Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly

5136chrwlul-_sx329_bo1204203200_Well, at least it’s getting better, however steadily.

Well, that’s possibly a little harsh. This one was an interesting one to rate, because for all that I think it’s rather well done… it’s also really quite emphatically not my thing. It’s just… I don’t care? It’s a spy thriller-ish… I don’t really like spy stories. It’s set in the sort of pre-War era (only in alternative universe). Meh? It’s all about show business and the glitz and the glam and the high stakes, late night, Bohemian-to-the-eyeballs lifestyle. Yaaaaawwwwwwwn. I can see what it’s aiming for, and I can see that it reaches that and more besides, but it just does not do it for me, and almost certainly was never going to. So it got a 3 on Goodreads, my go to rating for “meh, meh and double meh”. I never cared about reading it, I never wanted to get pulled back into the story, and at times I was amazed there was so damn much of it… but I could appreciate it, if I paused for a second and thought again.

To give you a brief overview, Amberlough is a city in the country of Gedda, which is divided into separately governed regions. We follow several Amberlinians through their lives during a time of political turmoil, all of whom are, in one way or another, ultimately connected to a club called The Bumble Bee – patron, emcee, stripper – and how they interact with each other and the changing political climate. It’s essentially Berlin in the twenties, and the Bohemian scene/spy networks, and the rise of definitely-not-fascism, especially poignant because they are all people the pseudo-fascists would not like (and not just because Bohemians). It’s not a subtle setting, for sure, and it relies heavily on a) the reader getting on board with this and b) thus the spy plotting stuff. And I’m not super keen on b).

I suppose my issue with the spy aspect, and particularly the spy aspect in this era, is the supposed glamour of the whole thing. Even more so than James Bond, it’s meant to be an era when spying meant knowing the right people, going to parties, saying a code word and occasionally pulling your hat down low over your eyes and putting your hand on your revolver. There’s a sense of style, of it being a game – and I know this is often made explicit, as it is in this novel – that I don’t like because it feels so fake. It’s glorifying something that I – ok, admittedly without much knowledge of the topic – suspect wasn’t all that glorious to begin with, and more importantly, very likely isn’t anywhere near that swanky now, and probably not to be… lauded as much as this makes it? And don’t get me wrong, Donnelly does try to make it so the whole spying thing isn’t all roses and absinthe and a jolly posh-boy game with no consequences… but she’s not totally successful, especially given how much of a jolly posh boy one of the protagonists is. It’s just… it’s alright if you like that sort of thing, but I really don’t. It’s one of the few areas where I think you actually do reap some benefits if you make it grim and gritty*.

But mainly, this is not a problem with this book. It’s doing a thing that a lot of people do and are lauded for, and it’s doing it relatively well (to my limited knowledge) – it’s just a thing I don’t like.

My other main issue is that I’m not honestly sure this is SFF. Is alt-history – pure alt-history, no bells or whistles or magic – SFF on its own? Or does it need wizards etc. spicing it up to make it SFF? My inclination is that it does, but… I guess this might be contentious. But because I knew it was classified as SFF, I kept wondering, as I read, whether something fantastical was ever going to happen. And it didn’t. And that was mildly disappointing. But again, not the book’s fault.

I should probably move on to talking about the actual book at this point, rather than how its pigeonholes are not the ones I want.

What it is very good at doing very quickly is evoking a very visual sense of place. I had no problems picturing Amberlough in my mind – though I will admit the whole thing was always sightly sepia. Some of this is just that Donnelly has a good way of setting that out, she writes prose you can visualise easily, and that has the nature of a real thing about it. But also because she’s chosen to root it in a real time and place, she can use shorthands to make you think of that, and you have ready-made mental templates to pull you in. She doesn’t have to do all the legwork herself, which… well, it’s effective, but it does have the downside of feeling a bit derivative. I think the trade-off works, given that she’s making a point about historical parallels, but it does mean I kept thinking of various characters/groups as their real-world equivalent. Which is the point, of course… but I’d like to be able to remember someone for their own merits as a character, not who they represent. At least to an extent.

The book is, of course, meant to be timely like this. There are obvious Nazi parallels being made, and the fear of the Bohemian set is… well, you can see what’s being done here. And it achieves that very well, no questions asked. But I think that feeling of place and time does come at the expense of e.g. the spy plot – the feeling of a coherent plot is always subordinate to that feeling of a time and place and setting, and a tone of grim.

The characters were, for me, what mainly let it down, though. I just didn’t connect to any of them. Some of them did feel real… but incredibly annoying and self-absorbed. The rest were fairly flat. The main three… Cordelia is fairly ok. She’s competent, self-possessed and fairly sensible, but we don’t really get all that much of her personality. The other two – Cecil and Aristide – are just desperately self-involved and melodramatic. And I had so little patience for it after a while that I stopped caring about anything that happened to them. The relationships in the book thus felt a bit… empty… because I couldn’t see what sustained them – I couldn’t see why anyone would like each other.

