Friday, 31 August 2018

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Whenever I go into Bakka Phoenix in Toronto, I try to pick up a book by an author I've never read, but have heard of. Often, this means an author I've somehow started following on Twitter, without having delved into their books. I always mean to someday, and this is a way I can. So in the spring, this was the book I picked up. It got put aside while I read the Hugo nominees (the release of the longlist a few days ago shows how close this book came to being part of that reading project), but I finally picked up Kameron Hurley's work and read it.

I don't know where I would have ranked The Stars of Legion on my Hugo ballot, had it made it on, but it would definitely have been a worthy addition to that list - and I've said before that the best novel nominees were a very strong bunch. This was a lot of fun, often troubling and a little gross, with great emotional arcs and lots of betrayal.

The world Hurley has created here is very compelling, and twisty. On ships that are worlds, or worlds that are ships, the Legion moves through space. If it had a central mission, that seems like it was lost long ago. The action take place on the outer rim of the Legion, where a ship/world (the Mokshi) broke out of the inner core and stayed. It's in much better shape than most of the worlds/ships on the outer rim, and so everyone wants it, for that, and for any weapons it might hold.

These are huge places, and those who live on the levels near the surface of the worlds know little of the many, many levels closer to the middle. They don't even really have myths about them - things have gone on so long that there are no stories of places they're trying to reach, of the people below them, only of the wars that have raged between worlds as warlords try to conquer other worlds to strip to save their own.

I say people, but it is a fact that all the people in these worlds are women, and, like many other things that have been lost (if they have been lost) is even the idea of men. By which I mean, it comes up not even once. Women on the ship sometimes give birth to large furry cogs that the ship needs, but if babies are born, they are female, and have always been female and will always be female. This is not a universe where an alternative idea exists.

The story centers around two women - Jayd, the daughter of Anat, warlord of Katazyrna, and Zan, a woman without a memory, although those around her seem to remember her just fine. She has small glimpses, enough to both desire Jayd, and not trust her, and this is exacerbated by everything that happens. Zan is told that she is a general who is the only one to have ever penetrated the defenses of the Mokshi, and that she must go back to do it again, for Katazyrna is slowly dying, and Mokshi is not. (This is not a battle to transfer a people to another world, but to sacrifice the life of another world in order to prolong the life of one's own.)

Zan is there as part of Jayd's plan comes to fruition, and she is sent to be wed to another warlord, but as such plans often do, it does not survive first contact, and Jayd is left alone to try to continue her scheme, while Zan is thrown down a refuse chute to the bottom of the world, and must slowly, painfully, climb her way back out, through different levels that have entirely different cultures, past interior geography that is as complex as you would expect to find on the exterior of a planet.

In the refuse, she finds an old, deformed woman who might know a former version of her, and on her travels, she finds two other women who grumble but will not abandon her. As Zan creates a community, Jayd grows more alone with the tatters of her previous plan, trying to snatch a victory while being unutterably alone. It all hinges, yet again, on how these women give birth, and what they can give birth to, other than children. To a world? What are these worlds, anyway?

The answer comes briefly at the end, and it's so delightfully intriguing that I didn't need more. Although I wouldn't mind knowing more, either. We get some clues to an answer to how these worlds have changed, how these women have changed, how adaptation works through untold time hurtling through space with other worlds near enough to attack and plunder. Is there another way?

We get a glimpse of possibility, but no firm answers. But this wasn't an unsatisfying end - one journey is done, and another is beginning.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

I love Lois McMaster Bujold. Just love her books, the complexity and the particular knack she has for writing a third act that pushes beyond what most authors would have taken for an end point, to see the larger repercussions. The Vorkosigan books are very dear to my heart, and while I've only read The Curse of Chalion from her main fantasy series, I loved that too. So when I saw this at the library book sale last year, I had to snap it up, even though it was second in a series, and there was no sign of the first book on the SF/F table.

More so than many of her other books, though, this was a difficult entry into the series. With the Vorkosigan books, I have picked up ones at different points in the series, and not had too difficult a time knowing where I was and what was going on, at least in broad strokes. But in this book, there's a lot of underlying assumptions that I still don't entirely get, and that made it harder to love the story the way I wanted to. I still ended up liking it, but it definitely does not feel as good as other books by Bujold I have read.

Also, I really should stop reading books from midway through series.

I say that, but it's unlikely to happen.

As we start this book, a couple has just been married, and they're obviously from different worlds - she's a farming woman, he's a much older...uh, necromancer? Kinda? Patroller who kills abominations that spring up with the help of knives into which souls have been bound, anyway. Souls given voluntarily, I should add.

