. Or wanting to read more of them to find out how they think, for the less likeable ones. And they run a wide spectrum of pleasant to grim, but all somehow intereting, if only in a “wtf” sort of way in some cases. I definitely have a favourite (Irish lady scientist of some amount of awesome), but there’s a lot to recommend many of them, and I’m quite sad they didn’t each get a whole book.

Each of the stories does do a lot of work to paint a character picture, which is a lot of the interest for me, but there’s also some genuinely good plotting individually, as well as in the grand scheme slotting it all together. They work as distinct, unconnected stories just as well as they do together, and I think that must have been a pretty difficult feat to achieve.

Overall, it’s a beautifully written set of short stories that flow together into a surprisingly coherent whole. I love the characters, the tone and the pacing, and if not for that one story that sat off with me, I’d have considered giving it five stars. As it was, it’s a four, and something I know I’d get more out of if I read it again.

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Kindred – Octavia Butler

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This is the same style as the cover of Bloodchild I have and I just really like the simplicity of the art.

Welp. I read this in a day. That probably says more than the thousand words I’m going to write could possibly convey about how good I thought this book was (spoilers, I’m going to write those thousand words anyway). Because it was genuinely excellent. I’m not going to say “enjoyable” because, well… it’s not a subject matter for fun, happy times. But I am very glad I’ve read it, and it is without doubt a brilliant, excellent book. It got five stars on Goodreads and I didn’t even have to pause to think.

I mean, I had a strong suspicion I was going to like it – I really enjoyed Bloodchild after all – but it was just… I couldn’t put it down. It’s not exactly a hefty book, but nor is it particularly shorter than your average paperback. I started reading it on the train to brunch this morning (mmmm, brunch), picked it up again on the train back after and then, when I got home and could sit down and just read… I did… until I ran out of book. Not really because I wanted to know what happened next (though I did) and not really because I was having fun (I was and I wasn’t, if you see what I mean) but just because it was a book where the experience of reading it was so utterly compelling. We’ve all had those, I’m sure.

Weirdly, though, the thing I am most inclined to compare it to is one I didn’t enjoy anywhere near as much – The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. As well as the obvious time-travel comparison, they do share some things, just without Kindred being anywhere near as iffy as tTTW ever gets.

Well, that’s not true. It gets all manner of iffy. But deliberately.

The story follows Dana, a 26 year old black woman in 1976, who suddenly finds herself flung back in time to 19th century Maryland, saving the life of a young white boy, and her subsequent travels back there and home again, and what this means for her life on both sides of the timeline. More than anything else (and more than it’s a science-fiction novel), it’s about a modern(ish) woman seeing the realities of slavery and experiencing them first hand, while also watching her white husband interact with the same world, and see it differently. It’s not a novel for the happy-feels, because nothing about slavery is for the happy-feels, but it feels important and considered and that’s a satisfying thing to read. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re clearly meant to feel uncomfortable (and I certainly did), but it’s… I can’t think of the right positive adjective. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale‘s feeling of inevitability, the reality of it, knowing you very well might become one of the people in the novel and hating that… I find the character of the husband here worrying, because for all that he’s mostly decent, he sometimes slips into minimising the awfulness of life as a slave, simply because he doesn’t see most of it. He doesn’t see the beatings, so doesn’t realise they happen. And he intellectually understands that what is going on is terrible, awful – he wants to protect his wife from it, save her from ever having to go back – but at the same time, he just doesn’t seem to totally get it. The thing that saves him from being as awful as the husband in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply the fact that he admits that he doesn’t get it and sometimes, he tries his best to listen to Dana. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot.

That said, the relationship I find most interesting in the book isn’t their marriage, but Dana’s and Rufus’ (the boy she saves and continues to visit). She seems him as a young, impressionable boy, friends with a slave girl and willing to see that things are not just what he’s been told, and then you see him grow up in snapshots, mostly moulded by his time, and then experiencing interaction and reaction of a woman with modern values. Dana’s willingness to forgive him his awfulness, and that awfulness itself… it’s a strange, compelling dynamic, and more than anything it’s something to read the book for. Dana’s relationships with the slaves are emotive and brilliant, the conflict that comes from her education and mannerisms compared to theirs, but also the fellowship, but those relationships are far more satisfying, and it’s the frustrating changeability of her relation to Rufus that really pulls you in.