Ultimately, it was an unsatisfying book, both because it wasn’t my sort of thing and because it wasn’t an amazing example of what it was. It did its setting very well, but failed to follow through in plot and characters, which would just have been necessary. The writing was decent, but no more than that.

Despite this, and because of shockingly bad competition, this somehow does actually make it into the top of my current Nebula reads. It’s not great, I don’t love it and I won’t be seeking the author out again, but at least it was vaguely competently done, and didn’t make me angry by being aggressively awful. The list currently runs thus:

1. Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly (a crowning triumph of mediocrity over… more mediocrity and shitness)
2. 
Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (in the land of the shite, this mediocre man is no longer king)
3. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz (I am still sad I have read something so shit that this isn’t in bottom place)
4. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss (ok, that being said maybe Autonomous was actually worse, on reflection… I might swap them)

 

*Spoilers!!

Ok, so it IS grim and gritty, but only at the very end. And it’s quite a big step-change from most of the book. It is with very good reason, and fits into the pattern of the book as well as Cyril’s general character growth (and the seeds sown early on about his misgivings and previous misadventures), but as a whole flavour of the book goes… it’s a lot of a shift. I think she pulls it off pretty well, but I also think the veneer of glamour needed to be peeled back a lot earlier for it to have the proper effect, at least for me. But then again, as I said, I don’t like glamourised spies. Take it as you will.

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss

81e75a-0hjlI’d say it’s been a while since I read something this bad, but I recently read Autonomous, so that would be a lie. I wish it had been a while since I read something this bad, because this was an absolute pile of utter shite, mediocre and amateurish and beyond redemption. It was DIRE and I HATED it.

And not only was it bad – which is already annoying and reprehensible – but it was a mashup of a lot of different sources (badly done), at least one of which I really love, and was handled so poorly it made me want to hurt things. If I hadn’t been reading on my iPad, I’d have been tempted to throw the fucking thing out of the window part way through. Because this woman… I’m sure she has read the Sherlock Holmes stories herself, because SURELY you would if you wrote a book about it, but from the book, I’d think her full knowledge came from that godawful film with Robert Downey Jr., or maybe the most recent series of Sherlock only. It’s almost comically bad, except I really like Sherlock Holmes and she’s made a mockery of it.

The worst bit is, I knew I wasn’t going to like this book – from the blurb, it’s obvious it’s self-absorbed, self-satisfied rubbish – but it managed to grossly exceed my expectations. I have not the words for quite how shockingly awful it was (ok, that’s a lie, I totally do, and probably more than a thousand of them).

But before I get onto that, a brief digression necessary for you to get where I’m coming from.

So it has been a noted thing that men can be written in fiction to be super duper amazing with no flaws, and people nod and go “yes, good character, mmhm yes good”, and as soon as you write a super competent women, the cries of “Mary Sue!” echo around the hallowed halls of the internet within moments. It’s a thing. I know this. Women as characters and authors can and should be held to the same standards as men, not forced to build in flaws to pass some bullshit test of authenticity. This is known, yes? I am not going to be the first one to cry “self-insert wish-fulfillment bollocks” at a female character in a female author’s book, because frankly, we’re owed some of that shit right now and for a while to come.

But… there’s a line. There is a fucking line.

And then there’s fanfiction. I’m not going to get into a debate about how valid it is as a form of expression, because that is totally not the point of this blog*. But 1) we’re not going to hold it to the same standards as published literature because, well, it’s going to fall short – it’s not gone through the (hopefully) strenuous editing process you get from actually being published, and doesn’t have to fit into boxes like “will encourage people to part with money to partake of it”, and 2) it’s doing a different job to actual proper literature. It’s piggybacking off existing stuff rather than creating its own world**, and that makes it beholden to different rules. It doesn’t have to not be self-absorbed, if the story its telling a story the author just wishes was happening to them. If no one reads it? No big deal. They’re the stories I tell myself as daydreams, never writing them down, because… well, everyone needs that kind of silly wish fulfillment. If people on the internet want to imagine they’re in an episode of Star Trek and Picard falls desperately in love with them, it’s not harming anyone, go for it.

However, and you will now see why this is relevant, if you’re being actual, published literature for actual consumption by people who have paid money to read what you write… there’s a fucking line. There’s creating women who are allowed to exist as wish-fulfillment, and then there’s essentially personal happy daydreams. There’s writing fiction inspired by and playing with existing literature, and then there’s crass parody that doesn’t understand the source work.

Guess which one this is?

It really did read like fanfiction to me for several reasons. Firstly, there were basic errors in it. The author is American, and clearly has no idea how to a) write British people speak (pro-tip, “sidewalk” ain’t it) and b) write British people speak in the past… and indeed c) reference real places in London (it’s not called “The High Holborn” and Chelsea isn’t south London). I assume this is what editors are for, right? Or research. The second is just how self-indulgent it is. This is a very very mild spoiler, but the author clearly has a massive crush on Sherlock Holmes, and has written him to be flirting with (and flirted with) by the main protagonist. Now… Sherlock Holmes’ interest in women is very well and clearly documented as being… not. Anyone read A Scandal in Bohemia? This is taking sooooomething of a liberty with the source text in the interests of making a happy little self-indulgent fantasy… that totally divorces the resulting work from links it has with the original beyond the superficial. Fine for fanfic, not fine for proper works of actual literature.

And truly, it was an awful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. He’s friendly and nice and indulgent of these random women and girls suddenly involving themselves in his case. He’s not… a bit of a misogynist (I’ve mentioned before, I think here and here as well as other places, my views on why erasing the misogyny, as well as racism, of the Victorian era in modern literature is super shitty). He’s not on cocaine. He’s not solely focussed on only knowledge and information that could help him solve problems – he knows random science trivia, which he explicitly derides as useless in one of the original stories, telling Watson there’s no point to knowing if the earth is round or flat, if I recall correctly. He is fundamentally not Holmes, and all of his shittiness has been replaced with geniality so the author can write him having a crush on the protagonist. UGH.

And then we get to the premise… the idea is that the author takes various women adjacent to Victorian or earlier literature, generally gothic or similar, and brings them together to be empowered and cast of the shackles of femininity and being outcasts for their mutual benefit and also solving a crime. It’s again a feeling of whitewashing out the actual hardships women faced in that era by presenting a much less pervasive, less harmful version that our plucky ladies can easily overcome by working together, and definitely no one is going to judge or censure the house full of outspoken women, some of whom wear trousers. It feels deeply insensitive and at points insulting to a time that was Not Kind to women. But it’s ok, because we get to feel good and happy that our plucky crew pulled together and solved the case, and also Watson fancies the really pretty Italian lady who knows botany.

The premise is fundamentally flawed, to be quite honest, and let down more so by shoddy writing. It feels, at best, amateurish the whole way through, made more clunky by attempts at being period appropriate which often fail. It also has zero subtlety. Especially in the character writing. No one is anything but a parody, either of grace or beauty, faith or mischief or sensibleness. You cannot believe or enjoy any of the characters because they just behave like tropes, all the time.

This is magnified in part by a gimmick the author has chosen to use in the structure, whereby the characters interject their comments into the narrative, as if interrupting a speaker. This happens often before those characters are formally introduced. It happens regularly, most of the content of those interruptions is pointless, and they’re just an irritating distraction from the flow of the story. The whole idea also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, because… well it’s written down. Are they supposed to be marginal notes? If so, why are they mid-narrative? Or are we meant to assume this is actually a recording of a spoken text? Also, for a part of the story that’s meant to be the authentic voices of the characters, rather than them rendered for publishing… they’re awfully artificial sounding. It falls incredibly flat, and becomes increasingly annoying throughout the novel.

The characters likewise just don’t live up to scrutiny. The main protagonist is Mary Jekyll, daughter of the obvious person, and she’s a caricature of all things sensible. And that’s kind of her done? She never really deviates from that. The other characters likewise are associated with people from literature, and they can all be boiled down to one or two traits, and once you know those, can be predicted almost faultlessly. There’s nothing human to them, no substance, and if you’re writing this sort of ensemble cast, you need humanity and you need plausible relationships… which are also sorely lacking. All the interaction feels rote and lifeless. There’s no soul to any of it.

The plot, meanwhile, is flimsy and stupid. It’s not a proper murder mystery, because you keep getting maguffins you couldn’t have predicted, without which the solution is impossible. And some of them are completely out there. Meanwhile, the plot twists aside from that are laughably predictable. We’re talking spending half the book waiting for something obvious to happen levels of predictable. The author’s idea of a hint is a brick to the face and it HURTS.

Then we get to the fact that the author deliberately evokes the Jack the Ripper murder victims in their choice of deaths, which is frankly a bit crass and tasteless.

In short, there is nothing worthwhile or redeemable about this book, and if it wins the Nebula I shall be bloody furious because it should never have been published. It is shockingly amateurish, without any sort of art, talent or skill, and I am so annoyed that it is by a fair margin, the most expensive of the Nebula nominees. It cost me £10 on Kindle, let alone to buy in hard copy. What a fucking waste. I cannot tell you how pissed off I was the entire way through (I started screenshotting to twitter again so people could share my pain).