I am led to believe that this relationship was regarded with suspicion by Fawn's folk, but that they eventually, if grudgingly accepted it. That is nothing to the suspicion they are under as they return to the...Lakewalker? Is that the name? camp, where the main male character, Dag's, mother throws a fit, him out of the house, and everyone tells him just to send his farmer sidepiece back to her family, and that farmers can't even really marry - although Fawn and Dag are, through a magical binding that she shouldn't know how to do.

The book bounces between Fawn at the camp, and Dag as he's sent away to take care of one of the magical abominations, which is innovating in ways that are very worrisome to Lakewalkers and farmers alike. Fawn follows, eventually, and yet again is able to do things no one else thinks to do because she's not steeped in ways things "should" be done. But they come back to camp with suspicion still around them.

This is fine, as fantasies go. The people are complicated, and Bujold finds interesting answers, as she always does. It's just not as deep or as interesting as some of her other books, so while I didn't mind reading it, I'm not itching for the next one, as I usually am after finishing one of her works.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Rollback by Robert Sawyer

It's been over a week since I finished this book, which is definitely going to slightly change how this review will come out. If I'd written it as soon as I had finished, this would likely be a lot more ranty, and I am still annoyed, but the anger has lost its heat. It's too bad, because I was pretty worked up about this book, and, in particular, how it treats the female characters and what story it centers and how it's a retread of a theme that has come up in other Sawyer works but does nothing new with it. Oh wait, maybe the anger is coming back. I've reached the level of annoyance, anyway.

What bothered me right away is something that I couldn't quite put my finger on, until I was discussing it with my husband, and he said that in one of his creative writing courses, the prof had given some advice he'd taken to heart. To wit: "the story should be about the person with the most at stake."  Which is damned good advice, and it explains why I've been annoyed with a few other books as well.

So let's look at the story and see who has the most at stake here. The main characters are Don and Sarah, who are in their late eighties, at the age where they don't know if they'll be around in a year or two. They celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary just as exciting news breaks - forty years earlier, roughly, a message had been received from a nearby star system. Sarah was the one who cracked the code and discovered the message the first time.

The new message is encrypted in a different way, and a billionaire offers to pay for a rejuvenation therapy for Sarah so that she can try to solve this puzzle too. She agrees, but only if Don gets the treatment as well. Unfortunately, the treatment takes for Don, but not for Sarah, so he returns to being biologically about 25, which she remains 87, and with the greatest puzzle of her professional career in front of her.

So, who has more at stake? The woman who has to face her own mortality in a fresh and cruel way while her husband will live for decades more, and still has to figure out what the aliens sent and why and for whom? Or the husband, who was to deal with his wife continuing to grow older, the difficulties of appearing young but being old, and whether or not he'll fall dick first into a comely grad student? (Spoiler alert: he does.)

(Also bothering me is that this is no less than the third book by Sawyer that has the same plotline of a man discovering he'll outlive his wife by many, many years. It's more fully developed here, but Sawyer, we've done this before, as we've done the man irresistibly attracted to an intelligent young woman who reminds the protagonist of his wife when she was younger. Can we find a few new tricks?)

And of course the beautiful young grad student that Don cheats on his wife with falls for him fully, so fully that while she's pissed when she finds out he's actually 87, married, and worse, married to her academic idol, she takes him back.

You know what would have been more interesting? If Don and Sarah had had an honest and painful discussion about vastly unmatched sex drives when one spouse is biologically 25 and the other is 87 and come to some sort of agreement. You know what isn't interesting? Sarah being a saint and not having any real problem (shown, anyway) with the treatment failing or Don fucking around on her. You know what? She'd be justified in being mad.

Knowing your wife's going to die and you are still young, that's a story. But when you add in the SF angle of this book, the SETI message, then this is definitely a story where Sarah has the most at stake, and neither she nor the grad student are afforded much depth or any ability to be really mad at Don. This is his story, and it's frustrating, because it's far from the most interesting part of the book, and the reaction of the women to him is frankly eyebrow-raising, if not outright unbelievable.

Friday, 24 August 2018

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

Perhaps it would be inevitable that the Laundry would have to deal with vampires, eventually. Or would they? After all, everyone knows that vampires don't exist...and they seem particularly sure of it in that bureaucratic branch of the British civil service that deals with gibbering horrors and threats from beyond.

Seem a bit fishy? Well, it will to Bob, too. If you've read any of the Laundry books before, then of course you'll know Bob. I have read them all out of sequence, but this one is a little further than I'd read before, and, I think, the book right after the last Laundry book I got, putting me more or less on track? The big disaster where Cthulhu takes over the world is still on the horizon, and in the meantime, the Laundry is doing everything it can to keep that day at least a little further off. Including sending Bob's wife, Mo, on increasingly taxing missions with her magic violin that does nasty things.

