Wise Children – Angela Carter

41dezhu6rxl-_sx319_bo1204203200_I’m not really sure what to say about this. It’s a book that sort of defies explanation, because every time I think back on it, I wonder if I thought the wrong thing all along, and actually, there’s a totally different interpretation to events. Only I thought that the whole way through the book. Is what’s happening really happening? Or is it all a strange metaphor? Or both? I can’t tell where the story ends and the riffs on Shakespeare begin, and which fake story is the real one. It’s baffling.

But it was enjoyably baffling for all that.

Wise Children is the story of a pair of twins, illegitimate daughters of a famous actor who refuses to acknowledge them, brought up by their “grandmother”, the employer of their dead mother, and legally acknowledged by their father’s twin brother. There are a lot of twins, and false parents, mistaken identities and similar Shakespearean confusions going on. It’s the memoir of one of the twins, starting in the present, on their 75th birthday, and rambling back to the beginning and forward again, through their whole, strange, unworldly life. Because that Shakespearean twist to everything gives the whole story a feeling of unreality, like it’s all a story acted out on stage, and even as you dig under that story, there’s another, equally unreal one going on underneath. Every layer is twins and incest and adultery and smiles, so you’re not really sure if anyone in the story has considered ever stepping off the stage for a second.

But because of all that, it did leave me with an unsatisfied feeling, like I’ve missed an awful lot, and if I’d only been that bit more attentive, I’d have seen what was really going on. But then again, perhaps if I had, what I’d see would be exactly the same again.

As a reading experience, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Dora Chance is an enjoyable narrator, and opens herself easily to the view of the reader. The author gives her an easy way with describing people, a flair for caricature. And everyone here is a caricature. But there’s a realness to them all too. They feel like people all the same. And you grow to like them, even some of the ones who don’t get names, only roles – the tenor, the piano player – but whose personality shines through nonetheless.

It’s a short book, but paced relatively slowly, and so you do feel like you get a reasonable amount of bulk, for all the flimsy paperback it is, without the slowness feeling like a drag. Dora Chance is an old woman, and won’t be hurried in telling her story than you very much, and so the pacing feels like a piece of character development, rather than a fact of the book itself.

I suppose the most baffling thing is how something that feels so superficial and ultimately silly – in the way that Shakespeare is incredibly silly, when you really think about it*, sometimes even when he’s trying to be serious – can, when you put it down at the end, feel like it’s said so much more than you noticed as you read it. I want to go back and read it all again to find it all, but I know when I do (and it’s a when, not an if), I’ll probably miss plenty then too.

It sounds like I’m unsatisfied, and I suppose I am, but honestly not in a bad way. It’s the good sort of mystery. The sort that drives you to go back and pick it over and find out more, and never be fully convinced you’ve got everything. I’ll definitely be reading Wise Children again, and it has made me want to seek out more Carter, and see if she’s always this baffling and strange. I hope so.

If I had one criticism – and shocker, I do – it’s that it feels very dated. Which is hardly anyone’s fault, but it was the one thing pushing against me getting totally immersed in the story – it felt a bit too alien, and too rooted in a period I wasn’t a part of and couldn’t connect to. But that’s… just a thing that happens. Some books do manage to be timeless – The Handmaid’s Tale manages to be strangely current even now – but it’s a specific thing, and there are many books I love now that will date themselves awkwardly one day.

But over all, it was a strange, intriguing read that made me want to read again, and seek out more Angela Carter in future.

 

*I am reminded a lot of Twelfth Night, which is a bloody stupid play indeed – possibly one of my least favourite of his – and of Love’s Labours Lost, which is pretty daft.

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

61dmbtdxlbl-_sx323_bo1204203200_This was a lot less about the girls than I was expecting. Which isn’t to say it was bad, just… not the book you anticipate when you read the blurb.

In a large part, the book is still telling the story of The Iliad as Achilles’ story. Yes, we get the majority of that told by Briseis, and a lot more about her own life, her feelings and her views. But a lot of it still revolves around Achilles and his wrath. I mean… it’s The Iliad, so I suppose that’s always going to happen.

