Friday, 15 February 2019

Review: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

The Loosening Skin is another very smart, high concept,  immersive novel by Aliya Whiteley. She is truly one of the most original talents writing speculative fiction at the moment.

The novel is set in a world where humans shed their skins every few years. And with the skin, they shed something crucial: (romantic & erotic) love. So, every seven or eight or ten years, humans get a complete reset of their emotional attachments - aside from "The Bond" with their parents, which can survive the shedding, and, generally, platonic friendship.

We follow the story of a woman who sheds more than just love: she reinvents herself after every shedding. She's been a soldier, a bodyguard, a private investigator, a charity shop clerk. We get her story in 2003. 2005. 2006. 2013. Then, to her surprise, it's her shop clerk persona who is hired to investigate perhaps the greatest mystery, a locked room heist that should have been impossible...

Aliya Whiteley is brilliant at writing authentic, human characters. They're not usually heroic, but they might be involved in larger than life situations, albeit in a slightly selfish, slightly flawed, not always in complete control kind of way. No matter how strange the premise of her worlds are, the people who live there are always recogniseably, convincingly human.  So, too, in The Loosening Skin.

I pretty much devoured the whole book on a long train journey. It was mesmerising and evocative, as Whiteley's writing always is. It did get unsettling at times, but the sense of the uncanny was less all-pervading than it was in The Beauty (her masterpiece so far). However, the switches between third person and first person, the non-linear structure, and the final third of the book, jolted me out of the story a little. In fact, I felt the second ending, or the extended epilogue, wasn't really necessary: the story had ended, and then we got a new perspective, a sequel of sorts, stretching the novella into a novel-length book, but not, in my opinion, into a better whole.

Even so, if you want to experience a world that is very different and yet very recogniseable, and horror of the most human sort, The Loosening Skin is first rate speculative fiction, by a world class author.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Review: The Monster (Baru Cormorant) by Seth Dickinson

The Monster is the sequel to The Traitor, and the second novel of Seth Dickinson's Masquerade series. This review will contain spoilers for the first novel, so if you haven't read The Traitor, try that book first! It's brilliant!

The Traitor ended with Baru Cormorant's cold blooded execution of her true love, Tain Hu, in order that Baru would be able to ascend to join the shadowy conspiracy behind the Masquerade's throne. The Monster more or less picks up there, except that it gives us more detail, much more detail. The final few scenes of The Traitor are expanded on, so we get the night before the execution, the execution itself, its aftermath, and a huge amount of plot regurgitation. It takes The Monster about a fifth of its length to get to the point where Baru has written all of the letters that were included in the Epilogue of The Traitor. In short, The Monster works at a very different pace.

It's impossible to talk about The Monster without referencing The Traitor, as the book is very heavily intertwined with the events of the first novel. However, something big has changed. If you were expecting to read a novel about Baru using her powers, you'll be very very disappointed. After the cold, ruthless, driven prodigy of the first book, Baru has turned into a woman who has very little agency in the second book. This is incredibly frustrating - Baru's ascent to this position was a novel of learning, scheming, adventuring, and momentum. Now that she is in place, she finds that her powers are limited, that she's still in a game of scheming, but despite everything she has sacrificed, she is still more a pawn than a player. Perhaps more a pawn than ever before. After a looong introduction, a meeting of most of the conspirators finally occurs, and Baru is given a mission (along with two equal companions). She is still not pulling the strings, really. There is still hierarchy above her, and the meeting ends with the start of a chase that will last the entire book.

The  Monster is a confused, ponderous, messy novel, just as Baru is now a confused, brooding, messed up woman. She never recovers from the twofold trauma that occurred at the end of The Traitor - her brief coma that left her unable to see anything that happens on her right side, and her choice to go through with Tain Hu's execution. Surrounded by equals, Baru flounders: being a savant and a prodigy and being given peerless powers helped her thrive in the first book, but without the autonomy she enjoyed previously, she spends much of the second book being dragged along by events, drinking by day and brooding by night.

Meanwhile, the book no longer just sticks with her perspective. Instead, we now get other viewpoint characters, and even first person scenes from a different viewpoint character. We get a series of flashbacks of three characters in a different civilisation growing up, we get a tableau and an ensemble and too many ideas, most of which are not nearly as interesting as the first book's focus on macroeconomics and fiscal policy.