Meanwhile, Bob is still sort of in the Laundry, and sort of in the next level up, which does more deniable things, and which the average Laundry-dweller knows nothing of. I was delighted to see that the reverend character, one of Bob and Mo's friends that Bob got unfortunately embroiled in the occult in the last book, is back. As are some of Bob's old red-tape mates from the bureaucracy. And, of course, the security zombies.

Stross also brings back a character from near the beginning of the series, Bob's ex-girlfriend, Mhari, now working for a banking/investment research firm. As is often the case in this series, young people with a lot of computer knowledge and little wisdom can use computing power in ways that have unfortunate outcomes - in this case, leaving one, and then many, of their research team with what is eventually dubbed PHANG syndrome, by someone who obviously really, really needs the acronym to make a vampire joke.

They can be burned by sunlight, influence impressionable minds, and drinking human blood brings on something like an orgasm - oh, but it turns out it's because you've set up a link to an extraterrestrial creature which has established a branch office in your mind and uses the blood to suck the victim's brain dry, while keeping its host happy. That part...not so great. As is said repeatedly, once most people have figured it out, they've done the decent thing. This inadvertently creates a natural selection where few remaining vampires who've lived centuries are psychopaths.

Bob, in his off hours, is doing an extra-work project, because they're all required to spend 10% of their working time on their own projects without actually being given 10% of their time to do so. In so doing, he accidentally discovers the start of the investment thinktank vampire incursion on London, and marshals all his resources - only to find out that Mhari is a few steps ahead of him.

Added in to the mix of new vampires and old vampires is a wonderful but brief jaunt into what a 1950s public occult awareness campaign might have looked like - the reverend, whose name I still can't remember, is given the job of updating it for a digital age.

As is always the case with this series, I had a lot of fun reading the book. I can't say it's the deepest thing ever, but they're always worth some time, and provoke a fair number of wry grins. I also particularly liked the appearance of a demanding cat. And the take on vampires was interesting - I liked the explanation for why vampires are evil killers quite a lot.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

I can't believe I forgot to review this book! I read it several weeks ago, as one of the last few I had to go before casting my Hugo ballot, and quite enjoyed it. Somehow, however it never made it on to my review backlog, and I only just realized it. Hopefully, I haven't forgotten too much about it.

In Other Lands was nominated in the new YA category. I had not read anything by this author before. What I got out of it was thoroughly enjoyable, even though there were moments where things rang a little off, or didn't altogether hang together. Still, they were all flaws I could forgive, and enjoy the rest of the book. (I think I read later that this was somethinf the author wrote to distract herself from other projects, and was writing to make herself happy, and yeah, this reads very much like that, and that seems like a great way to go.)

Elliott Schafer finds himself on a field trip in an actual field, but with a wall none of the other kids can see. Since he dislikes all the other kids, he's amenable when he's asked to climb over it and join a magical camp for children. But not so much a summer camp, an army camp. Elliott decides to join the much-less prestigious camp for future counselors of the military leaders, although it seems apparent many of the new people wish he'd just go away. Elliott is used to that, though, and stays.

Almost as soon as I met Elliott, it felt like he was Eustace Clarence Scrubb who stayed Eustace Clarence Scrubb (from some of the later Narnia books), although over time you come to learn that Elliott has laudable qualities as well. He's just stubborn, prickly, kind of a jerk to be around, and vastly emotionally unintelligent - until a few occasions where he is preternaturally emotionally intelligent, and those didn't quite jibe, but I still liked what Brennan was trying to do with those moments. They just didn't...quite fit right.

Let me give you an example. This book spans years of Elliott going home in the summer and coming back in the fall. As many books like this do, absolutely. One of his relationships falls apart, and Elliott is upset, but emotionally enough aware to know, in great detail, that it is not anyone's responsibility to love him back just because he loves them, and that that is putting his shit on them, and that it really is a situation where it is no one's fault.

This makes me want to cheer, it really does! We see this kind of maturity and emotional intelligence so rarely! But then Elliott doesn't get, for most of the book, that one character really is his friend. I mean, really, really is his friend, because he doesn't understand actions at all. That these both co-exist in the same character? It strains credulity a bit, but I also do like those moments where Elliott is emotionally mature, and understands these sorts of things. Even though it doesn't seem likely.

However, I didn't need this book to be perfect, and the occasional feelings of discrepancy were small next to the pleasures - Elliott's general pacifism, and the way he bullheadedly tries to steer this entire new society into patterns that disdain militarism. The treatment of sexuality, and Elliott's emergence as a bisexual character without shame or worry - although it also strained credulity that Elliott could be very attentive to some things, yet not notice a particular attraction for that length of time. I also liked that the queer characters didn't have to do it all through subtext and not quite acting on anything!

