Bright Air Black – David Vann

29214418This one was another birthday present, and one where I read the blurb and just went “yessssss”. Because I am predictable, and giving me reinterpretations of Classical myths to read is never going to go wrong.

And then it comes with an author’s note explaining why he’s setting it firmly in the Bronze Age, “following the archaeological evidence and never straying from realism”. Yes, yes and more yes.

We join Medea on the stern of the Argo, disposing of the body of her brother in the sea as her father chases, and follow her with Jason through to Iolcus and Corinth and the death of her own children. Vann doesn’t stray from the events of the traditional narrative, but the joy is in how he interprets, the choices of style and tone and realism he makes, and with the characterisation of Medea, and the reader’s view of her from within her own head.

And the prose.

First and foremost, I loved this book because the prose is beautiful. Even more than for the Classics (because sure, putting Classics in something will 100% get me to read it, but might make me angry if you do it “wrong”), I was just sucked in because it flowed wonderfully. It’s very much focussed on imagery and less concerned with actually setting out a clear plot, which I’m fine with, but I suspect is not everyone’s cup of tea. Vann seems quite keen on dropping verbs as a very direct way of giving his prose a distinctive style, and if I’m honest, it works surprisingly well. It feels very vivid and immediate, while also slightly alien – it helps with getting inside the mind of someone who thinks totally differently to us… while still having it feel real and there.

And Medea is so easy to slip into the mind of – while her actions and motivations are completely outside of what any reader might actually do, she remains plausible, while being constantly changeable. Her love for Jason, coming and going with each of his actions and her own revelations, is immensely believable, as well as her constant rage and need to undermine the kingship of men.

And this is really a central theme in the book – Vann paints Medea as a revolutionary within her mind, raging against the very existence of kings across the world, wondering why they must exist at all, where they came from. Why is it that men rule over everyone? Why do people allow it? Vann’s Medea questions everything with no answers – she posits all sorts of things, including that there was no world before the time of her father, but never comes to a conclusion that satisfies her – and seems to rage against this uncertainty too. She wants to rule herself, she wants to rule kingdoms, and all the while hates men and kings for doing so. She’s inconsistent and inconstant, united only by a theme of wanting change and destruction by her own hands. By joining her just after she has killed her brother, watching her regrets slip away into justification and determination, and following her right up until the deaths of her own children, we join the circle of destruction at beginning and end, as she cannot stop herself from breaking the world because she doesn’t like the shape of it. Her regrets, even at killing her sons, seem distant and small compared to her all-consuming, omnidirectional anger, and that consumes the reader too, colours how we see the world around her.

Outside of Medea’s mind, people seem flat and dull, but only because that’s how Medea herself sees them – thinking them trapped in the daily grind, no different from the animals. She sees herself as seeing the truth of things, under the surface of the lies everyone tells to get themselves more glory and power, to get by, to pass the time. This is how she casts her eye at the world too, thinking herself to see the truth beneath the surface. Sometimes this means her seeing the gods that must be there, a mixture of Egyptian and Greek, Nute and Hecate, and sometimes this means a revelation that there are no gods, only what she makes in the world, the fear she brings to others. The fact that she sees more than one truth, even quite close together, is inconsequential, from her perspective.

When we have this perspective of her, Medea’s actions don’t seem reasonable, but the do become plausible, not in the way they often are portrayed – justified by the hurts done to her, borne of sadness and pain and emotion – but instead as part of this all consuming rage against what she sees the world to be. She almost seems to have herself outside of it all, not connected, which allows her to do what others would not. Not that it doesn’t matter to her, she sees how it all connects and what each action will achieve, and she does feel, her love for her children particularly is communicated very strongly, but that it too is distant to her, part of a world she is not fully in.

I love this Medea, the Medea who doesn’t pull back from her own monstrous actions. She knows what she’s done, what it is, the awfulness of it, and embraces it – “Let me be the most hated of women and most true”. There’s a power to it, and her, that is really captivating. Her determination to be free, too, is powerful, and draws together the threads of her anger and fear, drives her onward.