In fact, things get so messy that the author (and editors) seem to lose track of some ideas. So we get a gender-reversed scene of street sexual harrassment and a supposed matriarchy and Baru thinking that she has "never felt powerless walking down a street", even though the previous novel included feminist Tain Hu warning her that every action a female icon makes will be used to reflect on her sex (i.e. Baru has lived in completely patriarchical societies in Aurdwynn and Falcrest) and even though not much earlier there was a comment that there are no true matriarchies. Or we get a character who decides they are neither male nor female and should be referred to using the "they" pronoun, and then the book forgets about this in a few scenes and uses a gendered pronoun (not because of a viewpoint character / narration choice, but simply out of oversight). Complicated names, complicated titles, different heritages and languages and conventions, a plethora of cultural notions, beliefs, sexual habits and taboos... The Monster is a novel trying very hard to be ultra-diverse, ultra-smart, ultra-complex, and in the end it fails on the most elementary aspect: it forgot to include a good story in the mix.

Baru does not know what she wants. Everyone is reactive. It's not so much a novel of shifting alliances and politicking and schemes, but a novel of chaos and (a character's) slow collapse and confusion. It's singularly unsatisfying, bogged down, and depressed. Characters move from place to place, but by the end of the book, very little has changed from the beginning of the book. All the same questions are still open. All the same problems still exist. Nothing has been resolved, no one has gained much, everyone's been treading water and running around in circles like headless chickens and no one has gotten anywhere good. The book fizzles out without a bang. In short, where the first book was epic and fascinating and charismatic and cynical and driven, this book is made of depression and trauma and bitterness and anxiety and stress, but not in a good way.

Unfortunately,  I did not find The Monster an enjoyable read. I feel sorry for the author, because it reads like something written by a depressed person in a gloomy dungeon, tied to a rack of too many ideas, unable to find the key that would free the narrative and make the story work. But I might still buy the next book, in the hope that Baru finally gets a chance to shape events, again.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Review: The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor (also known as The Traitor Baru Cormorant) is a novel set in an alternative world with alternative peoples, cultures, history. Unlike Westeros, it has no dragons, no ghosts, no magic - or at least, it does not have them yet, not in the parts of the world that this novel takes place in.

We first meet Baru Cormorant when she is a little girl in Taranoke, a volcanic island inhabited by fierce and loving people. Her family consists of two fathers and one mother, and life in Taranoke is seemingly uncomplicated when it comes to matters of society. There is sex equality, liberty, tolerance. There are also skirmishes between tribes, little wars, diseases, but Baru is as yet untouched by trauma.

Then, Empire arrives. The empire of Falcrest, the Maskerade, sends ships and goods and trade and comes with innovations like paper money and standard currency, with technology and medicine and progress. Baru is fascinated by the ships, fascinated by the people, fascinated by the way her parents are scared and the way her people trade their freedoms away for improvements in living standards and consumer goods. Soon, she is offered a place in an Imperial school, where she has a chance to learn so much about the world...

...but the most memorable lessons are not the ones about astronomy, navigation, mathematics. Baru's mind loves those things, and she excels, but they do not shape her soul. Instead, it is what happens to one of her fathers that leaves a mark on her self. Or what happens to her people while she is kept safe in school - a mass dying, disease and catastrophe, also the result of engagement with empire. And what happens to lesbians, gays, people who do not fit the empire's principles of "incrastic" hygiene.

Eventually, Baru leaves her island, aiming for the heart of the empire. Aiming to change.

The Traitor is an amazing novel. It is told in dramatic, epic prose. It is a novel that looks at the world through the eyes of accountancy, macroeconomics, history, and wonders about systems, changes, individuals, compromise, absolutism. Falcrest is a strange empire, filled with persecution, racial theories, eugenics and terrible persecution, but also with meritocracy, scientific progress, capitalist enrichment and even a certain kind of democracy. And power in that empire is not wielded by an individual, but by a cabal of people who hold the power to destroy each other, but who conspire together to keep wielding the power in their little group.