Even if you like Steampunk, even if you like trash, this book is utter shit and to be avoided. It does the worst of what Victoriana often evokes, while being shoddily written, shoddily plotted, and with the depth and soul of a wet rich tea biscuit. It was sickening and I regret every moment of my life devoted to that godawful tripe.

As such, my current Nebula standings run:

  1. Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (somehow, in the land of the shite, the mediocre man is king)
  2. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz (I am sad I have read something so shit that this isn’t in bottom place)
  3. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss

Please dear fucking god let the rest be better. I beg you.

 

*I don’t like it and never have, but eh, do what you want in your free time, just don’t involve me. I don’t seek it out, I do just fine.
**Ok actually, this is my blog and I can do this bit if I want – fanfiction is inherently less creative than proper fiction. Yes, all fiction owes a debt to a lot of stuff coming before it, but no, that does not mean vast swathes of great literature are inherently fanfiction***. There is a big difference between intertextuality/inspiration/influence and “I wrote these exact characters but they work in a coffee shop now”.
***People who say “but x is actually fanfic!” for values of x ranging from “The Aeneid” to “basically all modern literature ever”, I will fight you. I have a whole fucking rant about this.

Posted in All, Blacklist, Detective/Mystery, Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Unknown

17739456Someone, naming no names, is a massive nerd, and because he reads things like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his Goodreads account is now relentlessly determined he should be reading The Lais of Marie de France. Doesn’t matter what book he has just finished, Goodreads thinks “hey, because you read a book about the dystopian future where intellectual property laws have gone bonkers, I bet you’re dying to read some 12th century Breton poetry, huh?”. Needless to say, I have found this deeply amusing. However, one cannot be often around such levels of nerdery without sometimes being nudged into joining it. Sometimes this means listening to a grown man flying little plastic spaceships around the dining room table crying “pew pew pew”; sometimes this means arguing about whether Legolas is awesome (spoilers yes) and elves are the best LOTR race (spoilers also yes); and sometimes, this means getting persuaded into engaging with translations of 14th century Middle English chivalric romances. It’s a hard life, I’m sure you agree. Especially the bit where we were trying to work out how to pronounce the original language and had to look up some letters that don’t get used anymore so we could try to read the excerpt of the original in the proper pronunciation and metre.

*happy sigh* I do love scansion.

Anyway. For all that I like historical stuff, Middle English, Old English and tbh a lot of English stuff is not normally my thing. I am not often super interested in chivalry, Arthuriana and all that jazz, because y’know… Romans are cool. So I don’t know a lot about it, and it’s really fun to get into when I do, because it’s a whole new learning time. So reading this did involve some amount of wikipedia, which was great fun.

I suppose, to some extent, the actual text of the poem is only a small part of my experience and enjoyment here. It wasn’t like reading a book – the story was too short, too enclosed – and the enjoyment came instead from things like reading the introduction and learning about the structure and the metre, especially as the story itself is one that should be fairly familiar to most people, and certainly was to me. Which makes it really hard to critique, but I’ll do my best.

It’s a very stylised poem, rendered slightly loosely by the translation. I think I felt the absence of some of the alliteration that could not easily be rendered in Modern English (if you compare the to excerpt of the original text) but the author has done a pretty solid job of hanging on to the rhythm, and it seems to be very much a rhythmical poem. I found myself muttering bits of it out loud to myself as I was really enjoying the sound of reading it. It also is heavily focussed on some really lovely imagery around the changing of the seasons, as well as beautiful descriptions of Arthur’s courtly banquet.

The author also did a great job of providing a lot of the context I needed to Get what the poem was doing, but even then I did feel like I was missing out – some of the chivalric stuff, exactly how Gawain was supposed to behave when the wife of his host tries to seduce him, kind of escaped me. I just… don’t have the knowledge to really feel how what happened relates to what was supposed to happen, and a brief explanation isn’t sufficient for me to read it and feel like I can get there. It’s a very brief edition, it can’t do everything, but that was the point where I really felt my ignorance.

That being said, I really did enjoy the stiffness and structure of it, the formality of the relationships. There’s a huge sense that there’s a load of contextual politeness lying behind every bit of dialogue – I don’t know what it is, but I can see it being there and it’s just… sort of cool to see the shape of it.

But, well, it’s a relatively short poem so it doesn’t have a lot of the usual story elements to comment on. Characterisation a) takes time and b) probably wasn’t necessarily high on the poet’s list of priorities, or at least not in a modern sense. You’re not reading real people and getting a sense of them, who they are and their priorities – you’re being told some things in an artful way and maybe getting a message out of it. If this were a modern text, sure, I might not enjoy that. But that’s not what this is or what it’s trying to do, so judging it by those standards feels like a waste of time.

