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

Saturday 15 June 2019

Review: The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein

I've recently finishing the third and fourth novels in the Steerswoman series. Reading the books was joyful and wondrous, while finishing the fourth book felt rather sad: who knows if the series will ever be completed, and now I have no more Steerswoman books to read...

The Setting & Premise

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, sharing information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy(ish) world. And because they are so useful, people generally accommodate and feed them for free.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets and hoard power. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other. They rely on fear and brute force to make their way in the world.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against them). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

The Mystery

In the first book, Rowan is curious about a kind of gemstone that is always found entangled with metal. The pieces look too patterned to be natural, but their spread is inexplicable.Soon, her investigation attracts the attention of the wizards, and a grand adventure stumbles into motion...

The Friends

Rowan meets Bel, a fierce warrior from the Outskirter tribes, in the first book, and mutual fascination quickly turns into a partnership, ultimately, a friendship that feels as solid and crucial as any I've ever seen in literature.

Bel is not the only friend: Rowan meets others along the road, spends time among communities, forms bonds with people. Not always automatically: she can be aloof and she can have tunnel vision, focusing on her ideas & research. Sometimes, people find it hard to trust her, especially when the knowledge she brings seems very far removed from people's everyday lives.

The Books

The Steerswoman (1989) is the story of how Rowan and Bel become friends, investigate the secrets of the blue gems, hunted by wizards while chasing after knowledge.

The Outskirter's Secret (1992) is the story of how Rowan journeys into the farthest reaches of the Outskirts, together with Bel, to find the place where a Guidestar has fallen, and to figure out why the wizards are so protective of this secret knowledge. At times it feels like a Western, set on a frontier, but the Outskirter cultures we meet defy expectations.

The Lost Steersman (2003) is the story of how Rowan takes over an outpost of the Steerswomen's organisation - a kind of library - to find clues about what's going on in historical records. It is also the story of her sometimes rocky relationship with the small community where that archive is based, and a big side quest that takes her well beyond the frontier, into the unknown, to places that no one has ever returned from (and reported about), a place where demons live...

The Language of Power (2004) is the story of how Rowan and friends try to find out why one long-dead wizard tried to summon a long-forgotten steerswoman, not long after the Guidestar fell...

The Quality

The Steerswoman series is simply staggering in scope, quality, originality and the joyful reading experience it achieves. Rowan is an explorer-scientist who isn't out to exploit people or knowledge, but to share discoveries and wisdom. She wanders through a world that is interesting, mysterious, and imaginative, populated with people who are sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, but rarely stupid or mean for the sake of being mean. Sometimes, she faces dangerous people working for wizards (or, rarely, wizards themselves), but not all peril is human or malicious. One of her most serious injuries is inflicted by some kind of dangerous lichen, at another time it is fever and illness that nearly kill her.

The books are well-written, with beautiful prose. The pace isn't always page-turning and breathless - in fact, Rowan sometimes spends a good portion of a book doing archival research or gumshoeing around, pestering lots of people with questions. However, there is from very early on an underlying tension. That tension stays taut throughout all four books, occasionally building up into set pieces of grandiose, nailbiting terror, but always staying in the background, even if Rowan is just having breakfast in an inn somewhere...

Each book is readable as an individual story, but reading the whole series in order is a fantastic experience. To name just one example: in the second book, in the Outskirts, Rowan and Bel encounter different creatures, one of which remains an unseen monster that even Bel is terrified of. So dangerous is the monster that all Bel and Rowan can do is cower in silence and hope they are not found by the creature. And then, in the third book, Rowan hears a sound that suggests one of these monsters - something she has not ever seen and which is so deadly that few who have survive to tell the tale - is in her village, at night, stalking people returning from the pub after a night out. To build up a monster not just within one story or one book, but over the course of two books... it was a heart stopping reading experience and a masterful example of writerly craftsmanship.

Surprisingly, the quality of the books does not really vary: they are all excellent. The price for this quality is the fact that the series is not finished yet. Between books two and three, eleven years passed in out world (but only some months in the story). It's been fifteen years since the fourth book was published - and volumes five and six are being worked on by the writer. To put it another way, the first book was published seven years before the first Game of Thrones novel, the books are shorter, there are only four of them so far (GoT had five volumes of the main story published so far), and it doesn't look like the Steerswoman books have turned their author into a billionnaire, so presumably she has to work on the remaining novels while having a day job and/or a life. Fortunately, these books are written in a way where the modern reader understands a lot more of what's going on than Rowan does, so while Rowan is still trying to unwrap an incomprehensible mystery, the reader isn't left in the dark to the same extent. Even if the series is never finished, you won't feel betrayed on a cliffhanger somewhere.

Still, I hope there are more books to come, and that the series will one day be complete.

The Verdict

If you haven't read this series, buy the books and read them. Now. This is SF/F at its very, very best.

Rating: 5/5, for all the books individually and for the series as a whole.

Monday 20 May 2019

Review: The Outskirter's Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

The Outskirter's Secret is the second novel in the Steerswoman series. Rowan, the Steerswoman and Bel, her Outskirter / Barbarian companion, continue their quest where the first novel has left off. They are still trying to find out more about the mysterious blue gem & metal fragments that they nearly got killed over in the first book. Now, they are headed into the Outskirts, where life is much harder, civilisation a distant theory, and where the wreckage of a fallen star should be, if Rowan's reckoning is right...

The Outskirter's Secret is still a novel of adventure and questing, a novel about friendship, and a novel about two women taking on the world together while encountering different people and different cultures. However, it is not so much a novel of pursuit and intrigue: Rowan and Bel now know that a chief wizard exists, they know his name, and they know he is their enemy, but there are no more minions in pursuit, and aside from the natural environment, raiders, and vendettas, no one is trying to kill them. Well, no one apart from goblins and demons and lichen camouflaged as rocks and all the other perils of the lands they travel through. So, no chase, but much peril: it's an immensely readable adventure, always interesting and never boring.

The book does recap things from the first novel, but to be honest, I would not want to read it on its own. This is a series where reading the books in order is worth it: both books I've read so far were excellent, and the second builds on the events of the first. It delivers a satisfyingly dramatic climax, and even though the quest is not at an end, we learn more and get a stronger sense of what the wizards' secret might be.

Fantasy literature at its very best - and still ahead of its time (first published in 1992, it feels like it was written in the 2010s...).

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 12 May 2019

Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

The Steerswoman is a women-centric fantasy novel, first published in 1989. It seems to have been way ahead of its time, and it feels very contemporary.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, trading information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy world.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against their interests). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

So yes, this novel feels contemporary and absolutely relevant. It does not feel like a book written before the internet was even invented.

But enough about the setting. This is really a novel about Rowan, a Steerswoman, and Bel, a warrior women from the Outskirter tribes (barbarians...), travelling together and going on a quest. When they meet, Rowan is trying to find out about a certain kind of blue gemstones, which seem to have mysteriously appeared in the world about 35 years ago. Rowan asks a lot of questions of an Innkeeper, and Bel is there with a few people from her clan. Intrigued by the Steerswoman (and curious about the rest of the world), Bel offers to join Rowan on her travels, and curious about the Outskirter, Rowan agrees. Not long after, they are attacked. Then, things get worse, and Rowan starts to suspect that someone does not want her to find out about those blue gemstones...

It's a novel about two women who are instantly intrigued by each other, and about a friendship that forms even though they are very different in personality, in strengths and weaknesses, in world view. It's a novel about traveling and adventure and facing great dangers, but it's the friendship that gives the novel strength and joy.

I loved the book, from the start to the end. The novel is not all fluffy and cuddly: people die, even children. Tragedies and atrocities occur, and moral ambiguities, too. But our heroes don't mope and wallow: they know how to move on, and do. It's swashbuckling adventure at its best.

The Steerswoman is a brilliant start to a series. It's satisfying on its own, and the friendship at its heart feels stronger and more interesting than other buddy/bromance fantasy quest novels (such as Lankhmar or The Elephant and Macaw Banner).

Highly recommended

Rating: 5/5

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is a debut novel set in a fantasy empire of deserts and djinn-like spirits. Mehr, the daughter of the Governor of a city near the edge of the Empire, lives a life both pampered and persecuted. Her stepmother hates her and tries to keep her away from her little sister, while her father is a largely distant figure, indulging and protecting her through his station, but barely part of her life. She has no peers and only two loved ones in her life: her little sister, and a courtesan who teaches her ritual dancing.

Mehr is mixed race, her natural mother having belonged to a nomadic people who have a different religion. Having been brought up with the beliefs and rituals of those nomads, Mehr doesn't really fit in the Empire, which persecutes her mother's people. Then, things come to a head: a magical storm sweeps over the city,  oppressors arrive to round up  and slaughter the people of nomadic origin, and Mehr's loved ones are endangered.

Blood is shed. Mehr uses her inherited magic. And then the mystics arrive to take her away...

Empire of Sand has a beautiful cover. It was written by a smart, likeable author (who happens to be a librarian in one of my alma maters). It promises an intriguing setting, being inspired by Mughal India. Unfortunately, it's also one of those novels that's utterly joyless.

Mehr's lot in life is to be privileged and persecuted. Oppressed, violated, exploited, but a princess. The novel features a sort-of-romance that is especially rape-y and icky, but then, pretty much every "tortured bad boy" character and every Stockholm-Syndrome romance fills me with disgust, so this may be one thing that some lady-readers might feel differently about.

