Dawnspell – Katharine Kerr

9780586207413And we’re back to the sweary Celts. I’m just enjoying how thoroughly readable this series is (and not just because it’s helping me claw my way back to being on target with my reading goal*). It’s so restful, especially after reading a load of Nebula nominees I wasn’t super interested in.

That said, it’s not going to be a long post, because I’m not really going to say much about the book that I haven’t said about the previous two. She continues to be solid and consistent in what she’s chucking out, and I’m thoroughly here for her characters and the setting, and I really just want to carry on going to see if it all turns out alright in the end. Possibly not all the way to the end of the series (there are… how many quartets again?) but definitely to the end of this group of four, if not the next one too. Which says I’m at least invested in them as people.

However, one big difference for this book, and a massive trigger warning for rape.

I did not like the use of magical rape as a plot point. At. All. It also very much looks like we won’t get all the explanation of exactly why that plot point was a thing until the next book or later, so it feels very much “well, that happened”. It was especially grim because the whole thing was done using some sort of magic that made the character “want it” in the moment, which was just… gross. That being said, after she gets out, the people she speaks to absolutely treat it as violent and coercive, and there’s been no attempts at excusing it except by the rapist (whom everyone is treating as the shitbag he is). So it could definitely have been handled worse… I just don’t like having to wait to see all of the point. Because some of the point we get is that it makes her partner doubt her (he’s elsewhere and just gets told she’s run off with this other guy). And that’s not a particularly enjoyable set of two threads to watch.

Much like the gay paedophile evil magicians in the previous book, it’s casting a pall over the rest of the story.

But I’m still willing to plough on because I do ultimately care what happens to the protagonists, and I have faith that there will be a point to it in the end. And I was at least sort of expecting it, given how much this series is leaning towards grim semi-realism of medieval Celtic culture. But it got a lot of page time and I just… I wanted better for Jill. Which is why I’ll keep on reading, more than anything. I want her to get a good ending.

 

*It’s not. I’m now six books behind schedule. Coincidentally, I’ve not read any graphic novels this year. I wonder if there might be some connection here… maybe I should see about buying the next WicDiv…

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A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

81v45yuwqulHoly shit. I mean really, holy shit this one was good. I was sold it as “like Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks” and when people say that kind of thing to you? You just go “sure, sure” and mentally downgrade it a bit. Saying something is the next equivalent of the Culture novels is like saying something’s the next Harry Potter or the next Tolkien. It’s never actually accurate. But this one… I think it actually might be. It’s seriously bloody good.

But the two comparisons are also valid because it really does have something of the spirit of both in it. Martine has a lot of Banks’ of gentle humour running throughout, never outright funny, but definitely gently laughing at itself, knowing it’s being silly and clever and human and smiling gently at all of that because, well, humans are a bit funny aren’t they? It’s got that grounded realness to it, in the way people interact, that makes him such a brilliant author for me. And then for Leckie, she’s really committed to her space empire being what it is, and written a true world and culture for it, in the way that Leckie managed to make the Radch so alien, so complete and so plausible.

I’m going to keep saying it, but my god it’s bloody good. Not just because it has a lot in common with two authors I really like though. It also has some really wonderful stuff that’s wholly unique.

And then… and then… it’s somewhat Byzantine-inspired. And yes, absolutely a pause here for you all to roll your eyes at how thoroughly predictable a human I am, but I don’t care. I don’t love it purely because of that. The Byzantine-history-and-culture stuff is just the icing on the cake, a happy bonus. And frankly, if it’s me saying that… how fucking awesome must the rest of it be, right?

To calm down just a little bit, the story follows the new ambassador from a small mining community/station to the encroaching space empire that borders onto their space. Her job is twofold – do whatever she can to try to keep her station’s autonomy in the face of the threat of political and cultural domination, and investigate what happened to the previous ambassador, who seems to have disappeared entirely. She’ll be far from home, out of speedy communication range, and adrift speaking a second language in a deeply self-absorbed culture where poetry and elegant speech are a mark of civility, and where she’ll be considered barely a person at all. But more crucially, she’ll suddenly be surrounded by a culture she’s been fascinated by her entire life, and have to resist the temptation to try to fit in, to please, and instead work for the interests of her own people.