I think this is what stuck with me most from Bloodchild too – Butler writes good conflict between people, good conflict within a person, when they struggle with their own feelings and decisions, and makes you really feel settled within their viewpoint. But she also makes you want to get behind them. And so you feel trapped within their indecision – because they are genuinely difficult decisions – while rooting for them to find a solution. They may not always pick what you would pick, but you’re so grounded in their mental state that it doesn’t matter. And that’s an enormous skill, and, well, I’m a sucker for characters. I know I say it a lot, but I am. I like people I can care about, people I can love, and Dana is definitely that. She looks at herself and compares herself to the people who have lived their whole lives as slaves, and worries she’s not as strong as they are, that she’s coddled by having lived a modern life with a lot less oppression – but then we see her dealing with contemporary oppression too. She thinks less of herself than we as readers do, and that makes me support her all the more.

This is going to sound weird, but part of the reason I loved this book so much is it didn’t feel like SFF – which is part of why I’m drawing the comparisons with The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yes, there’s time travel stuff. And yes, that’s indisputably SFF, I’m not going to claim for a second otherwise. But the way the writing focuses in on building these characters that are genuinely nuanced, and on making the reader actually think about slavery, watch it through the eyes of someone contemporary, rather than as a dry, abstract thing (very much as we see Dana comparing seeing a whipping and the way that violence is portrayed on television – this isn’t a subtle thing we’re being pointed to)… it doesn’t feel like the things SFF would focus on. Maybe this means I’m reading the wrong SFF, and I know it’s not all – Atwood definitely felt the same – but it has a seriousness and a reality to it that I think a lot of SFF lacks, and which absolutely isn’t precluded by having fantastical subject matter. You can still have real people, real relationships. And that’s what I crave, and what Butler has done brilliantly.

I loved this book, I felt uncomfortable reading this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I will seek out Butler again (and again) and I feel a real shame for not having come to her sooner.

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Ms. Marvel vol. 1 (No Normal) – G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

ms-marvel-vol-1-reviewMOAR COMICS. That is the theme of today (I have one more after this to read, and then I’m done on my reasonably sized ones until I buy WicDiv vol. 5, I think – I still have Lucifer vol. 2 to read, but that will require me having more time to sit down and get through it). It is an excellent theme.

So I said when I read Squirrel Girl that I’ve not really done much reading in the super hero sort of comics, and I think here, more than in that, is where I felt the absence. It’s not huge, and it didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, but it was lurking in the back of my mind that, for instance… I don’t really know who Captain Marvel is. Which is kinda… I mean, the necessity of that understanding is kind of obvious, when this is a comic about a girl who looks up to and in many ways wants to be Captain Marvel. Obviously I can get that (look, I just did) and you can infer plenty from context… but Ms. Marvel doesn’t exist in a vacuum of continuity, and I feel like maybe I’d have got more from it if I had a bit of knowledge of that. Which I guess I’m fixing by reading more superhero comics… until I get to the point where this doesn’t happen anymore.

Anyway.

I really, really enjoyed this. In contrast to Monstress, I mainly didn’t pay much attention to the art, but the story? Yes, I am there. Which feels mean of me, because there’s nothing wrong with the art. It’s not bad or unsuited or clunky. It’s just not particularly notable either. It’s like… it’s like the prose in a lot of SFF. It just gets out of the way and lets the story happen, rather than trying to be clever or interesting or… well, notable in any way. Which is fine. It’s not holding me back from enjoying what’s going on, but it feels like a missed opportunity (both here and in SFF books). There’s this whole other axis of coolness you could be exploring, alongside what you’re already doing, and as we saw in Monstress (and in Ody-C) you can definitely do both without either of them suffering for the presence of the other. But, for all that it feels like there could have been more there, it never spoiled my enjoyment while I was reading, it was just something I thought about afterwards and went “huh”.

