The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M. Banks

71szunww9plA nice, comfortable read I knew I’d be happy with. Just what I needed. And indeed, just what I got. Sometimes predictable is good. Sad though, as this is the last of the main novels in the Culture series (as far as I’m aware) that a) I’ve read and b) exist. The boyfriend and I had neither of us read it so we’d got to a gap in both our reading schedules, read it approximately simultaneously and then had a handy person nearby to discuss it with. Would recommend, as a tactic. It’s quite different to discussing with someone who’s read it but a while ago (especially if that person is me, as my memory of books I neither loved nor hated fades super quickly).

That being said, for all that it was a pleasant reading experience, it’s not a book I have an awful lot to say about. I’ve blogged nearly every other book of Banks’ I’ve read (save Consider Phlebas, as that predated the blog, though I intend to reread it now I know I like Banks), and it’s not like he’s got radically different between novels. He’s still, shockingly, really quite good at this space opera lark.

One thing that does leap out to me now I’ve finished reading the Culture novels, though, is how early he peaked. I don’t think we got better again after Use of Weaponsand that was a good few books back. Which isn’t to say the rest aren’t good – they really are – but the best was pretty early in the run. Personally, I think I lean on The Player of Games being his best, but it’s a close thing between it and UoW. So that’s… books 2 and 3? Not a strict series, but still. I suppose I’m used to longer series/connected books having peaks and troughs, rather than this kind of structure.

But back to the book itself, The Hydrogen Sonata follows a woman in a culture on the verge of subliming* – ascending to a higher plane of being en masse now they’re done with the material world – and how she interacts with that decision, but also exploring what led to this subliming, and some mysteries associated with it and some cultures that went before. It’s a little less fast-paced than some of his novels, but not in a bad way – it has a decent sense of purpose throughout that saves it from wallowing too much, and there’s just enough action in the right places to keep us going when needed. To me, this meant it felt a lot more thoughtful than the others (which is saying something) and it has a sense of contemplation about bigger things that one would expect from a novel about a whole culture deciding to up sticks and depart the material plane. But what makes it work is the main character really is someone it’s easy to get into the head of. She feels plausibly frail and human (despite being quite alien, both physiologically and psychologically), and has a life to reflect back on that, while in some ways extraordinary, is plagued with a lot of dithering and uncertainty in much the same way as many of us can connect to.

She’s also not within the Culture, which is nice when it happens. He’s done it before, but I like these perspectives as a contrast to the ones from within the Culture looking out. He’s giving us a comprehensive view of this world he’s made by letting us see it from other vantage points, showing up its flaws and failings as well as its successes. I think, on reflection, the Culture is one of the best examples of solid-worldbuilding in any novel/series I’ve read. It’s just so well-considered, but it doesn’t feel the need to bombard you with that consideration. You just have to read the books and pick it up at the pace the author wants you to pick it up, no glossaries for you. And the way each novel focusses its attention on one area of the Culture/that universe – be it what happens after death, the Minds that control things, or in this case subliming – means you do eventually get a fairly comprehensive view… you just have to be willing to get there naturally. And that is what world-building should be. Save me the info-dump, the glossary and the character-just-there-for-exposition, the awkward conversations telling someone about their world they’ve lived in forever that just feel crow-barred in. Absolutely give me ignorance and a slow piecing together of the puzzle every time.

But obviously it’s not just about world-building. It can’t be. This is why I hate Dune for instance. A novel still has to be a novel, no matter how interesting the world you set it in. And Banks has an absolute gift for everything that goes into that – the light, witty and charmingly funny prose, the characters who manage to feel intensely real, despite being totally alien, the way he skips between ideas and still leaves you with a sense of understanding, the emotional depth as well as the intellectual. They have everything, and I love them, and I shall no doubt read the entire lot again in time.

And again, The Hydrogen Sonata is a great example of all these things. And so it feels a fitting ending for the “series”, however sad I am to get there. Not that there isn’t more Banks to read – I shall seek out Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn I am sure – but the Culture is just such a comforting place to go back to each time. I love optimism. I love hope. And the Culture is an optimistic view of the space future**, post-scarcity, post-ageing and illness, one where humanity is outward-facing, open and accepting. And I think that, more than anything, is what I come back to. It’s why I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. I like my view of the future to be one where everyone is welcomed and looked after, and I love my media that take that and don’t dismiss it as a boring premise with no scope for interest. Grim can be interesting. Dark and gritty can be cool. But I will always come back to optimism for comfort. And this book – and all of his novels that I have read – have been intensely comforting.

