Monday 1 February 2021

Politics: On vaccines, the EU, and Brexit

So, last week, the EU caused massive outrage in the UK with plans to prevent vaccines produced in the EU from entering Northern Ireland. How did we get here? Is the EU being evil, or reasonable? Who are the bad guys and the good guys in all this mess. Unsurprisingly, I have opinions.

Let's start with the obvious: 

The UK government has been consistently terrible at managing the pandemic and public health, but highly effective at securing a supply of vaccines. The death rate in the UK has put it on a par with Brazil, USA, and Russia in terms of mismanaged pandemic response policies.

The EU has been terrible at securing a supply of vaccines, while all its member countries have handled the pandemic differently, some better than others (and with variable effectiveness at different times).

How did we get here?

Back in early 2020, when it became clear that Covid-19 was going to be a global pandemic, research labs started working on vaccines. The EU offered the UK to join a purchasing scheme. The UK government was not interested.

The sequence of events after that is not quite clear to me. There was some media outrage (among Remainers and left-leaning media) when it was discovered that the UK had refused to join the EU purchasing scheme, and the pandemic hit the UK hard (much harder than the government admitted to, at the time). Soon, the UK government announced contracts with several pharma companies. What is unclear is: was the UK already negotiating as soon as it snubbed the EU, or did the media outrage prompt the UK government to negotiate quickly? 

Either way, the UK (and US, and Israel) pre-ordered vaccines in a spending spree. The governments decided to buy their way out of the crisis, applying a massive dose of what they now, in hypocritical outrage, call "vaccine nationalism": a me-first attitude, trying to ensure that they would get vaccines before any other country.

The EU, meanwhile, took longer. EU member states, including the wealthiest ones, decided to buy together and distribute the vaccines equitably within the block. Which is not to say that there was no "vaccine nationalism" - it was just "vaccine supranationalism": While Portugal, Greece, or Romania might not be near the front of the queue for vaccines if they had to compete with Germany and France, the EU as a whole has of course been able to place itself ahead of Africa, Latin America, and less wealthy nations all over the globe. So while European solidarity was part of the EU decisions, it was strictly an internal solidarity. (I am disregarding the token Covax scheme, which is barely a fig leaf for all the richest nations' "me-first"-attitudes).

Admittedly, it is the EU, and US, and UK (as well as Russia, China, etc.) who funded much of the Covid vaccine research. EU subsidies helped build vaccine factories in the past. So being near the front of the vaccine distribution queue is somewhat justified.

Be that as it may: now, in 2021, we get a glimpse of how Brexit and "vaccine nationalism" went on behind the scenes:

  • The UK, EU and USA signed firm commitments for many times their own populations with various vaccine manufacturers. 
  • The UK apparently stipulated in its contracts (at least with AstraZeneca) that UK vaccine deliveries had to be fulfilled before any other nations' orders. (So, what was all that outrage over "vaccine nationalism" about? No one aside from Trump has been more "vaccine nationalist" than BoJo's government.) 
  • The EU negotiated set delivery amounts following vaccine approval in specific timeframes (as opposed to spelling out that their orders had to be fulfilled before any others)
  • The EU signed contracts which clearly defined that, for the purposes of vaccine production, UK facilities were to be counted among EU production facilities by pharma manufacturers. 
  • The EU bought its vaccines "at cost" - manufacturers committed to not making a profit (or loss). 
  • It seems plausible that the UK might be paying a premium to ensure it gets vaccines delivered first.

 As we see with the AstraZeneca debacle, some of the contracts could only work if everything went to plan. Could AstraZeneca deliver the EU orders using just the Belgian and Dutch facilities? If there had been no problems, maybe. But AstraZeneca did sign contracts committing the UK plants to be producing vaccines for two competing markets - so both the UK and the EU can point at their contracts and demand output of those factories, now that there is a shortfall compared to AZ's promises and predictions. The fact that AstraZeneca is prioritising its commitments to the UK over its commitments to the EU could have various reasons: the political leanings of the managers, a fear that the UK would block exports anyway, or perhaps they earn more money per dose from the UK purchase compared to the EU purchase.

So who are the villains of the piece?

The UK, whose Brexiteer government put vaccine nationalism on the agenda in Europe and decided to outcompete the EU with all the maturity of someone yelling "shotgun" when a bunch of "friends" are about to get into a car? Who now tap into nationalist brouhaha with their "hands off our jabs" rhetoric?

The EU, who failed to react swiftly once Britain turned vaccine pre-ordering into a race, and who kept purse strings foolishly tight during negotiations? Who are trying to enforce their contract by any means they can think of?

AstraZeneca, who signed contracts with competing entities promising things it turned out to be unable to deliver, and who then decided to let only one of the partners suffer the entire shortfall, rather than distributing the burden of the shortfall across all their contracts evenly? 

Well, obviously the latter, but neither the EU nor the UK come out of this debacle looking good. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a very low opinion of BoJo. So, at this point, I'd like to mention one of the big factors in the EU's failure:

Ursula von der Leyen 

Before she became the president of the European Commission, von der Leyen was a politician in Germany. When Germany managed to shunt her into Europe, I was dismayed. Liberal media might celebrate "the first woman president of the EU", and her academic pedigree might have seemed impressive: she was also a physician who had previously studied economics at the London School of Economics. On paper, that all sounded good.

On paper.

What people outside Germany don't realise is just what an inept manager von der Leyen is. (She is also one of the many politicians in the German-speaking world whose academic pedigree has come under attack for plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation)

The things I mostly remember about her is her mismanagement of her role as defence minister. Two particular scandals stand out:

  • The Berateraffäre: Under her management, the German armed forces spent huge amounts of money on consultants. Contracts for consultants were awarded without following due process and it is alleged that favouritism played a large role. The pay received by consultants was truly exorbitant - even for consultants. In other words, it is alleged that money was funnelled from the (chronically underfunded) German military to consultancies, and specifically, to friends and acquaintances of the people awarding the contracts. Von der Leyen's knowledge of and involvement in this is unclear - she arranged for the data on her mobile phone to be irretrievably erased when the public inquiry demanded it be handed over for investigation, while other information was blackened out in paper files (despite this being prohibited for those specific files).
  • The Gorch Fock: the Gorch Fock is a ship used for training purposes by the German navy. In 2015, it was sent for repairs, with the refurbishments of the ship estimated to cost 10 million Euros. Under von der Leyen's management, the repairs were continued as costs increased and increased. The latest estimate is 135 million Euros (the repairs are not yet complete, as far as I know), and, unsurprisingly. there are allegations that one of the factors driving the costs up is corruption and money being funneled to individuals who are enriching themselves. 

Now, 135 million Euros does not sound much for a ship run by the navy, does it? All that high-tech equipment, those modern weapons, even a training ship is expensive...

This is the Gorch Fock (in 1980):

Along with the BER airport, DB's punctuality record, the Stuttgart railway station and the Diesel-scandal, the Gorch Fock is one of those scandals that remind Germans that the national reputation for efficiency, engineering, hard work, and honesty is, in the end, good PR, but not necessarily something with substance behind it. It is a fragile reputation indeed.

So perhaps it is those past scandals that led von der Leyen to negotiate for vaccines like Ebeneezer Scrooge buying coal to heat the office of his employees. Perhaps, conscious of her new role on the world stage, she wanted a fresh start, and tried to pre-empt any accusations of waste and corruption by being miserly with the vaccine contracts. This, with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be a massive mistake.

The EU ordered late.

The EU ordered much greater quantities of the cheapest vaccines, and smaller quantities of the expensive ones. It turned out that the expensive ones were ready first, and more effective. It also turned out that the pandemic did return, forcefully, in winter, and that the first wave was not the end of it.

The EU ordered vaccines and stipulated they had to be delivered at cost. Reasonable, given that much of the research was funded by the EU, but not exactly an incentive for the companies to prioritise the European orders when other nations are willing to pay premium rates in the hopes of patching up their economies quickly.

With Biontech/Pfizer and AstraZeneca being behind on their schedules, and the latter making it clear that it would prioritise the UK over the EU, von der Leyen is now fighting for her political life. Putting pressure on AstraZeneca, launching raids on their factories, contemplating partial suspension of NI protocols... these are all desperate menoeuvres by an inept manager trying to save her bacon.