There’s a huge amount to say about how great it is – the story is wonderful, the pacing just perfect, the characters instantly real and sympathetic, the world-building ingenious, the politics actually plausible (for once)… but the part I’m going to latch onto is a bit more about personal experience and feeling incredibly, uncomfortably seen.

The protagonist, Mahit, has been obsessed by the culture of Teixcalaan her entire life. She’s learned the language, read the histories, studied the etiquette and politics, absorbed the poetry, even written some of her own. On a purely cultural level, she’s absolutely in love with it… but at the same time, it’s a culture with a long winding history of imperial aggression and cultural domination, with no regard for those it considers outsiders and uncivilised. The book uses this dichotomy to speak a lot about imperialism and colonialism, and it does so wonderfully, brutally and vividly. But the comparison is also one that hits home for a classicist, and the portrayal of that character, of someone seeing both the beauty and the brutality, felt very vivid and immediate for my own feelings about studying the ancient world. The problem of loving the art, the writing, the poetry and the stories, the people you can feel behind those stories reaching down across the years to you, and yet still immediately knowable and human… while at the same time studying the truth of the history, the slavery and the expansionism, the wars, all the awful things tied to every great power in history. And because the Byzantines were very much Martine’s map for the Teixcalaani culture she created, a lot of what was beautiful about it is still relevant for a Classicist.

It didn’t really change my views, or make me doubt why I like the things I like. It’s not that sort of book. But seeing the emotional portrayal of Mahit’s struggle with the two feelings, and sympathising with her so deeply… I felt very seen and understood by the book, and it made me love it all the more. Obviously one can’t read too much into what an author is like as a person from what they write in fiction, but it was very easy to imagine a feeling of connection to the author as well as the character, an understanding of something both loved and criticised simultaneously.

And I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that did this for me before.

Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t resonate for a non-Classicist/Byzantinist. The ideas about imperialism are far more universal than just the world it draws its inspiration from, and ones articulated without any sort of gentleness or care for bruised feelings. Martine makes absolutely plain the human and cultural cost of that kind of domination, and it’s a theme that anyone with awareness about the world and its history can easily connect to. It’s a theme that makes plain what SF can be for, too. We write new worlds not just to escape to, but to write large the problems of now, the solutions of tomorrow, to imagine worlds where something hard to see is made obvious, or inverted or expanded or taken to its end conclusion. We imagine the world we have now, but different, and use it as a lesson or a wish or a warning; it’s a book impossible to read without connecting it to bigger things than a simple story. And that’s part of what SF is for – to make those connections, to make us see more, think more, wonder more and maybe, just maybe, understand something better than we did before.

It got a perfect score on Goodreads from me, and I fervently hope I can get other people to read it too, because it really is a masterclass on what SF should be doing. My only criticism of it is that it now means I’m conflicted about who should be winning the big SFF prizes next year… if Leckie had only published The Raven Tower in 2018, my life would have been much simpler.

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Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik

810uwsoxqhlFinal Nebula nominee, and with time to spare. Go me.

But I’m going to cut to the conclusion on this one a little bit – honestly, it also just wasn’t great. Not terrible, not objectionable, not hate-worthy or awful. Just… not that good.

Which frankly seems to be the theme this year.

It’s particularly bad given Novik only won it a couple of years ago with something so knockout brilliant as Uprooted, I was hoping she’d be able to do the same again. But maybe that optimism was misplaced. I remember being quite so surprised at the time that Uprooted was so good, in contrast to the bland but enjoyable escapist nonsense of the Temeraire books. Maybe I should have remembered that feeling, rather than now defaulting to Novik being some sort of folktale muse. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been so disappointed *gentle sobbing*.

