A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

29475447For all that, at any other time, I may not have been particularly keen on this book, right this second, it is frankly blessed relief. It is the total opposite of The Dark Forest, and that was exactly what I needed. Primarily, it was easy to read. And I really really needed to take a break from the heaviness. So there’s going to be a little bit of dissonance in my post, between the things I know I’d have felt at any other time, and the things I felt now.

In short, all the failing of tDF were reversed here. Misogyny? Lol no. Complete lack of any characterisation? They’re the whole point of the book. Dragging prose? Pffff. BUT. But. This is still doing a lot of the things I found annoying in its predecessor, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planetthey’re just problems in the opposite direction to the problems of tDF, and so right now, they were the kind of problems I would be happy to deal with.

Mainly, my criticism of this book, much like its predecessor, is it’s painfully light and low on substance. There’s some stuff going on about AI personhood, but it never gets explored in all that much depth. It’s a bit emotional for the lead but then… that’s kind of it? It doesn’t get the time or thought that I’ve seen it get in other books. But then that’s kind of just how these books go. They’re deliberately light and fluffy. And I don’t think you can be fluffy /and/ do a thorough investigation of the rights to personhood of an AI in a civilisation that does not acknowledge them. It’s… too much. So it restricts itself to some emotional stuff and getting one person to see an AI differently. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not enough for me.

I guess, and this is harder to put my finger on, it felt kind of… all surface and no depth in some other ways too. Much like the previous book, it seemed like she liked the idea of something, but didn’t have the time or page space to really get to grips with it, so it stayed sort of… off to the side and that was it. One of the characters in this book, Pepper, was born on a planet where a lot of clones are enslaved as child labour. Which is presented as a plausible yet horrifying reality of the world. And she escapes. But that’s… it? We don’t know if this was illegal or not, if this is even culturally acceptable or not, if this is common or rare, if she ever tried to do anything about it (or if anyone else ever has). It’s just… a thing that happened. Because Chambers is just very focussed on the small scale, the now and the feelings of the now, without all that much connection to past foundation or future consequence. It’s a series of things that happen, and nothing more. Which, yeah, fuzzy, light reading that was a great relief right now, but most of the time it’s too empty for me.

She does at least make some lovely, believable characters. They do feel like actual people (Cixin Liu, take note) who have their own personalities and ways of speaking. Whenever someone does something, it feels entirely in keeping with what we’ve  seen of them so far. I guess in that it has the quality of a soap opera. Not a great deal is happening, but it’s happening to people who feel like people, and who are different people to you, and as such is escapism. Which I get. I can see the appeal.

There’s also just the nice idea that, on the whole, overall, with some caveats, it’s an optimistic space future where people muddle along together. It’s not the glorious space utopia of Star Trek, but it’s a gentle and nice one for the most part, where lots of different species live together and get along just fine, accommodating one another’s foibles. And I do quite like that.

Likewise, the fact that it’s so light makes it very very easy to get into, and easy not to want to put down. Again, good.

But… it’s not good enough for a Hugo. If you draw a line between “enjoyable” and “good” (which I do), then it falls heavily into the former category. It’s sweet and happy and predictable and very very readable, but it’s not good literature. I won’t remember it a year from now, let alone five. Give me two weeks and I’ll probably have forgotten such plot as there is. It’s not special, and I think at the point you’re winning a Hugo, you probably ought to be a bit special. One of the ways I think about books when I’ve finished them and am trying to decide about what to write about them here, is there are two camps you can be aiming for: you either want to be new, or you want to be good. If you achieve one of those, you’re probably a decent book (at least for some people), but if you achieve both, you’re probably on to a winner. So for instance, The Three-Body Problem fulfills the first, but not the second, while The Name of the Wind manages the latter but not the former. And then you have something like Ancillary Justice, which manages both, and as such becomes something of a favourite. If you achieve well in either on its own, it can easily be good enough to win someone over. But A Closed and Common Orbit feels like it’s gunning a little for both, but half-arsing it all, and so you get something a bit meh overall, which is… unsatisfying.

It’s a better book than her first, but she’s not moved away from a lot of the things I found iffy there, and so I may have to go back a little on my prediction that her problems were things time and editing could fix. To an extent, I feel like the substance-less-ness is a feature, not a bug, for Chambers… which is a bit of a shame. She’s definitely not a terrible writer, and I can see ways in which she could move on to writing genuinely interesting stuff, because the ideas are there. I just wish she’d develop, well, any of the heavier, more interesting themes she hints at and actually gives us something a little more. Some depth, some substance… and it’d be enough for me to like the book, probably.

Overall, I gave it a three on Goodreads, and it definitely won’t be the worst on my Hugo nominee list (I’m guessing that spot will be reserved for Death’s End, though maybe Too Like the Lightning will nab it, if the change back in translator makes a massive difference). Current standings run thus:

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

Unknown: Death’s End – Cixin Liu.

There’s a definite gap between Chambers and Palmer there, with Jemisin and Chambers being in the “Zone of Meh”, where my objections are mostly not understanding why people think they’re anything other than rampantly mediocre, but Too Like the Lightning being actually both bad and objectionable. The main interest now is whether Death’s End is going to come out better or worse than TLtL, as tDF was definitely more objectionable, but I’m told DE is a bit better. It’s all to play for for last place in my rankings.

Next up, a quick break to read something I’ll definitely enjoy – The Bad Quarto, the last Imogen Quy mystery – then back to the Hugos for Death’s End, and finishing off the Nebulas with Borderline, by Mishell Baker.

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The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

55ea1e9fa15d1-imageIt has been nearly a month since my last post. And do you know why that is? Because this book was a SLOG. It was a CHORE. I HATED it.

And I still have to* read the sequel for the Hugothon… *facedesk*.

I’m going to say this right now, I’m not keeping this post spoiler free. I have a lot of ground to cover in “why this is objectionable and also shit” and it’s going to require drawing direct explanation from the book. If you want the tl;dr and no more, stop after the bullet points.

So there are a few things which will piss me right off if they crop up in my SFF, regardless of context or execution. They’re just things I don’t think can ever be done well or with sufficient artistry/ingenuity/value for me to get over the innate “ugh no” that I experience with them. A few of these include:

  • Misogyny clearly sitting with the author/tone/authorial voice, not as a viewpoint of a character.
  • Humans following a few simple rules and thus being completely predictable by someone with sufficient Science!TM.
  • An extension of which, humanities/social sciences being suddenly magically simple because they’re being done by a sciencey scientist.
  • Humans being special because they can love.
  • Love saving the day/being the magic special thing that solves the problem.
  • Lagrange points**.