I believe that Germany and other European nations were absolutely right to opt for a joint purchase of vaccines, and that European solidarity was the right ideal to follow. In the era of autocrats and nationalism, Europe was always going to have to compete with the USA, with Russia, with China - there is no love lost between different blocks. But ordering together at least meant that Romania does not have to compete with Germany, that at least some human solidarity is part of the purchasing process. I also think that BoJo's vaccine nationalism was pretty deplorable, and British ministers crying foul now are hypocritical beyond belief. The UK took out its knives, and should not fake surprise that the EU is now trying to play hardball, too. (Yay for mixed metaphors).

Unfortunately, von der Leyen f***ed up the vaccine orders, and BoJo's "buying his way out of trouble" approach turned out to have some rewards. Never mind that 100,000 Brits died because he f***ed up everything else.

Who are the villains of the piece? The lot of them. The UK government, von der Leyen, AstraZeneca's managers, Trump, Russia, China... the only heroes are the healthcare workers and the scientists who developed the vaccines, and maybe the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Thursday 25 June 2020

Book review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

It's been a while since I wrote a review. I've been in a reading slump, which started last year and only got worse due to 2020 being the lovely year it is. So when I read a book that actually got its hooks into me - a book that rekindled some of my enthusiasm for reading - I figured it's only fair to review it.

The Twisted Ones was that book. The story starts with our narrator arriving at the house that used to belong to her recently deceased grandmother. Her father, too ill himself to deal with the problem, has asked her to sort it. Unable to turn down a request for help, she is there to clear it and get it ready to be sold.

Unfortunately for her, the house turns out to be filled to the brim with stuff: her grandmother had been a hoarder. Newspapers, kitchenware, packaging, creepy dolls...  Staying in the crowded, claustrophobic, malevolent house, she stumbles across a diary written by her long-deceased Welsh step-grandfather, Cotgrove, written in the last years of his life as his mind was starting to fade. Some of his thoughts seem to veer to the edge of reality, and, perhaps, beyond...

The Twisted Ones is a horror novel. My own experience with horror is relatively mixed: as a fiction reader, I was easier to scare when I was young. These days, it's mostly the real world that scares me. That said, The Twisted Ones attached itself to the fear receptors in my brain with intentions most foul, and cheerfully twisted all the fear-neurons into a neat Celtic knot.

The book builds up its uncanny fairly gradually. It is very cinematic in some ways: there are sounds and glimpsed movements and for a long time, nothing unambiguously sinister occurs. Our narrator's dog Bongo sometimes growls at the darkness (while being totally gormless at other times). In fact, the story is at its scariest at these moments, when our narrator and Bongo are alone in a cluttered house, in the countryside, and the dog senses something outside, or needs to be taken outside to pee...

This is a T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon novel, though, so there is a strong sense of humour as well. Not to mention a cast of likeable characters for our narrator to befriend and spend increasing amounts of time with as the story goes on. The book might well have been a lot scarier if our narrator had been left alone with her dog for the duration of the tale, but it wouldn't have been a T Kingfisher novel. As a reader, I was quite happy for the book to trade in some terror and gain some warm fuzzy feelings, but I imagine others might feel differently about that. At the same time, those warm and fuzzy feelings about characters brought with them a degree of tension: our narrator pretty much told us right at the start that she and Bongo survived the ordeal of this tale, but she never gave us such assurances about any of the friends she made along the way...

The Twisted Ones is a brilliant novel. It manages to be genuinely scary, and when it runs out of terror, it amps up the tension instead. The story has the warmth and wit of Ursula Vernon / T Kingfisher at her best. And, best of all, I found it pretty unputdownable, even in the middle of the worst reading slump I have had in years.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 3 November 2019

Review: Lilian's Spell Book by Toby Litt

Lilian's Spell Book starts out like many a traditional gothic haunted house horror novel. A family inherit a mansion in the countryside from a distant uncle. There are odd conditions in the will (they must practice Catholicism and not sell anything). Lawyers seem to discourage them from taking up their inheritance, and there is a woman cleaning the house and a gardener who seem... very peculiar. Not to mention oodles of foreshadowing and ominous "Little did I know that everything would get real scary after this" type chapter endings that would make early Stephen King proud.

But, at some point, the book turns. The painting that is filled with personality and presence does not seem malevolent. Our narrator (the mother) may experience fear and terror and unusual events occurring, and lots of stuff happens so only she can see / experience it, but for all the Gothic stuff, all the Hitchcockian elements, she starts to feel more and more at home in the house. Plus, she spends about half the book nursing her baby and herding her raucous little boy about the place, which is strangely grounding in a novel of the Gothic supernatural. At times the small community of people living in the nearby tiny village seem more worthy of distrust than her haunted home...