But for serious, it’s impossible not to judge this against the standards of Uprooted. And it just does not compare on any level. And that’s really hard, obviously. I should be trying to judge a book just on its own merits but… well… she can do better. And did. Like, two years previously. So *shrug* I guess?

Spinning Silver is set in fantasy… Russia? I think?*, deeply rooted in the cycle of winter and summer and the fear of what the cold and snows will bring. It follows a daughter of a moneylender who is known to be too kind for his own good, and her decision to go out and do better, so her family’s life can improve… which brings her to the attention of some less than gentle mythical forces.

But it also follows the daughter of a nobleman trying to court the tsar’s attention, and perhaps marry his daughter off strategically to someone important, if he can, but in the meantime, keep her shut up and out of sight of the people around and about, because she is generally considered to be less than beautiful.

We get perspectives from both of them in chapters, and also from some of the people in their lives.

And as far as their stories go, it’s actually a really interesting book. Miryem the moneylender’s daughter is a brilliant character, the right combination of strength and struggle – much as in Uprooted in fact – and very rooted in and defined by her Jewishness, which she uses as a strength and a stabiliser throughout the troubles of the book. Her relationship with her grandfather is wonderful particularly, his trust and respect for her and her ability to make decisions that will affect all of their people in the city, without ever patronising her, is brilliant. There is a core of two brilliant tales about women striving against hardship and misfortune at the heart of the book, and it’s amazing and compelling and well told.

The problem is that it’s also surrounded by a lot of guff.

As I said, we get chapters from several surrounding characters in both stories. And they are, for me, universally dull. They’re told very true to the voices of the characters, people who would not normally have a voice in this sort of story – a poor farmer’s son and daughter, the servant of the rich man’s daughter, the evil prince – but the commitment to those authentic voices is there undoing. Particularly the farmer’s son exemplifies this – his narrative is repetitively structured stream of consciousness focus on the humdrum, and it interjects at crucial moments in the plot to… completely undermine any tension there was going on previously. Likewise the servant is so totally focussed on primarily embroidery that you get pulled right away from any actual narrative drive you might have been enjoying. By making them dedicated to their spheres of interest, Novik has deprived them of much of a stake in the story. They’re there as background noise, but she’s turned them up too loud and they’re getting in the way.

The structure also suffers a little – it feels at the beginning like it’s telling a different story entirely, and you get somewhat into that one before realising the whole narrative is actually going somewhere else entirely. The pacing wanders off towards the end too, leaving you a bit caught out by where the story has ended up, and given how slow and focussed the start was, it seems a waste that so much action at the conclusion is rushed over. There was definitely space to give it that bit more attention it could have needed.

It’s a frustrating thing over all. There’s a good book inside it, but it’s buried under so many unnecessary things, that it feels an effort to really get to the good stuff – two brilliant women whose stories are entwined, pushing through and saving their own worlds with their cleverness and sensible, practical natures, and what happens when their two priorities clash and overlap. It’s still sort of worth it – I love Miryem dearly, and Irina to an extent – but the cost of getting there bumps the overall experience down to, you guessed it, meh.

Which sums up the whole year of Nebula reading really.

My final list runs:

  1. Spinning Silver– Naomi Novik
  2. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  3. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller
  5. The Poppy War – R. F. Kuang
  6. Witchmark – C. L. Polk

The first two are fairly close for me. I think Trail of Lightning is fundamentally more interesting as a concept, but I’m much more invested in the characters in Spinning Silver, and that is enough for me to push it just that bit ahead. Witchmark is a very clear bottom position, and the one I’m most willing to just say “it’s crap” about (because it really, really is). The rest are more variations on the theme of “meh”, with a lot of divergence within. They all have some things to recommend about them, but they all fail to live up to their promise in some regard, mainly in storycrafting, prose and generally being a good novel, and seem to be coasting through on ideas, in honoured SFF style.

Which is really sad, because there’s definitely better out there. And better written in 2018 too. If nothing else, I can immediately say that The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle easily outclasses the entire list without even a pause. Turton is just a better writer. And that’s what the list is missing – they’re all full of brilliant SFF ideas, concepts that make me go “ooh”, but none of the books live up to them in person. Whereas Seven Deaths actually commits well to character work, plotting, pacing and prose. Yes, it has errors and missteps, yes it’s not perfect. But it’s a lot better than this shower.

In terms of predictions, I’m going to guess at The Calculating Stars taking the win. Normally I’d also give my preferred winner and the line above which I’m happy with them winning but honestly? I don’t think any of them deserve it. There’s not an All the Birds in the Sky, an Annihilation or an Ancillary Justice among them, to name a few previous winners. I’d merely be resigned if either of my top two won, I think, and only slightly eye-rolly if The Calculating Stars did, so that’s where we’ll leave it.

Yay.

There will be a brief intermission of me reading good (A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine – and when I say “good” I mean “holy shit this stuff is gold”) and fun (Dawnspell – Katharine Kerr) before I have to get on with the two remaining Hugo nominees. I’m not going to lie, I suspect they’re on theme with the Nebulas too.

Current rankings based on what I’ve already read:

  1. Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee (well, at least this one actually deserves it… shame it won’t win)
  2. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  3. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  4. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

That leaves Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, which I’ve been sold as “Eurovision in space” – not a premise I’m honestly encouraged by, much though I love Eurovision… it just sounds like it’s going to be naff, and more concerned with a cute idea than being a good story. And then there’s Record of a Spaceborn Few – which just makes me feel tired. I don’t want to read anymore Becky Chambers. Her writing is emphatically not for me. Fingers crossed I’m wrong about them.

*Google says a fantasy setting loosely inspired by Lithuania and Russia. I’d forgotten it was called “Lithvas”

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The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

36238876Penultimate Nebula! So close! The finish line nears!

And it’s another meh one… great.

This one was frustrating – I loved the idea behind it, and was really glad to read a novel about it… I just was completely underwhelmed in practice. Some of that was just down to the writing not being up to the task, but some of it was also in things that annoyed me personally. I found the protagonist continually grating, for instance. But my over all feeling is somewhat summed up by the boyfriend’s take on the whole thing – he felt like he’d have enjoyed himself more and got more out of it by just watching Hidden Figures instead – and I have to concur*. There’s something about the total lack of tension to it that makes me think an actual history would be so much more rewarding, because at least then, yes, I know what happens in the end, but I’m getting some satisfaction and knowledge and secondhand vindication out of it.

And that is I think my biggest downer on the book (well, maybe second biggest, I’ll come to that in a sec) – there is precisely zero tension anywhere. Which is weird, because some of the events seem like they ought to be tense as heck. Is she going to get to go into space? Is she going to pass this exam? But… and yes, this comes back to the writing being not up to scratch, it’s patently obvious at every stage that this is going to be the sort of book where of course the protagonist always just does succeed. Which isn’t to say her success isn’t hard-won, of course it is, but it’s also painfully inevitable. Some people like that, I guess? But it doesn’t feel like good story-telling to me. It just made me feel like I wanted it to get on with it already. If I know what’s going to happen, can it just happen now please rather than making me read through all of this to get to it?

Which is somewhat of a testament to the prose quality. It’s… well, it’s very SFF at the moment. It’s a nice, simple, direct story that goes from A to B, told in clear words that tell you what’s going on and not much more. And that’s DULL. There’s a half-hearted effort to get in some additional world-building through excerpts at the start of chapters. But they’re so boring, I honestly started skipping them by about half way through the book. And none of them felt real or authentic? If you’re going to do that style of world-building, you need to have the writing skill to actually carry off the different styles, or you’re just going to look silly. And, well, I think you can tell where I sit on this one.

And then… and then. There’s the sex scenes.