(Some of these things sound like things that, in a much better world, would be bare minimum things, but some of them are still so rare as to be almost revolutionary.) In the long run, this was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it a lot. It wasn't near the top of my ballot in the YA category, but it was refreshing, enjoyable and flawed. Much like Elliott, I guess.

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

China Mieville's books are often dense with ideas and prose, and I love it. There is only one of his books that I've read so far that fell flat, and the rest have been right in my sweet spot of challenging and interesting, pulling me into a rich and slightly grungy world, pungent and full of interesting ideas, people, and revolutions. Always revolutions.

This particular book makes me wish I knew more about art history, and specifically, about surrealism and its place in history before and during WWII. I have done little scraps of research once I discovered the notes at the back of the book, which helped me google some of the relevant pieces of art, but this has only really made me want to learn more. I know there are things I'm only half comprehending because it's not the area of my expertise.

But from what I know, and what I glean, Mieville's doing something very interesting here, playing with an alternate history or alternate world (I say the latter because of the endnote, where the author intrudes as narrator) where a surrealism bomb set off in Paris during the Occupation drastically changes the landscape and inhabitants of the streets. Laid over top of that are some thoughts about art in the service of the state, in the service of revolution, in the service of enjoyment and in service of itself. Or not in service at all, and here is where I wish I knew more about the philosophies underpinning this era, these people, because what I do understand is so intriguing.

The story of New Paris at present (1950) are interspersed with the earlier story of Jack Parsons who gets stuck in Paris on his way to Prague, toting a bomb that can harness ideas and set them free - he was going to animate the Golem of Prague, but when he can't do that, he falls in with the surrealists and becomes intoxicated with the energy of what they're creating, even as he disdains it for creating little real change in the world.

Back in 1950, the rest of the story is that of Thibaut, who joined the Main a plume after his parents were killed, and has an uncanny instinct for what is surrealism and what is not. He loses comrades to the Nazis who control part of Paris, while they are under siege by the manifs that arose in the aftermath of the detonation of Parson's bomb - surrealist artifacts come to life. (There is a French wikipedia page for the real-life/our-world Main a plume, but not an English one, that I can see, but my mediocre French was enough to get the gist of it - it was a real group of surrealists in the absence of some of their most vital members, in Paris during the occupation.)

Thibaut gets along with the manifs when few others can, and the creations the Nazis try to make out of their own art seem to not have the life necessary to take permanent form. Which doesn't stop them from continuing to try, along with the help of a traitor priest eager to turn to the powers of Hell if it means more personal power.

(The digression about the place of Hell in this twist of allegiances was particularly enjoyable.)

Thibaut meets a woman with a camera that seems to have a particular effect on manifs and their kin, who says she's there to document New Paris as its last days descend - it cannot last, she insinuates, and Thibaut feels the balance tilting. They come across an exquisite corpse (which I didn't realize was an art as well as a writing game, silly me) that doesn't like Sam, the woman, but is okay with Thibaut. Together they go further into art, further into Paris, further into peril, and the threat of a new style of art that will obliterate everything before it in pursuit of...?

That's not a question mark because I don't know. It's a question mark because the last section, the last art, was so powerful a metaphor, so unforgiving and merciless of things that should never be forgiven, can never be forgotten, but does it in such a sneaky way, that it had a great impact.

Look, this is a weird book. Mieville's books always are. But it's the exact kind of weird I adore, and the deeper issues that are layered in here have captivated me. I'll see you later - I'm off to explore surrealist art some more.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Bright's Passage by Scott Ritter

This is part of one of my stranger lists, the "read-alikes" suggest by NoveList. I took my top ten lists from each of the last five years, and picked one book from the recommendations for each. In many cases, I haven't loved the read-alike, for reasons I'll go into, but once, just once, a read-alike for a book on one year's Top Ten list made it on to the following year's Top Ten list. So I persist.

I mostly persist because I loved Roger Ebert's style of reviewing movies, and I find this particular grouping of books a very strong object lesson in Ebert's Law - that a movie is not what it is about, but how it is about it. The same is true for books, and in nearly every case, I can see why NoveList picked a book as a "read-alike," but in every case, the end result is very different. The books tend to have plot elements in common, but oh, they couldn't be more dissimilar.

So imagine my puzzlement when I sat down with Bright's Passage and tried to figure out why in the world NoveList had thrown this up as a read-alike to Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, which is a book I absolutely loved. Eventually, I determined that it must be because, very loosely, both are about a main character going on a journey with a motley crew, including some talking animals. Which, yes. They have that in common.