I also love the world Vann builds, viscerally primitive and real. He doesn’t shy away from the grim details that would populate the world back then, and he particularly focuses on smells, animals and plants and rot and the sea and human waste, the layers that would build together the atmosphere of society. He also brings a realistic smallness to it all, tells us what a “city” really meant back then, how close to the edge they often lived. This isn’t a world of any grandeur but for the fear and dreams Medea herself brings, or the vastness of nature while she experiences the “truth” of it. She finds beauty in the quiet of night on a ship, the light of the moon on the water, and Vann portrays these in gorgeous prose that brings the images and feelings right inside your mind, and uses the same vivid prose to bring out the foulness and reality of the world of men she walks through to life. There is no grandeur to the Argonauts, no honour or glory. We can’t look up to the man we watch shitting over the side of a boat. The only beauty Vann paints in the world is that Medea finds, and she has no love for the world of men (much though she wants to rule it all). But for all its grimness, I love that setting, that authentic agedness, detached from the way the heroic age is portrayed in the Greek myths and grounded in archaeologically-fuelled realism.

Particularly, Vann’s description of the Argo is borne of the fact he was involved in the building of a reconstructed ship of the type the Egyptian expedition to the fabled land of Punt might have used. We can hear the creak of timber and rope, the flap of the sails, and it really feels like the words come from someone who has been on a ship exactly like that (because he has).

Vann manages to contrast the beauty and the horror of a distant past that, for all it is contemporary with the myths we know, is glossed over so often. He brings both to life in a way that hypnotises the reader, unable to put the book down, and balances those two much in the same way he balances the emotions of Medea. She is many things, often contrasting, all at the same time, but somehow manages to exist as a real and believable character nonetheless. Likewise, the world is horrifying, yet glorious by turns.

This balance is highlighted by the way he constructs the story, chopping off beginning and end to give us a matching, linked, start and end-point, both embodying Medea’s rage and hatred, both depriving us of the immediate context we know exists, but with their rage and fear pointed very differently in both instances.

If I had to make a criticism, my only one would be that the impact of his prose lessened as I got used to the style. The first chapter was so enjoyable because I couldn’t ignore what he was doing with the writing. But as always, the mind gets used to things, and I stopped noticing what he was doing until I forced myself to stop and pay attention. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do about this, but if I had to nitpick, this is where that nitpickery would lie.

But it doesn’t stop me from giving the book a wholehearted five stars. I got a beautifully written Medea whose power wasn’t her gender, wasn’t her sex or her wiles. A Medea whose power is her ability to instill fear, and who embraces that to be the monster she doesn’t care that she is. I don’t want an apologetic Medea; I want a brutal, raw and vicious one, and that’s exactly what we get.

This book is brilliant and I love it, and I fully intend to get my sticky paws on other of his work, if this is the standard.

Oh, and also, the fact that the title is a direct quotation from Euripides does not go amiss. Just saying.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Vol. 1 Squirrel Power – Ryan North and Erica Henderson

250px-the_unbeatable_squirrel_girl_1I have only one word for this, and it is: ADORABLE.

Oh, sorry, do you want a blog post? Fiiiiine.

So, most of the graphic novels I’ve read have been… not really the superhero-y traditional sort? We’re talking your Sandmans and your Ody-Cs, more than your Captains America. So this was kind of a new one for me, but I’d been recommended it before, and liked the concept, so I’d been wanting to read it for ages. Then I got given it for my birthday, because my friends are excellent. And it was precisely what I was hoping it was.

I’d been worried that, to read “proper” superhero comics, I’d need to have way more knowledge of the genre than I do, and that wherever I started, I’d never actually be at the start of anything, and that this would be a big problem for my understanding and enjoyment of what was going on. That may still be true for other stuff, but appears to have been 0% a problem for this one, at any rate. Sure, there was backstory… but I got given it (or enough of it that it felt fine) within the story. It worked. I never felt lost or insufficiently versed to Get It. And that was GREAT.

Also, frankly, it’s a cute story with lovely art, a proper sense of humour and a character I was destined to ADORE. She’s a ginger. Already, great start. She’s socially awkward and a bit oblivious and a total nerd. Just… yes!

I guess the main thing I felt when reading this that it was like the… not-dark equivalent of Deadpool*? The same constant thread of humour running through, not just on top of everything else but very nearly the main point. But it’s chirpy. It’s sweet. It’s happy. And… I wanted that. I get why Deadpool appealed to a lot of people, and I did enjoy the film. I am not averse to dark humour and sarcasm and all that jazz, not in the slightest. But at the same time, if I never see Deadpool again… eh? I’m not hugely fussed by that. But this… it’s endearing and I want to read more. Like now.

*looks up volume 2 on Amazon*

No. I don’t need more books. So many books to read…

Anyway. Serious face back on.