That being said, what Barker has done and done very well indeed is make a plausible Achilles’ whose anger is still absolutely present, but in whom we can see the man people love and follow. We see Patroclus through Briseis’ eyes, and we see the complexity of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, as well as both men’s relationships with the women around them. More than anything, I breathed a huge sigh of relief that Barker didn’t try to shoehorn either man into a modern definition of sexuality. Not that I have a thing about that or anything… There’s no definitive picture painted of what their sexuality really is or isn’t, or how they would consider it, mainly because it seems to fit very well into “normal” for the context they’re in. Women and men have different purposes, and both men use both for the purposes they have.

Which of course brings us to Briseis herself. For all that the story the book tells is ultimately Achilles’, it is done while giving us a very intimate character portrait of a woman who exists as possibly the most central object to the entire plot of The Iliad. But in the original, that is pretty much all she is. She’s a trophy, imbued with the pride, vanity and self-worth of two enormous egos. And she remains that here, faithful to the original, but seen through her own eyes, a person beneath all of that. She understands, and laments, her place in the story, while being a whole and complex person it is easy to like and understand. We mourn with her the death of her family, and see her struggle with how to deal with her current situation in life. We see her torn between striving to make the best of her current situation – trying to get Achilles to marry her – while weighed down by her hatred of him and knowing what he has done, but conflicted by her own knowledge that this is the way of the world, and there is little else out there for her but through him. She is brutally aware of what a fall from favour means for her, yet unable truly to give up her emotions and submit to the life she now has.

And in that, in the inner story, is the charm of the book. It isn’t a reframing of the entire Iliad, but instead a commentary on it. A new voice adding information while you watch the familiar story told well.

And it is told incredibly well, particularly in how it deals with the immortal. One of the best, most complex and most satisfyingly strange parts of the book is Achilles’ mother, Thetis, and his relationship with her. Barker skims over a lot of the explicit detail of her immortality, without trying to make her human either. The vagueness only serves to highlight the strangeness, the ethereal otherness of the goddess, and it is incredibly well done. We see and understand how Achilles responds to her too, the mixed feelings, and how this frames much of what he does outside of that relationship.

And a lot of what we are getting from this commentary is like that, and is what I expected and hoped for from the book, the view of women. The story doesn’t revolve around them as I’d expected, but they are visible nonetheless, and their stories told, if only as colour and background. But it is done with a clear awareness that that would have been their lot in that world, and the whole of the story is set with a grim reality in a context of rats and disease and hardship, with the fellowship of women all equally hard done by as not exactly a shining beacon of hope, but a life raft in the storm. They are all stuck, and they know this, and there’s a grim cynicism to much of what they say and do. But they are together, and they suffer together, and help one another through it. I suppose that’s what makes it so good for me… there’s no false hope, no fake joy. Barker clearly understands how awful things would have been for them in so many ways, and makes a story of it that acknowledges their suffering without sinking to pity. Acknowledges their lack of agency without making them simply objects. By giving them voices on their own struggles, it highlights and realises them far better than making them the centre of the story would have – shockingly, non-author’s idea of what a story should have been turns out to be less good than author’s actual story. Who’d have guessed.

By making them not the centre of the story, Barker hammers home the point and the problem, and gives space for those unspoken voices.

Even those we don’t see for long, the women who enter briefly and rarely, are given reality, personality and charm. You instantly see the people they are, and Barker has a talent for portraying them. Likewise, she gives the best Patroclus I’ve ever read – just as complex as her Achilles but in different ways – and a good and interesting cast of the men of the story. They manage not to stray into caricature too, which would seem an easy fate for someone as awful as Agamemnon in his role for this part of the story. But she makes them all real and quickly so, so her world is readily peopled. The only ones who escape this are the gods – of whom we only really see Thetis – and that too is clearly a decision. The gods are remote and unknowable, even when they visit.

I honestly don’t think I have any criticism either. Yes, the story is incredibly grim, but I feel like it needs to be to make the point it wants to make. I would say, if you worry that it’ll be too much for you, I would definitely skip it, as it doesn’t shy away from brutality and the realities of a slave-girl’s life. But I think those brutalities are ones that should be spoken, because The Iliad is a story that implies them all and never speaks them, despite their importance to all that goes on. But it’s not a happy book, and shouldn’t be read if you’re not braced for that.