Lilian's Spell Book was a surprise. I was drawn in very quickly at the start, and for a while I was impressed that the haunted-house genre could still be eery. But the change in direction, the increasing reliance on wonder rather than fear as emotional engine of the plot is something I have never really seen done before in a story. Or perhaps not in a story for adults: Fear-then-wonder makes me think of Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, of children being orphaned or kidnapped before they have adventures, of Jules Verne novels. Adult stories tend to be fear-then-more-fear or wonder-then-fear like Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, even Lord of the Rings. Lilian's Spell Book has a strange rhythm for a literary novel for grownups - but I rather liked that.

Which isn't to say that the book is without tension: I was not sure whether to trust our narrator's instincts, and there are some pretty dangerous things going on. The children are occasionally imperilled and stuff happens to them (which a reader who likes babies or children might have a stronger response to than I did). Also, the book is slightly uncanny (but not entirely uncanny enough).
So, if you like gothic horror and wondrous, slightly uncanny adventure stories, and if you don't mind first person narration by a nursing, breastfeeding mother, then Lilian's Spell Book is well worth a look. Slightly unusual, surprisingly original, creepy and wondrous and fun: highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday 31 August 2019

Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

When G Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen, Cairo and Ms Marvel, writes a new novel, it goes immediately on my do-not-pass-go. go-straight-to-preorder list. So, naturally, I was quite excited when The Bird King was published a couple of months ago.

The Bird King is the story of Fatima, a concubine at the court of the last sultan in Spain, and Hassan, her gay friend and magically gifted map maker. Fatima is a young woman who wishes for nothing more than freedom (and who wouldn't say no to having a little power herself). Most of all, she resents her gilded cage. Hassan, meanwhile, is mostly trying to get by and scrounge enough food together despite living in a besieged and starving city. He uses his magical gifts mostly to entertain Fatima.

Things get complicated when the Spanish send emissaries to negotiate the surrender of the sultanate, and the withdrawal of Muslim rulers from Spain. Amongst the negotiators is Luz, a woman who is charming and intelligent, powerful yet diplomatic. Until Fatima spies her savagely kicking a stray dog in the night, Luz seems intriguing and wonderful compared to the bickering, gossiping, sniping women of the sultan's family and court.

Despite the harem/concubine setting, The Bird King is a book which carefully avoids being sensationalist / ogling / orientalist / fetishising the harem. Fatima is admired for her beauty by most people who meet her, but the book never turns into the sleaze that other harem stories tend to be.

I have never before read a book set in the Islamic period of Spain's history. Aside from vaguely knowing that "the Moors" had once conquered (much of?) Spain, leaving behind Moorish architecture and palaces, I know very little about that part of European history. So I was quite excited to read about places and times that I knew nothing about.

That excitement carried me a good way into the novel, which was good, as the narrative moves at its own pace. G Willow Wilson has the strange knack of writing a chase novel that does not read like a thriller: For most of the book, Fatima and Hassan are running away from pursuers, and eventually towards a mythical magical island that may or may not exist. And yet, despite the chase, the story does not quite build up a huge amount of tension.

One of the problems is that each encounter with the pursuers gets resolved, often in ways that make no logistical sense whatsoever. Sometimes, it feels as if the heroes escape from being surrounded by a highly mobile army by getting into something slow-moving (e.g. a boat) and everyone around them acts as if they'd taken over something fast and dangerous (e.g. a well-armed helicopter).

Basically, many of the action sequences in the novel feel (unintentionally) a bit like this:

...which detracts a bit from the tension.

The other thing which made me a bit less engaged with this novel than I'd hoped is that there is less of a sense of place and atmosphere than I'd expected. Once the story leaves behind the sultan's palace, Fatima and Hassan are on the run. They cross vast distances while avoiding to interact with anyone, lest they be discovered by pursuers. We realize that the Spanish Inquisition has just begun, but the book doesn't quite bring Spain to life. Fatima and Hassan could be Jews fleeing across Nazi controlled territories, or escaped slaves fleeing across the antebellum Southern states, or Western spies behind the Iron Curtain, or Hobbits sneaking around Mordor: somehow, the land they travel through feels deflatingly generic, and fairly empty.