The characters are totally charming – Squirrel Girl herself is chirpy in a way that could definitely be annoying in other things, but it’s managed really well, and it pulls it off here in a way that I’m surprised it can manage. The other characters are obviously less well fleshed out – there’s not the time or space in a graphic novel to cram too much in – but they’re given some quick reference stuff so we get the central concepts of them immediately. The grumpy room-mate, Nancy, particularly is a) brilliant, b) grumpy and c) not a moron (in the face of Squirrel Girl’s blithe unsubtlety, admittedly, which isn’t exactly high-level intelligence). You get a sense of her really really quickly, and I know I’m going to love her.

The plot moves at a decent pace too, and for all that it’s not exactly deep and philosophical (oh noes) there’s enough going on that it feels like there’s some proper substance, with the promise for more.

That said, and with a great deal of love and respect, it’s definitely what I will probably come to view as comfort reading. It’s fluff. It’s excellent, well-written, visually pleasing fluff… but it’s pleasing, comforting and soothing, and it’s there to make me feel happy about the world, rather than confronting the issues of the day. Which isn’t always a bad thing. And if I’m going to read fluff, I’m still going to read something like this, which manages to be that without compromising on uniqueness or grace. It’s doing something all its own, not just the same tired old tropes. And, well, that’s my usual complaint with comfort reading. Comforting doesn’t have to be the same old thing every time. And this… isn’t. I’m not really sure what I could legitimately compare it to (she says, not having read all that many comics). But it just… made me feel better for reading it. And there’s definitely a place for that in the world.

The art is really cute too. There’s a great sense of movement to a lot of it, and it pulls off quirky faces for people without it being weird-looking. It’s not the sort of art I’m going to be staring at going “my eyes… so beautiful…” like Ody-C, but it definitely does what it sets out to do with a grace and style that make it distinctive.

Overall, I’m just really really glad I read it. It’s sweet without being sickly, and cheerful without being insufferable. It walks a difficult line that, when stumbled off, will annoy the heck out of me, and manages to do so with success and style. It could come off too happy, too cutesy, but I really don’t think it does. As soon as I have money/book capacity for more books, I will acquire more. And I will be very happy while reading it.

*I have only seen the film. I’m sorry if that is a poor reflection on the comics. I PLEAD IGNORANCE.

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Surface Detail – Ian M. Banks

surface_detail_hb_500x775It’s been a while since the last Banks novel, so I figured I’d keep working my way through them. And it’s sometimes nice to have something to read that you know you’re going to get on with, rather than a mystery book. Not that I’ve been sparse for decent books recently, but the other one hanging over me, half-read, The Vorrh… I’m not really enjoying so I keep putting it off. that said, I expected to plough through this much quicker than I did. The other Banks books I’ve read have sped by, because you just can’t put them down… this one… well, I definitely needed to get into it before I really got on with it.

But when I did get into it, it was definitely worth it. I was struggling to put it down, the last few days. And then… well, the ending (spoilers in the footnote*). It got 4 stars on Goodreads from me, but it was 4 it grew into, and definitely not in the top bracket… probably alongside Matter, among Banks novels.

What distances Surface Detail from the other Culture novels, and the notable thing I’m going to talk about (since most of the basic scaffolding of the novel is your standard Banks decent writing, plotting, world-building) is the fact that we move away from Special Circumstances, the bit of the Culture we tend to focus on in all the other books. We pull back slightly, and see Contact (of which Special Circumstances is a part) as a broader entity, doing other things than just allowing SC to exist. Specifically, we meet two new branches – Numina, Restoria and Quietus. Numina and Restoria come up in passing (Numina deals with sublimed entities and Restoria with a kind of menace called a hegemonising swarm), but Quietus is somewhat the focus of the novel, and leads to us looking at a different aspect of the Culture that we haven’t really previously experienced – death.

I think it’s been hinted at before, but never really mentioned in the novels, that death isn’t quite just that in the Culture. And now we find out more. There are digital afterlives that one can be uploaded to, and people in those afterlives can be given back a body (“revented”). Quietus (the Quietudinal Service) is the branch of Contact that has purview over all of these people, and any legal issues that arise from them. And that thread – in two halves – is the main focus of the story. We have a member of Quietus, Yime, and the revented soul of a non-Culture member, Lededje, who was murdered and wants revenge on her murderer, but was revented a long way away from the world she died on, not even knowing she could expect anything after her death. What this means is not only do we get that insight into how the Culture deals with death, but more of how it deals with non-Culture citizens outside of the… less than diplomatic paths taken by Special Circumstances… which is really important. It breaks the pattern of Banks’ portrayal of the Culture, without really changing anything, we just see a new side that fits well with everything we know, but explores something else entirely.