If you’ve never read this, or any other Banks, I would recommend it. But if you’ve never read any Banks, go back and start with The Player of Games. It’s worth it.

 

*I want to type “sublimation”. It’s been a few weeks since I read the book, but I’m pretty sure he sticks to “subliming”. But my fingers resist it…
**Though upon talking to the boyfriend/reading Wikipedia, it’s not our space future, as the dates apparently put it contemporary with some existing earth history in parts (in short stories, I think? I’ll have to read those too).

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The Rift – Nina Allan

81lm4l7vlflSo there’s been a bit of a hiatus… some of that was just I was a little behind on blogging, but I plead innocence for the rest of it. We were burgled, so I lost my laptop, and it turns out trying to write a blog post or 5 on an iPad screen keyboard is not an exercise I would endorse. Especially not if, like me, one tends to be overly wordy. So I’m about ten books behind where I want to be (and this is growing as I read more), so I’m going to try to plough through asap. This may mean some shorter posts while I catch up, alas.

Also, about half of this was written pre-backlog, so apologies if the tone shift is obvious from “angry” to “I have forgotten a lot of this”.

And we’re back to books that make me angry. Woo…

Though to be fair, this one didn’t exactly make me angry because it was bad, just because it was, in some ways, absolutely fundamentally incorrect and frankly objectionable and just how fuckin’ dare.

The thing is though, explaining why I had a slightly childish tantrum* when I finished reading it… requires some amount of spoilers. So I’m going to write my spoiler-free version first, and if you want the full-fat invective version, keep reading after the cut (or don’t, if you plan to read this). And frankly, I’d kind of suggest you read the book before the invective-laden bit… because I want to see what other people than me think of this. Boyfriend thought it was the absolute shit, and suggested I read it because of that (but he knows me well and was deeply unsurprised by my outburst upon finishing it**), so I’m aware it’s not something I’m going to be the Voice of the People about. I would genuinely like to know what other people thought of this when they finished it.

The blurb is simple enough:

Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were close, but as they grow older, a rift develops between them. There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing aged seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Does Selena dismiss her sister as a the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity?

The story is told from Selena’s perspective for the most part, and we flit between her memories of the year Julie disappeared, and the present day when Julie reappears. We hear her older self thinking back on memories of her childhood – in what felt an alarmingly realistic north of England for a nice change from your usual SFF setting – things that are tangential to Julie’s disappearance, or may mean something more later, but also living her daily, normal life with the confusion her sister’s reappearance brings. And it’s a very vivid picture painted of Selena’s life, her parents, her job, her town, the normal things that she does and likes, juxtaposed against the weirdness of what happened to her sister.

A lot of what’s interesting about the book comes from that contrast, the emphatically mundane and the bizarre, the mystery. Because yeah, that whole “another planet” thing. It sits alongside very ordinary tales of Selena’s life, her job, her family and colleagues, and the sad, painful aftermath/reminiscences of Julie’s disappearance. And then suddenly… weirdness. And unpicking the connections between the two, trying to decide what’s real and what’s not, whose certainty is sufficient… that’s really quite interesting.

The narrative is also interspersed with news articles, essays and other bits and bobs that give you an insight into Julie’s disappearance and their lives as children, slowly building a picture of Selena and Julie, and peeling away the layers of what seemed normal at first to reveal more options on what might have happened.

It’s clearly very considered and thoughtfully put together, and there are a lot of layers and uncertainties to flick through as you uncover the truth or truths of the story. It’s very accomplished in that regard. I found the pacing a little slow, however, and was never particularly inspired by any of the major characters (though Selena’s boss at her work is really rather cool), and was slightly bored when things turned too much to introspection. Yes, the charm is in the contrast of mundanity and miraculous… but the mundane bits are still rather mundane. It gets wearing after a while. Overall, in a spoiler-free sense, it’s an interesting book, but one that did not super appeal to me, and had some issues in terms of keeping my interest, despite being charming and unusual.

In a spoiler-ful sense…

OH MY GOD HAVE AN ACTUAL FUCKING ENDING. A RESOLUTION. PLEASE DEAR GOD WOMAN DON’T LEAVE ME HANGING LIKE THAT. I NEED TO KNOW.

The capslock is entirely justified. As was my flailing with cries of “fucking… no!” when I finished the book.

You spend a long time wondering if Julie actually did visit another planet or not, whether she was just delusional. And not only does it not answer that question, it also both provides you with a certainty that this is definitely Julie and not an imposter… but also the VERIFIED DEAD BODY OF JULIE. You get compelling evidence that Julie is both dead and alive, that she visited an alien world and didn’t. And that’s it. There’s no hint, no even wrapping it up in a pleasingly mysterious hand wavey way where you definitely feel like you’ve decided which answer it is. Nope. It’s just “nah, could be either, who knows, let’s just drop it here” and even Selena doesn’t seem to care. She’s just like “ok cool we just stumbled on my sister’s dead body but no big, I’ll still be her housemate”. What. What even.

Without this ending, the book probably would have got a 3 or a 4 from me, depending. It was never going to be my favourite, but it did some interesting things that I appreciated. With this… travesty. This infuriating non-excuse for closure. No. I am impatient and curious and this just wound me right up. It’s a personal thing, not everyone will concur, I know. But I cannot stand this absolute abandonment of the need for any sort of conclusion. There are ways you can do it and it can work but this was just a total abrogation of any sort of responsibility. The ending was a metaphorical shrug.

I cope badly with unresolved questions. It’s a flaw.

If you can stand to be around a permanent mystery someone has abandoned for reasons that entirely escape me, you may enjoy this book. It’s interesting and unlike most things I’ve read, and it’s striving hard to create a view of the UK that isn’t the same old same old (it nostalgia-ed me hard on the North of England). But if you have any sort of inkling that resolution is something you need in your life? Get awaaaaaaay.

Next up: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks. Because I strove for certainties in the aftermath of this travesty, and I know I like Banks.

 

*100% justified.
**He read that over my shoulder and would like to point out that he didn’t get me to read it to provoke the outburst, he just knew it was a possible outcome. He’s not a horrible person in that regard. And for all I’ve been told my angry blog posts are the best ones, he’s not going to make me read something I hate just for the funnies. I’m not /that/ amusing.

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Planetfall – Emma Newman

91de6liqthlI’m catching up on something of a blogging backlog, so we’re still well into books I read in early July. Specifically in this case, the one I read for the July book club meeting… in the first week of July. Yeah yeah I’m horrifically behind (three more books after this one to blog before I’m caught up… and I intend to finish reading another book by Thursday so that may end up being four…). But in my defence, I have moved house in that time. And had food poisoning. And heat exhaustion. And a lot of unpacking to do. It’s been busy. That’s not actually a sufficient excuse, but eh, it’ll do.

I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t super excited to read this one. The series was recommended by one of our previous book club authors (Adrian Tschaikovsky, author of Children of Timewho very kindly skyped into our meeting for a Q&A, because apparently he’s a lovely human and knows one of our members through LARP), which made me think maybe I’d be surprised, but the blurb was… never that inspiring:

From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown. 

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi. 

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

You see what I mean? It’s really just not… that inspiring sounding? It’s a pretty hackneyed premise, and it doesn’t get less so in the reading. And it’s not supported by good world-building, good writing or good characters (with one exception), or a particular well-realised plot… or good pacing at all. No really the pacing goes all to shit, especially at the end. On most axes, I’d be rating this “mediocre” to “shit” depending, and it would very likely be heading straight for a one star review, but for one thing the author does well – she provides a very realistic portrayal of a character with mental health issues (mainly anxiety). I’m not one of the people who particularly identified with that, so it didn’t speak to me on a personal level, but it did read as very real, very sympathetically imagined and very understanding of what it’s like to inhabit that brainspace. And we got a lot of time within Ren’s brainspace, seeing that reality.

Frankly, as this is the only vaguely interesting or competently done bit of the book, that’s what I’m going to focus on. As to the rest, please assume a generic instance of one of these posts where I complain about everything being shit and tropey. It’ll be about accurate, if I’m honest.

So, Ren and Ren’s brain.