And guess what? Yep, this book does all of them. GOODY.

So the misogyny thing was the one that overwhelmed me for the majority of the first part of the book. The viewpoint character is a somewhat jaded astronomer, whose lovelife at present is casual flings whose names he can’t even remember when he wakes up. He then reveals (when one of them gets killed, spurring on some of the action, kinda) that he has only truly been in love once. An old girlfriend asked him to try to write a story for her, and in learning how to write a believable fictional character, he fell in love with his own creation, leading to a break up with his irl girlfriend and a long-lasting obsession. Things then happen, and he gains a mandate from the UN that gives him a lot of power with very little answerability as a “Wallfacer”, and he uses this to get his police/security liaison to find him a woman who perfectly fits his idea of this woman he invented. Ew.

Then we find out what she’s like: beautiful, delicate-looking, young, naive, educated but not too much so it doesn’t make her jaded, simpler than all the fussy women of her age, an artist who likes the Renaissance, who passionately cares about finding beauty, gentle… you get where I’m going with this. It’s horrible. He has her brought to work for him doing his unsupervised thing in his perfect house he’s used his power to get, then uses his power to take her on a nighttime tour of the Louvre, where they fall in love as they develop the language where people communicate only with their eyes. Cue some horrendously florid description of people falling in love.

And I’m gonna quote it for you:

The Mona Lisa was deforming. The walls were deforming, melting like ice as the Louvre collapsed, its stones turning to red-hot magma as they fell. When the magma passed over their bodies, it felt cool as a clear spring. They fell with the Louvre, passing through a melted Europe toward the center of the Earth, and when they reached it, the world around them exploded in a shower of gorgeous cosmic fireworks. Then the sparks extinguished, and in the twinkling of an eye, space became crystal clear. The stars wove crystal beams into a giant silver blanket, and the planets vibrated, emitting beautiful music. The starfield grew dense, like a surging tide. The universe contracted and collapsed, until at last everything was annihilated in the creative light of love.

Dear. God. I’ll be the first to admit I have no poetry in my soul, but this is taking the piss, it really is.

But it gets better. So they fall in love, and five years pass. They have a daughter. Then the UN gets wise to the fact that he’s not doing his important job, and instead pootling about being in happy happy love. So they decide to make him get on with it. And the best way to do this? Take the woman he loves and the child he adores, get them away in the middle of the night, and put them in cryogenic hibernation until he gets shit done.

Yep, literally fridged.

And this is frankly leaving aside that she explicitly asks him if her being with him is part of his super plan to save humanity, and he lies to her to tell her that it is, because he knows it’s the only thing that’ll keep her happy living with him. Fucking creepy.

We also have another Wallfacer (they’re all men, by the way), whose enemy trying to undermine him (Wallbreaker) turns out to be his wife. Now, this could have been really cool and important and a lot could have been done with it. But do you know what the last we hear of her is? A throwaway line by the Wallfacer that, oh yeah, she committed seppuku some time ago. No emotion. Just, oh yeah and she died.

And the whole book is like this. Women are constantly relegated to the sidelines, ignored or simply forgotten. The last third of the book is less misogynist, simply because it drops any pretence of having women in the story at all. They’re props, and the only time they’re useful is when we need someone to feel a little bit of sorrow, then we shove them back in the box. It’s horrendous. If everything else about the book was good, this would be enough for me to hate it.

But nope, there had to be more.

Love is magic, for instance. Possibly my least favourite trope of all. As I say, no poetry in my soul, and not an ounce of romance, so I am for sure not the target audience for this crap, but my god is it trite bullshit. Especially when you try to claim that humans are special because of it. There is something so contemptibly smug about this and I just can’t stand it. I suppose it fits in with my whole “can we just have some books without romance in? No?” thing and then elevates it to an art form. I’m not saying love isn’t nice and all, and the warm fuzzies are great, but it’s not… *waves hands awkwardly around face to make a point*… everything. If I had to explain why I thought humanity was so awesome… god, it wouldn’t even make the top ten. Civilisation, people, everything is so much more than this and it would make me so happy to read more stuff that just got over it. And this is a book that’s trying to be about philosophical ideals, and the deep understanding of what humanity truly is.

Which brings me neatly to my next issue: humanity boiled down to simple axioms.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be why I dislike the Foundation books until today, but I think it is. I really can’t get on with the idea that people can be boiled down to a few rules and then flawlessly predicted, either on an individual or a massed basis. And yet, part of the entire notion of this book is that not just humanity but the whole of galactic “sociology” can be encompassed and then built upon two axioms.

Fellow people what did an arts or humanities degree, you know that feeling when someone in STEM tries to “solve” your subject for you? Them feels.

But it’s something that runs through the whole book, and makes it feel so implausible. Leaving aside galactic “sociology” for a moment, there’s a bit where several space ships are flying away from earth and realise they can never go back. Between them, we have a crew of thousands. And yet, somehow, they all come not only to the same conclusion about their situation, their feelings on their situation and what they should do about it in roughly the same amount of time, but they all couch it in the same metaphor. People just… aren’t that samey.

And likewise, people on earth are treated as a homogenous mass that’ll all behave the same (or when we’re really lucky at one point, in one of two) ways when when faced with whatever crises. And that’s just not how people work. And once you’ve got that undercutting everything, nothing has even the whiff of realism about it, which I think the book is heavily relying on. Because for all hard SF can sometimes be a bit cold on the emotional front, it mostly manages to treat people in a way that makes them feel plausible and individual, not a bunch of automata programmed to respond the same way to stimuli. This has pushed further into that, and it feels horribly reductivist and just… yeah, unreal. It’s not a question of suspending my disbelief, it’s about creating a world that even remotely facilitates that. Because if you have to force it, if you have to keep finding issues and deliberately dismissing them time and again in order to force your immersion in the world the author is creating? That’s a real problem.

Now, I had a lot of issues with the first book, some of which I wasn’t sure if they were because of the translator, inherent to the story or a bit of both. I have to say I suspect it’s the latter, as this one has a different translator, and while some of the issues are definitely worse, they’re the same issues. The story feels incredibly dry, like the worst hard sci-fi often is, and none of the characters has any sort of human depth to them. I kept mixing up who was whom because they all sound exactly the same, they’re just mouthpieces for the author. And as such they’re all horribly didactic. You know how in not-very-good books there’s that one character that clearly exists only to give exposition? They’re all that character. And some of the stiltedness surely does come from the divide between the language of writing and the English translation, sure. But some of it must come from the story itself, I can’t blame it all on translation. Despite the mush and the floridly described love, there’s no human warmth to it at all. It’s just a list of events, sometimes described through the medium of speech, and it’s so bloody dreary. I had to push myself so hard to get through it.

And again in my review of the first book, we came upon the issue of whether there’s a fundamental difference in how Chinese literature tells stories, compared to what I’m used to. Now, further input from various sources since then has emphasised the theme of the inevitability of things, and the sense of people not being actors but merely dragged along by the inexorable current of fate. It does seem to be a Thing***. And it’s definitely present and obvious in this book. So to some extent, I’m going to have to claim that a lot of my issues with it come from a position outside the cultural context in which it is written. I’m not the target audience because on some level I just do not Get what it’s trying to do. Which is fine. But I can’t give it an entirely free pass either; I’m going to honestly critique the novel in English that I read, just with an understanding that it’s not a novel written in English, and it comes from somewhere where it is very much aiming for a thing that I’m not looking for. So instead, let’s say I’m critiquing it in its position as a Hugo nominee. And for that, I can only go in on what I enjoy, and what I can Get, and what I think is worthwhile. And I frankly don’t think this is it. There are things which bother me and which are the familiar – the misogyny, the triteness – that I can connect with and dislike, and to some extent that’s why I’ve been focussing on them rather than the language.

But the language was something that I struggled with throughout too. It’s not so much that you can tell it’s translated, just that it doesn’t flow like good English prose might. The conglomerate entity of author and translator do not have a way with words, and even go as far as rendering things in a way that was often downright clunky. It clearly tries to be poetic, and I don’t know if it achieves that in Chinese, but it’s not achieving it for me. And it lacks nuance. Part of what makes the characters feel like identical automata is the fact that none of them have any of the individuality of voice you find in real people or in most story characters. And more than that, they don’t speak like people at all. Everything is perfectly laid out, like a planned speech, with explanatory notes, in every conversation. Nothing seems spontaneous or ill-thought-out or unfinished or natural. Everything is perfect and precise. And it doesn’t read as human.

I should probably comment on the actual story at this point.

In a word, ridiculous. So many of the notions in the book – the Wallfacers, the Battle of Darkness – are just completely implausible. The idea that a near future world would decide that the best defence against an alien invasion was to give four men, one of whom basically a random pick, unquestioned power to do pretty much whatever they want to save humanity? It just… no. And then of course everything is clunkily named (though I’m guessing this is an artefact of translation). SF is supposed to be about a realistic view of the distant, the implausible and the unknowable. This just isn’t that.

But it does get better. About two thirds of the way through, we get onto just pure space battles and fate of the world stuff. We stop really paying much attention to any actual people doing things, and the story becomes a whole lot better. Which is a pretty damning indictment.

Liu can write a pleasingly horrifying unknowable enemy, and some solid space-battle imagery. Which is pretty much the only praise I have, at this point.

Thus far, I will put this down as my worst book of 2017. It was hard to read, harder to care about, and in many ways fundamentally objectionable. There’s little I can find that I would consider to redeem it, and it fails to pass a lot of my basic tests for “is this a decent novel?”. It is vastly worse than its predecessor, and for all that it gets better in the last third, that’s only because it abandons all pretense at really dealing with humans much at all. When the author just talks about his space axioms and space battles, he does ok… I think in part because it feels like this is the only thing he ever really wanted to talk about in the first place. Ok, no, that’s a lie. He clearly wants to talk about his didactic philosophising too, but that’s just obnoxious.

In short, I hated it, and the fact that I have to read the sequel is really getting up my nose.

Up next, A Closed and Common Orbit, sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, followed by The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and the third installment in this series, Death’s End. However, in contrast to what is mounting into a daunting and unremitting pile of NOPE, I do have the last in my Nebula Nominees to read, Borderline, by Mishell Baker, which looks genuinely fascinating, and to which I am looking forward immensely. It’s pulling me through.


*Any comments reminding me I don’t “have to” read it will be ignored. I committed to a thing, which includes the shitty parts of the thing. To complete the thing, I have to read the sequel. It’s “have to” vs my stupid pride and my stupid pride wins.
**I may be being sarcastic on this one. Maybe.
***Correction or elaboration on this point much appreciated by those in the know.

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Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

9780765378002_custom-eb8c9e821cbe420ade7f9de35c1a41691ed35d22-s400-c85This is possibly the most interesting book I’ve read not just this year but last year too. This does not mean it is the best book. When describing it to others, my descriptor of choice has been “godawful”. Or “dire”. Or “completely shit”. Just to make that clear. But it is diversely shit, sometimes in opposite directions simultaneously, and it is sufficiently innovatively shit that it is worthy of discussion… possibly lengthy discussion.

That being said, it’s quite difficult to know where to start. The Goodreads blurb reads thus:

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Which is… somehow completely useless, while all being technically accurate. It gives a wildly inaccurate sense of what the book will feel like, while strictly speaking giving you some of the plot points.

So I’m mostly going to ignore the plot, and talk about how the book feels, about the writing and the setting and the ethos of the book and of the narrator, all of which are way more important factors in what this book was to me.

I’ll start with what struck me first and in many ways hardest was the style of the writing. Palmer has some sort of notion that her story’s themes mirror those of the 18th century (not really) and so has her narrator adopt the style of an 18th century narrative. Only… she’s not 100% successful at this. And she drops out of it. A lot. So what we actually get is brief moments of painfully awkward pseudo-archaism, within some not particularly brilliant, fairly modern prose. Joy. This is made particularly bad by the moments where the text includes a supposed interjection from the reader. Now, the reader, being on more familiar terms with Mycroft, the narrator, uses “thee” and “thou” and the appropriate verb forms, like “thou canst”. And I’m sorry but it’s just horrible. The juxtaposition with normal text… it just hurts it’s so awkward. When you’re far enough away from these crimes against narration, the writing is merely forgettable. Which shouldn’t be something to aspire to, but she’s set the bar low for herself here. Add to that the fact that what the reader says is really rather contrived, so not only is it not what I would say to the narrator in the circumstances, it’s vastly outside the scope of what I want to know about anyway. Most of the time it’s the reader objecting to Mycroft’s philosophy or choice of focus or sexualisation of the characters.

Ok, fine, that I do agree with. But they’re doing it wrong.

Which brings me to probably the second worst thing about the book. It’s actually the worst, but the writing is so omnipresently bad that it overrides anything else.

So the story is set in a future where we don’t mark gender in speech. Not just grammatically, people just aren’t discussed as gendered except in specific circumstances. Everyone is “they”. Which is great. This I like, please continue with your exploration of gender in the future. However. Because of the whole 18th century nonsense, the narrator feels he does have to gender people. Because historical authenticity or something. But he doesn’t do this how we might do this now. Instead, he decides that certain characteristics are only assigned to a particular gender, so if someone displays that characteristic, they’re that gender. And it gets… well, it gets horribly reductive. Anyone caring? Female. Anyone aggressive? Male. Meek? Female. Forthright in any way? Obviously male. There’s an entire political class (I’ll get onto that in a minute) that he dismisses as female because they’re “nice” and “organised”. Their leader is “the world’s mom”, while the head of one of the other groups is “the world’s stern dad”. The leader designated female is also described as “cuddly” and “sweet”, and she’s the one who makes sure everyone gets ice cream. And all the designated women in the book are somehow like this – vastly stereotyped and then caricatured, so they’re weird avatars of femininity. To the point that one of the characters, about a third of the way in, starts being described as a witch, simply because she behaves in ways that the narrator codes female but is also sexually overt and a bit forthright and plotty. There’s nothing about her that’s actually witchy. And it’s not really clear where that’s coming from, from the book’s point of view.

If I were a more generous person, I might assume that Palmer is trying to make us think about gender by doing this… challenging our assumptions with grotesque parody or something. But I’m not, so I’m just finding it mildly insulting. I’m not saying it’s worse than assigning gender strictly by genitals (though the narrator does discuss characters’ genitals for fairly spurious reasons, so that comes into it too), but it’s not exactly better to distill a gender into certain essential qualities either and arbitrarily assign them to people who, in that world, would be accustomed to think of themselves and others as “they”. “But 18th century aesthetic” is not a good enough reason for this, I think. It’s like she tried to be thoughtful and interesting, but failed so spectacularly she managed to be even more offensive than we now often are in reality. I dunno, I just feel like, unless you want to characterise them as a bad person (and she’s not, her narrator is definitely meant to be sympathetic), you shouldn’t be having someone misgendering people here, there and all over the place.

The third awful thing about this book (there may be a lot… I will try to be a bit less verbose about them from here on) is her obsession with several historical figures, but specifically among them Voltaire and de Sade. The Voltaire stuff just smacks of the sort of person you see online who thinks they’re the generation’s top thinker because they read some philosophy once. The de Sade… she tries to make it clear it’s about the theology, not the titillation, but it is definitely about the titillation. The sexy nun was bad enough, but if I never read another sex scene where people are discussing theology, there will still have been too many. None of the philosophy stuff she incorporates feels particularly clever or incisive, it’s just your usual self-congratulatory “look at me, I so smart”.

Which gets worse with one of the characters. So Carlyle is mentioned in the blurb, like he’s really key to the whole plot, but he’s not. I can only assume, based on the foreshadowing and weird hints, that he’s going to be important in the sequels, because frankly he doesn’t contribute much here. He’s there to have moral outrage and theology exposition. And the theology exposition is just so tedious. If I had to call the author’s views, I’d peg her as “rabid atheist”, and that’s a really not good thing. It just permeates a lot of the plot, and even the setting (I don’t want any exposition on the “Church War” that led to religion being banned worldwide, I really, really don’t), and then she goes all de Sade (minus what I assume is his intellectual merit, because presumably he has some if he’s still this well known) and makes theology some sort of all-encompassing sexual fetish in her world.


And then the leaders of the major factions are all into it and all sleeping with each other. Or watching other people have sex and getting all worked up and excited about how it’s always that combination of personality types because in the distant future people can do a personality profile just by looking at you…

I could go on for a long while, but the crux of it is that this is a horribly self-congratulatory book by an author who clearly thinks she is Super Smart and Ever So Cuttingly Incisive and Political. And it’s just cringey and clunky and awkward and none of that works. The “intricate” politics feel just like a mess, so for all that you could puzzle it all out, you don’t want to. The plot meanders back and forth with no real sense of purpose, leaving unresolved threads everywhere that I can only assume she’ll pick up in the next book, though they never have the feeling of cliffhangers, more of afterthoughts. And then the whole thing just stops suddenly, with no real coherent feeling of an actual ending.

The one bright and shining thing within all of this heap of shit is that, underneath the cringe and the sex and the misgendering and the frankly teenage politics/philosophy, there is lurking a really interesting bit of world building. I like what she’s created, her hive-system in a world where an innovation in transport has made everywhere within three hours’ travel, and thus rendered geography politically irrelevant. I don’t quite agree with how she’s done it, sure. But it’s really very interesting. It’s gone a bit reductive on her seven hives (her political units… like countries but without any sort of geographical component), so Cousins are always nice, Utopians are mad-scientists, Humanists are all the absolute best at something and determined to Win At Everything, and Masons are… a bit culty and Illuminati-ish.

Oh yeah, one of her political factions is the actual Masons. No, really. They speak pseudo-Latin and are ruled by their Caesar, an emperor empowered to kill, where no other leader is. She’s mashed up a badly understood, idealised Rome and the pop culture image of the Masons and… I just don’t even know, frankly.

And one of her other factions? The Mitsubishi corporation. Now, she definitely does some legwork to try to make this make sense within the setting, but realistically? It’s just your usual “omg the future is corporate how awful” bullshit* and I’m a bit tired of it.

Then there’s the Brillists, who do personality profiling (yep, all of them) and… uh… damnit, who am I missing?

Oh yeah, Europe. Which is largely ignored. You see the King of Spain a fair bit but that’s about it.

It’s an odd set of factions, and she’s fallen into the trap of making everyone in each faction quite samey (there are some non-faction options too, but they’re discussed less), to the extent that it feels a bit childish, when it could have been really quite an interesting setup. Well, that’s not fair. It still is, but there’s a veneer of oversimplification to it, which has not affected anything else she’s done with her story, and so is more blatant and jarring by contrast.

I say this is one of the most interesting books I have read in a while mainly because of that contrast of a really good setting with a really awful book. I’m normally the one grumping about how I don’t care about the setting, just give me a good story, so it’s weird to be here thinking that if the story had been a bit less shit, it would have been worth it for the setting. She’s done something genuinely new (to me) with her non-geographical world, and it is such an absolute shame that the mind-numbing terribleness of everything else overwhelms it.

That’s probably enough ranting. I don’t understand how this book made it into the Hugos, and if it wins, beating out things like Ninefox Gambit, by people who can actually write a decent story, I shall be rather miffed. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d have thought it a Puppy nomination.

I can’t think of a worse indictment than that, frankly.


EDITED TO ADD: Sorry, I needed to say another bit (because I Googled reviews of this book that were positive and they were making me angry by being Wrong). So the main character is a convicted criminal. One of the worst criminals of EVAR in his world. Yet for some reason, he is happily wandering around, associating on friendly terms with nearly all the world leaders, while also having basically super-magic abilities with languages. And apparently no one else speaks languages as well as he does, so you have to call him to translate anything you need translating. And also also he’s a whizz with numbers, so the head of the neutral central administrative body has to call him in when he’s worried about the world economy. And he’s involved with the upbringing of the son of one of the main world leaders. And… well, you get the idea. He’s a ridiculous Gary Stu of phenomenal proportions, apparently knows basically everything, from history to language to statistics, and no one in any sort of position of power could do without him and his charming, ex-mass murdering ways. WHY. WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS?


*I finished watching Marvel’s Iron Fist today. This may or may not be feeding into that feeling of “so done with evil corporate world” stuff. God it was dire.

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The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

jemisin_obeliskgate_tpShockingly, I didn’t go into this one with high expectations. Sure its prequel, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo last year, but I was not exactly its heartiest supporter. In brief, I thought the writing itself was competent and an improvement on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but the characters were completely unlikeable and the story, save for a few details, was generic and uninspired. I enjoyed that she did not include any soppy romance, but that’s only because it was so bad in tHTK that managing not to do it again was blessed relief. But overall, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was just a bit… meh.

So in some senses, I preferred The Obelisk Gate. Not because it was any better, but because all of its problems are exactly the same, and so none of this was a surprise. It was familiarly dull and uninteresting. It was no longer a disappointment, simply a mindless bit of fantasy trash to power through. Because that is all this is. For all that I don’t feel any particular ire (or other emotion) for this book, what does grate on me is the extent to which so many of the reviews of it I’ve read go overboard on the praise. Because… I don’t see it. It’s like a slightly better-written, grimmer Trudi Canavan novel. And now I feel the need to check what Goodreads thinks of Canavan, which I won’t do because it’ll annoy me. But what I mean is, both of them fall solidly into a category of books – one that I don’t object to existing because it’s totally necessary and valuable if you’re in the mood – which are light, easy reading, easy to push through, escapist, but ultimately without literary merit beyond this. They may be fun, but they’re not good. And I really feel like this is a distinction which needs to be drawn, because those two things are not the same. You can’t compare them, in the same way you can’t compare, say… Merlin and Line of Duty. Sure, I enjoy them both, but one of them is silly and tropey and requires a vast quantity less skill and artistry to pull off. It is definitely my opinion that we should be rewarding “good” way, way more than we should be rewarding “fun trash”… because, well, aren’t awards meant to be praising skill?

Anyway. What all this means is that I have two opinions on this book. The first, on it purely as a book in a vacuum, is largely neutral. If I could give it a mark out of ten on Goodreads, it’d be a five. I don’t dislike it, I’m not sad I read it, but nor will I have any inclination to engage with it in the future (unless the third gets nominated too). The second, which is of the book in its context, is a lot grumpier, and basically centres on “people are being wrong, bah, harrumph”. This is not… an uncommon opinion for me to hold, it must be said. I’m trying to stick with the first opinion though, because it’s the fairer of the two.

Being positive, the book is solidly escapist. I powered through it really very quickly, and the writing has the knack of getting out of the way of the story. Jemisin doesn’t bog us down with needless exposition, and she doesn’t tell about her characters when she could show… it’s just a shame that what she shows, I couldn’t care less about. The world, for all that it falls into so many trope traps it is unreal, is at least a not badly executed tropey hole. It has a map, the geography has that ridiculous feeling of “everything is so tiny howwwww” and she could have done better on her geography naming. Actually, her naming conventions could all use some work. I know the idea is that the people with stone magic get given names of rocks. I get it. It’s very cute. It is, however, also stupid. And none of the rocks work as names, nor do they abbreviate to what you shorten them to. It feels crowbarred and awkward. However, these are not unusual problems, and as such they are really easy to ignore. She does some good visual writing, especially when someone is about to explode or be eaten by magic bugs, and I had no trouble seeing what was happening in her world as I read it.

On the other hand, the plot… oh my god the melodrama. So… some spoilers here, but they wouldn’t be a shock to anyone reading the book. Honest. It does the good ol’ ramping up of the stakes, y’know, it’s not just a disaster, it’s a MEGA DISASTER, THOUSANDS OF YEARS, DOOM OF THE SPECIES.

Oh, and by the way, you have to use your rock powers to CATCH THE MOON.

Yeah. That’s where she lost me, to be honest.

Which is why, when she got to the big, super surprise reveal that *whispers* actually, all along, this super duper rock control power shit… it was MAGIC!

I can hear your astounded gasps from over here, in the past, writing this. But seriously, that’s her big reveal. That word is used. I think she thinks up until now she’s made it plausibly scientific (nope) so this would come as a shock, but nah. Especially since it’s a mysterious word used by the mysterious, long-dead civilisations of their world in their mysterious writings and no one knew what it meant until Alabaster figured it out. “Moon” is the other mysterious word. Jemisin takes a moment for her main character not to be able to pronounce it properly, too, which undermines any seriousness that plot point could have had nicely.

See, I’m doing it again. If I treat this book as tropey trash, then catching the moon with your SHOCK magic… well, it’s par for the course. I shouldn’t be surprised. But if I expect something better from it because everyone thinks it’s UH-MAY-ZING, then sure, of course I’m going to be disappointed and sarcastic.

Oh, and the other thing this has in common with its predecessor? They both end incredibly abruptly. Once again, I read into the appendices etc. without realising oh, that was it? It’s quite annoying.

As I say, if I take the book in a vacuum, it’s unobjectionable trope trash. There’s nothing desperately wrong with it, but it’s not doing anything new or interesting either. It just… is. I doubt it’ll end up on the bottom of my Hugo list, because I don’t hate it, but it’ll only be beaten to the bottom because of me getting grumpy with things, not because of any of its own merits. Solid middle, that’s what this is. I will continue to be baffled and annoyed at the people who think this is the height of literary merit, and I will not apologise for that. But this will surprise precisely no one.

Next up: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I know nothing about it, so it could go either way. Which is exactly why I do this read-along thing in the first place. I look forward to finding out.

Current Nebula Award Rankings:

1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
2. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl
4. The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Unread: Borderline – Mishell Baker

Current Hugo Award Rankings:

1. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
2. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
3. The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Unread 1: Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer
Unread 2: Death’s End – Cixin Liu
Unread 3: A Closed and Common Orbit– Becky Chambers

You may notice that Ninefox Gambit and All the Birds in the Sky have swapped places between the Nebulas and the Hugos. This is not an error. I love them both, and would be entirely happy at the moment should either win either or both awards, but I come up against a similar issue I had with Uprooted last year. For all that I loved it, I didn’t think it was the better book, and so I ended up ranking it second to Ancillary Mercy, since I thought quality ought to outrank fun. Now that I’m reading two sets of nominations though, I can afford to be a little more nuanced in this. It is my take from these nominations (and past ones) and just the way the Hugos and Nebulas work in general, that the Hugo winner should more be the popular one than necessarily the excellent-but-niche one. And given that the Nebulas are panel-judged… so it seems not unreasonable to put as my Hugo favourite the book I consider amazingly fun and excellent (and pretty damn well-written) and as my Nebula favourite the one I think is the better book, but with the slightly less broad appeal and less… fun-ness. If I honestly had to decide between them which I thought was best, I’d agonise for a couple of hours and then probably come down on the side of All the Birds in the Sky. It pushes some of the right buttons for me and does some things well that a lot of other things completely fail, as well as just being beautifully written and rather different from many things available. Ninefox Gambit is wonderful and stunning, but given the amount of times I wanted to draw parallels to Ancillary, it doesn’t tick the originality box quite as comprehensively. It’s very very close, but that’s the nudge I’d go, if you forced me.

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Everfair – Nisi Shawl

everfair20coverThe Nebula readathon continues! Though now we’ve entered the murky territory of “things I didn’t really want to read”. Which… I might have to recant on this one a little bit. It’s complicated.

I will admit though, I didn’t like it. As a story, it stays too distant, drags things out too chronologically wide, so it pulls apart the narrative until it’s no narrative at all. It’s too detached, and worse, has the feeling of a history, a list of events happening one after another with no real pacing, no sense of drive, of an end point to which all things are leading. It just… stops. And that’s deeply unsatisfying. Guy Gavriel Kay does something similar, but he walks a very careful line when doing so and manages to pull it off by holding off sometimes. Yes, his works do have the hint of being more a history than of an actual story, but it’s less strong than in Everfair. It’s a balanced mixture of story and history, whereas this is firmly in the latter camp.

Which leads me neatly into my other problem of how to categorise it.

Because, well… it says it’s steampunk. Right in the foreword, the author says that, so it must be true. But steampunk as a genre is firmly in the story category. It’s not, for all that it wants to be, any sort of alternate history. Shawl lists her story as being steampunk, and also as being a “what if” of a little change in history. But she makes too many changes for the reader to see this purely as an alt-history book. It doesn’t have that level of realism. But nor is it steampunk – steampunk is, to my experience, besotted with aesthetic over substance, and this isn’t that either. It’s something torn half way between the two. I almost feel like it’s what steampunk ought to be, were it to be the best of itself, the ideal to which it aspires but never reaches. But it doesn’t feel like steampunk is. For me, it engages much more closely and thoughtfully with what the -punk genres once were, how there was always a thread of social and political commentary, an ideal and a criticism of what is or has been. And this definitely has that. Frankly, steampunk mostly really doesn’t. Not only because it’s aesthetic without substance, but because it deliberately glosses over dodgy aspects of the Victorian era (racism, sexism, class divide) in favour of painting a beautiful equalitarian utopia, denying the struggles that would give meaning, substance and realism to the narrative. You can’t fix the awfulness of the past with a pretty aesthetic*. So it’s very weird – but very gratifying – to see someone engaging with it and doing it properly. Race is very much front and centre, along with colonialism and all the arrogance that goes with that, but the book also touches on sexuality and love and religion and gender and class. It properly knows what being alive at that time meant for a lot of people – including the bad, of which there was so much – and it doesn’t shy away from it. And that is fantastic.

If I take nothing else away from reading this book, it stands as a testament to how someone willing to put the work in can take something shallow and make it deep, can really drag out all the angles that exist underneath anything. It is a lesson to its genre, and Shawl is to be commended for that.


For all that I love, commend and admire Shawl for her commitment to building and working within a historical setting that is properly historical, this does not and cannot make up for the fact that the story is lacking, and lacking on multiple fronts. Like I’ve said before with so many books, you can have wonderful world building and great ideas, but it has to be a good book. There has to be a powerful story, characters you can really feel as human beings, something that grabs you and keeps you reading and wanting more.

And it doesn’t do that. To some extent, I’m not sure Shawl wanted to do that or was trying. It’s not what she’s writing. And that’s fine, but it’s a novel and I’m going to judge it as a novel… and in that, for me, it is failing.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of driving narrative, and that is pretty bad, and more so the further into the book you get. The longer you read, the more you feel like the pace ought to have picked up, ought to have varied, that things ought to be pulling together to form a coherent… something. But they don’t. And maybe, with the great work Shawl has done with the setting, this could be forgiven (as others are for the same problems, if to a lesser extent), but it would need solid characters to rest upon too, and it just doesn’t have that either.

I could talk about the characters forever. In some ways, they’re beautiful studies in how everyone is flawed in some way, how no one is fully good or bad or sympathetic all of the time, and how reality is in the grey areas in between. Which surely is brilliant and absolutely to be applauded? Sure. But her characters, for all that, lack any sort of feeling. They’re not people. They feel so distant and cold and unreal that you can never grow to like or hate them. They never become more than the words on the page, and it’s disappointing… and probably at least partly tied to the pacing. If every chapter we jump forward several years, we never get a proper chance to get to grips with them as people and understand why they do anything. We never get into their heads. They’re just some people, doing some things, being reported coldly and distantly. It has no emotion alongside it to make it matter.

And so ultimately, it’s quite unsatisfying as a story. And, as a story, I can’t do aught but judge it for that. I don’t regret reading it, and I don’t regret that it exists because it does and should stand as a fantastic example of what can be done with the steampunk setting to make it escape its simplistic current form. It should so very much be the textbook version of the genre world-building done well. But good worldbuilding will never, for me, a good book make, not alone. It completes the other half that steampunk is so often lacking, while failing at the thing it sometimes manages to do well – a solid, gripping story and people that feel like really people. Fit them together, and maybe you’ll have me.

But for all that I don’t like it and indeed didn’t enjoy it, it is exactly the reason why I’m reading along with the Hugos and Nebulas. I’m seeing what is being done right now, what’s interesting, and that is incredibly worthwhile. It’s a book that, in many ways needed to be written, and Shawl has handled the setting with a delicate grace and firm certainty that she’s addressing issues who existence is distressingly absent where it ought to be front and centre. I’m glad she wrote it, glad it exists and glad I read it. I just don’t like it.


*Potentially relevant here is one of the better episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The crew of DS9 frequently visit the holodeck to enjoy a bar/casino/music venue thing set in the US at a time when racial issues were particularly ungood (I honestly couldn’t tell you the period because I am really bad at modern history, but we’re talking crooning male singer in a suit, big band, men in trilbies… that kind of thing). Commander Sisko refuses to join them on multiple occasions and, when asked why, raises an objection to participating in something that ignores the endemic racism of the time in favour of a cheery, happy but ultimately dishonest fake. It’s a valid criticism, and one I think steampunk as a genre could do with examining (and not just with race). Every time I read a steampunk novel, especially when they focus on all the manners stuff and women in their big dresses… but still going out being adventuresses and so on like none of the oppressive social mores existed… I feel a twinge of discomfort, because it’s… well, it’s a lie. And it is a lie that values the aesthetic over the issues underneath. It belies steampunk to be the shallow veneer it is, for the most part, uninterested in engaging deeply with very true, very valid and potentially very interesting issues that sit at the heart of the period it professes to love.

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The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville

31140609A brief deviation from the award nominee schedule into a novella I had faith would be amazing (and could borrow from boyfriend without having to buy it myself…). I’m at the point now where I’m just going to start anything by Miéville and be confident I’ll like it, which is quite comforting. It means I can pick a book up when I know I want something good and have a fair deal of certainty that it’ll live up to that. Shockingly, this book hasn’t dispelled that notion.

What it has done, though, is go against one of my other Miéville certainties (or what I thought certainties) – that for all that each of his books are very, very different from one another, he always sounds like himself. In this, he really rather didn’t. So many of the features I often comment on are there and exactly the same, but the authorial voice is somehow changed. It’s not better or worse… just different. It’s rather peculiar. But I suppose that may have been deliberate, since it’s rather apt for the very peculiar indeed nature of the book.

The Last Days of New Paris is… well… it’s about Nazi occupied Paris filled with surrealist monsters, and demons from hell. And it is precisely that weird. We follow a resistance fighter – not exactly chronologically – through a brief episode of his life within the quarantined and suffering city. The Nazis and Parisians are trapped in there together with the monsters, and fighting them and each other while trying to learn how to control them. It’s a fascinating and confusing setting… which is what Miéville does best, really.

The book is absolutely laden down with its surrealist inspiration though, to the point where I really felt my ignorance about the subject. I’m sure much of the monsters and images described are meant to be famous paints and sketches, and much of the literature quoted likewise well-known… but I know naff all about surrealism, really. I recognised the odd name of artist or author, scattered amongst five or six I’d never seen before. But for all that I think I’d have enjoyed the book more had I had that additional context, I don’t think it really suffered for me not. If anything, the ignorance embellished the weirdness of the landscape of a war-torn city, so I got more of the atmosphere and emotional impact, even as I lost out on seeing the clever links of what Miéville has done by invoking this or that artist. It’s a skillful little thing, but it means that whichever bit of the audience he gets, Miéville has them appreciating it on one level, even if they’re not quite there on the other. It’s neat, and I am fairly certain it’s something he’s done deliberately, rather than lucking out on.

Much like This Census Taker, this is a book about atmosphere – where you’re caught up in his use of language and visualisations, where you really feel like you’re seeing the world he’s creating, rather than one driven by a plot, pushing your forward. It has one more than This Census Taker, sure – and is a longer book, though still piddly at under 200 pages – but it’s one for sitting and admiring, not desperately turning the page to see what happens next. You wallow in it, picking over each thing he’s done with the view.

Which is probably a good thing, because he’s still Miéville and still isn’t writing characters I care much for.

There’s a sense of detachment to the book – as there is to many of his, but more so – that pushes you more to that appreciation of the atmosphere, but does so at the expense of the people you’re following on the way. You need dialogue and focus to really make characters feel real, I think, and neither Thibaut nor Sam, the two we spend most time with, have either of these. But I can visualise them very clearly indeed. It is something of his I have noted before, and it’s not something I really like, but knowing that it exists, it’s a trade off I’m willing to make for the quality of his prose.

Which I think may be the thing that really differentiates this from much of his other work. In Kraken particularly, Miéville lays it on heavy with beautiful wording. You have to pay attention to his writing because it’s so prominent. It never sits back to let you get on with the plot, because if anything, it’s as much a point as the plot is. He uses how he writes, right down to the smallest level, to create the world, as much as the higher level descriptive stuff. You feel like he’s chosen each word specifically, and thought about it and how it interacts with the whole sentence. There’s a care and focus and artistry to it that is very particularly Miéville… but it’s not there here. I’m not saying the prose is bad (it isn’t), or that it’s dull. If any other author had written this, I’d be saying the prose was lovely. But it’s a vastly pared down version of what Miéville normally does, and so that’s really rather noticeable. And I can’t quite decide why he’s done it this way. If anything, I’d have thought the madness of surrealist war-Paris would merit as much heavy-laden description as Kraken would and did. But it evidently doesn’t. It was odd, and strangely noticeable when I started reading… but ultimately, Miéville is still a great author, and it is at no point bad. I’m just not used to his wording being… simple.

Not many authors could get away with a book so heavily reliant on Nazis as one of the antagonists, and I think, more than anything else in the book, this is the greatest testament to Miéville’s skill as an author. You have a recognisable surrealist image fighting Nazis… and however intellectually you know it to be ridiculous, in the moment and emotionally… it works. It’s serious. It’s not laughable.

I mean, minor spoilers – Mengele turns up. You’ve got to be pretty damn good to manage that, especially in such a small work.

Basically, it’s somehow very Miéville and very not, and thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly weird. As anyone who’d read him before would be completely unshocked to discover. It’s not my favourite of his, for sure, but it’s still a brilliant little thing, and a length and conceit that really work. The afterword is very important, too, and vastly changes how you look back at what you’ve just read… if anything changing the whole context of the book… which is another thing I think is rather hard to manage well. It’s a good book, showing off the author I know Miéville to be by now. Four stars on Goodreads, and a wonderful interlude after the previous book’s trash.

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Red Rising – Pierce Brown


To be honest, it was never a promising start, if that’s your caption. I hated Katniss.

This is probably going to be one of my most negative reviews of a properly published novel (free Kindle books don’t count). You’ve been warned.

This book was, in short, absolutely godawful. It was unremittingly horrendous, and I knew I hated it from the very first page. It didn’t get better. Nothing it did counteracted the awful. There was no mitigating factor. It just kept on being a complete crock of shite, sometimes managing to get even worse with little spikes of terribleness. I don’t care that it was on the New York Times best seller list, it was just really really bad. I will, of course, spell out now exactly in what ways it was awful, but if that’s all you wanted, this is your tl;dr. I’m not going to give you an “on the other hand” at any point from here on.

Firstly and most prominently, the writing is not just not good, but sufficiently actively and noticeably bad that it dragged me out of the story constantly to marvel at what the fuck Brown had done. If nothing else, someone needs to confiscate that man’s thesaurus. And then do some heavy editing on the melodrama. He wants to write something in a dramatic, serious tone… and he’s just not achieving it. Instead, he sounds like a teenager writing a fantasy story who doesn’t quite know what “guise” or “ilk” mean but knows they’re old-fashionedy sort of words so will use them anyway. He also mucks around with word order for much the same purpose, and to much the same effect. And I’m quite concerned that, when Brown does this, he thinks he sounds dreadfully poetic and imbues his prose with all the gravitas his serious, political subject (more on that later) deserves. Spoilers… nope. I can’t stress enough how irritating I found reading this book, simply because of the amateurish writing – it was a conscious effort of will to stay immersed and reading rather than boggle every time he did something ridiculous or awful. And, because I am a thorough human, I did Google to check this wasn’t a YA novel, and so might be allowed… not a free pass, but a little leeway on these matters because, well, YA. But no, it’s marketed at adults (for all the author claims it’s YA  and adult simultaneously, existing beyond such petty genre boundaries… *sigh*). Basically, the man cannot write. If this were my only criticism, it would still be sufficient for me to say I hated the book, and I will stand by it come what may.

However, unsurprisingly, I have more to say.

So I mentioned the political theme? Brown… seems to think he’s doing something original (and doing it well), when it’s the most tropey piece of crap I’ve read in a long while. I already thought the Hunger Games was predictable, formulaic bullshit… this is that, but in space, and less subtle. You spot the plot “twists” coming a mile away, and he doesn’t do anything with his oppressive society and miraculous young hero that a hundred other authors haven’t done before. And better, did I mention that part? He’s not just not subtle, he’s so obvious and over the top that it’s comical. Or would be if I hadn’t been busy being angry at how shit it was.

Then, of course, he manages to push some very me-specific buttons to make me hate him even more.

There’s a veneer of pseudo-Roman-ish* mythology and politics to the whole thing, but there’s no depth to it. And he’s sort of kind of maybe stolen a bit of Plato’s Republic for his setting, but again, not really. And he gets some of his Roman mythology wrong (specifically, misunderstanding how Mars and Ares relate between Roman and Greek myth), which is an enormous black mark from my perspective. But mostly, he uses the Roman stuff as a thin, aesthetic veneer, without it really linking to any of the underlying concepts he’s doing, such as they are. There’s no understanding, no subtle interplay of themes. Just colours and outfits and names and vague ideas. And, shocker of shockers, this infuriates me. Because it’s not like these aren’t things it’s easy to research and work into things more thoroughly. It’s not like we don’t have loads and loads of information. I mean even Wikipedia, unreliable as it is on these matters, would have been able to inform him better. I mean for goodness’ sake, your evil overlord is called Nero au Augustus. FOR SERIOUS. I despair, sometimes, I really do.

And then, of course, we get to my other pet niggle – characters. They are basically lacking here. It’s a triumph of telling, rather than showing, and you never get the sense that the protagonist is an actual person? He’s more a bundle of whatever traits the author needs in this chapter, but not actual linked to his behaviour. He’s supposed to be intelligent – but we don’t see it in his actions and choices. He’s supposed to be full of rage – but it never really comes out. We’re told an awful lot about Darrow, but none of it really ever comes into play in how he behaves. He just follows the obvious protagonist track, keeping on being obvious protagonist in the face of predictable barriers to his success. He doesn’t even engage with his predictable protagonist mission all that much. And then, of course, there’s the problem of how overblownly protagonist he is. He’s just magically better at everything, stronger, smarter, more resilient, better at fighting, and all because he’s the Helldiver of Lykos!** protagonist. Training? Meh! Who needs it. He’s the Helldiver of Lykos. Research? Practice? Dance lessons? Nope. He’s the Helldiver of Lykos! And so it goes on. Interminably. He’s so stunningly, amazingly good at the entrance exams for the super amazing school that Quality Control have to come and check he didn’t cheat. But he didn’t, because he’s the Helld-… I’ll stop now.

This book is a childish, amateurish attempt at the story of an oppressed boy who turns out, because of his heritage, to be amazing at everything, and his quest to overthrow his oppressors. Along the way, we encounter misogyny (and fridging! Really obvious fridging!), bad mythology, horrendous language abuse, any trope you care to name and a painful disregard for the enjoyment of the reader. If I read a worse book this year, frankly, I’ll be shocked. I didn’t even have to pause before I gave it one star on Goodreads. So I apologise for all the swears in here, but I’m not being hyperbolic, it really was this shit.

And you know what? I’m going to read me some China Miéville next to cheer me up. Otherwise I’ll forget what decent writing looks like.

So don’t read this book. You don’t deserve that. You’re better than that.


*Hedging because like fuck does he know what he’s doing.
**This phrase gets repeated about every other page. And is the answer to everything Darrow can miraculously do better than everyone else. It is really very smug and can fuck right off. I thought Peter Grant and his amazing GCSE in everything was bad? Nope. Apparently the Helldiver of Lykos is the thing to be if you want to get ahead.

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