The Traitor is a novel of political theory and accountancy and grand drama. It's much more overtly interested in theory and philosophy than Song of Ice and Fire, but similarly epic in scope. Reading it a second time (as the next novel in the series has finally been published), it felt like a somewhat cold and ruthless and cynical novel - but that is the point. Baru is a ruthless character, a player, an operator, someone who is driven and hungry to succeed no matter the cost. The fact that she is not a psychopath makes the book all the harder to read, as she is all too aware of the costs of her actions.

I still recommend The Traitor unequivocally. Few novels made me sit up and think as much as this one. Now, in 2019, I think the novel grossly overestimates the influence and effectiveness of intelligent conspiracies, and woefully underestimate the impact of chaotic elements...  the world is apparently run by stupid conspiracies of stupid people being stupid. The past few years have been a hard lesson in how shameless, overt and incompetent the powers that be can really be. So the novel now feels ridiculously idealistic in its belief in the fundamental competence of the main actors that shape the world, even if they are mostly evil.

Still, despite having aged less well than I'd thought, Baru Cormorant is worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

PS: I also reviewed The Traitor Baru Cormorant in 2015, when I first read it.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Review: The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

I was in the mood to read something fun. After browsing the unread books on my Kindle for ages, I decided to re-read, instead, and it's been a while since I first read The Dragons of Heaven. Fortunately, the book was as good as I remembered.

The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where there are superheroes, alliances of superheroes, magic, myths, and monsters. Missy, our protagonist, is the grand daughter of Mitchell Masters, a.k.a. 1950s superhero Mister Mystic. His gift (and her inherited power) is to tap into the shadow realm, which is useful for cloaking the face, for hiding from sight, for drawing forth demonic monstrous shadow creatures, and, if the shit really hits the fan, for diving into, traversing the hellscape while trying not to be noticed or destroyed by monsters, and emerging elsewhere.

The novel is told in chapters alternating between two strands: "then", and "now".

Then, a few years ago, teenage Missy first dallied with the idea of turning masked vigilante. After an early foray goes disastrously wrong (she gets shot by a professional superhero), she makes her way to China like her grandfather before her, to find a dragon who might teach her martial arts and Chinese mystic powers and stuff.

Now, a plot involving triads and assorted villains is under way, a plot which Mr Mystic gets entangled in while trying to fight crime in Chinatown.

The Dragons of Heaven is, as the cover promises, "A hell of a lot of fun." It's got a huge sense of humour, a massive dose of fan-love for all kinds of geeky fiction (Missy references Narnia, Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, etc. etc. etc.), and a deep fascination with the superhero genre. At one point, Argent, this world's SHIELD, force Mr Mystic to work together with a very Captain America-like hero. At the same time, this is a world where superheroes are into their second or third generations, and it's openly acknowledged that many heroes of previous generations were sexist, racist, dinosaurs, in some of their attitudes.

The final ingredient is (Asian) mythology, with dragons, fox spirits, ogres, man-eating witches, very different unicorns, and more. Sometimes, mixing lots of settings / ingredients in a story can be a bit gimmicky, but Alyc Helms succeeds at bringing everything together into a whole that is as engrossing, and as enchanting, as Neil Gaiman's Sandman - i.e. she's up there with the very best of mythblenders. The fox spirits were particularly memorable. Fortunately, her style is a bit more light-handed than Gaiman's: the novel is genuinely, joyfully funny, especially early on. It includes one of the funniest romance / courtship / seduction plots I have ever come across.

If there is a flaw, it is that one sequence stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far. Dragons? Magic? Monstrous shadow dimensions? No problem. But the exact conditions under which three trials are faced and endured? Ouch. OUCH. Jesus Christ, OUCH!!! Nope, not buying it. Impossible.

Well, and the beginning, even on the second read, felt a little disorienting. I took a while to properly get the alternating then-now chapters. Sure, I should have paid closer attention to the word before each chapter, but I wonder if perhaps the Kindle formatting was off (there were no whitespaces between scenes within chapters, so maybe the chapter intros have bigger "Then" / "Now" tags in print than they do on Kindle, too. All I can say is that the Kindle version felt confusing and visual cues were missing or not noticeable enough).

Anyway: The Dragons of Heaven. Superheroes, mythologies, humour, romance, grand adventures, all in a novel that is pacey, exciting, and full of memorable and likeable characters. In a word, awesome. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5.