It’s a book that’s very much focussed on the viewpoint the reader inhabits, and so we do a lot of thinking along with the main character. We follow her chains of logic, her ways of thinking about things, and at least early on, are led to follow them and agree with them (though this changes as we get more information that the early viewpoints elide). As far as I, who do not know what an anxiety disorder feels like, can tell, it’s a really faithful portrayal. I’m gonna trust that all the people identifying hard with her know what they’re on about and believe them too. So it’s a realistic portrayal, which is really great. And Newman does do a fantastic job of situating the reader inside Ren’s mind – not just showing us what she’s thinking, but placing us right within the process and grounding us, so we never really drift out of that perspective. I have nothing but praise for that – she’s done it well and I can’t fault her consistency of characterisation in that regard. It’s something you don’t get a huge amount of in fiction, something we should definitely see more of, and something which should get talked about more as a thing to have in fiction (see: Borderline, which did it amazingly). But… and it’s a big but… I don’t like Ren. At all. I can’t say for a certainty whether or not the anxiety stuff plays into this, because I don’t think you can disentangle her personality from it, but I just… I don’t particularly want her to succeed, I don’t like the choices she makes and she’s fundamentally not the character in the story I want to be following. There’s a semi-antagonist character called Mac who I frankly would have loved to get a perspective from because there’s so much going on with his story. Even just a split viewpoint book where I got some of him… he just seemed so much more compelling to me… And for all the skill the author can have put in to making us inhabit the mind of her character, that all falls away to nothing if I don’t want to be there.

And that’s what’s letting it down, I guess. Newman has done one aspect of the thing really well… but without anything else to support it, that’s never going to be enough. And if you’re going to make a book so monofocussed on one single character and their experience… you’ve got to give me something to make me want to keep reading them. I don’t have to like them personally, and there are characters I’ve super enjoyed reading who I definitely dislike… but they’ve got to have something to pull my interest in, to hold onto me, to make reading not a chore. And this was a fucking chore. I can absolutely appreciate, on an intellectual level, that the anxiety traits are really well portrayed here. But that’s just not enough.

And this is hard, because part of me is going “if we want better representation in books, we need to encourage it where we find it” while the rest of me is solidly on “yeah but not by praising shit books”. And I’m sorry, but on all other metrics? This is absolutely a shit book. The writing is amateurish in the extreme, the ending just doesn’t even make that much sense, and the setting is both tropey and poorly-realised. I want to encourage what it’s doing well, but not at the expense of encouraging bad writing.

So I guess what I’m saying is if you want to read a book with a neurodivergent protagonist, I’m heavily suggesting you read Borderline instead because it’s brilliantly written and just actually good. Like, on all the metrics. I can believe that Newman will get better as she writes more books, and I’m not discounting her from ever reading again – but it’d take someone whose opinion I trust (as in, someone with a history of rec-ing books that I enjoy, not just someone who has a consistent opinion) to rec me another one of hers before I’m touching it again.

I should really buy the sequel to Borderline, now I come to think about it…

Next up, BSFA winner The Rift, by Nina Allan, which made me really really angry (but maybe not in the way you’d expect).

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The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

51l9jVAk1uLThis was a welcome relief. It wasn’t anything special and I won’t remember it in a year, but it didn’t make me angry and that will do. It’s not the most stunning end to the Hugo nominees for the year, but nor is it going out in a blazing rage, so… eh, I’ll take what I can get. It’s a nice average of my feelings on this year’s nominees, I guess?

I’ve never quite got around to reading any Scalzi before; they’ve never particularly appealed to me as being anything special, just perfectly reasonable, respectable, forgettable instances of their type. Reading this… hasn’t dispelled that notion. In the slightest. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. It’s just not special. The sort of thing I’d classify as “holiday book”, except I don’t really tend to seek out forgettable books, even on holiday. But you know the sort of thing I mean. It’s one of the legions of books destined to be… good enough and nothing better.

So what on earth is it doing on the Hugo nominees?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I seriously don’t know. Especially when it’s up next to Raven Stratagem, which is also big interstellar space opera but like… stunningly amazing. It can’t fail to compare badly because Yoon Ha Lee is just brilliant. But fine, I super love Yoon Ha Lee, let’s ignore that… and we come to Ann Leckie next. Who is also stunningly good at big interstellar story-telling. You see what I’m getting at. And even if you wanted to argue that maybe this year is just a particularly amazing year for space opera (I’m not sure I would, but hey, you do you), eh… I still don’t think this makes the cut. It’s not a book I’d ever read and think “yep, award-winning material right here”. It’s doomed to average-hood, and so its being here really confuses me.