In the end, The Bird King was an interesting novel, but it wasn't the masterpiece I expected and hoped for. It whet my appetite for finding out more about the time and place it was set in, but it left me a little frustrated that the book didn't fizz and sparkle with atmosphere.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday 3 August 2019

Book review: Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is the story of a teenage hacker living in a generic Arabic emirate somewhere in the Gulf region just before the Arab Spring. He's good with computers, but immature, and useless when it comes to girls.

When, after some girl trouble, Alif creates a clever little trojan that can identify a person online regardless of which device, handle, or website they use, and make them invisible to the person using the computer, he unwittingly makes himself the target of the state security forces. Add to that a delivery of a cryptic book of fairy tales (The 1001 Days), and the ominous realisation that his ex-girlfriend's future husband might just be the chief of the secret police, and things are not looking good at all for Alif...

Things come to a head. Alif, together with Dina, the devout girl living next door, have to run for their lives, stumbling into the realm of Vikram the Vampire and the djinn.

This was the second time I read Alif the Unseen, this time with Passau International Book Club. It was interesting to compare the book as it is with my memory of it. In my memory, this was a contemporary fantasy novel, filled with djinn and mythology and grand adventures. In reality, this book has a fairly slow start, gradually approaching the supernatural and slowly immersing its characters in their adventures. For a good while, this is simply a book about a stupid teenager being annoyingly stupid, in the Middle East.

As ever with G Willow Wilson, it's also a book about Islamic culture. In the graphic novel Cairo, she wrote about Egypt and featured a young American tourist who ended up much more immersed than she'd ever expected. In Alif the Unseen, she wrote about Muslims of varying degrees of devoutness, and the story features a young American woman who has converted to Islam (as the author herself has done). It's hard not to see the American characters are being a kind of avatar for the author, and the books as a bi-product of her own life journey.

Alif the Unseen is not an uncritical look at the people and cultures in the Gulf region - but it is very intentionally a book that is infused with religion and Islam. The most sensible and good characters are also the ones who are more devout, while all the mess is created by non-devout Muslims who play lip service to their religion. Characters have little rants about Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, or Western hopes of an Islamic Enlightenment.  In the world of Wilson's stories, Islam is Good. To give her credit, not-Islam is not Evil, but as a reader who views all religions as aberrations and poison, the obvious fondness for Islam in the book was a little annoying.

But, as I said, Wilson is not uncritical of the problems that beset Arabic cultures. Race and racism is a huge issue: Alif is a half-breed, with an Arab father and an Indian-born mother. Dina is of Egyptian descent. Both are not very high up the racial pecking order. Misogyny is a huge problem. Alif is basically a sexist little shit at the start of the story (though no more so than Western teenage boys were back when I was young, and presumably still are). The difference is that one gets a sense that growing out of misgoynystic thinking is distinctly more optional in this culture than it is in the West. (Well, then came Donald Trump and his "boy talk" and we are all reminded that some people's minds never move beyond the most puerile and sneering versions of themselves). The book even touches upon the fetishisation of women's virginity that is still a blight on women's freedoms in Arab countries.  Alif the Unseen shows the real world pretty much how it is, so it's a relief that much of the book is filled with magic and the mythical.

If you can stick with a gradual beginning, rather than the plunge-into-magic that most contemporary fantasy novels now employ, Alif the Unseen is absolutely worth your time. Its setting is different, authentic, and interesting. The book might have some religious themes in it, but it's a jolly good read, filled with authentic characters, some of whom grow over the course of the novel. And it's filled with adventure, dancing on the tightrope between scary oppressive regimes and magic and monsters. Best of all: this is not a grimdark, cynical, bitter book. At its heart, it believes in goodness in people, which makes the book a joy to read.

Rating: 4/5

Here's G Willow Wilson talking about her comic book series Ms Marvel:

Monday 24 June 2019

Review: The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

The October Man is a short novel set in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London / Peter Grant contemporary fantasy universe. Only it's not set in London and Peter Grant isn't in it...

