The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Nebula Award Rankings:

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

Unread: Borderline – Mishell Baker

Current Hugo Award Rankings:

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

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

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

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Everfair – Nisi Shawl

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Rising – Pierce Brown

51cvayd2aml-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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

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

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

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

However, unsurprisingly, I have more to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Rising – Ian Tregillis

51rrwwieqcl-_sx335_bo1204203200_I have to admit, right at the start… I don’t think this is a very good book. I wasn’t hugely positive about the first in the series, and sadly, this one suffers from middle-book-of-trilogy problems, as well as not really being much different from its predecessor, The Mechanical.

This won’t be a long post, as all my niggles are the same, just a little bit more so.

The book is still something of a mishmash, without the coherent thread I feel it would need to pull everything together. I don’t really feel for the characters, and the underlying issues of steampunk are still there for me. The setting still isn’t as clear and interesting as I’d like, and especially the science of Clakkers is still magic with hand-waving explanation.

Add to this, however, that the lines between goodies and baddies are far more starkly drawn, so there isn’t much in the way of grey. Likewise, the political shenanigans are less subtle and less well-handled, so it overall feels like a much clunkier book.

And, well, the characters just aren’t there? I don’t care about any of them, because they don’t feel like people. So much telling, not showing, going on. I don’t dislike them, because they’re not people enough to dislike.

And I guess that’s my problem overall with this series… I just can’t get into it enough to want anything to happen. I’m not invested in anything. It’s not actively awful, in the way my next blog post’s book is (which is mainly why this one is so short – I had way more angry ranting to do in that one so didn’t have the brainspace for more nuanced views), but it’s not good either. It’s just… there. Sitting there, not doing anything of interest, note or consequence, and so I just don’t care. It’s mostly a triumph of aesthetic over content… which is one of my problems with steampunk as an entire genre, so I shouldn’t be wholly surprised. It’s a book I can see a lot of – it’s very descriptive, and there’s definitely a coherent thread to the visuals. It just doesn’t carry through to the content in as meaningful a way as I’d really like.

I should maybe just give up on steampunk at this point…

Anyway.

Shocker, I won’t be reading the sequel. But that’s more due to apathy than dislike.

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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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