Other than that, though? Virtually nothing. Rushdie's book is joyous and exuberant (but made me cry), untidy in its sheer energy bringing in so many references to so many things. There's a delight and expansiveness, even as Luka is working to save his father's life, which is very high stakes indeed, and taken seriously.  Where Rushdie's book opens its metaphorical arms to welcome the whole world in, Bright's Passage is narrower, darker, and dingier.

I do realize that Josh Ritter's book was at a disadvantage, starting out with Luka hanging over its shoulder, daring the book to be as good. It's not. It's not terrible either, but it ended up being very much not my cup of tea. There's a little too much withheld, and far too much of women just being there to enhance the main character's story - not as sex partners, which is a nice change of pace, but as potential mothers to Bright's infant son.

The book seems to be about the after effects of war, in this case, the First World War. Bright went away to war. When he came back, he stole/liberated his cousin from her father's house (where, it's insinuated but never said, she was abused by either her father or her brothers or both) and married her. She dies in childbirth just before the opening pages of the book.  We go back and forth between Bright's time in France and his first days with his son. Which are heavily influenced by his horse, talking to him.

Bright believes that an angel he saw on the ceiling of a church in France is in the horse, and the horse is the one who convinced him to free his wife. If the wife had a name, I don't remember it, which isn't great. The horse claims that the baby is the future King of Heaven, and for a while, Bright does what the horse tells him, even though burning down his house, as the horse demands, sets a devastating forest fire.

Ahead of the fire, Bright goes to a small town, and tries to find a new mother for his son, at the horse's command. He also takes a non-talking goat with him. It's unclear whether or not Bright is just hallucinating voices, but in many ways it seems likely, particularly since the horse/angel seems to be wrong about just about everything. Of course, so is Bright.  The horse wants Bright to make every woman he sees the baby's mother, but Bright is slightly more discerning. Which doesn't mean that's not what he's looking for too.

I think my biggest problem is that this just doesn't seem to come to much. Bright does eventually resolve things with his angel, but that leaves his war experience and the encroaching fire and his grief over his wife and his future life with his son open-ended questions, not to be resolved in this book. It feels like it's an artsy ending, but I didn't find it a satisfying one.

It's not surprising that a book about war and about poverty in rural areas and evil family members has no lightness about it. (Bright's uncle, who is never named such, just "The Colonel," is close to a cartoonish villain, aiming to take his grandson back from the man he thinks killed his child.) But if it comes to a comparison, the way Luka and the Fire of Life could encompass both joy and sorrow is a large part of what makes it, even now, loom large in my memory. This is just sorrow, and it's okay, but I wouldn't really recommend it.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

*Major Spoilers Below*

This is a very nice book, and unfortunately, I'm not using that as a form of praise. It's a little too nice. If I laid out all the things that happen in this book, it would sound like it's rife with trauma and difficulty and life, but the truth is that the reader is allowed/encouraged to keep such a distance from the pain that it's all just very...nice.

As such, reading this book was vaguely pleasant, but leaves me with nothing much to grasp on to. And, while I don't need every book to be doom and gloom, having lived with grief myself, I do kind of resent this genteel handling of multiple bereavements that never come close enough to the reader to have any effect on them.

I need to take a step back to talk about the book as a whole, and why, although it's pleasant, I'm not sure it's particularly good.  It takes place in a small bookstore on an island, which does seem like the sort of book that would be up my alley. The book is framed with a recommendations of short stories at the start of each chapter, from the main character to someone we don't know as the book begins.

A.J. Fikry is a widow in his thirties. His wife died, and he is sunk in grief, but it's not the kind of grief that invites the reader in to share it. A priceless book he owns is stolen. A two-year-old is left on the floor of the shop and her mother is found drowned by her own volition. A.J. adopts Maya. The death of her mother is at a remove.

There is a representative from a publishing company who comes out to the island, and they flirt, and fall in love from a distance, and eventually get together, and this section is possibly my favourite, because it is sweet, and it's not sweetness at the cost of glossing over pain. (Let me say the book thinks the characters are in pain, and says so, but doesn't show so, and none of the pain seems to have much of a long-term effect on anyone.)

There are affairs of surrounding characters. Another death. But it's very sweet through all of that. And then, and here is the major spoiler, A.J. is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Now, let me make this perfectly clear. I lost my father to cancer seven years ago. I lost my mother to a stroke just over a year ago. I have grieved and am grieving, and will continue to grieve. It is a part of who I am, and just because I am functional in this world does not mean that I do not carry that with me, all the time.

Because I lost both my parents before I turned 40, I am particularly vulnerable to books in which parents die. Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life has wrecked me both times I've read it. It's not hard to touch me emotionally with that particular plot point. So here's the thing - A.J.'s impending and actual death touched me not at all. At any moment. It felt, as the whole book had, rather sweet, but not real, or raw, or like it was happening to a real person or would affect real people.

