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

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.