Which is not to say I think it’s the worst on the list, but at least with the ones that are so godawful they make you want to headbutt the nearest hard surface, there’s often something you can see why someone loved them… you just might have a few choice thoughts about the type of person that someone is. But who sees mediocrity and goes “yep, this is what I’m gonna push for glory”? That’s just weird.

But, leaving the Hugos aside, as I said, I quite enjoyed reading it. It’s a story of a woman coming to power she didn’t want, and how she deals with a sudden crisis for her nation in the wake of this. No original plotting here, but it’s a solid foundation and the world-building and characters going around it are perfectly reasonable. I enjoyed being in the main character’s head. She felt reasonably well realised as a person, and her reactions felt human and easy to sympathise with. She never really did anything I didn’t expect her to do, but that was fine. She was also nice enough that I mostly wanted her to succeed, though not full on loving her and cheering her on, just a general sense of “yeah, that’d be nice”. The rest of the characters… eh? I’ve forgotten a lot of them already. The secondary main character was also fine, if uninspiring, and the background ones… well they’ve very much faded into the background. None of them were particularly awful or anything, just… forgettable. Incredibly forgettable.

The world-building is somewhat likewise. You’ve got your big, multi-planetary empire with its bullshit-powered interstellar travel network, as you so often do. It’s important for plot reasons. It’s explained well enough that I never feel the absence of knowledge, but again, so uninspiring that I just don’t really care.

To be honest, you get the gist. I don’t need to carry on.

This is a perfectly fine example of a by-the-numbers space opera. If that’s what you want, it’s exactly what you’re getting, but absolutely nothing more. I enjoyed reading it while I was reading it, and it was light, fast-paced and absolutely readable. But once you put it down? Eh. I imagine if I picked up the sequel, it would all come back to me soon enough, but mostly because it’s all familiar and tropey. There’s nothing particularly unique to have to remember. Which isn’t bad, it just isn’t award-winning either. If you want “holiday reading”, this is absolutely the right pick. If you want a way to get through a day and nothing more, absolutely go for it. If you want actually good literature? You know where to find Yoon Ha Lee and Ann Leckie…

As such, it fits right into the middle of my Hugo rankings:

1) Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee
2) Provenance – Ann Leckie
3) The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
4) The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi
5) Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
6) New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (and it’s saying something that I think this is even shitter than Six Wakes).

It comes in definitely after the Jemisin, because that’s not forgettable, even if I don’t think it’s super-original either, and a clear step ahead of Six Wakes, because it is not painfully badly written trash.

And that’s me done on the Hugos. Sadly, this year, all the good ones were ones I had already read anyway, and there’s some utter dross clogging up the bottom. I’d be happy if Yoon Ha Lee or Ann Leckie win, but I suspect Jemisin is going to take it, and I’m not particularly upset by that. I don’t think the series is good enough to merit three Hugos by a long shot, but neither is it awful. And if Jemisin winning means neither of Six Wakes or New York 2140 does? I’ll cheer right along with everyone else.

Fingers crossed next year is a bit more inspiring

 

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New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

91dTajmVJmLAnd in contrast to my last book, this one was shit. I went into the Hugos slightly worried that I’d already read all the good ones (a lot of Nebula crossover plus authors I’d sought out anyway) and this… not only confirmed it but doubled down on it.

To put it as briefly as possible: I do not want my SFF novels to be economics textbooks. And I never thought I’d have to spell that out. It seems so obvious… and yet, I present to you: New York 2140.

Not that that was the only issue, mind you.

  1. It was an economics textbook.
  2. I didn’t care about any of the characters.
  3. I don’t want to read whole chapters going on about how amazing this one bit of New York geography is and how it basically changed the world.
  4. Still don’t care about economics.
  5. Or finance in any way at all.
  6. Still no.
  7. Aaaand the tone is really smug.
  8. WOO MISOGYNY.
  9. Yes I know global warming is shit, you didn’t have to tell me that. FIFTEEN HUNDRED TIMES. I ALREADY AGREE.
  10. Oh look, it’s another chapter about how amazing and unique New York is.
  11. When will this torment end.
  12. ECONOMICS.

The answer to 11 was “in way too long” because it is not a short book. Really not. And it felt so much longer than it was. I nixed my lead on my Goodreads reading goal because of this book. I coudn’t stick more than a couple of chapters at a time. The writing style is really smug and self-congratulatory, and the characters are all unlikeable wankers, and then oh god the economics.