The story however is great. I mean, we all know the “young person discovers they have superpowers and deals with what this means” story (and the whole “is this a metaphor for puberty/growing up?” thing). On its own, it’s nothing new. It can be done well or less well, but it has no novelty. What’s great about this is taking that trope and making it new by adding that extra angle. I mean, fundamentally, the huge draw of Ms. Marvel is that it’s a superhero who is female and non-white, not culturally Christian, and coming to the existing tropes of superhero-dom with a whole other set of cultural assumptions (even if they’re ones she may want to reject, or is herself learning to navigate). So we get the bit where the new superhero has to make/find a costume… and we get one who acknowledges that the skin-tight suit might give you a wedgie and be uncomfortably immodest. We get to see her walking along a street being ogled, and I really appreciate a comic that acknowledges that that would totally happen. Because it would. Most people who are read by passersby as female have experienced some sort of crap (whether leers and ogles or jeers and insults) while walking down a street and… well… sometimes it’s nice to see that reality made visible. Because for all that superhero women are not necessarily going to be treated the same as everyone else… I would put serious money on them getting the ugly comments the same as everyone else. And her navigating that while being suddenly hypervisible and hyper-aware of her own self… I don’t know, I just found it very emotive.

And the whole book feels like that. For all that Kamala’s cultural experiences are not my cultural experiences (be that because of the religious background or because I didn’t grow up in the US), the fact that her superhero discovery arc acknowledges them, and makes them part of the story is really cool.

As for the substance of the story, yes, it’s very much your usual coming-of-age, but it’s very well done, balancing well the usual twins of “teenage difficulties” and “I have new responsibilities now”, while accurately portraying a character who feels like a teenager. A thoughtful teenager, and one now burdened with new purpose, but one who reads like she might actually be sixteen, with the unpredictability and quixotic emotions that come with that. And I hope that pushes through, I hope we continue to get someone who doesn’t always know what to do, and doesn’t always make the right decisions, but is struggling with this whole thing because it’s difficult, and because she doesn’t feel like it quite fits her.

Also Kamala, so much of her as I have seen in one volume, seems to be a really charming character to follow. I like her. I want her to succeed… and that’s really important to me in my books too.

My only concern (and it’s one to do with my ignorance rather than anything else) is I don’t know how rooted the authors are in the culture they set the world in. I’m going to assume they know what they’re on about (and the people I know who’ve read this and would know better than me seem to think it’s handled well), but it would be something I would be cagey about if I knew it had been done by randos with no idea what they were handling. I’m not in much of a position to spot anything bad (unless it’s super obvious), but I can definitely see that as a trap that might very easily be fallen into. There’s a tiny hint of simplicity to Kamala’s parents, and I don’t know if that’s a product of limited page time, the fact that we’re viewing this all from Kamala’s (teenage, slightly rebellious) perspective, or if it is down to not knowing your source material. Something I’ll have to look up, I think.

Overall though, it’s not a totally unusual story in its main body – the young superhero comes of age and learns how to deal with their powers – but it’s the context and twists on that that make it brilliant, and something really worth reading. I will definitely continue reading the series, and I think I’d even consider buying this in single issues rather than trades, because I really do just want to know what happens next (though I might not do that, just because I wouldn’t want to log single comic issues on Goodreads… it would feel like cheating). If not for Monstress, this might be up there for best comic I’ve read this year.

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Monstress vol. 1 – Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

monstress_vol1-1Another birthday present (yes, I’m taking forever to get through them – I need less of a social life so I can read more books), but also one I’d been meaning to buy myself and read for AGES. And then it won the Hugo, which only doubled my YES PLEASE THIS. And for all that I’d read the blurb and thought it sounded really interesting, I’ll admit my main interest was simply because it looks so damn beautiful. I mean, look at that cover. Look at the intricacy, the colour-scheme. Even the font is pretty. Sure, it has a very mild hint of steampunk to it, but it overcomes that and just… everything about it is lovely to look at. Yes, I’ll admit it, I am just that shallow – but I sort of think that’s the point of graphic novels. Obviously you want them to have a good plot too, you want it to be something you’re going to enjoy reading… but the reason you’re buying it instead of an actual novel is the visual stuff, and well, this one’s got that sorted. All it has to do to keep me happy is have a sufficient plot. Doesn’t have to be stellar, just… good enough.

Spoilers, it’s better than that.