Add some villains who are hateful and sadistic but not really enjoying themselves, a good sprinkling of genocide, and a heavy dose of self-pity (and/or self-loathing) in all the vaguely good guys, and you end up with a novel that just drags itself on hands and knees through its desert scenery, bereft of life-giving water, humour and joy. It's a bit like grinding one's face against a cheesegrater: it flakes away little strands of happiness without ever getting boring enough to give up or exciting enough for me to really want to know what happens next.

It's one of those everything-is-bleak, people-are-shit novels, with an exotic setting. Not quite grimdark (because grimdark novels have less self-pitying and more cynically ruthless heroes), but not exactly the right book to read to escape from a crappy reality.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday 21 March 2019

Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis tells the story of a small colony of humans, settling on a new planet. They have left Earth and mankind behind: to them, Earth stood for ecological disasters, war, strife, and failure. Now, on a new planet, they hope that a fresh start will let them make a good job of it. They went looking for a way to live peacefully, productively, in equilibrium with nature, on a blank slate green planet.

The book follows the first six generations of the colony, each faced with different problems. The first generation discovers that local plantlife is not the passive background scenery that they know from Earth: plants on this planet are changeable, perhaps sentient, while animals seem... domesticated. By plants.

With a premise like that, I had high hopes for Semiosis. Alien plants versus humans? I hoped for a book about a totally different way of being, a totally alien world.

Unfortunately, Semiosis is really a book about an isolated colony of idealists / ideologues, trying to make a utopia but mostly just bickering and struggling.

They name their world / civilization "Pax", and they are convinced that they are better than the people they left behind on Earth. Pretty soon, we get an inkling that these people were not just hippie idealists, they were also immensely rich, and they chose to use a huge wealth to run away to their ideal, perfect, gated community on a virgin planet. They did not try to make anything better on Earth, did not use their wealth for a common good, but to create a new version of "common" without the hoi polloi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out they aren't inherently  wonderfully nice people...

I'd hoped for new, original, alien ideas. Instead, the book was a fairly bleak "small community of people being frequently shitty" tale. Sure, there were some decent folk among the characters in the book, but there was also an overabundance of arseholes in the text, and lots of general shittyness. I get it, there's no hope, people are people and even a self-selecting group of 50 will soon include conflict and shittyness that festers and grows, but still. I had been sold a book about alien plants, and it turned out to be a book about petty politicking, weaponised rape, a serial killer, xenophobia, and the pros and cons of genocide.

The plants were more interesting when we didn't get one of them as a narrator / viewpoint character: once we get that perspective, any alien-ness disappears and we're just dealing with a human narrator wearing a plant costume, not a real plant...

Semiosis was readable and not boring. It just wasn't the book I'd been sold, and it wasn't nearly as original or interesting as I'd hoped. It was cynical and bleak in its view of human nature, and it had no real overarching plot.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 18 March 2019

Review: 1491: The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

1491 is a book trying to give an overview of current thinking about what America was like before Columbus arrived. In particular, what the people, cultures and human ways of living were like (though animals and nature get a bit of a mention, too). It's also a book that tends to have unimpressive covers, both in the US and the UK editions. All I can say is I'm glad I eventually looked past the naff cover...

Pre-Columbus America is often described as "prehistoric" - because historians rely on written records, and, for the most part, such records were not generated by Indians / people who lived in the Western hemisphere. There are notable exceptions: the Maya, the Aztecs, and, perhaps, the Inka, though their khipus have not yet been decoded. However, these cultures cover only small regions and brief glimpses into time. As such, the story of human life in the Americas before the conquest is largely unknown. And where something is unknown, some people will see "mystery", or worse, a blank canvas to project their own theories and biases onto... unsurprisingly, many did.

1491 tries to give a reasonably balanced account of what is known, what is theorised (by credible experts), and what is contentious and why. The book ignores the quacks, fraudsters and fantasists, but even the experts evidently have frequently been wrong in the past.

Academics in the humanities and social sciences seem to spend half their professional lives forming loose tribes and having spats with each other. Fortunately, the reader gets only the rough brush strokes picture of the essence of those spats and is spared the petty detail. The danger of a book that tries to cover a topic where much is still under contention is that it might end up on "the wrong side of history" - not the evil side, but simply the side that comes to incorrect conclusions. 1491 spends a lot of pages describing how knowledge and theories evolved. Often, there seemed to be a consensus in the past, only for it to be overturned by later theories. Outliers sometimes gathered momentum, became mainstream, replaced an old consensus with a new one. 1491 presents current knowledge, current consensus, current thinking. 20 years from now, more will be known. 100 years from now, perhaps many of the current consensus theories will have been replaced by others. As such, 1491 is a book that probably has an inbuilt "Best Before Date". Then again, what human theory does not?