Again, I don't need ugly, but this book feels like it thinks pain is best ignored and happiness foregrounded. I guess I'd rather read books where happiness is hard-won and pain is real, and both exist at the same time. If what you want is slight comforting fiction, you could do worse. But if you want anything that takes a risk, lets in an emotion, or explores something deeply, this isn't the book for you.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

This book is very hard to review, due to reasons that were entirely my own damned fault. I read the first two-thirds of the book before the Hugo nominees were announced, and then dove into that for months. As a result, it was three or four months later that I made it back and read the last third. I perhaps should have started from the beginning, but at the time, I didn't quite feel like it. So this review may be hazier than usual, because it's been such a very long time.

Too Like the Lightning is a very challenging book, in what I mostly think are very good ways. It posits a future built on Enlightenment ideals, but then incorporates the darker sides of those ideals in ways that are truly unsettling. I never knew what was going to happen next, and was frequently uncomfortable, but the writing was so good that I couldn't stop reading.

It is, however, perhaps not a neatly rounded book. We don't so much end at the end as much as the book just breaks off, to be picked up in the second volume. There's not a really sense of rising and falling action in its own separate form, but I have hopes that the second book will do that for us.

One important note: I do not know that much about the Enlightenment and Enlightenment philosophy. Ada Palmer evidently does, and mixes new ideas of human freedom with sexual debauchery behind closed doors that rivals the Marquis de Sade, and incorporates a mythic "free man" whose freedom is expressed in violence and terror, because he is bound by no laws.

As we get deeper and deeper into the psyche of that particular character (and I won't say a lot more), it becomes more and more uneasy - there are things so very wrong with him, and then, spiralling out, with the society that he exists within. It's on the surface a utopia, but to run as a utopia, it has to embrace the very irrationality it is supposed to despise.

The world has been broken up into Hives, something that is not a nationality, but an affiliation based on preference. Families, too, look very different, combining multiple adults and children into a "bash."  Gendered pronouns are not a thing anymore, except for our narrator, who is unable to use the "they" that is common in the rest of society. This dilutes the impact of such a choice on the world, but also brings it to our attention fairly often. Bashes are kept healthy by frequent visits from Cousins, who fulfill some of the same function of priests, but without being able to express any particular religion in their conversations with their charges.

Okay, add into this a ton of machinations between the leaders of the different Hives, a bash that has some of the most sensitive and important information to the running of the world as it is, and then, on top of that, a child who has the ability to make what he thinks real, from dolls to more mental pictures. It's a lot, but it does mostly work.

A list has been stolen, a list of influence that comes out yearly, stolen before publication date, and, as it turns out, a version of the list that was never meant to be seen. Further to that, the way it was stolen - with a device that allows one to avoid the constant surveillance present in society. On these small pegs, the story turns, and it is difficult and intricate and sometimes it feels like Palmer almost loses all the threads she's trying to pull together. But the writing was excellent and if I don't understand everything yet, and if I feel like the book doesn't so much end as stop, we'll see what the next book brings.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Chris

I wonder if it is that to get a book published when you're an Indian ex-pat author, it needs to be really, really good. I suspect that may be the case, but I have to say that by far and large, the books I've read by authors (mostly men) who come from India have been just so good. Dynamic, interesting, compelling, often very difficult. It'll be a mark of progress when you don't have to be this good to get published, when mediocrity is allowed you the same as it is allowed white authors, but at the moment, damn.

Narcopolis was recommended to me a long time ago (possibly a couple of years ago) by a colleague in grad school. I tucked it away on my list and forgot about it, more or less, but when it made it to the top of that particular list a few months ago, I was happy to get it out from the library. Then I got sidetracked by my first year of voting for the Hugos, and just kept renewing the book until I finally finished all my award reading. So this was also the first book in about four months that I was picking up not because it was science fiction or fantasy and had been nominated. It was a very enjoyable return to my more usual mix of mainstream and genre fiction.

I devoured this book. I was eager to get back to it, never wanted to put it down, and yet, despite that, I am having a hard time summing it up. This is not a book you read for plot. It is only partially a book you read for characters. But it is definitely one you read for atmosphere and prose, and on those counts, I was pulled along in a haze not entirely unlike the drugged lens the characters put between themselves and the world they live in, Old Bombay in the 1970s.

The first chapter quickly plunges you into the world in a way that is not stylistically mirrored by the rest of the book, but works to give the reader an entry - it is one very long paragraph, and I'm not even sure there are sentence breaks. It is not linear, it does not make sense, but it never feels like it needs to make sense. We are brought into an opium den with the first viewpoint character. From there, the prose gets a little less experimental, but was never anything less that intriguing to read.