We follow the front cover character, Maika Halfwolf, as she struggles to find out about her mother, in a strange world, peopled by talking cats, immortals and witches, where the humans oppress the arcanics and steal their bodies for magic to keep them young and healthy. But the structure isn’t totally chronological, we dot around, learning more about Maika not exactly through expositionary flashbacks, but more the same style of seeing her through interactions, but in different times and settings, giving us different angles on her character. We still don’t fully know her by the end of volume 1, I’ll admit – she’s something of a mystery in her personality and motivations – but that’s not because the author hasn’t given us anything to go on. They’ve written a complex character that we can’t know in just the one volume, but we’ve got enough to know that we want to know more, and about her three main sub-characters – Kippa (a fox-child who’s just really rather sweet), Ren (a nekomancer and thief, also a cat) and Tuya (??). Not gonna lie, a not insignificant part of me just wants to know more about Ren, because KITTY. Sarcastic kitty:

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Who doesn’t love a sarcastic, sweary cat? But he manages to be a real character as well, rather than a novelty, and this carries through even to the ones we see briefly (yes, there are other cats). We get glimpses of them as a people and how they relate both to humans and arcanics, through prejudice and friendship, and I find it really cool that they’ve pulled this off without it just falling into the cheap “look at the talky kitty” hole (cf most anime ever).

I think the other thing this does really well is atmosphere. The way the art (and particularly the colour-scheme, because it is a very colour-oriented thing) all works in service of lending a feel, a background sense of what’s going on, to the plot and characters is fantastic. The contrast between the intricacy and decadence of the city scenes and the sparseness of the countryside, while elements flow through between the two, is well managed, and there’s a continuity to the whole thing that speaks to a very definite decision about what they wanted the book to feel like.

I think part of it is the fact there are several clear inspiration styles – the one I noticed is Ancient Egyptian – and because they’ve kept those as a strong thread throughout, it not only gives a real sense of coherent atmosphere and style, but of continuity.

They also manage very well the balance between plot and art focus. Because for all that there’s a fantastic plot, and one where I want to know what happens next in the story, the art still stands up for itself and demands to be noticed, lingered over, even when you’re in the middle of something happening… but without ever detracting from the story. I never feel like one has been glorified to the neglect of the other.

The only thing I will say that I’m not super keen on is the… interludes, I guess you’d call them? Instructive little historical notes outside the voice of the plot. I know these are common in comics – I’ve seen them in other things I’ve read plenty of other times – but here… eh. The problem is, if you’ve got a fairly dark, serious plot going on… you know, oppression, prejudice, torture, murder… it’s fairly jarring to have a kitty teacher and her adorable pupils turn up for a lesson at various points. And they are definitely drawn to be cute(sy), and the interludes are, for all that they’re about the history of the land in the book, pretty light-hearted (including the kitty teacher dipping mice into chocolate for her students to eat)… and it just completely jarrs with the tone of the rest of the book. I imagine they were aimed as breaks and contrast, which they absolutely are, but I don’t personally like that contrast, because it feels like it’s at the expense of the tone of the rest of the book. Somehow, it detracts from the seriousness and the suspension of disbelief, and it makes everything else feel silly, which is absolutely does not want or need.

But that’s probably my only real complaint, and it’s not an enormous one. It stopped me giving five stars, but only just, and in a reasonable system, it’d be a 9/10, I think. It’s not like it made me hate everything, it was just a bit… eh.

What I also loved (even if I didn’t totally notice until I thought about it) is how peopled by women the world of the story is. Some of this is later made explicit and obvious, but even at the beginning it’s just… full of women. And that’s not weird. Or initially made a thing of. It’s just something that seems totally ok. Women soldiers everywhere? Sure. Women magic-people? Fine. Women warlords? Not a bother. It’s not exclusive, there are men in the story, and not insignificant ones but it’s just… there’s something satisfying about having enough women to pass the Bechdel Test five times over and nobody making a big deal about it. Casual feminism is just as satisfying as the shouty explicit kind, if done the right way and in the right context (though I’ll admit, I suspect we can only get the casual kind because people have gone in and done the shouty kind… and there’s a definite, necessary joy to reading the shouty kind). And this is the right context.

And I suppose that’s what the book does best – the right thing at the right time, in the right balance. It’s a very well thought out piece of storytelling, where you don’t notice quite how brilliantly it’s all been put together until you think about it, because it just flows naturally and gracefully (kitty interludes aside). And that’s a pretty difficult thing to achieve.

Overall, it’s a fantastic book, fantastic art, and I’m so glad it won the Hugo because it’s brilliant. Will definitely buy the sequel.

Also, I want to use this panel as a reaction to… a lot of things on the internet *saves to ‘phone*:

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No I don’t know why I think this is so hilarious.

 

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House of Names – Colm Tóibín

29344653Hot on the heels of Bright Air Black, another literary reinterpretation of a Classical myth (this time, the Oresteia)… which was probably a bad idea. I mean, this has been on my reading pile for ages, so I was going to get to it eventually, but doing so this close to reading something I hardcore loved that much… it was never going to compare. And, spoilers, it didn’t.