So I guess minor spoilers, but not really. The protagonist and her husband have sex a LOT. And every. single. time. It’s full of rocket jokes. Him being prepped for launch and so on. And oh my god it is the cringeist fucking thing, I cannot even begin to tell you. And every time you think it’s going to be the last one, and then there’s another, exactly the same as the last. I don’t know why. I mean, I get that the idea was to have the protagonist having a good, healthy relationship with her husband. But after the first couple of goes, we got that. And also because they, y’know, interacted ever when not having sex. But they keep on at it, with the same painful, terrible jokes. And every time it started, I winced and pulled a face (so I’m told), and had a moment of despair. I suspect I knocked a star off my Goodreads rating just for this. It really is that bad.

And then on top of all that, there’s a tone of weird nostalgia for the time period… despite the fact that there’s a lot of sexism and racism covered quite emphatically in the book. I mean, given the whole story is about women wanting to be astronauts in the face of sexism. Kowal describes it as “punchcard punk” in her note at the back of the book, and that does sort of capture it – it has the same sort of joyous love of the aesthetic that steampunk and cyberpunk do, but it’s an aesthetic I just can’t see the appeal of, and one where, like steampunk, it’s inherently bound up in a time period that was notably shitty for a lot of people. Yes, in this, it acknowledges all that shit… but I still find it jarring and disconcerting to be so in love with a setting when the horrible parts are so obvious. I just find the adoration of the aesthetic unsettling.

Which makes it sound like I totally hated it. And I didn’t. It was a solid meh. But almost all of what sustained it was the idea. There was little about the actual writing, pacing, characterisation or prose that was any good. It was just… yay a story about diversity and success in the face of bigotry. Because yes, it does absolutely pay attention to intersectional issues, especially racism and anti-semitism at the time, and that’s really good and worthwhile, and I’m super glad it exists.

I just… I wanted it to be a good novel too.

Which leaves our rankings for the Nebula as:

  1. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  2. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller
  4. The Poppy War – R. F. Kuang
  5. Witchmark – C. L. Polk

Let’s see if at least Spinning Silver can be a decent novel, I guess? At this point, I’m frankly not holding out a huge amount of hope anymore.

 

*Yes it is an absolute travesty that I’ve not seen it already, I know, I know. But I don’t actually watch that many films.

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Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller

Blackfish CityAnd back to the Nebulas, so I can actually finish (and blog) before the winner is announced. This year, I definitely will! I’m reading the last one as we speak (ssh, yes I am a blogpost behind).

Aaaaand I was underwhelmed by this one too. I am officially declaring “meh” to be the theme of this year’s Nebula nominees, because it’s another one I’ve only given 3 stars to. And like, even though I didn’t like Witchmark, it wasn’t the invigorating levels of all-encompassing hatred some of last year’s bullshit got. I just… didn’t care. I was really hoping Blackfish City might buck the trend by being interesting (even if it was bad) but in the end… it wasn’t really? And once again, I just didn’t care. Not about the plot, not about the characters, not about any of it. And it’s not like this is a fundamental flaw of me, because I did just care very much indeed about The Priory of the Orange Tree, so I’m not somehow numbed against all joy. They’re just shite.

And it’s not even that I can say “oh well, maybe 2018 was a bum year”. Because it wasn’t. Where is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in all this, for instance? That was actually bloody good! And it did something new, interesting and worth paying attention to. And then there’s Revenant Gun, which at least did make it into the Hugo lineup. That whole series is phenomenal, but it’s not here. No idea what they’re playing at.

To come back to the book at hand, I’ll admit that some of my lack of interest may just be that I don’t seem to like cli-fi. Maybe I’ve had rubbish examples. Maybe there’s something good out there and I’m missing it. But if this and New York 2140 are anything to go by? It’s depressing, didactic, pseudo-cyberpunk boredom all the way through. I don’t want to be lectured about economics, or have to follow along with plucky but swear-filled kids living in the high-tech dystopian future, putting one over on the adults by just being that much better at tech. I don’t like plucky teenagers. This is why I read grown up books instead of YA crap. It’s not that I don’t care about climate change; I’m not an idiot. But both of these books have been thoroughly meh for me.

More than anything in this one, I don’t like or care about any of the viewpoint characters. The one I’m most interested in is secondary, and she doesn’t get a lot of actual development. She’s just an interesting concept, a nice bit of the setting, rather than a realised person. Our character roster is pain-addicted fighter, dull political aide, ennui-suffused posh boy and obnoxious teen. The political aide… at least I give a minor crap about her motives? But it’s only minor.

And without that buy-in, I can’t really say I invested much in the plot, because so much of it rests on wanting the characters to succeed – it’s very personal to them. And the antagonists again rely on your sympathy with the viewpoint roles, because that antagonism is so emotional and personal. So they don’t… really work either.

There’s also a major issue that I feel the plot resolution is handled way too quickly, and frankly haphazardly. Everything suddenly builds to a crescendo, and you get a blur of things happening without a huge amount of foundation being laid for why they’d happen just so. It’s not twists – it’s just pulling solutions out of the ether in the rush of the moment.

The setting is ok? But I’m not particularly into dystopia, and it’s very much on brand for that. It’s a libertarian nightmare future of unregulated landlords, green fires in the sky, and unbranded drugs galore on the streets. No one says the word “corporation” every other sentence (thank goodness) but there’s a lot of the feel of cyberpunk about it while being a slightly different flavour. It’s not that I just want happy, fluffy futures (or maybe I’d have got on with Becky Chambers more). But I don’t particularly see the glamour in the grim that a lot of these tend to be going for. And there are a fair number of slightly purple passages of characters waxing lyrical on their simultaneous love for the city and desire to burn down the entire broken edifice. They get… very into it in a way that feels somewhat alien to how a lot of people actually think, unless everyone’s doing it and not telling me about it? But it was bordering on the cringe several times, and it just happened way, way too often. It wasn’t quite your full superhero-brooding-on-a-high-building-monologue about “this city” and how they love it so they need to root out all its corruption, but that’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

I’m starting to sound like I really hated it. I honestly didn’t. It was fairly easy reading, and as a setting goes, there were definitely some interesting threads that I could see cool stories being told about. They just weren’t the stories we got, and I was bored and dissatisfied by the ones that were actually told instead.

If you like cli-fi and cyberpunk? Maybe this is something for you. But it’s really, really not for me.

Current Nebula rankings thus run:

  1. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  2. Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller
  3. The Poppy War – R. F. Kuang
  4. Witchmark – C. L. Polk

I’m frankly starting to worry that the remaining ones will only slot into the 1 and 2 slots by default. It’s been a depressing year that way. The Calculating Stars is next up.

 

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Unquiet Women – Max Adams

6181wbmjzwl._sx326_bo1204203200_I’ve actually been reading this for a while, but it’s a very pretty hardback I’ve not wanted to ruin by carrying around in my bag, so it’s been something I’ve been dipping in and out of at home, rather than taking with me as my go-to reading. It helps that it’s a series of short sections about various different people, rather than one coherent narrative. It was very easy to dip in and out of.

As a departure from usual service, it’s a non-fiction book, detailing little parts of the lives of various historical women from the end of the Roman Empire to the start of the Enlightenment. Some of them are women I’ve heard of before, like Héloïse, who are well-attested in the written historical record. Some are women whom we only know from their burial and grave goods, and about whom we can only speculate based on that evidence. Some of the brief sections are incredibly brief indeed, and some are sizeable and come with pictures. What unites them all is they were women who defy the layperson’s assumptions about the narrowness of the roles of women in history, whether by pushing against those truly oppressive roles, or simply by existing, and proving by that existence that life in the past was more complicated than we might think. They all left their mark, one way or another.

There’s a definite northern European skew, and the author admits the selection criteria are simply “the ones he found interesting” which, given he seems to write a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, means we got a decent chunk of Anglo-Saxon women in there. Which I’m fine with, as they’re not a bit of history I know a huge amount about, and I was primarily reading it to learn. If you read it, don’t go in expecting a comprehensive survey of known historical women in the period. It’s absolutely a biased selection, and he talks about that very early in his introduction. And yes, “his”, it is written by a guy. Which I had a bit of mild trepidation about, but the content is handled well enough that I don’t mind it, now I’ve finished it all. Though it would be nice to see what selection of women a female author might pick instead.