The author is not without bias - he makes it clear which theories and perspectives he finds more convincing. However, he does not shy away from presenting the counter-arguments. The result is a text that is surprisingly readable and frequently surprising.

Surprising, because its central thesis - and the current thinking of many archaeologists, historians, researchers and scientists - paints a picture of human life in America that is very different from the picture the general public have been taught (in school or by pop culture). It's a non-fiction book, but even so, SPOILER ALERT, I'm going to talk about the big picture, something which the entire book slowly creates.

The central thesis is that both American continents were quite densely populated by a plethora of human cultures. Much of the landscape was managed and shaped by humans, both in North America and South America, including the Amazon region. Indian farming took many forms - sometimes, intense farming of a style not alien to Europeans. Terraced farms, irrigated fields, fertilised soils, domesticated crops. However, many Indian cultures used other methods - methods which were not recognised by explorers or settlers or academics for centuries. In particular, they used fire to control the landscape, they planted desirable trees (which provided food or other useful resources) and removed less useful ones, and they adjusted the environment to suit their needs. In North America, this created a landscape alternating between fruit and nut bearing trees, fields, and grasslands, like an enormous park landscape. Indians were not just hunter gatherers, but responsible for consciously creating an environment rich in resources they could gather, with ample habitat for animals they preferred to hunt.

In the Amazon region, they found ways to create fertile soils (terra preta) and managed the forest around their villages to create incredibly diverse, edible gardens. There were some hunter-gatherer societies, but for the most part, humans on the American continents lived in cultures that farmed and altered the landscape to suit their needs. The Americas were not a wilderness, but a human curated, human created landscape. (However, having learnt over many generations how to manage their territories, Indians by and large used more sustainable methods than the Europeans who replaced them. )

Then came Columbus. On his third voyage, his crew was sick, beset with a plethora of diseases. When they met Indians, they passed on infections. Even as Columbus returned to Europe, the diseases went like a wild fire through the human population of the continents. Because Indians had not domesticated many animals (only dogs, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs and muscovy ducks), they had not lived in close enough proximity to catch many diseases from their beasts. Europeans, Asians and Africans, on the other hand, had. Measles, smallpox, flu, and others had made the jump from cows, horses, pigs and birds to humans. When those diseases reached the Americas, the population there had never encountered them before. Worse, for reasons that are not fully understood yet, Indians' immune systems were less able to cope with viruses and bacteria, so the infections did not just catch the immune systems by surprise, but they wreaked more havoc in every person they infected. Within a few years, Indians were decimated by disease. Over the course of the next hundred years, between 90-95% of Indians died because of European diseases. It was a holocaust of unprecedented, and never-yet-repeated scope and tragedy.

So, when the first settlers and conquistadors arrived, they unwittingly arrived in the middle of an apocalypse (the conquistadors), or in a postapocalyptic continent (North American settlers). They arrived in a place where 30% or 50% of people had just died, and where more were continuing to die. They arrived in societies that were collapsing, or that had collapsed. The conquistadors managed to destroy two empires (Aztec and Inka) because those empires had just lost huge chunks of their armies and their leaders, and because the ensuing chaos and power vacuum destroyed their ability to defend themselves effectively against ruthless invaders. Even with all that chaos, the conquistadors had help from Indians who wanted to see those empires fall, and who wanted to use the conquistadors as a tool to bring about this change. Without having Indian allies, the conquests would probably have failed. Without the epidemics that preceded them, they would definitely have failed.

After the conquest, a huge myth slowly evolved: the myth of the Indians who lived, passively, in a Garden Eden, picking fruit, hunting, gathering, and not creating anything worthwhile. Or the myth of the noble savage, attuned to nature, living as human animal in The Wild. The myth of America as pristeen, pure, natural continent, until Europeans came to be enterprising and make good use of it / ravage it (depending on your political leanings). It's a myth that arose because most Europeans only ever saw the postapocalyptic continent, where forests were growing, human habitat was slowly being reclaimed by plants and animals that had been managed and kept in check for millennia, but which were now free to take up the suddenly vacant space.

It's not mentioned in the book, but recently, climate scientists have theorised that the so-called Little Ice Age / Medieval global cooling event was partially the result of the CO2 captured by forests that grew on previously cultivated land after Indian populations had collapsed.

1491 is an excellent book, well worth reading. It gives a sense of what was lost in terms of human heritage (even if no book could ever capture the scope of human tragedy involved). It suggests glimpses of what human heritage gained from Indians - not just fruit and vegetables and a healthier, more varied, tastier diet, but a more democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit, and a more free way of life.It's a fascinating read, and well worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

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.