The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

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The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

2018, Harper Voyager

Content Warnings for abuse, rape, body horror, self-harm, drug use, graphic violence and depictions of death, and genocide.

I received an e-arc of the Poppy War from HarperFiction UK in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to them, and to the author, for providing me with this beautiful tale of relentless misery.

The Poppy War follows Fang Runin, or Rin, a war orphan from a remote southern province of the Nikara empire. Growing up in an abusive foster environment, with no prospects except a forced marriage to a man much older than her, Rin instead pins her hopes on the Keju, an examination which, if she passes, could propel her into an elite school and into the empire’s ruling classes. In fact, Rin has her eye on the best of these schools, the military Sinegard Academy. Throwing everything she has at the examination – including self-harm as a study aid – Rin aces the test, but in doing so launches herself into a world where being a dark-skinned, impoverished peasant girl makes it nearly impossible to survive. While working herself to the bone to overcome the prejudices and barriers set against her, she draws the notice of Jiang, the enigmatic tutor whose “Lore” classes are a running joke among students for the fact he never actually turns up to teach them anything. It turns out that Lore covers the rare art of Shamanism, for which Rin has an aptitude, and that the powers she wields are tied to the whims of extraordinarily dangerous gods, requiring a great deal of training and self-control to even survive.

If this is all sounding like a dark but classic iteration of the “kid at fighting magic school” trope so far, it doesn’t stay that way. Throughout this first part of the novel, Kuang is carefully weaving in strands of recent history and current events about the Nikara, and their eastern neighbours, the Mugen Federation. Recent wars between the two nations have left Nikara precariously in control of its own territory for now, but at an immensely high cost – to win the second Poppy War, Nikara’s generals allowed Mugen to take control of the island of Speer, a Nikaran colony whose population was racially and culturally distinct from the rest of the empire. Mugen murdered every single person on this island, an action which drew the attentions of Hesperia (this setting’s equivalent of “The West”) and led to their assisting Nikara against Mugen, on the condition that the sale of opium be allowed in Nikara’s territory. Nikara also, apparently, drew on the assistance of three divinely-blessed humans, but of these three, only the Empress remains, and any supernatural element to her power has since been greatly downplayed. In narrative terms, all of these historical elements come crashing to the fore just before the book’s halfway mark, and the scale of the story suddenly becomes much larger.

I should note that I didn’t love this book immediately. The first couple of chapters felt rushed, and the style in which information was being conveyed seemed oddly disjointed. I think a large part of this was getting used to Kuang’s style, which is very matter-of-fact and makes use of plenty of time skips when the narrative requires, particularly in the first section. This means we are thrown immediately into an almost montage-style sequence of Rin preparing for the Keju, as well as interacting with characters who we immediately suspect are not actually going to be important once she inevitably gets into school. However, once the book reaches Sinegard the style stopped being an issue for me, and I wouldn’t have wanted the narrative to spend any more time on Rin’s preparation than it did. I’m just glad I didn’t judge this book too early and dismiss it accordingly, because it gets much better!

The Poppy War also gets extremely dark, with a consistent escalation of violence and war which mirror and complicate Rin’s personal journey and her relationship with the immensely destructive divine forces to which she potentially has access. Once the Mugen Federation attacks, Rin and her classmates have their education come to an early, brutal end and are thrown immediately into the war (this leaves a fair bit of unfinished business behind, which is realistic but disappointing to those of us who would have liked to see some serious payoff of the feud between Rin and weapons master Jun). Kuang doesn’t pull her punches in describing the effects of the violence, particularly when it comes to the results of more technologically advanced weaponry used by the Mugen. However, the brutality in this section is nothing compared to the last 20% of the book, where atrocities strongly reminiscent of events in the Second Sino-Japanese war and World War 2 come into play. This is, of course, hard to read, but it didn’t feel gratuitous, and there were certainly plot relevant reasons for why Rin had to see the utter brutality of the Mugen invasion in order to shape her final actions and the story’s grim but fitting conclusion.

In terms of setting, the Nikara Empire and the Mugen Federation draw extremely heavily on China and Japan respectively, and particularly on events around the late 19th and early 20th century. Again, early on I was sceptical about the extent to which elements were going to be wholesale lifted from the real world: in chapter two, for example, Rin’s introduction to the big city of Sinegard is conducted through anecdotes and instances of selfishness and deception which were identical to incidents from 21st century China. It’s rather jarring to have a fantasy city defined through a character recounting folk wisdom which is transparently based on legal precedents from 2006 Nanjing! This also got less frustrating as the book went on, and there was plenty of blending of different historical points and introduction of new elements (or, perhaps, just a lot of things I didn’t recognise – my knowledge of pre-1950 Chinese history is patchy) which stopped things from feeling stale, but a couple of the big set pieces – particularly, as noted, in the last part of the book – drew a great deal from recognisable historical events.

I left The Poppy War with unanswered questions about the effects of these parallels. On the one hand, I think it makes the use of brutal scenes less questionable: whatever else you may feel about the book’s most difficult moments, you can’t argue that they are unrealistic because events like the Rape of Nanjing really did happen, in our world. On the other hand, however, I never shook off the discomfort of characters discussing other races in the book as “not human” or “primitive”, especially when it came to the Speerlies, who have very little voice in the book beyond two troubled, brutalised characters. What does it mean to have a Han Chinese-coded character casually discuss the primitiveness and expendability of a race who are recognisably (though less directly coded as) Aboriginal Taiwanese? And for those Aboriginal Taiwanese characters to apparently have crimson eyes as a racial trait? To be clear, obviously the author does not come down on the side of tactical genocide and racism just because some of her characters normalise it, but having racial dynamics which are almost-but-not-quite real world felt like it pushed some of this material into an odd grey area where characters’ use of unexamined stereotypes became acceptable without being challenged to the extent I’d have liked to see. Then again, none of the characters in The Poppy War are good people, so expecting them to react to fantasy-world dehumanisation in a way which punches back against real-world racism is a rather tall order, and probably an unfair criticism.

This certainly isn’t going to be a book for everyone, and although I found it a compelling read after a few chapters, I still have some reservations about what I’ve just read. However, if you have the stomach for it, the Poppy War is an extremely rewarding, if grim tale, whose parallels with real-world events makes its brutality difficult to dismiss.

Rating: Seven imprisoned revenge gods out of ten

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Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

2018, Solaris

I received this book as an e-arc from Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review, for which they and Yoon Ha Lee have my undying gratitude.

Revenant Gun, or, as I like to call it, Ninefox’s Eleven, is the third in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, which began with Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. If you haven’t read those books, be warned that what follows is going to spoil them pretty thoroughly, although I’m going to avoid spoilers for Revenant Gun itself. I highly recommend putting down this review and picking up Ninefox if you haven’t already. Even if you have read the first two books, Revenant Gun launches straight back into the plot with very little recap, so it would benefit from being read straight after a reread – although my distinctly average memory for plot caught up within a few chapters, so it’s not a necessity.

In-universe, the book actually picks up nine years after the events of Raven Stratagem, with the remains of the Hexarchate divided between the Compact, running on the revised and distinctly more liberal calendar set up by renegade soldier Cheris, and the Protectorate, which aims to uphold the old system. Each of these factions is effectively being led by one of the Kel soldier faction: the Compact has our old friend and rebellious “crashhawk” Brezan (with the leader of the Shuos faction, Mikodez, in the background); while the Protectorate is being run by a senior general. Cheris herself, having revealed that her “takeover” by disgraced genius general Shuos Jedao’s personality was not as complete as everyone assumed in Raven Strategem, has disappeared, leaving the Compact effectively alone in defending her new calendar. