The City of Brass – S. A. Chakraborty

img_07461Well that was shit. Not like, angry-makingly, blood-boilingly shit – that would have been entertaining. Just… crap. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I don’t, as a general rule, read YA fiction. There are a couple of things I read as a teen that I might go back to as nostalgia-reading, like The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan, but by and large, I don’t read new YA fiction. And there’s a reason for that. I almost universally can’t stand it. SFF as a whole can fall into more trope-holes than a reasonable woman might want, if you’re not careful what you read, but YA absolutely puts it to shame in that regard. It has the same about four narratives, the same lack of nuance, the same ridiculous clichés, the same terrible patterns over and over again. You open the book and within five pages, you’ve clocked which one this is and you can predict with reasonable accuracy most of the major arcs the book is going to follow. So I just don’t read it. I’m not a young adult anymore, it’s not for me, I’ll read grown up books and be glad of them. I generally like my fiction less… simplistic, except when I’m in a specific mood.

But what does that have to do with this, a totally grown up book for adult people? Well, I am unconvinced about that fact. Maybe it’s just a really shit adult book – who knows – but it read so hard like YA I am struggling to think it’s anything but. It even has a quotation from Laini Taylor on the cover. Surely that’s a Clue! But even more than that, from the first page onwards, it cried YA so hard I googled it more than once to double check.

Do we have a young woman with mysterious abilities? Who suddenly is whisked away from everything she knows? By a dark and broody man? Only to discover that she’s secretly important? And also that Broody McBroodface is sexy? And finds her sexy? But is somehow unavailable? Bonus points if that’s because of honour or duty! And then ends up in a love triangle? With a dorky nice guy? Who’s also a prince?

You get the idea.

There is only one, 1, original thing about this book, and that’s the choice of setting. And tbh it’s not even that original, just typologically unusual. I’ve read djinn-focussed stories before, they’re just not as common as a lot of other fantasy settings. If you subbed out the djinn for fairies – and you totally could, it wouldn’t affect the story one single, solitary bit if they were warring fae courts instead of djinni – it would be a pretty pat rendition of every YA nonsense I’ve ever been given for Christmas by a well-meaning relative who knows I like reading. So hey, it has one good point at least, right?

Shame she did it badly, huh? The story isn’t rooted in the setting particularly well or consistently (hence being able to sub it out for fairies), and oftentimes her lack of willingness to actually focus on doing world-building leaves more holes and questions than it actually answers, especially in the, to quote a wise* man here, “hot mess” that is the ending. Just suddenly, all that lore she came up with? NAH. Make some shit up. Whatever. Deus ex machina? Sure why not. More questions? Cliff-hanger ending? What a great idea!

And don’t get me started on the characters (ok too late it’s my blog, I come pre-started and you can’t shut me up). They’re just… flat. There’s Broody ibn-Broodpants, whose defining characteristic I suspect you can guess. He has a Dark Past, but he must Protect the Protagonist because of Duty. It is very sad and moving as I’m sure you can tell and not at all annoying and over-egged, nope, not a bit. And at no point do we really get to see why she’s attracted to him? The book skims over that bit as “oh and btw they travelled together for a month and suddenly she thinks he’s sexy rather than a kidnapper lol”. Which… huh? The only thing we get told that might explain it is that he is magically hot (for entirely dubious reasons that get “explained” later and I dislike). They don’t… really get on? Or have chemistry? But they’re the protagonist and the male lead so I guess it’s time for interminable sexual tension. And the protagonist… well she’s like every female YA protagonist spirited away to another world. Yes, she is indeed useless at court politics, and frankly it seems like she’s being deliberately obtuse. Her personality traits appear to be Snark, Thieving, Protagonist and Men Fancy Me Now. That’s… it? And then the other male lead is young and idealistic and has been training for one job his whole life… but is crap at that job. Really crap. Despite everyone thinking he’s great. He seems to understand literally nothing, and be dropped into a lot of responsibility for reasons that make no sense… despite being made by someone who’s meant to be good at this whole pragmatically kinging lark.

NONE OF IT MAKES SENSE. I don’t want to be pulling apart plot holes or something but it just… doesn’t. I’d like to critique the book on a more abstract level but I can’t because it’s so distractingly badly put together that I need to focus on how she’s actually just a bad writer who can’t make her story work. She’s missing all the key bits that would slot everything into place, and has just skipped them in favour of the angsty parts.

Anyway. It’s a chonky book, which makes the above even more unforgiveable – you have over 500 pages, use some of them to develop your characters even slightly – but it is at least a pacey read. I got it churned out in two days, and thank fuck for that because it wasn’t worth wasting much more of my life on. The prose is not so awful as to get in the way of you reading it, and it’s not like she really wants to do long passages of description (that would get in the way of the angsting), so it’s easy to keep on reading because it’s basically all stuff happening. Exposition is transitory and perfunctory at best.

I wouldn’t have read this on my own recognisance. I know what I like in my books, and it was pretty damn clear going in that this wasn’t going to be it. But what I’m mad at isn’t that – reading outside my comfort zone is a healthy thing and I enjoy it, more or less, over all, if not in the moment – it’s that it’s not even a good example of a thing I dislike. It’s not just YA-like nonsense, it’s just badly constructed and badly written, when there are a billion like what it was ripping off, so couldn’t it have just ripped it off… better? The mistakes and the ways to do it well are all readily available to copy. She clearly doesn’t mind doing a bland YA-trope pastiche… so pick a good one. Not this.

I gave it 2 stars because it didn’t try hard enough to be truly awful.

And now I’ve got to read Space Opera to finish off the Hugos and yes, I am mad at it, it looks shite. I make terrible decisions with my life. But once I’ve done that, I have some options. Some of them may be non-fiction, for extra safety. Surely Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome won’t let me down…

 

*He’s not wise. But he agrees with me, which is functionally equivalent for the moment.

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The Dispossessed – Ursula LeGuin

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It’s a shame the SF Masterworks editions are universally ugly…

PLACEHOLDER – I’ve got a backlog of posts but want to keep everything in the right order, I’ll replace this with the actual blog post soon

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Dragonspell – Katharine Kerr

PLACEHOLDER – I’ve got a backlog of posts but want to keep everything in the right order, I’ll replace this with the actual blog post soon

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Godshaper – Simon Spurrier

PLACEHOLDER – I’ve got a backlog of posts but want to keep everything in the right order, I’ll replace this with the actual blog post soon

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The Wicked + the Divine Vol. 7 and Vol. 8

610pptugm-lDouble bill special feature (or: it gets really hard to have something different to say about graphic novels after the first few volumes*). And there won’t be much to say. Y’all know I like WicDiv. If you weren’t going to read it based one what I’ve said about the other six volumes, this isn’t going to change your mind, and I’m not going to be amusingly angry, so no huge entertainment value here. I’m truly very sorry.

But! It is possible that volume 8 is my favourite so far. It’s actually not a plot volume, but a collection of miscellaneous stuff from in between other issues, some funny, some historical narratives from before the current pantheon. But what makes it interesting is a) that it fills in a load of background knowledge that is really useful in the context of the current plot and b) that one of the stories isn’t told just as a comic, but with interspersed text-only narrative, and then brief snippets of visual. And it really, really works. If nothing else it means I had to take slightly longer reading it, which is always gratifying. But the joy of that story isn’t just in the medium – it’s also a really interesting and well done mystery plot, with a lot of period-specific context, and thoughts about how these people fit into the world as they knew it at the time. It’s set in the 1920s, and there is a creepy-Nazi-Odin, for instance… but it manages to be better than the obvious, and I think the plot-pay off is genuinely a surprise and a worthwhile one. And of course the opportunity to see inside the heads of the characters… for all they’re not the same ones we’re used to, it’s still really nice to get that intimate look, as well as the more external view we normally get.71v2bwlhcyml

Also one of the historical episodes is set in Rome and is just brilliant. Because yes, I am still a sucker.

Fundamentally, WicDiv has not just managed to keep going, but to keep going and still being good, which is a different battle, and if 7 and 8 are anything to go by, I really think they’re going to manage the (imminent) landing brilliantly. I never feel like it’s tailed off, or wandered too far, or lost sight of the entirety of what it’s trying to do, even when we do go for a brief sojourn into the life of some 1920s bright young things or a grisly Roman ex-slave making musical instruments out of his senate. Even when it’s not on the driving narrative, what we get still informs that narrative in some way – gives us a new light to see it in, a new perspective – and I never feel like anything they do is superfluous, really.

Ok, apart from the one where the gods are dogs. That’s just funny.

But for the most part, when it’s not there for the (absolutely valid) lulz, it feels really coherent for a story spanning millennia. Which is pretty impressive.

Obviously I’m sold, still sold and going to keep reading until the end. And they look really nice all on my shelf lined up, the spines in increasingly dark shades of grey as you go from left to right. They put a lot of thought into it. And that’s evident from nearly everything there is going on.

 

*Beyond gratitude that they’ve managed to continue. Thank you, WicDiv, for actually providing more content on a relatively regular schedule.

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Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

32802595._uy1181_ss1181_I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect this to be thoroughly tedious. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of the previous two, which seems a pretty fair basis to know this wouldn’t be my cup of tea. And lo, it was not. What a shocker.

As with the previous two, Chambers at least writes something you can read quickly. I powered through it in a couple of days, once I could bring myself to start, and that wasn’t through sheer effort of will or anything. The prose is unobtrusive (because she’s done nothing any interest or relevance with it) and the story also not that… involved, so you can breeze through without getting bogged down in details or confusion about what might be going on. Everything is simple and straightforward. Everything is dull.

Evidently, it’s a book intending to rest not on a fascinating plotline, but on people being deeply invested in the characters and their lives – like, I am led to believe, the first in the series. But, also like the first in the series, I am just not invested in the slightest. I was struggling to find something about the characters I was meant to care about. They’re all just a bit… bland. They’re all relatively nice people who are trying hard but not always succeeding. Which is all very commendable, good citizens the lot of them, gold stars all round… but it’s not interesting, is it? It’s not enough. Nice, on its own, without anything else… just doesn’t cut it. Certainly not in book characters – I’m here to read about someone’s life, and so ideally if they could have a rich inner one, or a dramatic outer one, or just something going on at all. Anything, please.

Hmm… scratch that.

Fundamentally, I don’t think a book needs a thrilling plot full of twists or to be exciting in an obvious way to be good. Things can observe the mundane and still be totally enthralling. Books can endow the mundane with a magic when observed deeply. Totally doable. Slice of life is a thing for a reason. But this, for me, is failing at that. And I think it sort of comes back to it being so simple and straightforward. So… what’s the word… Spartan, I suppose. And I think, if you want to be the sort of book that takes ordinary people living ordinary lives and makes them fascinating and enthralling and magical, you have to be really bloody good at the writing bit. You can’t phone it in. And you know my views about SFF generally phoning it in when it comes to the actual writing. I suspect she’s just not a good enough writer to achieve what she’s setting out to do here – that’s how it feels to me reading it, anyway. There’s just not enough soul in what she’s creating to give it that grip on me, as a reader, and make me care deeply about these people despite there being nothing obvious to care about. Because that’s a pretty difficult skill. I’m not suggesting she’s failing at entry-level, “that’s not how adverbs work” writer stuff. But I do think she’s failing at this – her writing style is a sort that is generally more suited to the “ripping yarn” as my mother calls them, the stories that are all about the action and the adventure and stuff happening and then happening some more. Romps. The Jim Butchers and such of the world. But this isn’t one of those, so it just came off as dull and empty to me while reading it.

It really is very like the first book, in many ways – both have a very episodic structure, focussing on a lot of characters at the expense of depth, and not really intertwining their narratives all that much. This one interleaves them more between each other rather than have them consecutively, but the effect is very much the same. It’s fluff. And I just don’t particularly like fluff that hasn’t got anything else going for it.

For me, what these books would need to actually sit right is better characters. With good characters, they’d actually achieve what it feels like they’re setting out to achieve. If I cared about the people, I’d definitely be caught up in how their lives fitted together and how they don’t know what job they want or whatever. Caring about characters will give you a lot to go on, even when there’s not much else going on. But they’re so flat. I didn’t read this that long ago and I can barely remember any of them. When I can, they’re boiled down to the simplest caricatures – the archivey one, the teenage one – and there’s not much detail left beyond that. They never felt like real people, just nice ideas of what some pleasant people with space-future jobs might be. They’re just ideas, waiting for substance they’re never going to get. Which is just really disappointing to read.

And that’s that really. There’s not much else to say. It has a bit of grim at the start, but it ends up just as yay-happy-nice as I expected, and there’s not much in the way of tension or drama after the grim thing is gone, and for all that there is reflection on the grim thing, it doesn’t feel like it goes particularly deeply, even though that’s pretty much the theme of the book. Some stuff happens because of it, but I didn’t /feel/ it. It was, frankly, exactly as anticipated, and nothing more or less than the minimum it needed to be. I don’t hate it, because what is there even there to hate? Empty fluff.

Shockingly, then, it’s not topping my Hugo rankings.

  1. Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee (this basically isn’t going to change)
  2. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  3. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  4. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal
  5. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

And then there was one… just Space Opera to get through before I’m done.

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The Wolf in the Whale – Jordanna Max Brodsky

39603796._uy630_sr1200630_.jpgThis one was disappointing.

So it was a book club book, and one I’d not even read before, which is already a nice bonus. It follows the story of an Inuit, Omat, coming into contact with Vikings in Canada, and a lot of cross-cultural stuff and mythological interestingness throughout that journey. Which sounded really cool.

And indeed, the context of the story is really interesting. I want to read more about that bit of history now. But it’s enormously let down by the story, and particularly the ending. We spend so much time in the Inuit’s perspective and the Inuit view of the world, that when things shift over and become much more Norse-focussed, it feels like the original, more interesting setting has been abandoned, and possibly was just a tool all along to get you back to Norse mythology… which is kind of depressing.

But until that point, it does both its setting and mythology pretty well. It feels very grounded in the daily life of an Inuit, and spends a very long time on the world-building in the early part of the book. Very little happens, for a long time, but I very much enjoyed the scene setting, the exposition, the explanation and the character growth. The protagonist comes from a very small group of Inuit isolated away from the rest of their people and having lost their young hunting-aged men, so we see a lot of interesting dynamics between them as they all change and grow through the years of their struggles and loneliness. For this part, it’s a story of the daily life and struggle of growing up in the harsh environment, and of growing up different.

CN: me talking about gender identity in Inuit culture, which I know almost nothing about and am being led by the book and author’s commentary.

So, you might have noticed I’ve been avoiding gender pronouns for the protagonist here. This is… not really a spoiler, and I don’t feel like sharing it really gives much away, because it’s a story arc started really on, but take this as you will. Also, I’m using some of the terminology used to describe some of these concepts in the book, rather than reading more into it than I’m given. But anyway. The protagonist was born shortly after the deaths of the hunting-aged men in their community, believed to be the spirit of their father reborn. They are given their father’s name and raised as both him and his son simultaneously. However, at a youngish age, they are mocked by one person for believing they can marry a woman, and it is pointed out to them that they have a “woman’s body”. Their culture is one where masculine and feminine identities are very tied up in the division of labour within the tribe – there are religious proscriptions on women undertaking some activities, like hunting – as well as the clothing and tools one is allowed to use, and beyond this one mockery, Omat is accepted as a man within their tribe. However, as the story progesses, this identity is questioned by some of the people they encounter, and a lot of the story is focussed around Omat’s determination to live as who they are, not who others want them to be. I’m not qualified to comment on how realistic this is as a portrayal, but it was one I felt invested in reading, and I really liked and enjoyed Omat and Omat’s perspective.

However, there’s a bit of drama around how this gets portrayed. In the book blurb, Omat is given female gender pronouns. In the text of the book, the pronouns shift a lot according to who’s speaking and how the story has progressed and stuff has changed. If you look this up wanting to make sure you get it right when you’re discussing it in your book club, you discover that, according to the author, the language she researched as being the one her character spoke does not have gender pronouns, and she’d wanted the blurb to omit using pronouns at all to reflect that and the nuance of their identity. Given my ignorance, my tendency is to lean towards avoiding pronouns if that’s what the author intended, but it feels like whatever decision I make on what to use, I’m saying something*.

The protagonist’s story in and of itself is a good one and one I enjoyed following for the most part. But, and this is a big but if you plan to read it, there are some moment of very not good things happening**. Those were less… of the enjoy.

As we proceed through the book, however, we move away from character development and onto actual plot happening. This is where things start to go wrong. A lot of the plotting is pretty haphazard, and becomes steadily more so as we progress, with some random elements getting thrown in for seemingly little benefit, and things just sort of rattling around until we get to the big finale (after a massive ramp up in pacing). And the big finale is a MESS. I honestly skim-read a lot of it because I had stopped caring.

And that’s kind of the book in a nutshell. If you care about protag and the culture, and the story of their growth, that’s great, but after a while it stops being about that and it’s just a lot duller for it.

The other thing it does do well, however, is the mythology. A lot of fantasy formulates its use of deities as “what if gods, but they’re real” and that’s kinda… no? Whereas both the Norse and Inuit gods feel plausible as living parts of a living religious tradition, while also being visible and present in the story. Not that the quality is the same, but the feel is much like the actions of the gods in the Iliad, though with more visible thought about the nature of belief and belief’s impact on the gods. It’s by no means perfect, and there are definitely some gaffes (again, especially towards the end) but it felt much more like a thoughtful and meaningful take on both religion, historical religious belief and the writing of fantasy than these things often get in fantasy novels.

But yeah, the plot. Why.

As with many other books, my main conclusion is that a good setting is never enough, and if you can’t write a good novel, then it’s not actually a success. A good novel is a good plot, and good characters, ideally even nice prose but I realise that’s making things too difficult some of the time, good pacing and just… understanding that ideas are insufficient. If I cared about ideas, I’d be reading RPG setting books, or just reading about mythology, or talking to people or whatever. I’m here for fully realised stories, and that means I want all the things that contribute to that.

 

*More spoilery version. Like, actual spoilers. At the end of the book, the character has borne a child, and is very content that this child refers to them as “father” when they perform male tasks and “mother” when they perform female ones. Their journey ends with them committing to neither side of the gender binary, and creating a space in which this fluidity is accepted by their community. Which is great, but I don’t want to have to spoil the book to explain why I’m swapping pronouns when I’m discussing a character. I’ve been generally leaning towards “they” as safely neutral, but that’s not something led by the book, so *shrug*.
**Content note for if you plan to read the book and need it – rape, especially rape as a tool for enforcing a gender role on someone. It is very vividly described from the perspective of the victim, and a recurring theme throughout the story. Do not engage if this is not for you.

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