For a start, it’s fundamentally not doing anything as interesting as Bright Air Black is – it’s pretty much just a straight retelling of the story, normal prose, multiple character viewpoints… and that’s about it. Sure, he’s mucked around with the story a little, but that’s what makes it a retelling rather than just… the same story. It just doesn’t have the charm or originality the best retellings do, because it’s not really trying hard enough. It hasn’t committed to doing something new, to being different from what its source material is, and because it hasn’t taken that chance, it’s come out as nothing special. Nothing different. Nothing to make you remember it, or for it to stand out against the backdrop of everything that has been done before. Because that’s the thing with retelling a story from 2500 years ago – there’s been a lot of opportunity for a lot of talented people to do exactly the same thing. You have to be really pushing the boat out to say “yes, what I have done with this story hasn’t been done before and was a worthwhile thing to try”. And Tóibín really just… hasn’t. I’m not even just comparing it to Bright Air Black, here. Just, on its own merits it doesn’t stand out.

And it promised so much more. When I started reading it, I was all set to give it four stars on Goodreads and sort of love it. Not obsessive devotion love, maybe. But there was a definite something there. Because, at the beginning, our viewpoint character is Clytemnestra. And it was a justified Clytemnestra. One whose viewpoint we the reader agree with – and so you get the complexity of a totally angry and wronged woman sliding into… something else. It’s sure, something that’s been done before, but it’s a solid foundation and one I’m never going to object to. And one that was written pretty damn well.

But then we leave her. We follow Electra. We follow Orestes. And they’re just not as interesting. Electra has promise, but never delivers and Orestes… Orestes is one of the dullest characters I have ever written. And it is a powerful talent that can render the escaped, hidden, vengeful son of a murdered father who finds and kills his mother despite the potential vengeance of the Furies… boring. Vapid and empty. And yet, here he is exactly that. He drifts along, dragged by the story, understanding nothing and deciding nothing, trying nothing. And this isn’t really explored. We don’t get into why and how and how it affects him. He just continues being… dull.

We get a brief return to Clytemnestra part way through, which is a glorious relief, but then nope, back to the dullness. And it’s so disappointing, to have been given so much and then to have to deal with so little.

Electra at least there’s something there. She has a personality. But she focusses on an issue with the death of the gods from the world which again is never really explored. She says it to Orestes, she thinks it… but then we never get any understanding and it doesn’t really come up again. There are also clear parallels drawn between her personality and choices and those of her mother, but again, this isn’t given any real page time. We don’t get to see the author working through it and trying to make some sort of point with it. It’s just a vague comparison left in the background for us to acknowledge and move on. There are all sorts of bits like this, left hanging in the background, things that could be picked up, explored, developed and made interesting, but none of them never are. You just have characters full of odd habits and turns of phrase with no understanding of why they are who they are.

All this might have been fine if the setting and storytelling had been inspired, but it’s clearly set up to be about the characters, without managing to succeed at all at being… about the characters. Orestes… doesn’t even really have a character, and spends the entire book metaphorically shrugging and following along behind the nearest available person. He gets a bit of moral quandary at the end but, nope, there we go, ignored it and wandered off. And that’s just his whole thing. It’s so frustrating to read, and it made the book slow and difficult going for me.

That all being said, the prose was fairly decent most of the time, and the parts that weren’t Orestes having no personality at all were very easy reading. I’m led to believe the author has done other, better things, and I would be tempted to try him again on something else, just to see if maybe this one was a lack of inspiration or… not his thing in some way? It feels incomplete, like so many ideas were set up and never finished, and somehow makes me think the author must have done better, because he has all these ideas at all. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily optimistic.

It got three stars from me, because Clytemnestra’s early pain and dealing with the death of Iphigenia are solidly good and four star, and drag the mire of Orestes back up out of the pits. I imagine I’d have disliked this less had I not read an amazing Classical retelling recently, but it was never fully going to do it for me. I’m too picky. I want things like Ody-C, like Bright Air Black, things that take a chance and have a go and really do something with the source material, while still acknowledging their debt to it and passing on the spirit at least of some of the stories the original is telling, in some way or another. This is just, after a promising start, another banal retelling of a tale I know very well indeed.

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