PS: I also wrote a review of The Dragons of Heaven the first time I read it.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Review: Empty Graves by C.L. Raven

Empty Graves is the latest novel by Cardiff based writers and entertainers CL Raven. I first encountered them at a small horror convention in Cardiff, where a workshop allowed writers to pitch story ideas. CL Raven, identical twins, were very charismatic and memorable, as was their pitch. I have read a few of their short stories since then, and quite enjoyed the comic horror ones.

Empty Graves is the story of Lachlan Ketch, a young man who has just reached adulthood. He is also Edinburgh's latest hangman, somewhat reluctantly continuing the family business. One night, he comes across the Greyfriars Gang of graverobbers, in flagrante delicto. They force him to choose between joining them or becoming a corpse himself. Needless to say, he chooses life, even if it means digging up bodies to sell them to Edinburgh's medical schools for teaching and research purposes.

I was a bit surprised by Empty Graves. I expected to be reading a popcorn entertainment comic horror novel about the dead rising (as zombies) during the time of the graverobbing heyday in Edinburgh - basically, Zombieland meets Burke & Hare. Instead, it turned out to be a historical (romance) novel about a hangman and a bunch of graverobbers, and a forbidden love. There was very little supernatural horror and no zombie uprising at all. Somehow, I must have gotten the wrong idea from the book's description.

That said, the novel was engaging and I enjoyed reading it. CL Raven are writers who enjoy overt drama, a grand canvas, and bold strokes in their writing voice. Some readers might use words like corny or cliché, or moan about "show not tell". Those readers would be missing the point. CL Raven's stories are written with a flair that relishes a dramatic sentence. You can almost hear the movie score going dum-dum-daaaaah!, and the narrative voice could be the frontman in a circus or travelling show enticing you to part with your tuppence and enter the spooky haunted house / ghost train. Is it cheesy? Sure, but so are superhero movies, zombie stories and the London Dungeon tourist attraction...

... which made it a bit surprising that the story is very well researched, authentic, and well grounded in its reality. Historical novels can sometimes be slow moving snoozefests. Empty Graves isn't. It succeeds at bringing a point in time to life, and keeps enough corpses and grotesque incidents and action in the tale to keep the merry mixture bubbling nicely in its cauldron. It's not as filled with humour as some of CL Raven's other writings, which is a pity, but it aims for (and achieves) historical accuracy instead, which is perhaps a bigger challenge than chasing laughs.

However, it's also a book that would have benefited quite a lot from an editor. There are many obvious edits and polishes that would have made the book better. Reading Empty Graves, I kept wanting to get out a marker pen to highlight bits that needed tweaking: in particular, dialogues needed tightening. Sometimes, I lost track of who was saying what. Sometimes, characters didn't have natural conversations, but seemingly delivered exposition or narration at each other in a way that felt nothing like speech. Sometimes, conversations went in circles or echoed previous conversations, leading to a sense of repetition. All of these things would have been easy to fix with a bit of tlc from a good editor, so it's a bit of a shame they weren't tidied up before the book was published.

Nonetheless, Empty Graves is a novel worth trying - if you don't mind a narrative voice that's carnivalesque, and a historical novel spiced with elements of horror.

Rating: 3/5 (a good editor could have lifted this rating by at least half a point).

For an idea of the sort of things CL Raven write, check out this reading:


Saturday, 22 December 2018

Review: Tree Talk by Ana Salote

Tree Talk is a science fiction fantasy novel told from the perspective of an ash tree in a wild(ish) back garden. Ash lives her life in a way that does not have consciousness, but which involves a sort of communing with other plants, and a calm, plant-like way of being aware of the world outside her reach. Then one day Charlie, a little boy, touches Ash, magically awakening a mind. In the book, they call it gnosis, and Ash soon finds out that she is not the only non-human who has it.

Any story told from the perspective of a tree (as a first person narrator, no less) is very likely to hit upon matters environmental sooner or later. Fortunately, Tree Talk allows itself to take it slowly: much of the first part of the book is Ash forming a mind and a connection with Charlie and his family, observing the wider world through his experiences (while Charlie perceives the garden through Ash's plant sentience).

As with Ana Salote's other novels (Oy Yew), there is a tenderness at the heart of Tree Talk. Ash's experience of the world is initially one of affectionate, caring naïveté. Charlie, too, starts out this way. However, this is not a kind world, and we get a sense that things are going badly wrong. Ash learns to watch TV, which brings her more and more bad news, while Charlie soon gets a sense that one of his neighbours is not a nice man, with evil designs upon the garden...

Even so, this is a joyful book. Ash using her now-conscious mind to watch TV (and teaching other plants consciousness, who also then become rather fond of watching TV) is very endearing, especially because of her particular interests...
"My favourite programmes were the soaps, because they put together two things which fascinated me: stories and human behaviour. Brooke Farm is the best soap because it has the most weather in it."
(Her penchant for soap operas also leads her to think of events around her in soap operatic terms. Later she worries a lot that Charlie might risk a coma when he starts having sneaky adventures, because in soaps, comas are frequent consequences to dramatic events...)

While the novel is very much Ash and Charlie's story, there are other important characters. Wilfred the rat is wonderfully cynical about humans, and fierce. Emma, Charlie's mom, is all too credible as an overstretched woman struggling to raise a child while the world economy goes down the drain. This is a novel where we glimpse very adult problems through the partial perceptions of a tree and a young boy, and it works very well at building suspense (the reader fears what decisions Emma will take when someone offers her much-needed money for the garden).

All that said, the novel cheats when it comes to delivering an outcome of its more global problems and questions. It's largely a science fiction novel set in the near future, but the problems of the world, it seems, have no chance of being addressed without a fantasy solution. To resolve a science problem with a fantasy solution is cheating, and I grumbled a lot when I saw where the book was going.

There's lots of interesting stuff going on early in the book, including some utopian thinking about communities, and the book is brimming with thoughts about humanity and the world, so I had hoped for a much more complex treatment of its themes in the second half. Instead, Tree Talk feels more like children's literature by the end, much more so than it does in the beginning. That said, it's still a much more intelligent nature-themed book than, say, the movie Avatar...

It's still a beautifully written, gently amusing, kind novel, with a rare and interesting perspective.  I very much enjoyed reading it, even if I grumbled at some parts near the end.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Review: Swordheart by T. Kingfisher

Swordheart is a romantic adventure novel by T Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) set in the same world as the marvellous Clockwork Boys duology.

Halla, our heroine and a respectable widow, starts the novel locked up in her room, imprisoned by her awful relatives. Unfortunately, she has inherited a fortune after caring for a curmudgeonly collector and rogue uncle for years. Said relatives (by marriage) don't want to let the fortune leave the family, and so they are preparing to force her to marry her clammy-handed, limp cousin-in-law.

Seeing no other way out, she tries to kill herself with an old sword that has been hanging on the wall for years. Only, as she draws it, a warrior magically appears: Sarkis, servant of the sword, is sworn to protect its wielder.

Swordheart is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure. Halla is likeable, naive, filled with child-like curiosity and wonder, downtrodden and very not-confident. Sarkis is a fierce warrior, not blessed with the greatest patience in general (but a huge amount of patience with Halla, even if he tends to mutter under his breath and bang his head against any nearby solid surface a lot), and generally up-tight and upstanding and cut from the very same cloth as Clocktaur Wars' paladin character.

Their adventure is basically a journey along a road to the nearest town (some days' travel away) and the nearest city (a few more days of travel), and back. There's a lot of travelling along that one road in the story, with a few small and big adventures along the way.

Swordheart is a story on a different scale from other T Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon novels I have read. There's no big quest, no saving-the-world shenanigans, no ticking clock. Instead, it's a story of two characters, both eminently likeable, developing feelings for each other, while having a few adventures along the way. The book leaves and breathes with Halla and Sarkis and the reader's investment in them. They're likeable, but as currently bitter curmudgeon, I did not feel the "awwww" that I was supposed to feel. I would bet that other readers (and, I suspect, women readers in particular) will feel much more warming of their tender hearts at the book.

This book is made of fluffy huggy things and the old TV movie Pride & Prejudice moment when Colin Firth's Mr Darcy is shirtless and all flustered. Curmudgeons beware!

Fortunately, there is a gnole in the book (yay!), it is full of the author's delightful sense of humour, and the Vagrant Hills are awesome. Altogether, there's just enough swashbuckling mayhem and laughter to keep even curmudgeons like myself engaged and interested.

Rating: 3.5/5. A bit too sweet for my palate, but good.