Okay, to explain that (because a lot of this blog post is just gonna be “ugh economics”) – one of the characters works in finance. Like… trading… something? Shut up, I know sod all about this stuff. Anyway, his chapters follow two topics; either he explains economics at length and in depth, or he’s sad about a lady he fancies not liking him enough and he doesn’t understand women. And the problems with the second one are pretty self explanatory. But re: the first… some of this is just me. I have absolutely zero interest in finance, economics and the associated whatever. I just don’t and can’t muster it. Sorry. But some of it would be there whatever bit of science it was (ok unless it was linguistics or a bit of biology I find cool). It’s just way too much. When a character only exists to lecture you on this one bit of science (or angst about a sexy lady)… it’s just not enough. They become EXPOSITION MAN. And it’s not even really exposition a lot of the time. It is honest to god just explaining to you how trading or whatever works. Like, real things that exist in the real world. Occasionally it dips into how they affect the flood-filled future, but the point isn’t super about how they’ve changed. It’s just… explaining them. Again and again and again. And so I started skimming them. I didn’t really take much in. And it in no way affected how I understood the book – the rest of the plot was entirely comprehensible without them. So… what are they? Just guff. Unnecessary, self-indulgent wittering guff. It’s obnoxious, because it came across really patronising too, like the author felt I ought to know about this so he was going to take some time out of writing his SF to teach me economics. Dude, fuck right off.

This is, to be honest, my major issue with the book. It bored me to fucking tears with this shit. There wasn’t enough of anything else to balance it out. But hey, there were other issues too so guess I’m going to rant some more.

The misogyny… was definitely an issue. There are a lot of fleshed out female characters in the book, so it’s not like KSR is a serial idiot on this front. I suppose maybe the intention was to use it as a character flaw in Franklin (economics man). But the problem is, he doesn’t really have a character, so you don’t really take it as indicative of him as a person, because there’s no person there. He’s exposition-man! Who needs personality when you have ECONOMICS FACTS? So it felt more like a reflex of the author’s views… and then it jarred horribly with those fleshed out female characters. So it just didn’t make any sense. So that was fun…

And there was a lot of American exceptionalism. Like, a LOT. I know urban fantasy has a thing for going “hey, London? LONDONLONDONLONDON!!” but this was worse. Even if I leave aside the “I’ve been to London ever so can picture this”. There was so much of the author telling you how this one specific building/person/thing in New York proves that New York and its people are just that special and magnificent and world changing that it just swamps you. He once takes the piss out of it… then keeps doing it, so you don’t believe he actually thinks it’s stupid. And it is so fucking repetitive. It’s only outdone by the economics, frankly. But it’s mostly not done in a character voice, it’s just a chapter of author-voice stuff, so it’s not even like it’s got a thin veil of being in service to the plot. He just interrupts this scheduled programme to tell you have trully amazing New York is. Didn’t you hear? Even if I ever cared (nope), I don’t anymore.

At the heart of all this belaboured fuckery, there’s a vague mystery plot or some shit. Who even cares? It’s buried under so much bullshit it’s not worth finding, and even when you do it’s half-assed and stupid. There’s no real resolution to it, and the way it plays out is just kinda… eh? The resolution is a bit serendipitous and hand-wavey. But it really is quite sparsely strung out among all the other plates the book is spinning, so even in the quite hefty tome, there’s not enough space to do it justice. I guess someone could claim this was actually a book about some people who live in future New York, and yes there’s a bit of mystery solving but mainly it’s about people and their relationships… but the book really doesn’t want you to measure it against that yardstick, let me tell you. I give no fucks about any of the people in it. They’re all a bit… who gives a shit. Or wankers. Or annoying preteens. Or all of the above. The women are, thankfully, at least as fleshed out as the men, so it’s not a misogyny fest but that’s not a high bar. They’re all a bit pointless and under-shown. So… yeah no, not that.

I guess that’s my real problem. I don’t know what this book is supposed to be, and it feels like it doesn’t either. It meanders along trying to be deep and clever, but it achieves boring or irritating. Mainly “long”. And “economics”. It never achieves any sort of actual resolution, and just… it’s a big sort of “bleeeeerggghgh” on a lot of pages, on a load of semi-related things the author cares about, vaguely tied together with some characters or something. It doesn’t feel finished at all. Not that I think I’d like what this would be even if it were. God it was such a fucking effort to get through this, I honestly nearly gave up.