He is very good at spinning a narrative out of the history though, and one that seems fairly honest to the facts we have, going off the women I did know about (like Gentileschi). There’s definitely some amount of theorising and reading into the evidence, but it’s clearly marked as such when it comes up, so it never feels like he’s letting a good story run away with him and get in the way of telling us what there was to truly know. But I wanted this to be something readable and enjoyable, and by making each one a genuine narrative, it becomes so much easier to get through, and then by linking them thematically, it binds the whole thing together much better so you can keep reading. He does also often loop back to link one section with another that’s gone before, which is nice, and shows you the pattern of how he thinks and themes things, which mainly appeals to my nosiness.

In terms of the selection of women, I was particularly interested in those I’d not previously encountered. The all-too-brief parts about indigenous women in the Americas were lovely, and I could have done with more focus resting there than on another Anglo-Saxon saint, but each one was told so well, I can’t be too mad. And the man writes books about Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. We know he has a bias there.

I’ve come out of reading it feeling full of new facts, and keen to research some of the women I learnt about, as well as keen to read something else of his, to see if I can enjoy that narrative when stretched out through a whole book, rather than strung together little excerpts. I often find I read non-fiction very slowly, and I’m not sure if it’s Adams’ writing style or the format that made this a much pacier read for me. I’m keen to find out.

In terms of recommending it? It’s not for someone with a lot of knowledge about women in medieval Europe, if I’m honest. To a layperson, or someone with above average knowledge but not to academic level? It’s interesting, well done, and a great springboard for further investigation. I super want to read about Æthelflæd now, for instance. But I think had it been Roman women? The narrativising might have been too much for me. Not that I think it’s departing from facts, but just glossing over debates and taking a particular line without much in the way of discussion about the uncertainties. There’s some, but not enough for anyone who actually knows about what he’s talking about.

It’s fun though, and it’s pretty, and it’s a series of histories that make you want to keep reading, which is lovely.

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Darkspell – Katharine Kerr

9780246132550-uk-300… why yes I did read the sequel only a couple of books later, why do you ask?

I just… really wanted to read some more fantasy trash, ok? I may or may not have been avoiding some of the Nebula nominees, but that’s by the by. Daggerspell was lovely and fun and relaxing, and I wanted more of that, not least because I’d read it quickly and drag myself back towards on track with my reading goal.

And yeah, that did work.

This isn’t going to be a long post, as to be honest, most of what I said about the first book in the series still holds true. It’s absolutely still all of the fun, trash, joyous and silly nonsense I much enjoyed the first time around. But it is slightly less good in one specific way that I feel is worth talking about, because it’s really quite not good.

So in the first book, there are a lot of romantic relationships. But every single one of them is heterosexual. There are men who are really really good friends, but there is no gay here. Reading the first one, I wrote that off as it being written in the past and a lot of my experience of older fantasy novels does suggest that everyone is going to be straight.

Aaaand then in this one, there are some gay dudes. But it’s… really not ok.

They’re the evil paedophile wizards. Yeah. I don’t even really have to say much more about it, because it’s a shitty trope that exists in other places enough that you know what I’m talking about here. It’s a horrible, horrible shorthand and betrays a lot of things the author is connecting which really should not be connected. It’s just… bad.

Did I still enjoy the rest of the book? Yes, for the most part, it’s still the same joyous fantasy trash. I’m probably going to keep reading them, even, because this wasn’t a big section of the book, and I’m hoping it’s not going to repeat itself. But it absolutely left a sour taste in my mouth, and made me really wish she’s made some better decisions about representation further down the line, hopefully because she realised what a colossally nasty pile of assumptions this says she’s making. I don’t think it’s going to happen, and I’ll settle for this just never coming up again. It’s not… ruined the series for me or anything. It’s just made me a touch warier than I was before.

We’ll see.

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