A comparison to Circe is inevitable, given how close together I read them, but there really is no comparing. Barker’s characters, while vastly more powerless than Miller’s Circe, manage to speak in stronger, more enduring voices than Miller could ever manager for hers. Men may be the centre of Barker’s story, but they aren’t the point, and they fail to dominate the reader’s view or the character’s soul, while Miller’s Circe, who by rights ought to be free from male shackles altogether, cannot help but make men the centre of her world. Barker’s grim reality stands far above Miller’s saccharine apologism. Miller probably has a slight edge in terms of prose, but Barker’s is strong, and when it really matters, when she comes to describe something vital to the plot, she shines very well indeed. Especially given how well this story is told, I feel no need to read The Song of Achilles, because it cannot possibly be as good, as complex or as balanced.

A brilliant book, and one I’m incredibly glad to have read after Circe. I loved it wholeheartedly, could barely put it down, and was totally transported by it the entire way through. It really has been a good couple of years for Classics books…

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The Things What I Did Not Blog (2018 Edition)

Ok, so I felt kinda bad about skipping the entirety of my backlog, so I’ll do a quick skip through them all just to appease my soul.

Angelic Vol. 1: Heirs and Graces – Simon Spurrier – This was good! I really enjoyed it. But I read it while I was camping over summer and my memory is poor, so any blog post I wrote about it would be sort of vague and hand-wavey (even compared to me blogging about graphic novels generally). It did have a cat that phased in and out of reality though, so A++ for that. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars.

Oathbringer: The Stormlight Archive Book 3 – Brandon Sanderson – I should probably be bothered with this one. I enjoyed it. I enjoy The Stormlight Archive immensely. But again, too much time has passed. It also is the third in a series, so my ability to talk around spoilers from the previous volumes is basically nil. As is my inclination. So you’d probably just get a vague discursive essay on what’s good about the series as a whole, and eh, you don’t need that. The short version is I think it does a lot of what A Song of Ice and Fire does, but without the overkill of “Realism” that goes beyond real, so Sanderson’s world has far more plausibly powerful women for the setting its made. It’s not All Grim, All the Time, because reality generally isn’t either and history is a complex picture. Also, I’m not an enormous fan of #Gritty anyway. I like optimism, though obviously with complexity and good writing. Huzzah, Sanderson has those, and so the series continues well. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It’s True – Ryan North – Look, graphic novels are hard. I don’t have the words to talk about the art like I’d want to without worrying I sound totally up my own arse. And they come in series, so I end up saying the same thing about volume 2 onwards as I did about volume 1, plus an update on whether it’s quite as good as it started, and as above, difficulty with spoilers. It remains a cute, light, fluffy comic that makes me happy without me having to think too deeply about anything. The art is adorable. There are squirrels and sarcasm. I just like it. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars (I know this looks like a theme but I promise I’ll pick a different rating soon).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel – Reread. Original post here. My views on the book haven’t changed substantively in the intervening time. This time around it was a book club book, and got a decent amount of in-depth discussion, as not everyone was as keen as I am, but I remain pretty set on my love of the prose and its startling ability to make me enjoy a post-apocalyptic novel. Goodreads rating: still 5/5 stars.

The Wicked + the Divine Vol. 6: Imperial Phase Part II – Kieron Gillen – So I read a lot of graphic novels in a short period because I was quite stressed and they tend to be better at being light escapism. Six volumes in, either you don’t care what I think about WicDiv, or you’re reading it yourself, in which case you’re probably hooked like me. It’s never going to be the best mythological comic out there; it’s too unoriginal for that. But it’s fun, the writing quality is pretty consistent, and by now I’m just wanting to know what happens to everyone. Sure, it’ll never be Ody-C, but on the other hand, they keep publishing it, so, yeah. Great escapism, exactly what I wanted to read at the time, absolutely no surprise based on what came before. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars (look, shut up).

Monstress Vol. 3: Haven – Marjorie Liu – See, I told you I read a lot of graphic novels. This one I pre-ordered and got on release day because the series just remains absolutely amazing. And… yep still is. The art’s gorgeous, the characters are great, there’s a beautiful colour-scheme, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. Dull, but there you are. Goodreads rating: 5/5 stars.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi – More escapism, but this time without pictures. I was sold this as “basically kinda Starship Troopers” and yeah, it really is. And so it’s trash. Absolutely trash. Which was great in the moment, as I didn’t have to put any effort in whatsoever, or think really at all, but less than two months later and I’ve forgotten basically everything that happens. I can’t even tell you the protagonist’s name. Which is fine, because it did the job I wanted it for, but I’m not recommending it to anyone who wants a memorable book in any way. Forgettable, pleasant trash seems to be Scalzi’s forte. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars.

The Magician’s Guild – Trudi Canavan – This wasn’t so much escapism as blatant procrastination. I did not want to get round to reading the next book for book club (see below), so I found some nostalgia-riddled trash to read instead, in the hope that this would magically fix things. It didn’t, but I got to feel like I was thirteen again, so not all terrible. I still love these books. I still judge them for being, in many ways, awful, as is much of Canavan’s work. I still don’t care. Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars but you can tear my pretty hardback editions from my cold, dead hands.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N. K. Jemisin – Oh god why. I read this already. I hated it already (see here). But it was a book club book, and 2016 was a while ago, so I guess I had to experience the fucking god-phallus passage all over again. If anything, having read The Fifth Season et al., and knowing she can do better than this fucking shite made it seem so much worse. And it was already pretty bad. Fun discoveries in rereading – the world building is terrible and underdone; the whole thing is a masterclass in telling rather than showing… and indeed telling stuff then showing the opposite; she, and fantasy as a whole, need to be better at religions and mythologies… god it was just so simplistic and implausible, I cannot even. I could go on, but that would defeat the purpose here. Suffice it to say, this book remains irredeemable shite and I regret having to read it again. Honestly, I’d have even preferred Robin fucking Hobb. Goodreads rating: 1/5 stars, with a bonus of regretting I can’t give it 0.

The Novice – Trudi Canavan – I needed something to feel better about this whole reading thing after that shitshow. Luckily, nostalgia ahoy. Like The Magician’s Guild, it remains judge-worthy and trash, but it reminds me of my childhood so I still love it, and it’s escapist as fuck. Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars.

The High Lord – Trudi Canavan – … same as above, basically. Once I’d read 1 and 2, I pretty much had to finish the trilogy, right? Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars.

[Gap here for me reading The Silence of the Girls and Wise Children, both of which I want to blog about because they were good and interesting and made me think. Hopefully I’ll get those written soon]

Injection Vol. 3 – Warren Ellis – More graphic novels. This was a definite uptick from the previous one in the series, and involved a lot less awkward sex scenes, which, y’know, fantastic, and also a lot less Sherlock Holmes rip-off, which also pleased me. Also badass lady hacker… cool, I can get behind that. The story definitely gets moving again in this one, and keeps giving you ominous hints of what’s going on underneath. Excellent series, and I’ll definitely keep reading. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman – Another reread (and another for book club). Original post here. My feelings on it on the reread were much less positive than the first time I came to it, but I think a lot of that was that I just really wasn’t in the mood for what it was doing. Or the fact that I seem to go off Neil Gaiman books when I reread them. So I should probably never reread American Gods, then… That said, it’s still a good, well-written book achieving exactly what it set out to do, so I shouldn’t be too harsh on it. Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars.

Which leaves me with two proper posts to finish, and then I’ll be caught up. And they’re both really interesting ones I’m enthusiastic about writing – Silence of the Girls in particular was a fascinating read.

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Circe – Madeline Miller

9781408890080Ok, sod it. I’m not getting through my blogging backlog. Now you’re just getting the ones I’m interested in writing (so no rereads, no graphic novels, probably).

I like Bright Air Black a lot. This is going to be quite relevant to this post, because to some extent, the books are aiming for the same thing – they both take a woman from Classical mythology, a witch, someone notably powerful and female, and seek to tell her story as something real. Bright Air Black takes Medea, while Circe goes for her aunt instead. I’m saying this now before I get very far into it – Bright Air Black does it better, and for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost because it makes no apologies for who Medea is. She does terrible, awful things, and at no point does the book shy away from them or make excuses, it doesn’t shrink her to acceptability. Instead, it makes her comprehensible, someone whose motivations we can follow, even if we’d never choose the same path ourselves. We can look at the end point she reaches and go “I see why she did what she did”. It takes nothing away from her mythological crimes – they are all acknowledged and included, in every gorey, visceral detail – but makes her human to us. Circe, however, fails for me because it is trying too hard to make us like her. And so it apologises, it makes her smaller, more fragile… it detracts from what she is in myth in order to excuse her. And it makes her seem weak. She fawns for male attention at every turn, lessening herself to make space for them, then being hurt by them – it is a litany of the pains of women, and for all that Miller says in her words that Circe grows indifferent to them, that she learns her lessons and moves on, becomes powerful and distant… that’s not what she shows us. She simply shows us Circe turning from each hurt to a fresh one, full of new mistakes. There’s none of the unapologetic, frightening power of a witch – the whole thing about powerful maidens particularly being a terror to the Ancient male mind – instead it’s a story of a sad, lonely woman who has been made to sound brilliant, but is very little of the sort, and undermines herself without development or learning. It’s a story that says “powerful women are doomed by their power, and the solution to happiness is not to be powerful at all”. This is not exactly the moral I’m looking for in my rewrites of Classical myths, thank you very much.

And a lot of that is simply because I love the idea of the maiden who frightens men. Or the woman in control of her own sexuality and fearsomeness, and using both to be who she is at 100% and never pausing to apologise. I would love a book that took this demon of Classical literature and turned her into a protagonist. Someone powerful and terrifying simply by being an unapologetic woman. So a lot of my dislike is borne out of disappointment. It wasn’t the story I’d expect or want about Circe. In the same way any story that took Camilla and made her meek would be a failure for me, or Medea.

If there’s one thing I can say for Miller, it’s that she does write beautiful prose. There’s a sad and moving poetry to it, especially her descriptions of the natural world, and the way the seasons change, or the landscape around Circe. She always has the exact turn of phrase to bring to mind the way something moves just so, the way a lioness sleeps and a wolf howls, and the shape of each plant picked for magic. I can absolutely see what there is to attract people to her about that. The pages flowed away quickly with it too, it wasn’t the sort of prose that needs slow contemplation or going over. It was a very easy, very relaxing read, in terms of prose and pacing, which was nice, at least.

But for all that, it still wasn’t worth it, especially when she was using that lovely prose to say one thing and show us entirely another. She has an idea of the story she wants to tell us, but the story itself seems to be running away in another direction. It’s an odd feeling to read that, because it means every page feels at odds with itself.

Obviously as I’ve thought through all this, I’ve wondered if this has all been intended, whether this was entirely the point. To make it just a sad story of a woman struggling with power she doesn’t really want, but honestly, it doesn’t add up. At turns, Circe loves her power, she revels in it, then at the same time shrinks herself away from it. The book is also full of people telling her how small she is, how stupid, how slow, how weak and… somehow it never really gets round to disproving them, or telling them it doesn’t matter. It’s really frustrating because the Circe of myth is powerful, is better and stronger and greater. And yet here she’s… not.

I also cannot find it in myself to support the way Miller has suborned the original myth. Like Medea, Circe is a woman apart from the world, made different by her immortality and her witchcraft. The Classical world was of course a misogynistic one, and so to be a powerful woman like them, something had to be wrong. It couldn’t simply be accepted as truth. And yet, instead of simply making it true, accepting that Circe did not conform to Classical womanhood and making that a strength rather than a failing… nah, gotta cut off some corners and fit her into the misogyny box. Woo…

Which brings me to my next, distressing point… with one solitary exception, every other woman in the entire book is vapid, self-obsessed, vain and generally a nasty caricature of a misogynist ideal of womanhood. Many of them are nymphs, but I don’t think this constitutes an excuse. There’s nothing to them but their looks and fawning over men, even Pasiphae. The only one who isn’t like this is Penelope, but even she spends her part of the book in the orbit of men, be it her husband or her son. I’m not sure she and Circe have conversation about things beside men entirely at any point. By contrast, many of the male characters are well fleshed out and varied. Yes, some are tyrants, but some are complex. Telemachus and Telegonos, the sons of Odysseus, as well as Odysseus himself, are to my mind given the most to work with of characters in the book, even including Circe herself, which is just a little perverse. But even the fairly shallow villains have more depth than the background women. Circe’s mother’s only concern is her jewellery and her self-aggrandisement, and she focuses on these with the simplest of emotions. She’s easily bored, dismissive and that’s… kind of it. The rest of the nymphs are the same. It’s boring and it’s insulting. I know Miller is trying to make Circe better than those around her, but could she done it any way other than “ololol most women are vapid and dull”? Is Circe the Classical version of “not like other girls”? I wish it were not so.

Fundamentally, I found this book frustrating. I think it would be so no matter what, as the misogyny, poor characterisations and confused storytelling would shine through regardless, but it’s doubly evident having read Bright Air Black. Because this could have been brilliant, had Miller not been bogged down by stereotypes, and so determined to make Circe nice and likeable, she took away all about her that was good and strong and admirable. Women don’t need to be nice to be worthwhile.

This also fits in with what I’ve been told about The Song of Achilles, so I suspect there is no chance of me reading that now (not that I was likely to anyway) – apparently it’s determined to make dudes fancying dudes require misogyny, which, bleh, as well as mapping a modern view of sexuality onto the ancient world (don’t get me started). Given what she’s managed to do with a book from a woman’s perspective, I dread to think what a man’s gives her licence for.

I gave Circe 2/5 on Goodreads, though I was torn between 2 and 3. Had I 10 to play with, it would have got a 5 for solid “meh”, but it got a 2 because it’s definitely on the lower side – I asked boyfriend for help rating, and he suggested that to get a 3, the book needs something I can say “but it’s good at x”, and while the prose is nice, it’s not special. I’m never going to sell it to someone as “sure the story’s a bit crap but you’ll really enjoy the prose” because it’s not that great. Other people write good prose that manages to tell a decent story. So, 2 it is. Alas.

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Moonstruck Volume One: Magic to Brew -Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle

image-image-comics-moonstruckI’ve decided to skip blogging anything that’s a reread, because I am abominably behind. None of them are ones where I’ve changed my views, so it doesn’t really seem worth the effort. If you want to know what I think of Ancillary JusticeStation Eleven or The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, click the links and I don’t think you’ll be much misled. (Tl;dr versions: AMAZING; pretty damn good; trashy, valueless waste of infuriating and emo-filled paper). Also I really want to get to the point where I can post my blog for Circe because I have Opinions. But before that, other books.

A friend lent me the first issue of Moonstruck a good long while ago, and when I was in the mood for something low-stress and escapist, I remembered how cute it was and decided to see if the first trade was available. Success, it was. Now, it’s never going to be what I consider the absolute bestest bit of literature in the wide universe, but as a wholesome piece of soothing literature? It was absolutely right to suit what I wanted in the moment. It does exactly what it looks like it will, and does it well, and I’m pretty happy with that. I may pre-order volume 2, just because it’ll be another bit of perfect soothing reading next time I need it.

First and foremost, what I love about it is the aesthetic. Look at that front cover, and that protagonist (woman on the right). I love how she’s drawn as both totally cute, and also unapologetically fat… and wearing dungarees and a massive cardigan. 100% on board with this aesthetic*. But it’s a lovely thing to see and pretty darn rare. Even in comics that are great at everything else… everyone is skinny. Squirrel Girl manages to be not the usual shape, but even she is just a bit curvy (and some of that is the tail hidden in the back of the trousers). It’s so refreshing and reassuring to have something with a protagonist that I can look at and see my own body reflected in the ways I rarely do. And it manages a wonderful variety too – the characters are all definitely cartoonily drawn, but there are shapes which evoke all types of real world bodies, skin tones and hair types, and that’s so striking.

The art is also deliberately quite cutesy, which I very much enjoyed at the time of reading. As I say, it knows what it’s aiming for and just commits to it. The colour palette is soft and pastel, the lines and curves are gentle, and it’s all meant to be happy and comforting to read. Yes, there’s peril (but it’s mainly mild), but it’s the sort of peril you get in Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher. It’s somehow cosy, even if there’s a murder. And it sticks very hard to its aesthetic, which is much appreciated. No nasty surprises later on.

In terms of plot? It’s nothing to hugely write home about. Think Scooby-Doo style shenanigans, and you’ve got the right measure of adventure/mystery, but add in a bit more humanity to the characters, and personal growth.

Which is where the other joy is. The characters feel instantly plausible and distinct, and remain that way while growing in plausible ways. The problems being solved and inherently human ones, and are solved by people talking to each other and working things out. Basically combine Scooby-Doo and Sabrina the Teenage Witch with Captain Awkward’s lighter, fluffier questions and you’ve got what I mean. But if you like the characters, that’s going to be the main lure of the comic (which I did). And if you don’t? Not so much. You need to want to cheer them on on their mildly perilous shenanigans, because otherwise there’s no real buy-in. It’s not really a mystery what’s going to happen (and that’s obvious from the outset). But I found the characters very easy to like and cheer on (the vampire is adorable, the barista/prophetess wonderful and the protagonist immediately endearing, albeit someone I want to jolly on quite a lot), and so managed to get myself solidly invested and unable to put it down until I’d confirmed that yes, things were going to turn out alright. That really isn’t a spoiler if you have any sense of narrative whatsoever.

It’s not tropey per se – it’s doing interesting things with existing tropes in a lot of ways – but nor is it shocking or stunningly avant garde. It is what it is, and honestly, if you like the look of the cover? That’s probably telling you all you need to know about whether you’ll like the contents. If you’re having a horrible week, though, I would heartily endorse reading this with a mug of hot chocolate/comfort-beverage of your choice under a nice blanket. It will very likely make you feel a whole lot better.

 

*I type this wearing a tartan-patterned dungaree dress over a much-too-big fairisle jumper. I am nothing if not a sucker for this kind of thing.

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Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlMore space opera, this time with 50% more hyperactive squee. Maybe 60%.

I mean, I’m just really bouncy every time I read one of these books. They’re not just good, they’re fun and exciting. They make you enthusiastic (or they should, unless you’re dead inside). And some of that is of course that they’re just different. Oh look, the space future isn’t America? Sign me the heck up. But it’s not just that. Lee can really write, and so the story is fantastic, dragging you in, surprising you and satisfying you – it manages the right balance between ticking all the boxes without being predictable, but equally not sacrificing sense for the sake of a shock. Everything that happens feels like it was a reasonable thing to happen.

Basically, they’re just really really good and it is frankly criminal Yoon Ha Lee hasn’t won a Hugo or a Nebula despite multiple nominations. #NotBitter

It’s also a testament to good writing that there isn’t any real dip in quality throughout the trilogy. There isn’t “sad middle child” syndrome for book two. There’s no “oh, is that it” when you get to the end. They stay excellent all the way through and that is an absolute gift.

But the thing I keep coming back to when I talk about this series is the prose. Because well, good ideas are everywhere. And “baffling non-American space future” is a great idea, but in a sea of plenty others… well, what’s new. But having a good idea and then being able to actually write? Yes please. As I griped about in my blog on Six Wakes, this is a real problem in SFF, and so it’s brilliant when someone defies it. And there are moments of Yoon Ha Lee’s prose that just make me so so happy. He has a particular knack for coming up with names for tech and other future-concepts that are totally opaque and yet work beautifully (like “mothdrives” and “threshold winnowers” and “carrion glass” and “chrysalis gun” and “invariant ice”). They all… make no sense. I have no idea what a threshold winnower does. The name doesn’t give me much in the way of clues. But my god its evocative. It sounds grim, foreshadowing. And I love that I don’t need to understand it to get that. And that’s basically the whole approach to tech.

Because… sometimes we don’t need the glossary. If it intuitively hangs together, I don’t need to be able to cross-reference everything after to double check the logic. As long as it feels right… roll with it. It’s just so much more satisfying.

But it’s more than just a way with names… it’s the whole way he creates a world that feels particular and unique, and people who occupy and speak as themselves… even when they’re a centuries old spirit inhabiting a young mathematician-soldier’s brain… they feel like people. The places feel like real places, picking out the tiny details that matter and glossing over what doesn’t. Everything feels properly, intuitively right and it makes it so comfortable to read. I rushed through the whole thing because I was in love with it.

None of this is new, compared to the other books in the trilogy. Which isn’t a shock to me. It remains good. So the only thing I really have to say about this book in particular is that it totally succeeds in rounding off all the plot threads that needed tying off, and giving you a satisfying (if not always expected) conclusion. That’s the best you can really hope for in a final book in a series, right? Especially when it’s been a while since I read the second book, but at no point did I feel lost, or like I’d forgotten something that mattered. They’re memorable plots and it doesn’t make you feel like you need to have made a table of events to keep track. It’s all just so… effortless.

I hope this gets nominated for a Hugo in its turn, though given that the previous two didn’t win, I doubt it will either. It’s a shame, because it’s a brilliant series that deserved recognition. I’ll definitely be seeking out any further novels/series I see from Yoon Ha Lee, and I believe he has a collection of short stories I should already be looking into. Like Leckie, he’s one of the authors I’ve found and just gone “yes” to. Whatever else he writes, I have a lot of faith there’ll be something in it for me, because he’s just… good at everything.

Though maybe the next thing won’t have moths in*. That’d be nice.

Next up, another quick one, an Ancillary Justice reread for book club. Shockingly, I still adore it. Who’d have thought it.

 

*If I can love it in spite of the presence of moths, it must be good, right?

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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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