If this wins the Hugo I’ll be seriously pissed off.

Current Hugo rankings, therefore, run thus:

1) Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee
2) Provenance – Ann Leckie
3) The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
4) Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
5) New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (and it’s saying something that I think this is even shitter than Six Wakes).

 

Posted in All, Blacklist, Detective/Mystery, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

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This isn’t actually the edition I read – that was the cool black and white one – but finding a usable image for that was a bugger.

Well this was amazing.

I forget how brilliant good books can feel, when I’ve spent too long reading mediocre things. And this is more than just good. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being the best book I read this year. And some of that is that it plays into stuff I like – of course I’m going to enjoy a reworking of a Greek myth on some level – but some of it is more than that… it’s just really damn good. It makes you think. The writing is really solid. It takes a very well known Classical myth and makes it so vividly relevant to the modern world that you can forget it was a Classical myth at all. It gives you characters who feel incredibly real, and some of whom are very easy to care about. But most fundamentally? It’s a very challenging book. It left me wondering about my own motivations for liking the characters I liked, feeling what I felt, sympathising how I did. And some of that wasn’t exactly in a good way – it left me wondering how much prejudice I was having to examine about my own feelings – but even if it wasn’t fun on that level, it still felt valuable. I for all that I like enjoying books, sometimes it’s good to read something and come away re-examining yourself for unconscious biases.

The crux of the story is a retelling of the Antigone myth – if you don’t know it, essentially it is this:

Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices have died, one defending the state, one fighting against it. The one who defended them has been buried with full honour, but the other has been left to rot in the son and be eaten by the dogs, by the ruling of the new king of Thebes, Creon. This is an offence to the gods, incredibly taboo, and against the deepest mores. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother, against the advice of her more timid/pragmatic sister Ismene. Creon punishes her by locking her in a tomb to die. He has a change of heart, however, and hurries to the tomb to free her, only to find not only her corpse, but that of his son Haemon, who was engaged to Antigone. Creon’s wife also kills herself, upon discovering the death of her son.

Home Fire doesn’t always stick totally close to the original narrative, but it does reinvoke the spirit of the original, telling a story about a girl defying the laws of men, invoking higher, more fundamental forms of “right” and dying for her beliefs. It is set in modern Britain, with Aneeka (Antigone) and her family Isma (Ismene) and Parvaiz (Polynices) being muslims living in London, and Karamat Lone (Creon) a muslim-born Home Secretary, along with his son Eamon (Haemon). Aneeka’s father, a jihadi, left their home many years ago and died en route to Guantanamo Bay, leaving their family under suspicion and surveillance back in the UK. The bulk of the story takes place in a time when the Home Secretary is increasing security and scrutiny on the families of those who leave to join ISIS, and the suffering this causes. We get a chapter each from the perspectives of the main characters, and see the story on both sides, though with the ever-present undercurrent of the original myth telling us always who is “right”.

The thing that really stood out for me, and made me think most about the book, is the fact that I sympathised most with Isma. Ismene in the original myth is meek, timid and obedient, insisting her sister should submit to Creon’s will and let their brother’s body be. Antigone defies her, and we all know she’s right – she is defending the rules of the gods, not those of mortal men. Shamsie has written her Ismene to be the most pragmatic of the siblings – she seeks to keep her younger brother and sister safe in the current climate of suspicion, advises them to behave, to let things lie, to survive. She’s not meek, exactly, but she is not the one pushing to Do The Right Thing – she just wants to protect her family. And I find her incredibly sympathetic. Some of this is because a lot of her personality is something I can identify, she’s a natural rule follower, quiet and studious, sensible and organised. But I can’t help but wonder if some of it is also my context – whether I think they ought to go along, get by, because… well modern Britain. And I cannot honestly say whether or not this is affecting me (because who can). And that bugs me. Because I know Antigone/Aneeka is meant to be Right. That’s the whole point of the story. But I struggle very hard to sympathise with her because, like the original Antigone, she has no flexibility in her. No compromise, no softness. And again, I can’t honestly tell if this is me disliking her as a person, or this is me disliking her politics – am I reacting because I think she ought to be quiet and get by, not protest against the unfairness of things? I don’t know. And that’s… quite something. It’s not fun, but it feels… right to be challenged like this? Worthwhile.