He also weaves in more threads, I think, than in any of the other Culture novels I’ve read. Which is part of why the book is so good, and part of why it took so long to get into. With your interest spread that thinly, it’s much harder to get a grip on why you’re meant to care about each character. You get there eventually with most of them, but it just takes a bit more time than is his usual.

And then there’s my big issue with the book – we actually have what you could consider a Bad Guy. Which… is kinda new? And I’m not sure I like it. We’ve definitely had the people we sided with, the people we liked or didn’t, before, but never really a clear cut moral bad and good in quite the same way. Different factions, more. But Joiler Veppers can be nothing if not a baddie. And somehow, Banks has thrown subtlety out of the window for this one. Where he normally excels at balance, with Veppers, it’s just let’s turn all the evil dials up to eleven. He’s a super-rich, super-powerful, arrogant businessman with a penchant for rape, cruelty and violence. He gets no redeeming feature, no complexity – he’s just the worst thing a person could ever possibly be. And a caricature, beyond that. And that’s just slightly disappointing, because I’m used to Banks being better than that.

All the other characters are varied, fascinating and charming. They have their complexity and their motives and their confusions. But you have that little bit of villain in the background always, and it nags. And that’s why the book wasn’t going to get full marks from me.

That being said, it’s just a nag, not a full blown massive issue. Banks continues to Banks, and I remain entirely happy to keep reading his books. It’s not exciting, but it is true.

Next up… who even knows. I just had a birthday so my reading pile is ENORMOUS. It is two piles, both of them precarious. So we’ll have whatever I feel like next out of that… possibly a graphic novel, because I got some really exciting ones in there (particularly notably, Monstress Volume 1(Hugo winner) and Henchgirl (which just looks cool)) and I want something that won’t take me most of a month to finish.

 

*SPOILERS (for this and for Use of Weapons).
I have got used to everyone talking about the Culture novels as not being related. Apart from Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. But the rest? Nope. Can read any of them standalone. All fine. Not a series. And that’s essentially true. This book totally made sense without any of the others… right up until the last page, and its big reveal. I can only imagine that would have been confusing and disappointing, had I not read Use of Weapons. Since I have, they revealed that Vateuil was “Zakalwe” all along, and it was great. I may have messaged “OMG HE WAS ZAKALWE” to boyfriend sat downstairs (he was there when I finished Use of Weapons and just shouted “FUCK!”). But I think the new reader would miss a lot by not getting this reference… not just by not knowing who “Zakalwe” is, but not knowing that the concept of the reveal, and of him being – and thinking he is – someone he isn’t is so intrinsic to another book in the series. It casts the whole of Vateuil’s arc in an entirely different light, which made finishing the book fantastic.

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The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

17645Well. This was very very interesting indeed.

No, really. I’m using “interesting” honestly here. And I think it’s the best adjective for the book… far more than “gripping” or any of the adjectives I might usually go for. Oh, and it’s very very good. I should say that now too. But, well, I am/was a Classicist, and some things never go away. And at the point when I’ve read nearly all the works she lists in the Notes as being her inspiration/research (including Trickster Makes This World, which I really feel I ought to reread at some point), I feel like maybe I am very much the target audience here. My interests – 100% catered for.

That being said, I’m still trying to decide what to say about it… beyond that it was good and interesting. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all – I thought it would just be a straight retelling of the story of the Odyssey but from Penelope’s perspective, seeing things from her side, maybe undercutting the grandeur of the story with the realism of the world of women at the time. And… it partly is that. But at times it doesn’t feel like Penelope’s story at all. Because it has a flip side as well, and that is the tale of the twelve maids hanged after the massacre of the suitors for their “disloyalty”. And it’s the two stories sewn together, sometimes undercutting one another and sometimes reinforcing, giving you two sets of unreliable narration, one from a self-confessed liar and the other from a group who change their story from chapter to chapter. It’s subtle masterpiece of giving you no idea who to believe, and not leaving you with any clearer narrative of the Odyssey than you started out with, even if you take into account all the variant narratives which exist.

But that’s one of the things I love about it. Because Penelope never actually settles on one narrative to say “yes, this is what happened”, especially when discussing Odysseus’ exploits. She absolutely says there are variants, from the noble to the base, the fantastic to the mundane, but at no point does she give any sort of hint of believing any particular one in favour of the other. She talks as though she believes the gods are real and present, but hints at their absence in the way she presents some of the stories of Odysseus’ journey. Nothing is settled or set.

In some sense, she brings this in right from the beginning. Atwood focusses on Penelope’s heritage including Naiad, and talks about what that might mean in terms of who she was. She draws heavily on watery imagery in terms of flexibility and fluidity, of personality, of truth, and I think this more than anything is the underlying theme of the whole story. You have Penelope, Odysseus and the maids, all giving flexible, changeable narratives, and never letting on anything more – cold, inscrutable, completely fluid. And the format of the book supports that too. It’s not just told in simple narrative, but switches between prose, poetry, play-script format and court-room transcript. The twelve maids form a chorus of sorts, but not one constrained to the classical format – they embrace all sorts of metres, rhythms and styles to convey their bleak message, sometimes slipping into anger, sometimes cold melancholy, sometimes dark humour, but always in a fitting and fitted style. It makes for a book that I don’t think I can completely appreciate in one reading – I will find more with every reading to pick apart, finding this particular bit of verse so very interesting. And if that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is.

That being said, and much like The Handmaid’s Tale, I find the characterisation of the Penelopiad a little remote. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, because it absolutely fits the tone of what Atwood is trying to do, but there’s that dissatisfaction at never quite actually knowing the character. You feel like Penelope is putting up a front – she talks about how often she bursts into floods of tears but you never get anything other than calm thoughtfulness from her in her dialogue/narration – and you want to get past it. But of course you never will. It’s a very successful bit of utter frustration, and I think partially because it does make her a fitting equal of Odysseus. She sets herself up as a deceiver on par with him, just operating within a different sphere, and like Odysseus, you never feel like you know what’s really real (I’m talking Odysseus as commonly portrayed, not just in the Homeric texts). While I don’t think Penelope’s characterisation is necessarily the most interesting thread Atwood has created (the maids’ story is just so well and varyingly told), the way she has chosen to do it is probably about the best way it could have been done. It is better than I was expecting of it, and better than most reinterpretation of Classics I’ve seen more broadly.

And then there’s just the prose. Atwood remains thoroughly, thoroughly excellent with a turn of phrase, and pulls you in immediately and lastingly. If I had to call it, I’d say the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is slightly better, but we’re splitting hairs here. The trick she mainly pulls off here is managing to take that diversity of form and still creating a coherent whole. She’s got various viewpoints, opinion and versions of the truth, but it still feels like one story, and that is really something to praise.

I’m just going to get repetitive, at this point. It was an excellent book that I vastly enjoyed, and sure, some of that was the fact that I was very much the target audience, but some of it was just… Atwood can really, really write. She’s got the spirit of the works she’s invoking just so, and it manages to differ from them while treating them respectfully and honestly. She gives a realistic voice to characters I am deeply familiar with, and I don’t at any point feel like she’s overstepped the lines of what existed there all along. Which is what I want, as a fussy Classics pedant.

This is definitely encouraging me to seek out more Atwood in future, but next up, we’re back to Banks, with Surface Detail.

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Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee

30691976I am so pleased the sequel to Ninefox Gambit came out as quickly as it did. I mean, it’s out in the same year as the first one is being considered for Nebula and Hugo*… I fully support Yoon Ha Lee’s dedication to not letting me fret about what happens next (incidentally, when’s the next one out? The internet doesn’t seem to be telling me, alas). And, shockingly for someone who wrote something quite so good as Ninefox Gambit, the sequel is excellent.

On balance, overall, I prefer the first book to the second, but I only say that after considerable thought, because Raven Stratagem is a pretty damn good book, and an excellent sequel. It avoids a lot of awkward middle book syndrome, and balances out really well with Ninefox Gambit, giving you a lot (but not all) of the information you missed out on in the first one and were kind of wanting.

Essentially, one of the key features (for me) of Ninefox Gambit is how it skims over a LOT of possible exposition. The real charm is not knowing how the science/magic works, and the story still functioning brilliantly around it. However, you also don’t get a huge amount of knowledge of how the political system works, beyond what is key to the plot, and because the whole world and political system are kind of important, I definitely felt a desire to get more information there. Raven Stratagem definitely covers that issue. It manages to do so, however, without feeling the need to cover the same ground again in case you’ve forgotten, and without wandering off from the plot of its own story. Everything you get feels entirely natural and sensible… it just happens to fill some of the gaps left by the first book. Which I’m very, very happy with. We get, for instance, a lot more insight into the Shuos faction, and a bit more into the Andan.

And so, for all it’s not an awkward second book of trilogy, it is doing the work of picking up after the first book and laying the ground work for the third. Just… not awkwardly.

The reason, however, that I ultimately settled on it being less good than Ninefox Gambit, is simply that it follows different characters. Or rather, the viewpoint characters are different. I absolutely loved being inside Cheris’ head/Jedao’s head, and their interactions were some of the things that made the first book so wonderful, and so I really missed them in their absence as viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong with the ones we get – Mikodez especially, as the head of the Shuos faction, is not an uninteresting narrator – but he just hasn’t quite got that dynamic with anyone that you got from Cheris and Jedao. Likewise, Brezan, our Kel person just… he’s not that interesting a person. I can see why he was chosen, and how the role he plays in the story makes him a good choice… he just doesn’t have a great character. We do also have a Kel general, though, who is pretty fun, so we get 1/3… Khiruev is by far my favourite, mainly because you get a lot of her internal conflict and thoughts about the government, in a way you miss out on with the others. It forms part of the exposition, and does it in a very neat, seamless way.

Speaking of the exposition, and… I guess slightly spoilery-ly? One of the things I really did like about this one, especially in complement to the first book, is that it shows you that not everyone is happy with the way things are run in the hexarchate. In Ninefox Gambit, it often felt like Jedao/Cheris vs. EVERYONE ELSE because somehow literally no one else inside the system thought the system was less than perfect. Sure, there were heretics, but they were so… othered… that they didn’t feel relevant or real? No one with a personality and a character and written so we cared about them objected to how things were. But not so here. We get to see that the dissatisfaction is wider than we originally thought… just no one felt, given how heresies are dealt with so effectively and often, that it was ever possible to do anything about it.

Which kind of leads me onto something else that I love about the series as a whole. I think possibly the cleverest thing Lee’s come up with is the Kel system of discipline – formation instinct. To have a soldier class who have been somehow infected with an inability to disobey orders is really cool. And Raven Stratagem explores that idea a bit further, the repercussions of it, and how it might not always work the way you want it to. It feels like such a small part of the worldbuilding in many ways – why would I look at that when I have no idea how any of the science works but it’s all so cool and kind of creepy – but it is just so… neat. And well thought out. Which characterises what I think of the series as a whole, to be honest. There’s been a lot of thinking clearly done not just on the worldbuilding – and it is a beautiful, original, interesting world that Lee builds – but on how to present and reveal that worldbuilding to show just how each thing does really connect and interact with the others, to build up a holistic view of something so utterly alien that nevertheless feels totally, plausibly real. The details pull it all together, habits and foods and bits of speech or fashion or childhood memories that feed into one another and tie the whole thing up.

That and the fact that Lee can really write and pace a story very well indeed.

Pretty much everything I loved about the writing in Ninefox Gambit remains true, and I do think Lee knows how to turn a phrase in a way many other current authors in SFF don’t. He just has the writing knack, and I love it. I’m sad his book hasn’t won any awards this year**, but I really hope this will change in future, and he’ll keep writing worlds and stories as fantastic as this. It is properly good, readable, well-written, modern SF, and it is something I need in my life.

 

*Part way through me writing this post, I found out the Hugo results, and alas, Ninefox Gambit did not win. Oh well.
**I’m probably going to post about my feelings on the Hugos soon.

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The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

61gomnxrd2bl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Another book club book, though one that had been vaguely on my radar for a while anyway. It’s not made it to any of the awards I’m reading or anything, but it just… kept cropping up. All over the place. This is usually a sign that something is worth reading, if not because I’ll enjoy it for itself, then because when everyone else starts discussing it I’ll have some opinions ready… which is nearly as important. So I was really glad when it got nominated for this month, and even gladder when it won.

And then I read it in like, two days, which says a lot of good things.

That being said, it’s not really charting as one of my favourite books of the year. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – I did, it was very readable, and I didn’t really want to put it down at any point – but because it wasn’t really… special, I guess? I’m struggling to explain, so let’s hope several thousand words of rambling will help me clear it up.

Oh, and there will be minor spoilers in here (though pretty damn minor) because one of the things I want to talk about kind of requires hinting at stuff that happens later on in the book. Sorry.

So, first impressions of it (apart from “well that was a slightly odd author’s note at the start”*) were very much that it was like Uprooted, but much less tight and focused and directed. And this feeling persisted, I think, for slightly more than half of the book. And that’s a long time to be comparing something unfavourably to another book. Which is a little mean, because Uprooted was pretty damn good, and so most things are going to pale in comparison, but they felt very much like they were aiming at a similar vein (not just in the sense of doing mythology stuff, but also in the way they shaped their protagonists). And, well… comparisons are just going to happen.

But by the time you get to the end of the book, it becomes fairly clear that The Bear and the Nightingale is aiming at something different. It just takes a very long time to get you there.

And I suppose that’s my main issue with it. The book is incredibly groundwork heavy – you get years and years of semi-involved build-up to get to the protagonist being the right age and all the actual action of the novel happening. And I’m not entirely saying that was unnecessary, because it wasn’t really… but at the same time, you end up feeling like you might never actually get to the story. Because it definitely feels like scene-setting all that time. Sure, things happen, but with a heavy layer of forboding and awareness of stuff to come, so you never feel like you’ve actually got to the point until pretty late on. Once you do get to the story, it’s pretty great, and the work that’s gone into it does, in many ways, pay off… but it’s a lot of a trade, page for page, to get there. I’m not sure if it was totally worth it. It’s not a long book, so maybe the answer would have been a longer period of story, rather than a cropping of the lead-in.

What I did like was the heavy layering of the mythology – and that’s something I think it actually did better than Uprooted. I’m not really familiar with Russian myths, beyond “Baba Yaga is a thing?”, so it was really enjoyable getting that presented quite prominently. There’s also a story-teller character and, while a lot of what she does is just really really obvious foreshadowing, if the stories being told aren’t familiar to you, that’s a really useful device to have, especially if you keep those stories fairly short, which Arden does. Presenting the mythology in a fairly historical setting, and having it in opposition with Christianity but in a realistic way… that was nice too. I’m not totally sure I’m happy with how the priests were portrayed, but overall, I think it was a valuable device for setting up the conflict without having to tinker too heavily with the mythology itself – it allows Arden to just let things be, which I think is a good choice too. Reinterpreting mythology is a great thing, especially when done well, but you don’t always have to… sometimes it’s perfectly fine in the original interpretation.

That being said, I like how the mythology is often only adjacent to the story. It’s also about her familial relationships, and growing up, and independence. And obviously most stories are these as well, but told through the mythological side, whereas in this, they sort of sit next to each other, and tell different parts of the story.

As I’ve sort of said earlier, the pacing could have used some work, but the writing in general was pretty good, and very atmospheric. She’s not got the way with words of some of my favourite authors, but she knows how to tell a story, and how to set a scene you can really feel. It’s July, but reading about the winters of the Russian north was making me want to huddle up in a blanket with a hot drink… and if that’s not successful writing, I’m not sure what is.

She’s also pretty good with her characterisation. When reading Russian-set things before, I’ve slightly struggled with the way that the characters end up with like, four different names each depending on who’s talking to them, some of which I’m not intuitively grasping as related (e.g. “Sasha” for “Aleksandr” in this book). If you back that up with poor characterisation, I am going to be totally lost about who’s who. But Arden has her people speaking like people, with their independent voices, and so you don’t struggle so much with keeping track of who’s who, even in the fairly wide cast that The Bear and the Nightingale throws at you. She gets a good range of personalities in her mythological creatures too, from the remote coldness of the rusalka to the friendliness of the domovoy and the inscrutability of Morozko – they manage to be both alien and familiar, in a way that sets them apart from the humans of the story without making them unknowable.

All in all, it’s a pretty good book that I just have a few quibbles with. I gave it four stars without too much consideration, because for all it wasn’t perfect, I really enjoyed reading it, and I would happily read more from Arden in future (which is lucky, as I believe there is due to be a sequel).

But.

There was one thing that stuck in my mind to a stupid degree, considering that it wasn’t particularly a massive problem. And that was the fact that the title of the book gets taken from two fairly… non-significant things right near the end. And that annoys me. Because ultimately, the book is not in any way about the bear and the nightingale. They’re not really emblematic, or meaningful. So it feels like the title was tacked on at the end, somewhat haphazardly (or it’s a title taken from Russian myth but just really ill-fitting? I don’t know). And this really, really bothers me. On the strength of this alone, I was tempted to shunt it down to three stars. But that’s… pretty harsh, so I stopped myself. But I was tempted. Bah, harrumph, etc.

Next up, The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, sequel to Ninefox Gambit. I am much looking forward to it.

 

*The author starts with a note on her transliteration choices, specifically about why she’s been inconsistent in them. And it… didn’t entirely make sense to me? But I say this as someone who would always be dedicated to authentic transliteration. And I just didn’t get her aesthetic arguments. But eh. It just struck me as slightly weird to lead in with it.

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Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

51lbtse5qulA recommendation from rather a while ago that I’ve finally got round to (thanks Tea!). Something many ways outside my normal reading – I may or may not be a bit of a wuss about creepy things – but absolutely brilliant, and so so worth the read.

VanderMeer was definitely a name I’d heard before, but I don’t think I could have told you what he’d written, just that he was genre and possibly good? So I was coming into this without much in the way of foreknowledge or expectation (though I did really really like the cover art when I found it to buy online). And, as I’ve said before, I kinda like that. Just knowing someone I know liked it and thought it was good, and having no idea what it is but going for it anyway. Sure, it doesn’t always work. There will always be people with different taste to me, or books which are in many ways good but with which I just don’t get on. But it works surprisingly often, and I like the mystery.

Which is good, because this book comes with mystery by the bucketful.

The premise is that there’s a mystery piece of land that has been affected by some sort of natural occurrence (unspecified or unknown), and teams have been being sent in to investigate for some time. Our narrator is a biologist and member of the twelfth such expedition, sent into Area X to investigate, and is telling the story of the experiences of herself and the other team members, the surveyor, the psychologist and the anthropologist.

And we never get names for them. I like that. I like too that they all happen to be women, and no matter is really made of it. They’re still all known by their jobs, and are assessed by that as the major metric, or by how well they deal with all the shenanigans that befall inside Area X.

I don’t want to go into too much more detail on the premise, because it is very much a mystery novel, where the fun is in the slow unravelling of details and events, to build up a picture of what’s going on. To give much away beyond the first few pages would somewhat spoil that, so I shan’t. Instead, I want to talk about how it works as a creepy mystery, when most other stuff like this really really doesn’t cut it for me.

Primarily, this is because I am a wuss.

I am, I am sorry to admit, entirely too easy to creep out. This is the main reason I can’t deal with zombie media of any kind. Or jump scares. Or things where people get infested by nefarious beings. Or anything kinda sinister and likely to lurk in the night to come get me*. And so I tend to avoid books and films and such about creepy things, because I end up wanting the light on at night like I’m five, and that’s not a great feeling.

But there are occasionally exceptions. Stranger Things, for instance, which was amazing. But really damn creepy. And then this. It managed to have a quality I often find lacking in the creepy, which is compulsive readability. I could not put it down at all. It never felt like it was going to get any less creepy if I kept on going, but I still wanted to keep on going because of the mystery, and of wanting to know what happened next, and of being so involved inside the mind of the viewpoint character that I couldn’t quite bear to put her away.

And I think that’s what this book does best. It puts you inside the head of a complex and compelling character – who reveals herself to be unreliable, every now and then, only to tell you what she was hiding and once again place herself in your trust – and you really get a sense of her confusion and growing awareness throughout. But you also get a sense of her as a person – as a really complex, not entirely nice, regretful person, who has left some things behind and has her doubts and fears and resentments, and they all build up to form part of her… while at the same time, she keeps her language distant, cold and abstract. It’s a brilliant combination, and blurs the feeling of journal with the feeling of just first person viewpoint. I find particularly endearing her irrational dislike of some of the other people in the book, and her twists of whim and fancy that seem improbable but then make sense. She feels human, essentially. You don’t like her, and I don’t think you are meant to, but you get her.

The prose is also excellent, which helps. It very much has a character, a voice, and I’ll be very interested to see if that voice is different in the second book in the series, to see the extent to which it was a deliberate choice and part of the characterisation of the biologist.

But the descriptive passages really are excellent. You can really see the scenes he describes – even the ones that are deeply peculiar – and feel the atmosphere and the tension and drama. Which very much builds into the creepy thing. But it’s done so well that I forgive it. You hear the night-time noises of the natural world around the biologist, and certainly in my case, I had an extremely clear mental feel for the place described, however weird it was.

His pacing is also excellent, keeping it slow and measured for most of the book, revealing things as they need revealing but giving away no more than necessary. You get kept in the good sort of confusion all the way to the point where you aren’t, if that makes sense?

Essentially, I loved it. It was brilliantly written and completely enthralling, and I shall be intending to read the sequel once I’ve demolished some of my tower of book.

Next up, either the Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (good writing and Classics references? Of course I’m interested) or The Bear and the Nightingale for book club. Which will it be? There, have your own, slightly rubbish mystery…

 

*Except vampires**. No, I don’t know why.
**Apart from the one time I had an adverse reaction to medication and wouldn’t leave my room because I was convinced the vampires were coming to get me. That was a weird hour.

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