I don’t know to what extent this poem was written to be spoken aloud – I hope a great extent, because it felt really… speakable to me. And I can only imagine that would increase the joy of the imagery, to have someone pronouncing it, to get the effect of the alliteration and the rhythm in full force, alongside watching the change of seasons, the natural imagery, and particularly the parts about Gawain’s hardship out in the weather, suffering through hail and sleet in his armour. It evokes very clear pictures in one’s mind, and that’s a beautiful thing, whenever it comes from. I don’t know if that was the aim, or the point, but I love it, and it’s the thing from the poem that sticks with me most vividly.

I suppose the only thing I’m not super keen on is the structure, and to some extent this is down to the translation, but also just me. The short breaks between the longer sections of main rhythm are weird to me because they don’t seem to come at regular intervals – I want to understand why this short bit is here and not there, and there’s nothing really to clarify that… but that may be just my innate love of pattern, symmetry and order talking.

Over all though, I really enjoyed this, both for rhythmic poetry that wanted to be spoken aloud, and for the learning experience of a period of literature I am super ignorant on.

I… am now sort of out of stuff to say. Cool poem, cool language, lovely vivid imagery, weird historicalness. YAY.

Look, reviewing Middle English poetry is hard ok. You try it.

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I Kill Giants – Joe Kelly, JM Ken Niimura

i-kill-giants-by-joe-kelly-on-bookdragon-594x800It’s been a while since I read a book because I was going to see the film. I mean, I also read this because I was lent it and hey, free book-reading (and it sounded good – tiny girl with giant hammer? I’m sold…), but yes, film. I hope to see it. It looks cool. And having read the book, I’m even more excited to see it, because it totally wasn’t what I expected at all. It was… really psychological? I really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, the film seems to have garnered incredibly negative reviews (from the places I see film reviews, which is hardly an exhaustive list), so I shall have to see how that goes, if we get around to seeing it soon enough that I can compare accurately (will try to update here if so… if I don’t forget). Not that film reviews are always 100% accurate for my tastes, but a one star is pretty damning and something that does suggest “proceed with vastly lower expectations”, if nothing else.

What really surprised me about this book, though, is I didn’t super love the art, and yet at no point did it get in the way of me really really liking the book. Normally, if I meh/dislike the art, it does really undercut how much I enjoy the book. And the black and white art here – though I totally see why it was being used for this specific story – really did not work for me. There were parts when I definitely felt the absence of colours, especially early on reading, because I was struggling to parse some of the pictures – the combination of messy art style and monochrome just gave me a lot fewer clues to unpick some of the panels than I might otherwise get. Which was… quite frustrating, I’ll admit. And yet, once I got over the initial realisation I’d have to put in a bit more effort… I didn’t actually mind. It never stopped being a bit irritating, but it at no point really changed my opinion of the book – the story was worth it, or maybe rose above it (which probably isn’t true, given how clearly the style of art is rooted in the story as a whole… I don’t know).

I wasn’t really sure what I expected of the story – the cover and the film poster both focus on the small girl/big hammer aesthetic, so I was sort of anticipating something light and chirpy… but it is neither of those things. Instead, it is a book closely wedded to the mindset of a protagonist through whose view – and definitely it is a child’s view, well told – we see the world. And while it follows a fairly linear story on the one hand, around the giants mentioned in the title, fundamentally, that’s not what this is about. As with many of my favourite stories, it’s about people, and relationships and character growth, and it digs in deep to get that.

That being said, I don’t particularly love Barbara, the protagonist. I sympathise hugely with her – it would be hard not to, given what she goes through and how well she’s written – but I don’t like her. She seems very real, but part of that realness is… you get a real sense of her personality and character, and for me, that meant clocking pretty early one she wasn’t the sort of person I like. It got in the way a little bit. Not because it made it harder to sympathise, but because the whole book is so focussed on her, and I don’t love her… I don’t know, I wanted someone to latch onto. None of that is really criticism – I imagine a lot of people do love and connect to Barbara, and certainly that realness to her is an absolute positive in the character writing – but it meant the book didn’t land perfectly for me.

Other than that, I don’t have much in the way of criticism. The pacing was flawless, and it managed to carry off being grim with grace and balance, so it never tipped into feeling egregious – often because it only paid exactly the right amount of attention to each aspect of grim, never lingering over long. It also trusted the reader to take a hint, and trust in their intuition about what was going on, which I massively appreciate in books. Most people probably aren’t idiots – you don’t need to hammer home your point as if they are.

Overall, it was a very well done book, well-balanced and well thought out. It did a different take to what I was expecting it, and covered a sensitive subject with grace and gentleness that its silly premise belies. That I did not connect to the protagonist is no flaw of the book, merely one of preference, and I would not let it stop anyone from reading. If you need good art to get through, this may not be for you, but otherwise, it’s a really solid, thoughtful read that shows the breadth of what graphic novels can cover – it’s not all silly, even when it seems like it might be.

 

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Folk – Zoe Gilbert

9781408884393I maaaay have bought this partially on the strength of the cover. It’s just so pretty! And when you have as little blurb as I did when I first came across it, the cover does make a huge difference… to be honest, I think picking books by their covers is entirely valid in most cases anyway? The cover is designed to appeal to presumably the target market of the book. If a cover appeals to me, there’s a good chance I am the target market for that book, so I may well enjoy it. Ditto for the inverse – there are plenty of features I’m used to seeing and dismissing on covers, having read enough books for which that feature and me not liking the book are correlated to use it as a valid metric. Sure, it’s not 100% proof (especially if the cover I see is the US one, which seem to be near-universally dire), but it has, on the whole, steered me fairly well and I’m not going to stop using it when browsing in shops. Or on the Guardian website, in this case. It was not a bad decision here at all.

The blurb I got (seeing it, as I did, before the book came out) was:

The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place.

The air hangs rich with the coconut-scent of gorse and the salty bite of the sea. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline.

The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments.

Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms, haunted by horses and her father’s wishes.

As the tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation, their earthy desires, resentments, idle gossip and painful losses create a staggeringly original world. Crackling with echoes of ancient folklore, but entirely, wonderfully, her own, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a dark, beautiful and intoxicating debut.

Which, while definitely enticing, is not a huge amount to go on. So yeah, the cover mattered.

And, as I say, it worked. Because, not to point too fine a point on it, this book is fantastic. The prose is beautiful, the imagery vivid and strange, and the stories interweave to form a peculiar, coherent and mesmerising whole by the time you get to the end. At the start, each story seems relatively self-contained – maybe it mentions one character from the previous story, or a place – but as the book goes on, they build and build until each story interleaves with the others, linking each character into the lives of their whole community. You finish with a sense of interconnectedness, of a village where no action goes without impact on those around it, where no tale can be told in isolation. Leaving aside just how enjoyable it was to read, it’s also stunningly clever, when you sit back and think how much the author has done to bring it to this point. It is a book to finish, then sit back and think “wow”.

Aside from the structure – though that is what will leave the most lasting impression on me, I suspect – there’s a lot to be said for the world building and character development too. Neverness, a village in an unspecified time and location, yet still somehow faintly placeable and familiar, is wonderfully evoked, and slowly. Each story focuses inward, on the people and happenings within, but manages to build detail upon detail of the world the book is so firmly rooted in it could not be divorced. There’s a map at the front, presumably in case you need to think about how the places described interconnect, but I never felt the need to go back to it after my initial look – everything makes sense, you don’t need visual aids to fit it together. It feels intimately told too – a landscape known personally and in detail by someone who has spent their life there. I don’t know if this is legitimately true and it evokes scenes from the author’s life, or if she is just that bloody good, and I don’t care – if you can’t tell the difference, what does it matter? But it is the richness in the details, the flowers on the gorse, the noise of the bees, that really cement it in the reader’s mind. They feel like the details one would focus on in the immediacy of the moment, rather than what would linger, and it roots each story into the mind as the crucial now. And that makes it nearly impossible to put the book down.

And then the characters. You watch them each grow and change, seen through their own eyes and others, sympathetic then distant then incomprehensible by turns. When you follow each one in their own story, you cannot help but love them… only to have it turned around in someone else’s tale, rendering them strange and difficult. You can’t pick a favourite really, since they’re all so endearing in their own ways, but May, who wants to be a violin master, would be mine if you forced me to. She’s told through the eyes of her father, and the story is sad and cruel and yet satisfying.

That mixture – sadness and nastiness and yet a satisfying end – is what makes this feel most strongly like a true modern interpretation of the fairy tale. It’s that sense of mystery rooted in the real, in a world that is horrible and unreal by turns, that makes it magical, but it sits alongside truly realistic characters, making it feel that much more immediate and true, immaterial and vivid all at once. It captures the essence of a fairy tale and retells it for a grown up reader, makes it matter all over again, and that is beautiful.

Likewise, it has a peculiar way of drawing together, so that as each story progresses, the world you are in feels smaller and smaller, the edges each defined by the previous tale, until finally, there is very little new, and yet everything is still wonderful. All the characters have been set out, all the places seen, all the secrets told, and here you are in the middle, knowing them all, but still wondering at them, just as the story starts to turn again – it’s a story of a generation of life in this strange village, and it ends with the feeling that it’s about to renew, bringing a new set of stories with new characters, the next generation… and yet that what it has told you is somehow timeless and permanent, and all of it will roll around again, the same in spirit if not in detail.

It is a genuinely mesmerising book, and one of the best written things I’ve read in the last year. For something so small, it does a lot of work, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves good writing and a mystery and magic that is somehow out of reach, to anyone who loves a cast of whole and real people. It is brilliant and beautiful and I love it, and I will absolutely be seeking out anything else Gilbert writes.

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The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell (reread)

513bcs6cn1l-_sx297_bo1204203200_Shockingly, I still like this book.

I’m not going to discuss the  book as itself much, as I’ve already done that here. My views are roughly the same, more or less. Maybe some amount less fuss about what I’m supposed to be taking away from it. What I’m more interested in discussing is the extent to which the book is totally different reading it a second time… which does mean spoilers (sorry, I’ll try to stop this for my next three books, all of which are new to me and not end of a series, so should be entirely viable). If you have not read to the end of the book once already DO NOT READ. There will be spoilers and they will be ruinous to your experience of the book and I don’t want to be held accountable. So be told. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy reading it now I know what happens, but that’s a bit different. I definitely think the experience of the first read through should remain unsullied by my whittering. So get thee gone, yes?

Right.

The whole point of reading the book the first time, is you think you know what has happened – you get the flashbacks and past narratives alongside the present/future thread – and yet you consistently learn that you were wrong. And when you finally think you’ve got the whole story, near the end, Russell pulls the rug out from under you and shows you how wrong you were, and how much more awful and yet captivating the whole thing was after all. It’s a story where you rethink what you know again and again, and where everything rushes together at the end in a glorious moment of making sense.

So how on earth does it go when you know what’s coming?

Firstly, it’s somehow even sadder than reading it the first time, which is pretty impressive. It’s an incredibly sad book, however beautiful, and knowing what’s coming, knowing all the deaths you’re going to see, knowing what Emilio is going to face, seeps into the wonder of the early parts of the story and makes his steady path to happiness seem incredibly bittersweet. You don’t want him to keep getting happier because each moment of happiness brings him closer to the inevitable pain. You don’t want to enjoy each scene with Anne or Sofia or DW because you know each scene you have them is one closer to their deaths. Every good moment in the book is brutally undercut by your knowledge of what comes later, and it is painful and vivid and unrelenting.

Which makes it sound less good, yes? And yet it’s not. I’m not saying it’s better, because I’m not sure at all that that’s true, but it’s a wholly different experience, rather than a superior one. For all the sadness, yes, you’re seeing things that you missed the first time, that point you toward what’s coming – you see warning signs you never spotted and tut at your past self, while seeing just how clever Russell really was all along. She left clues you didn’t see, and made reading it a second time a different joy, mainly one of appreciating just how good she really was.

But I was also reading it in light of having read the sequel, Children of God, which is itself a wholly different book, and that too casts a strange light on things. It doesn’t take the sadness away, but it reminds you that there’s more beyond that sadness, and that there’s more beyond this one book. It widens your experience of reading it beyond the moment you’re in at each point – as does having reread it – all the experiences you see link into multiple later points, layering up sadness and recovery into a strange and satisfying whole. It’s not better or worse, but it is different, and it is very very clever.

Sometimes the problem with knowing characters’ actions when rereading is the desire to stop them doing something stupid – knowing the future, you think “if only they hadn’t done this” or “this is a bad decision”. But here – for all that I do in many ways wish things had been different for them, because I  loved them all so much and didn’t want them to suffer – nothing they do really feels wrong or bad. There’s no decision that feels like it could have been changed, because they were all right in the moment, and re-experiencing them does nothing to change that. Likewise, for all we know what’s coming and reinterpret the characters in light of their later actions, it seems impossible not to love the characters anyway. Even when we know the worst that they do, they still feel admirable, and that’s pretty wonderful.

Likewise, even knowing exactly how it ends (and then goes on into the sequel), Emilio’s spiritual journey, his movement toward the mystic they all wonder at and his falling in love with god, only to feel betrayed at the most intimate and crucial moment of his relationship, it still retains the power. Because like the characters and their actions generally, it has that feeling of rightness and inevitability – nothing about it could or should have been changed, even though you want to (and my god you want to have given him a different story) – the story feels immutable, unchangeable by the reader who knows what’s coming. There’s nothing we can suggest, no amount of “if only” that would seem to remedy the situation. And that’s an impressing level of completeness.