I won’t go too much into how things play out in the book, because as I say, it doesn’t follow the story too closely, but I want to talk about it as a retelling of a myth… because it is exactly what I think mythic retellings ought to be.

The best example, this aside, of a retelling of a myth I have seen recently is Ody-C. Does it follow the original story closely? Nope. Does it fuck around with some of the fundamentals? Heck yeah. Does it instead take the essence of the story and make something new which still has the soul of the original? YES. And this is what Home Fire does, and what I think the best retellings do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll read things like The Wicked + the Divine, or The Gospel of Loki. I’ll enjoy them. But they’re not great literature, or even good. They’re nice, pleasant enough stories that I mainly like because “hey look, Greek mythology!”. Not… because they’re any good. The ones that leave a lasting impression are the ones that take what the story actually means and make something good of it. And that’s what this is. It has taken a story which relies on the taboo about leaving a body out to rot (which for all it’s still not something we’d really support right now, it doesn’t have the same status of “oh god no” it did then), and found a way to twist it into the modern world, to find something that plays into that same deep-seated sense of what is Right, and rooted itself right in. It feels like a story that relates the same emotional weight, in the same direction, by translating it to modern feeling, rather than hoping the reader can grasp the weight of the original – and that makes me think it would carry the same force, whether or not one knew the original myth. Which ought to be the point.

I’m immensely glad I read this, and that it won the Women’s Prize this year – it absolutely deserved it. If it goes on to be the best book I read this year, I won’t be sad. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you like or care about Greek Mythology.

Posted in All, Awesome, Else, History/Myth, Literary | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mirror the Mountain – Emma Ríos, Hwei Lim

mirror-the-mountainAnd on from Nod, I wanted to go onto something fairly quick, to get back some of the momentum I lost on it and The Book of Joan (which I’ve not finished and may well come back to shortly, we’ll see), neither of which I was super into. So a pretty graphic novel seemed very much the way to go.

And… well… it was pretty, I guess?

Mirror the Mountain is about an asteroid inhabited by humans and magic animals, but the asteroid itself is somehow conscious and involved in things. It’s a bit weird. And it is massively not helped by the fact the story is told non-linearly. I’m not against that, normally, but I think this is the worst example of it I’ve ever seen. You need to be able to get to grips with the pattern of the story at some point, if not immediately, to be able to follow what’s going on, and this… never gives you that. Each section is too short to give you a real sense of itself, and then you’re thrown into another bit of the timeline. And they helpfully give you in-universe dates for all the sections but… it’s really hard to remember whether the last chapter you read was before or after in random dating system. Even if you spot it at all (it is not the most obviously placed). So I just ended up really confused. I sort of knew what was happening by the very end, but I didn’t enjoy the process of getting there, because I spent way too much time flipping back and few pages and trying to figure out where we even were to spend the time I needed enjoying the story.

It also didn’t help that this gave me no time to enjoy any of the characters, and none of them shone out enough on their own to overcome that. I think the confusion frankly overrode all the other ways I’d normally measure a book, because I just didn’t get a chance to pay attention. Pacing? Lol what even is pacing? Because it only felt like it pulled together at the end, it felt like a huge rush of threads being resolved, where you’d not connected stuff properly beforehand so you’d not been able to get a clear sense of how events were progressing.

The only thing, then, that I get a clear shot at is the art. And it’s good – it’s pretty in a washed out sort of watercolour way – but it’s not pretty enough to carry a whole book. It’s not even in my top five of graphic novel art.

I feel like if it had been given more length, more patience, this could have been a lot better. Give each section space to let you understand when you are in the timeline, to establish itself, slow everything down and give the characters a chance to speak for themselves and shine, then maybe I could have really really enjoyed it, because the central ideas and themes felt worthwhile. I just never got a chance to appreciate them. It’s not promising enough that I’ll read a sequel, but I would not say no to reading more by the author/artist combo.

That being said, it was a quick read, confusion aside, and something I needed to keep the momentum going and drive me into my next book, so I appreciated that. There’s always something quite satisfying about being able to sit down and read the entire graphic novel in one sitting.

So a solid meh, but not one I am particularly miffed to have experienced. I gave it 3 stars, but definitely it’s a low 3, heading for the 2/3 border. It also suffers by contrast to my next book, Home Fire, which I’ve already finished and will try to blog shortly, which was AMAZING. I will be enthusing a lot about that one…

Posted in All, Fantasy, Graphic Novels & Comics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment