Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

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Not how I imagined the fortress looking, but points for visual drama.

So last year, I read the Hugo novel nominees, and it was a really really satisfying little project. I’m thoroughly enjoying trying to keep up with good, modern fiction, and so I was determined to do it again. But I figured, why not add another as well? I settled on the Nebulas, because I think they form a nice contrast to the Hugos – equally broad scope, rather than focussing on specifically fantasy or SF, but not a public vote, so might throw up some things that were critically acclaimed but not necessarily popular. I don’t want too much of an overlap. As it happens, of the five nominees in the novel category, I’ve already read (and enjoyed) one, All the Birds in the Sky, so it’s a pretty puny project of four books, but never mind. My intention is to read two between now and mid-April, and another two between then and mid-May, when the winner will be announced, on a schedule of: Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee, Everfair – Nisi Shawl, The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin, Borderline – Mishell Baker. I’m saving for last the one I think I’ll enjoy most, because I’ll need something to look forward to if I have to plough through The Obelisk Gate*, sequel to The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo last year.

I chose to read Ninefox Gambit first, simply because I had no idea whether or not I was going to get on with it. I was hopeful, sure, but I hadn’t a clue. It wasn’t clear if it was going to be space opera, hard SF, both or something else entirely, and I generally have a pretty mixed response to hard SF, to say the least. As it turns out though, I loved it.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of a woman in a vast and sprawling space empire ruled by the Hexarchate – six factional leaders, atop six socio-political factions, into which the populace can test to follow the career paths open to that faction alone. Cheris, our protagonist, is one of the Kel – the soldier faction. She’s an infantry captain with a natural bent for mathematics – which would normally have her end up in the Nirai, the science and tech faction, but for her determination to fit in and belong. The story follows what happens to her when people high up notice her unusual combination of skills and want to make use of her in a much wider sphere of influence than just leading a platoon.

It’s a solid story, one I absolutely enjoyed all the way through, and nothing  happened quite how I expected it to, but it’s somehow not actually what I’m here for. Lee does something that I nearly always enjoy (cf a lot of my discussion of Miéville, for instance) and that is to dispense with exposition pretty much entirely, and leave the reader to figure out what’s going on for themselves. And sure, that happens a lot. But when I say I like it, I mean I like it when the author dials it right up to maximum, and you spend the entire book having no idea how the fundamental principles of some of the setting work. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. It’s wonderful. Lee’s world, in a lot of ways, still makes absolutely zero sense to me but I  just don’t care. It was beautiful despite it… or possibly because of it. He doesn’t get bogged down in details, telling you how everything works, instead trusting you to make the leap of faith and roll with it, adapt to your ignorance, and just keep going with the story anyway. Sometimes, you get understanding later, though mostly you don’t. But it doesn’t matter. The story is still the story, and entirely comprehensible, and somehow the world is more wonderful for that mystery. It’s a great knack if you’ve got it, and Lee really has.

So there is a heck of a lot to praise in his world-building, but I’m going to make that praise with one caveat. There are a lot of superficial parallels I could draw between Ninefox Gambit and the Ancillary series. A lot. Things like how the characters wear gloves, and removing them is strictly taboo, for instance. I’m not going to list them all, and I’m not going to say there’s a direct link between them. Lee particularly, but Leckie to an extent, are trying to create a world with a certain feel to it, and all the things they both do play into that atmosphere, so I’m totally willing to believe that maybe the decorative similarities come from coincidental aims for a similar tone. But then there’s the sub-thread about machine sentience… it could be coincidental too… but at this point, I am forced to conclude that an author this good (and Lee is good) ought to be aware of what his contemporaries are doing. So either it’s a coincidence he’s chosen to go with anyway, or an influence he’s happy to be visible. Which is fine – all art has its influences and it’d be wrong to deny that – but it’s something that was definitely in the back of my mind a lot while reading. It makes me think I might have considered this an evening more fantastic book if I’d never read the Ancillary books to compare it to.

On the other hand, Lee does a lot of interesting stuff with his setting that is uniquely his, so it’s not too hard to force yourself to move on.

I think my abiding impressions here are firstly Lee’s use of language – he has a real way with making a nonsensical yet beautiful turn of phrase, especially to describe viscerally horrifying sights, like bodies mangled by weapons. The way he captures little moments in entirely unexpected words… it’s completely captivating. The second, sort of linked to that, is his utterly incomprehensible, yet entirely terrifying, technology. You have things like carrion glass, threshold winnowers and the chrysalis gun that I frankly don’t really know what they do. All of them are pretty plot-crucial, but because his way of talking about them is so poetic… I can’t really put in any sort of real terms what the results of them are. And yet I’m still pretty horrified by them. Because for all that I don’t understand them, I can see and hear and feel what he’s telling me about them, the crunch of the carrion glass, the way it’s webbed up the walls of the ship, without really knowing what it’s done to the things it was aimed at. It’s again that sense of mystery and incomprehensibility pulling me in, and when wedded with beautiful writing, it’s absolutely compelling.

This is space opera done well and written wonderfully. The characters are accessible and real, even when their lives are so alien and distant, because Lee conveys emotions so plausibly. The pacing is varied, but in a way that suits the plot, and has clearly been deeply considered. But above all, the setting is a marvel and the writing a joy, and I couldn’t put it down.

I’m struggling to see how any of the other Nebula nominees could be this good, but if they are, I won’t be complaining.

 

*Yeah yeah, I shouldn’t pre-judge, but it’s a sequel to a book I really don’t enjoy, with another book by the same author being one I really disliked… forgive me some amount of pessimism here.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman

41rubuzrhzlWarning: some discussions of rape.

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. It got nominated for book club a couple of times, and never quite won the vote, but several people there read it and had really good things to say, so it was definitely worth getting to… even if I was a bit slow about it. And the premise did seem intriguing.

The idea of the book is that all women come into a power when they’re about 15 years old – they can produce electric shocks, sometimes to the strength of being able to kill people. They can awaken this power in older women. The novel is about how the world changes to accommodate this, starting around now with the “Day of the Girls”, when the world becomes aware of all this, and the following few years. It’s told as a hypothetical history by someone five thousand years in the future, and we have the letters between him and a fellow author discussing it as a framing device for the bulk of the novel (and I’ll have more to say about that bit later), though it doesn’t really impact much on the story-telling. It’s very much presented as a  radical interpretation of the history, though, at odds with what is canonical in that distant future.

Now, the “what if women could do something that made them more physically powerful than men, how would that change things?” notion isn’t unique, and there’s nothing wrong (and quite a lot right with it) as an idea. It’s SFF doing what it does best and challenging realities as well as providing alternatives. However. It’s a notion I think needs handling with some degree of subtlety and care. If you’re going to start making sweeping statements about gender (and I think that’s… if not inevitable then definitely a possible outcome of doing a book like this), you need to know what you’re doing and make sure you don’t stray too far into cliché. And then if you’re going to have a clear opinion of your own running through it, you need that subtlety more than ever, in order not to come across as bludgeoning the reader round the face with your views.

Spoilers, I don’t think this is a subtle book. But worse, I think at some points, the author thinks she’s being both subtler and cleverer than she’s actually achieving… which is a bit less forgivable. If she’d been clearly going for “fuck it, who needs subtlety”, then I could stand back and go “well, I don’t think this is the best way of doing things, but you’ve committed and achieved, so fair play”. And a lot of the time, she is. So, indeed, fair play. But there are times – and I think this is especially true when she’s handling religion – where she’s clearly trying to do things cleverly and not really quite getting there. And it really undermines the aims of the book as a whole, I feel.

If I’m honest, nearly all of my criticism of this book is “it is the least subtle thing ever”. If that doesn’t bother you, then you will most likely enjoy the heck out of it, and I advise you skip a lot of what I’m about to say. Maybe jump to the conclusion for the tl;dr. Otherwise, ranty time ahoy.

Though a caveat – I am going to criticise this book a lot, but I really didn’t hate it. I think I have so much to say because it feels like it was so close to being a rather good book, but misses out on it for a couple of fixable things. I didn’t love it, that is for sure, but I would probably read more Alderman if I came across it. I feel like she has more to give, and that another book, another theme, might present her to me more favourably. And I enjoyed myself at points reading it, particularly when we moved onto Roxy’s story, which I think has a lot more substance and emotional accessibility than the other stories. She’s the character I feel like I like, and who feels real to me, in a way that Allie, Margot or Tunde doesn’t really. But anyway, this is not a book I hate – I gave it 3/5 on Goodreads, and there are bits that were a 4… they were just undermined by some overarching things which are probably a 2…

So. The subtlety thing. This comes out in two major outlets – the gender stuff and the religion stuff. I’m going to gloss over the latter, mainly because I’m not really the right person to discuss it, but I’ll just say that it sat incredibly awkwardly with me the whole way through, and it felt like someone trying to do too much too quickly. She tries to have Allie create a sort of unifying super-cult, overarching all religion and it just… no. When you cast it alongside the political realism, it just doesn’t fit. And then there’s the gender stuff. I think the best place I can really critique this is in the framing letters at the beginning and end of the book (I told you I’d come back to them). It’s not really spoilers, but I’m going to discuss the end one too, so if you mind, avert your eyes presently.

Actually, I guess it is spoilers, but it’s spoilers that are pretty much solidly hinted in the opening letters, so I’m just going to run with it.

In the five thousand years in the future part of the book, we are presented with a world where women are the societally empowered gender. The first letter writer is a man, writing deferentially to a woman, also an author, wanting her help, advice and input about his book, soon due to be published. His language is meek, mild and apologetic, undermining his own abilities and praising her. Hers is dominant, often overtly sexual, and incredibly patronising. You can see what she’s doing here, yes? But she’s gone waaaay over the top with it. If you switched the genders and told me this was a real world exchange from now, I’d assume that the man was a raaaaaging misogynist, probably over 60, and completely unprofessional and inappropriate. There are parts when the female author digresses into how the descriptions of male soldiers play into many people’s sexual fantasies (including hers) in not at all oblique language. It’s just… that bit too much. It’s not that any part of it is unrealistic, were the genders swapped. It’s just that she’s dropped in way too much, so it comes off awkward and forced. The reader feels bludgeoned by it, and patronised too. It’s like Alderman doesn’t feel like we can get what she’s doing unless she spells it out piece by agonising piece. She’s got to have her female author call the male darling, suggest he write under a female name, talk about “those feisty men”*. She has the male author talk about how nonsensical it would have been for their ancestors to practise female genital mutilation, and tell the woman she’s “one of the better ones”. It’s… a lot of very realistic examples of inverted sexism, bundled together into such a big pile that it becomes a caricature. And this is emblematic of her approach throughout the book. Everything is just that bit too much.

Leaving that aside, the timeline of the book is drastically implausible**, and the author clearly has a much more cynical view than I do of how people will react when given access to power. This isn’t a criticism, but it does explain why I maybe didn’t enjoy it as much as others. I guess I’m too optimistic about how people would behave. I don’t… I guess I don’t want to assume that women, given the ability, would devolve into roving rape gangs.

I also have mixed feelings about the little voice that speaks to Allie and guides her into her role as a prophet of a world religion.

And then there’s the writing. It’s… the words that spring to mind are “competent” and “workmanlike”. If she left it as it is, this would have been fine, and I’d have let it pass without comment, because it would have stood in the background and let the story dominate instead. But Alderman feels the need to try to devolve into being poetic or pseudo-scriptural at times and… ow. It scrapes nails down the chalkboard of my soul because it just doesn’t succeed.

And lastly on the critical front… ultimately “all the girls have lightning powers” is a faintly ridiculous notion. If I had to give advice, I’d tell someone writing that to own it. Accept it’s ridiculous and run with it, commit to the ridiculousness. Alderman… hasn’t. She’s tried to pin it down with science and it just defies it, because you can’t get out of your mind how… they’re shooting lightning at each other. And it’s a valiant effort she makes, it really really is. Just a doomed one, I feel.

However, at the heart of it, Alderman is telling a good and interesting story, and one that isn’t entirely predictable. For all that she sign-posts where the ultimate ending of her tale is, you’re not really sure how you’re going to get there until you do. And a lot of what you see along the way is well worth the telling. And – and this is really a bigger thing that deserves more focus than only raising here, I guess – I have a lot of respect for her to be willing to step up and deal with the gender stuff as openly and unsubtly as she has. No, I don’t enjoy that unsubtlety. But I can respect the willingness to do it, because it is a brave thing, and a necessary one. One of the things SFF does well is to show us uncomfortable truths in metaphors, and she’s doing just this with something we all know to be very real. She doesn’t shy away from it, or try to distance herself from the darker aspects – her gaze roves around through all the multicultural problems of misogyny. And that’s a thing worthy of praise. A lot of praise. Likewise, she acknowledges more than once that gender is more complex than man and woman, and though she doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d like on that front, it was really pleasing to see her not only acknowledge it, but pay it more than lip service and try to add it to the slowly building science of her world.

So ultimately, this is a book I respect, by an author for whom I now have a lot of admiration… but a book I cannot claim to like fully, or discuss uncritically. There are a lot of problems here, some of which undermine what the book is trying to do. But what the book is trying to do is incredibly worthwhile… and that alone is enough to commend it a fair way.

*Included out of main body, because to be honest I found this bit a bit… blergh… but it is very much I think a strong example of what I’m on about. Direct quotation from framing letter at the end of the book: “Or gangs of men locking up women for sex… some of us have had fantasies like that! (Can I confess, shall I confess, that while thinking about this I… no, no, I can’t confess it.) It’s not just me though, my dear. A whole battalion of men in army fatigues or police uniforms really does make most people think of some kind of sexual fetish, I’m afraid!”

**I mean, come on, it’d take more than a couple of years to overturn the entirety of Catholic tradition and elect a female anti-pope.

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Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler

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It doesn’t really matter, but I also think the cover is really rather pretty.

So we made an enormous thread of SFF discussion on FB last night… which mainly led to me seeing a huge pile more books I need to read (like my list wasn’t long enough). However, one of them was free on Kindle (but in the good way, not the self-published way), and not very long… so I gave in. Good shout.

Skipping right over the story for a second though, what I most enjoyed about this was the author’s note at the end, where she explains what she was doing with the story, and how a lot of people seem to think she’s doing something different. Now, I’m not the hugest fan of death of the author, I think it’s fair to say, and so to have a little testament to what the author was actually trying to do… I find that really interesting. For her, this was a story in which she exorcised some of her disgust about the notion of botflies, and what they do to humans (which I can completely sympathise with, because the thought absolutely horrifies me too). And when I finished reading her note, I almost wanted to go back and reread the whole thing, which would have been doable since it’s not particularly long, and see how her intentions pushed through into the story. I may yet do so, but I thought it was more valuable to write down what I thought of it first… mostly lest I never get round to it. But also because I did see a lot of what she talks about in that note in the story, so I don’t really need to re-engage with it to talk about it.

Anyway, on to the actual content. I really, really enjoyed this. It does a lot of things I tend to enjoy anyway, and then does them well. As with most short stories that are any good, it does a great job of dropping you into the middle of something and building up the exposition sort of…. passively? Because there’s no space to do it more overtly, the author has to be cleverer about how they create their world for you, and so it comes through in subtle points and off hand comments, rather than long, descriptive passages. And I always enjoy that. And Butler has done it well. You know immediately that you’re in an SF story, off-world and among aliens, and you very quickly know the political realities of the setting, simply from normal-seeming internal monologue of the narrator. Because the writing isn’t directly about setting the scene, and to some extent the exposition, the context, isn’t important. The story is here for just this tiny vignette in Gan’s life, a pivotal moment, not for all the things around it. Because it’s a story about a choice, and about love and ownership and power dynamics… and these are such universal themes that we don’t need the context. Butler has given enough to root the choice Gan makes in reality, and to give us a realistic sense of his horror and his emotional state, so we can understand the fullness of that choice… but nothing extraneous, nothing that distracts from the emotionality of that choice. But because we focus on their emotions around this one event, her characters are, in such a short space, incredibly believable. She’s whittled them down to the key things we need, without robbing them of a real sense of humanity.

And I really liked that. It works beautifully as a short story, and says a lot for her as a writer (of whom I’d somehow never heard before, no idea why) that means I’ll definitely be seeking her out in future. I can definitely see why it won a Nebula.

 

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This Census Taker – China Miéville

51RF3XUXlBL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_It’s like China Miéville got distilled into one tiny, 140 page, concentrated form. It’s a stunningly beautiful little piece of writing – you really feel the trees and the damp and the cold and the fear – and at the same time utterly bewildering and completely alien. It’s not really like anything else.

What strikes me most, I think, is all the things I definitely saw Miéville doing along the way – the slips between tenses and pronouns, are we in first person now, or second or third, or all of them in one sentence – but somehow didn’t think about them. They were there, and real and made an impact on the story, it’s not like they slipped past me, but somehow they weren’t something I needed to think about right in the moment of reading, because the sense and feel of the story were too important to get distracted by the details that made it what it was. Perception in the story shifts wildly – between different versions of the narrator, from the narrator to the reader (or rather the Reader) – and in anyone else’s writing it would probably be confusing and distracting, but here all it does is contribute to that sense of atmosphere, to a baffling world as seen through the eyes of a small child. He’s done a wonderful job of situating an alien adult world into the mind of a child, so that not only do we grasp that the world is alien and magic, but also can still grasp how the child is misunderstanding the normal as a child does, grasping for the familiar, even when those two are tangled up together.

The other thing he does here, and which I think is very much a distillation of his other work, is he takes the coldness, the emptiness his characters often have, and he turns it up to 11. He clearly knows it’s there and he’s doing it, and has decided to own it and make it part of what the story is. And it is. The coldness of everyone very much contributes to the feeling of the world he’s managed to clearly build in just 140 pages. Where I’ve complained about this in other works of his, here, I think it’s perfect. It wouldn’t have been the same story without it.

The story… I don’t think I can give you a blurb that does it justice. It’s about a child, and what they have seen, and them trying to pass that experience on to the world, at different times and in different ways, to different people, some of whom are himself. I don’t know that we’re meant to trust the events of the book – the narrator manages to cast himself as unrealiable quite quickly, in some senses – but the events are not what the book is about. It’s about feeling, about atmosphere, and about different ways of seeing.

And in that way, it has a very dreamlike quality. Not in that it’s fuzzy and ill-defined, since it defines itself quite precisely in some ways (if not in others). But in that, while you’re reading it makes… if not perfect sense, then some sort of intuitive, fundamental rightness. While you’re in the dream, the dream is real, no matter how outlandish it is. And so here, while you’re reading, the vacillations of person and perception make total sense, they come as naturally as they would if you were reading one coherent and authoritative narrative voice. You slip between times without a hitch, and know you are still with the same narrator, and that they are older, barely needing to be told. You get very few names, of people or places. Very little to cling onto rationally. Miéville skips right past your brain, leaving you with just the sense of definiteness that you know what’s going on, even when you really don’t, and won’t. And it’s only when you put the book down that you realise how odd it was.

There are very few authors who can do this sort of thing, and Miéville has pulled it off beautifully. It’s the sort of book to give you shivers. Boyfriend*, who lent it to me, described it as “atmospheric”, and I think he’s absolutely right. Not that the story doesn’t matter, of course. But the story serves that atmosphere, and it’s that atmosphere, that feeling, that I’m finding myself caring about. And when I look back on this book in five months, it’s that atmosphere that I’ll remember. And I’m very much ok with that, because it was absolutely beautiful.

*Previously referred to as flatmate, because it’s no fun if I don’t get to be inconsistent and confusing.

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Midnight Never Come – Marie Brennan

I read this for the first time a rather long time ago, probably 2008 or 2009, shortly after it came out, and I remember that I loved it. Years later, I read A Natural History of Dragons, and it took me far, far longer than it should have to put together that they were written by the same woman. In my defence, this is in no small part because they’re really rather different things. And, unfortunately, only one of them has my current adoration.

Unlike a lot of things I’ve soured on as I’ve got older, I do still like Midnight Never Come, but I definitely don’t feel the passion for it I recall having the first time around. My first instinct as to why is “well, the romance is really just quite… prominent”. But that’s always been a thing that has bothered me, so I can’t imagine past me would let it slide where current me would not. If I’m truly honest, I think all it is is that past me was a lot less discerning and pernickety about the quality of writing in her books, and as I get older, I just get more and more grumpy and… I’m going to go with “discerning”, but others may find other adjectives more appropriate.

That all being said, I did still enjoy it, and I believe I gave  it four stars on Goodreads. For all that it isn’t her best work, Marie Brennan is a fantastic author, and that’s still true and visible. Where it mainly comes to the fore is in how she is capable of handling two sets of court politics in a relatively non-hefty book, without either of them ending up feeling shallow or underthought. The book is set in Elizabethan London, following a minor gentleman in Elizabeth’s court, trying to gain advancement by spying for Walsingham, and a lady in the equivalent faery* court lying beneath London’s surface, trying to work her way back into favour after performing less than ideally on a previous assignment for her queen. The book does an excellent job with both of providing believable intrigue, and with creating a balance where it feels like the two courts do mirror one another. Brennan doesn’t go over the top in creating elaborate schemes, but she does clearly put the thought in to create a political landscape that is conceivably convoluted. It couldn’t all be too easy, or it wouldn’t be realistic either. Likewise, the people involved (the human ones) are plausibly intelligent and plausibly Elizabethan, especially when it comes to what they will and won’t believe. Brennan hasn’t just transposed a modern mindset onto Michael Deven, her protagonist, and the things he is willing to accept are far more appropriate for the time he comes from.

What she also does very well is invoke existing fairy mythos, and create something new and interesting with it. It has the nice balance of familiar and inventive, and works well within the rules we know about fairies – the hatred of iron and religious symbols/language – to create something meaningful to the plot.

That being said, going back to my earlier comment… the romance really is rather prominent. Some of it is obvious right from the start of the book, and thus sort of dismissable because you know what you’re getting. But, slight spoilers, the resolution of the book does rather hinge on some romantic stuff, and I think it’s a little forced, and quite cheesy. It goes a little against the otherwise quite grounded tone (as far as it can be grounded when set in the fantastical). Between this and the slightly less artful writing than I know her to be capable of later, it does make it a less than perfect book. But it’s not bad, either.

I didn’t know at the time I first read it that this was (or was going to be) part of a trilogy. I’m keen to read the sequels now, and see how they compare, especially as I’m led to believe they’re set some time later, chronologically. I hope her grasp of later history is as good as it is here, though, because her real talent very much is in creating a realistic setting, not so much in her geography or language, but in the feel of the book. And it’s really satisfying.

Given that I’ve read a fair bit of fairy-related stuff, this is a familiar genre for me, and I think I’d happily say this sits pretty high up in it. It nudges a bit toward the YA end in its portrayal of relationships, but is otherwise really successful in world building and using the existing mythos in an intuitively satisfying but inventive way. Maybe not the absolute best, but a very good example. And it has survived my changing opinions far better than a lot of other books, so some kudos there too. All in all, a nice (if easy) read, and a happy little feeling of nostalgia.

*This is their choice of spelling, and you know what, I’m not going to nitpick. Elizabethan spelling is weird anyway, so I’m just choosing to roll with it. That being said, I have a lot of thoughts about why various authors choose their different spellings of this, and most of them aren’t particularly complimentary. But that’s probably a rant for another time.

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The Ten (Food) Commandments – Jay Rayner

For bonus points, I actually won this book from Goodreads, having had Flatmate tell me repeatedly that I ought to read and he’d lend me his Kindle if he had to so I would. Nice when the world works out so neatly. It’s an incredibly short read, only 138 pages, so I got through it in an evening, but it was also incredibly worthwhile, and one I’d strongly recommend other people read… but only if you’ve had something to eat first.

Ok, so maybe a slight caveat, I’d recommend you read it if you’re ok with the sort of humorous writing where the author is treating himself as the biggest authority on absolutely everything, and any view that disagrees with him is wrong and possibly a sign of moral inadequacy. It’s incredibly self-aware (and he calls himself a fair few rude names along the way) but I get that that sort of overblown arrogance as a persona is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s very much mine, and I think this is a really really good example of it. But it’s not for everyone, so do consider yourself warned if you are not a fan of someone taking it upon themselves to take something not that serious (himself) incredibly seriously indeed, for comic effect.

Unsurprisingly, given the name, the book lays down ten food-based commandments on crucial issues like dining companions, whether or not to eat the fat and the deliciousness of the pig, with recipes included. The recipes look like actual, cookable food that I want to put in my face… while also being totally unhealthy (ok, those two facts might be linked), but I haven’t tried yet, so I don’t know. As it happens, I’m in a position of rough agreement on nearly everything he says, so it’s a pleasant meander through having my opinions emphatically validated, but I suspect it would have been just as fun had I absolutely disagreed with him on everything. And his are the sort of die-hard opinions where you can’t really “meh” at them. They force you into equivalent polarity. I can imagine finding myself defending things with a passion I don’t actually have, just because he’d dared to criticise them… and that’s really really fun.

Basically, I think the crux of this book is: having strong opinions is fun.

Rayner writes well, managing a conversational style that is very distinctive without being too informal for the format. He punctures his own rhythm with a healthy quantity of parentheses, and they serve as pleasant asides that feel like a change in tone of voice would in conversation. The humour suits his voice, and is delivered with a self-assurance that it will be amusing… and he’s not wrong. I laughed out loud quite a few times while reading.

It may not be for everyone, but it was a book that hit all the right notes for my sense of humour and love of a good rant, and I will freely admit this is the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. And even if you don’t like it, 138 pages is basically nothing.

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Debts of Dishonour – Jill Paton Walsh

This is the third book in the series, and I think it’s probably my least favourite so far… but since I’m really enjoying the series, this means it only got four stars on Goodreads, rather than five. It’s harsh criticism, I know.

There are two main differences, I think, between this and the first two of the series. The first one is one I think is a genuine… not problem, because it’s not that bad, but a genuine downturn in quality from what came before. The second is just that the author managed to find something that I dislike and push the button, so make of my criticism there what you will.

I’ll deal with that one first, since it’s just a personal niggle.

It may previously have been noted that I am not… the most romantic of sorts. And this generally means I don’t much like to see romance in my fiction. Sometimes, this isn’t true – sometimes I read a romance and go “yes, this I get, please do continue”, though the only one I can currently think of that I liked was between Agnieszka and the Dragon in Uprooted. There are probably more, but I have a cold and I can’t be bothered to think very hard to come up with them. But they’re not common. Mostly, I feel like the romance has been crowbarred into the novel, in order to tick a box that some editor somewhere thinks needs ticking, in order that the book appeal to a wider demographic or something. And sometimes, I think this really is true (*cough* Sorceror to the Crown *cough*). But I know the threshold at which I’ll go “crowbarred in” is vastly lower than most people’s, because, if I’m honest, I find romance boring. It’s just overdone. Can we have a nice friendship instead? Or a not that nice one, where they bicker and insult each other constantly and claim to hate each other but are totally actually friends*. One of the reasons I love Good Omens is that one of the central relationships is a really interesting friendship, one where it’s not as simple as just liking one another and sharing interests – they’re people who purport to hate one another and have totally opposing aims and worldviews, but through long time and circumstance are really genuinely friends. And that’s what I want in my books.

Dragging myself back to the point, this relates to Debts of Dishonour, because while I was reading, the major theme I was taking away was “everyone has a romance other than Imogen, including Imogen’s exes, and Imogen is sad”. And it’s not a subtle theme. And on its own, I could maybe live with this as a theme, because hey, sure, sometimes people are single and sad about it… but almost all of the relationships are super-contrived. And seemingly designed just to make Imogen sad. Thus far in my life, my experience has been that people don’t get married to someone they only barely know, or throw themselves at them wanting to get married because they met that one time then pined over them for months without talking. This does not seem to me to be healthy behaviour to be encouraged… and in the rest of their portrayals of life and people, these books have been pretty realistic. Which is why I think this was all meant in service to character development of Imogen, on the theme of “Imogen is sad because she has no man”. All the relationships are skimmed over – which sort of makes sense because it’s not a hefty book – but the author has managed to make her other, non-romantic relationships satisfying and realistic in scant space, so there must be something going wrong. It just leaves me feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

The other thing that bothered me, and which I think is a more realistic bother, is that the plot… is a bit too convoluted. The first two, I felt very much like I could have got to the solution on my own (and I did, mostly, in the first book), because all the pieces had been laid out for me, if I only could put them together. This one felt more like we dragged about, exploring Imogen’s social life while drama sort of happened in the background, and then suddenly rushed to a conclusion without spending the time to give the reader a chance to get there themselves. We spend a long time dithering over various of the protagonists being very busy over this and that, and Imogen’s worries about them, and not very long actually getting clues or exploring the mystery, for a good while. Maybe there were more clues hidden in the first half, but if they were there, they were incredibly well hidden and I didn’t notice them.

On the other hand, this may be the cold talking, making me a bit less smart and quick on the uptake than usual.

The writing is still good, and I still really enjoy reading Imogen as a person, as well as Walsh’s picture of Cambridge (which is pleasingly real and very nostalgic). And it is still, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent book. It’s just not as great as the first two. For my part, I would like to see Imogen more going back to her many friendships than mooning over daft men (the man she moons over in this is also incredibly daft and Imogen is far too good for him, which doesn’t help). It was a comforting book to read while ill, and a series I shall continue to be invested in when I get to the last (woe!) book, probably quite soon. I’m no good at savouring series… I’m just going to rush and devour it.

On reflection (mainly prompted by someone reading the book who hadn’t gone to Cambridge talking to me about it), a lot of what I enjoy about these is the nostalgia they prompt, and they probably would be much less my thing without it… but there’s still a lot to recommend them, and I think the world is sufficiently deficient in good female detectives, that I’m going to keep unashamedly plugging them. I would also watch the heck out of a tv series of this, because it would be fantastic.

Hopefully next up will be something not brought to you by sinus-pain-induced daftness on my part… but it might well be, since I have the flat to myself this weekend and can thus get lots of reading done. We shall see.

 

*This absolutely does not relate to any real world events, relationships or people and you can’t prove otherwise.

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