When I first heard that Ben Aaronovitch was writing a novel set in Germany, I thought that meant Peter Grant was going on a bigger outing. So far, he's been to London, London, London, rural Hereford and London. I didn't realise it was going to be a spin-off about people who know of Peter Grant (thanks largely to spy agencies), but who have not appeared in any of the previous novels in the series. So I was quite intrigued when, some pages in, I finally realised that this book was going to be something different.

Tobias Winter, our protagonist and first person narrator, is a young German police officer specialising in the supernatural. He is apprenticed to Germany's number one (and only) police wizard. In The October Man, he gets sent to Trier to solve a gruesome murder in the German wine-growing region around the Mosel river, with the help of a local policewoman.

If that premise sounds a little... familiar... then it's because Tobias Winter is the German Peter Grant. The setup of the German magic police might not include a building like the Folly, but apart from that, it feels very, very familiar. There is even an enthusiastic forensic coroner of magic corpses who helps the team, and there are Rivers to talk to...

Tobias Winter also has a very similar narrative voice to Peter Grant. He might not comment about architecture (although he does comment about the history  of places a lot), but apart from that, he has the same sense of humour and wit, the same way of observing things, the same approach to modern policing. His parents might not be into jazz, but Tobias has the same bemused affection for them that Peter has for his...

After the conclusion of the faceless man arc in London, I can see why it must have been tempting for the author to escape to a different angle for a bit. However, it feels a tad disappointing that the different angle turns out to be not that different after all.

The October Man is a curious novel: it's fun and readable and has most of the things you love about the Rivers of London series. Except for the cast. But it has a cast of equivalents instead...

Its biggest advantage turned out not to be the different setting, but the more compact list of characters. Peter Grant's universe has grown to include a big crew of friends, colleagues and recurring characters: at times, Lies Sleeping had felt like an exercise in story logistics akin to pulling the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe together into a tentpole ensemble story. The October Man goes back to basics and echoes Rivers of London more than any other Peter Grant novel since. Its biggest weakness is that it manages to feel weirdly derivative of its own series. It's worth reading and good fun, even so.

Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday 20 June 2019

Review: Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell

There is something mildly unsettling about a title like "Queenslayer". Probably it's the fact that I am a bit of a sexist when it comes to matters of violence: male characters dying or suffering don't usually bother me (EXCEPT Wash in Serenity. Damn Whedon!), but female characters getting killed, even if they are Lady f***ing De Winter in the Three Musketeers or Ma-Ma in Dredd, that usually feels quite wrong. (The Spellslinger series has not been particularly soft on its female characters: the author has killed off a few ladies by now...)

Imagine my reaction when we meet the queen in this story and she turns out to be an 11-year-old girl:


Queenslayer is the fifth novel in the highly entertaining Spellslinger series of YA fantasy Westerns. As I said in my review of Soulbinder, the Spellslinger series is fun. It's made of fun. Our hero may be a self-deprecating young man, but his companion is a fierce and murderous squirrell-cat, and his adventures are fast, swashbuckling and exciting. At the same time, the books do have high drama, pathos, tension and enough peril to ensure that boredom is never an option.

Apparently, Queenslayer was the original draft, and the previous four novels were written as sort of prequels that led up to a rewrite of this novel for the author. I wouldn't have guessed - it feels like a natural continuation of the story arc so far. Kellen continues to make his way through the world as itinerant gambler, he continues to bluster and bluff and occasionally fight his way out of trouble, and Reichis is still the best business partner anyone might have.

In Queenslayer, Kellen and Reichis find themselves in trouble (aren't they always?) in the Daroman empire. After very nearly being executed for treason, Kellen enters the service of the young Queen. Cue intrigue, conspiracies, and murder most foul.

While we meet a bunch of new characters, this time there isn't much risk of Kellen forming friendships with any of them. Kellen can't trust anyone in this place, and seemingly everyone is either younger or older than him, so he is pretty much on his own. The Queen is a child who has to put on a grownup persona (and who does so far better than I found credible as a reader), and everyone else is grown up. Kellen is the only youth /not yet settled person around.
Queenslayer is a novel of Kellen and Reichis versus the world - and the world still has a few nasty surprises up its sleeves. I enjoyed it, but there was altogether too much violence against women in the story, and the wrong women at that. (I'd make an exception for Shalla: her death would be quite a welcome plot development by this point). So, altogether, a good book, but I keep hoping for the Spellslinger series to lose some of its grit and become a little happier...

Rating: 4/5