I don't remember much about that first viewpoint character, because we get to know him relatively little - that he had been in the U.S. but had to return to India, that he quickly turned to opium, that he drifts between a mainstream world and this shadowy one. We see his misadventures shepherding a former enfant terrible of the expat Indian literary and artistic scene to the opium den, then leaving him there - long-term sense of responsibility not being a notable feature of his drug haze.

We get to know Dimple, the woman who works the pipe, coming from a former (and present? The timeline was never entirely clear to me) profession as a prostitute. We hear her history, including how she came to smoke opium and then to work for the Chinese man who ran the opium den in its first incarnation, after fleeing mainland China and the Cultural Revolution. We learn about Rashid, the next proprietor of the opium den, and his family, and relationship with Dimple.

This book is not a diatribe about drugs. It is not idyllic about them. It is just exactly what it is, and feels like an attempt to capture the whole experience, as closely as the author can. (Wikipedia says it's based on his own twenty lost years of addiction.)  There are dangers on the street, people become more and more desperate for the release of drugs, and newer, harsher drugs enter the scene. There are attempts at rehab, moments of cynicism concerning recovery, honest attempts and regretful changes, and reversions.

I don't think this is a book for everyone. This is another in a long line of books I've said are for people with high tolerances for ambiguity and meandering. Who are open to an experience rather than a straighforward narrative. Who want to spend time in a world where squalor is escaped from into smoke.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

I am not sure how I came to read Castle Hangnail a year or two ago, but I do know that I've been recommending it to everyone I know with children, and quite a few adults, ever since. It was just so thoroughly delightful, with wonderful turns of phrase and good-hearted messages at the core of the story of a young girl taking over an evil castle and installing herself as the new evil sorceress in town.

When I saw that one of the young adult novel nominees was by Ursula Vernon under a pseudonym, I was really looking forward to it. Then I sat down to read it, and it was even better than I had expected. It was just simply delightful, an excellent mix of realism and fantasy, difficult situations and unexpected answers, all with an avoidance of easy tropes of winning through war or even of absolute victory.

I particularly enjoyed the main character's background and struggles - Summer is an eleven-year-old only child with a single mother. Specifically, her mother seems to be struggling with fairly extreme anxiety about almost all aspects of her life, but particularly when it comes to perceived dangers to her daughter. Summer has had to learn how to negotiate her mother's issues, but she's yearning to be able to do more and dare more than her mother allows.

So when a house comes down an alley she's not allowed to go down, and settles down in the yard next door, Summer figures out how to visit, and meets Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga promises Summer her heart's desire, but doesn't tell Summer what that is. Although she is given a talking weasel.  Summer and the weasel (the weasel is never named) go back out the front door, but not back to the neighbour's lawn - instead they find themselves in a magical land, Orcus.

Once there, she finds a land where the wondrous is slowly withering away - personified by a tree that should drop leaves that turn into frogs, but is not even managing tadpoles. She goes on a journey, as one does, that finds her many strange and wonderful companions, including Glorious, a werehouse (a wolf who turns into a house at night); a rather dandyish hoopoe who is perhaps avoiding the bird Ton; two geese who are sent by the hoopoe's aristocratic father to guard him; an antelope woman who definitely intends to mess with Summer; and a flock of valet birds.

As the withering of the wondrous suggests, there is an evil force in the land, personified, more or less, by three circles getting tighter with malice. We have Grub, who pursues Summer, Zultan, a general-type who directs Grub to pursue Summer, and the legendary Queen-in-Chains, who no one has ever seen, although her destruction of the Tower of Dogs made everyone quite aware of her power.

Yes, there are lots of details. There are lots more - Donkeyskin and her sisters, the Wheymaker, the woman in the forest, more and more. The point I'd like to make about them is that each is still very vivid in my memory, in a way that I often lose. I remembered far more of the names, the details, the enchanting story than I often do. It all fits together perfectly out of discarded little pieces that somehow make much more than the sum of their parts.

Summer's journey is difficult - she is often sore and alone and scared, up against odds that pull her down. But she is also resourceful, brave, and has particular skills developed by her life to date, and the ending is delightfully not about a battle or an obstacle to be beaten. But it is about Summer becoming who she is, and what that might mean for her future. 

Monday, 6 August 2018

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows was another book I read because it was nominated for a Hugo. Well, a not-a-Hugo YA award that will be handed out at the Hugos, in this case. I get the reasoning for doing it that way, but it is confusing to write about. I picked this up during the last push to get books finished before the voting deadline, and managed to get it done with time to spare.

When it came time to do my rankings, I knew this wouldn't be top of my list. That's not to say it's a bad book - as I've been saying all the way through this process, these are very strong categories, and it's been hard to choose. But while I think this was good, it didn't vault into the realm of great in any one of a number of ways. I just never felt as engrossed as I wanted to, never really sank down into the story.

However, that aside, if you're looking for some good historical YA fiction with nary a focus on romance to be seen, let alone intense insta-love, I could definitely recommend this one. It's good, the main dilemma is strong, the characters and world interesting. It's not quite like anything I've read before, not that I'm well read in this particular genre.

This takes place during the reign of Charles I, just at the start of the English Civil War. Makepeace is raised among Puritans, but her mother never really fit in, and neither did she. There are hints in her early life that her mother is in hiding from something, but her mother is not one to share, nor one to coddle - when Makepeace starts to become aware she can see ghosts, and that ghosts attack her, her mother takes her to the cemetery, over and over, and leaves her there overnight so she can learn how to fend them off.

When she grows up, after a traumatic moment that leaves her motherless, followed by another that gives her an unintentional mind-mate, she finds out what her mother was hiding from, and to be more precise, what she was hiding - Makepeace herself from the family of Makepeace's father, rich lords, the Fellmottes, who want to hold on to power by making alliances with Charles, but are holding on to rather more than that.

Because, as it turns out, the sensitivity to ghosts is an inherited trait, and the Fellmottes have been using it in a manner strikingly similar to the plan of the old people in Being John Malkovich. And in so doing, destroy the hosts they take over - hosts who have to be their descendants, of one sort or another. Which...seems like it would suck? And give the descendants lots of reasons to rebel? Not just the illegitimate ones, the legitimate and totally screwed ones?  And yet, only one does.

From here, it's about Makepeace trying to get and stay away from the Fellmottes, and coping with her newfound and growing power - and her hope to bring down her family of birth so that they can't hurt anyone else, most of all someone she cares for. (Not a romance.)

I can't put my finger on exactly what didn't grab me about this book - and that seems like it would be a feat, wouldn't it? To be able to say exactly why a particular book didn't grab me. There's nothing wrong with it that I can pinpoint, it just never took flight. Still, as it stayed firmly on the ground, at least the ground was unobtrusive and mostly interesting.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

I haven't written all the reviews for Hugo-nominated works and authors yet, but I have now read them all and put my ballot together, which was very exciting. It's going to take me a few days to catch up on writing about the books I pushed to finish on time, and here was one of the late entries. It was also one I like a whole heck of a lot. Jeannette Ng was nominated for the Campbell Award this year, and I think this is a very strong contender in that category.

This is at least partly because this book appeals to a few very specific areas that I know about more than the average bear, and does interesting things with them. I have, of course, a well-documented weakness for fairy tales, and stories where fairies interact with the human world. Add to that a couple of well-meaning Christian missionaries, and an author who knows the theological tangles they'd get themselves into while trying to establish a mission in Fairyland? You have to know that I'm thoroughly in. Ng does a marvellous job of taking the Fae seriously and creating something unique and inhuman about them, and taking her human missionaries and their beliefs seriously and combining the two to create a marvellously twisty tale.

My one quibble, and it was by no means a dealbreaker, is that the reveals, of which there are two major ones, were telegraphed well in advance. In neither case did this spoil the twist, as having figured it out (quite easily) didn't detract from the enjoyment of seeing how we'd get there. But when the mysterious woman arose, it was quickly apparent who she was, if not why she was that way, and the final reveal about Cathy's origins wasn't hard to figure out, given what we know about the caprices of the Fairy Queen Mab. So those didn't land as surprises, but there was enough else going on that they didn't need to.

This is the story of Catherine Helstone, whose brother Laon has gone to Fairyland, under the titular pendulum sun, and moon fish, to minister to the inhabitants there, to bring the word of Christianity to truly foreign shores that can only be found by the lost. Once he gets there, communication cuts off, and Cathy goes in search of her brother. After Cathy finds her way to the shores, she finds an empty gothic castle where her brother resides. It is also the castle where the one former missionary had resided, although he died in mysterious circumstances.

Her brother is away, seeking audience with Queen Mab to extend his field of mission further than just the castle and the few inhabitants inside, who include Ariel, a changeling, Benjamin, the only Christian convert fairy so far, and The Salamander, a mostly unseen housekeeper. Catherine settles in impatiently and starts to amass the clues as to what happened to the previous minister, if not to understand them.

Laon returns, with the Queen close behind, and she is more than happy to play with the siblings like toys, wielding lies and truth with equal cruelty and caprice. How do you convert people who have no sense that they are fallen? What do you run away from, and what happens when that thing follows you? What happens when desires meet strictures and desires win? It's all woven together quite wonderfully, and I was glad I got to read this book.