One of my metrics, when asked to list my favourite books, is always re-readability. Does the book stand the test of coming back, knowing what happens, and still deliver something worth having? Does it step above the simplicity of “I wonder what happens next” and give you something timeless? I suspect I set this bar lower than many do, as I reread a lot of books – some many times – and still get a lot out of them, but more than most, The Sparrow passes that bar and then some. The best books reward revisiting by providing the reader with a new and different experience once you know what’s coming, and this absolutely is one of the best books. It has stood rereading and come out the better, as a text embedded with more than just one time can reveal – it doesn’t just reward rereading but it demands it.

And there’s not much higher praise than that, really.

 

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Within the Sanctuary of Wings – Marie Brennan

sanctuarywings-fullcover

And finally, I reach the end of the saga. While I’m sad it was only five books – I could happily have clung on for ages more – it is always heartening when they stop before it gets daft or just not good any more. And I think this was the right point for the series to stop – we reach the conclusion it’s been heading for inevitably (well, several of those, in fact), and for all that’s it’s not the end of the story, per se, it feels like the best point it could have ended. Anything more probably would have felt like dragging it out, considering the fairly fast pace it’s moved at most of the way through.

And it was a pretty satisfying conclusion, to be honest. Though to discuss it, yep, you guess it, spoilers. It’s hard to write about the fifth book in a series without risking giving something away (and I know quite a few people midway through this series, so it is a risk). So, you were warned, from hence, here be dragons, so to speak.

Obviously the main thread of the series has been Isabella’s fight for recognition – it’s what has driven a lot of the narrative decisions – and a lot of the satisfaction here was getting a conclusion to that. But it also concludes a story I hadn’t entirely thought was as crucial to the plot as it turned out to be – the uncovering of the truth about the Draconeans. Because sure, they’ve always been mentioned and discussed in the background of the books, but Isabella’s discussion always dismissed them as not integral to what was going on. And so it was a shock when the final book, and somewhat out of the blue, turned out to be focussed purely on this – especially as it starts out in the usual way of Isabella finding out about something dragon-related and wanting to go have a look-see. But then, when it did turn out to be the big plot point… it did actually make sense, and did feel like maybe it was something we’d been building to all along, just fairly subtly. Which is a pretty neat trick to pull off.

But – and it’s not a big but because I still gave it 4 on Goodreads – it did also come across a touch ridiculous. Logical, sensible, natural progression of the story… but a touch ridiculous to conclude your story about becoming a respected dragon scientist by… [VERY SPOILERS] finding a species of sentient dragon/human hybrids. It was… a bit out there.

But it sort of worked? It’s weird.

So the last couple of books in the series do a lot of work in cementing “developmental lability” of unhatched dragons in the mind of the reader – the idea that the environment and conditions around the egg affect the dragon that hatches from it. And when you get to the reveal in the final book… well, that all makes sense. It’s a lot of pretty competent foreshadowing, because it all felt really natural as part of the pseudo-scientific discovery feel of the whole story, rather than dropping hints that something is going to come of it, or nothing more than another discovery she could use to angle herself some clout. It was a massive surprise when it turned out to have been foreshadowing dragon people, and that did a lot to undermine the fundamental ridiculousness of the whole thing; it’s clearly been the plan all along. But there is still that residual “wow this got silly suddenly”.

Aside from that? It maintains the standards of the rest of the book – good characters well described, a lovable narrator with a definitely enticing voice. I think it does a slightly better job of things than books 3 and 4, but only because it’s bringing the story to a close so has a greater sense of purpose, as well as bringing threads to conclusion. The place is describes is possibly slightly less interesting than some of the other books, but eh?

Mainly though, what it does do is give everyone a happy ending. It’s that sort of happy, escapist book, and it does exactly what you expect – it gives you the link from the person Isabella was in book one, to the person she is as the older, wiser narrator. It also gives her and Tom the appreciation they deserve (or at least some of it) and signals that the future for them is one of slow improvement. So it ends the tale, if not the whole story, with optimism and an awareness of some form of happy ever after, such as it could be in context. Which, indeed, is what escapist fantasy is for. Is it the best book/series I’ve ever read? Of course not. Was it immensely fun from start to finish and likely to be future comfort reading? Absolutely.

I am also glad to see it included in the Hugo nominees for Best Series, for all that I think that category is ridiculous. I doubt it will win (it faces The Stormlight Archive after all, among others), but it’s good to see it getting recognition.

As an aside, I am spurred by my current reading (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, for the Nebulas) to be quite grateful that Marie Brennan seems to be an awful lot better than basically all other Americans at writing the Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) world. It’s not twee and insipid. This is unusual and much appreciated.

No, I am not enjoying the Nebulas so far, funny you should ask…

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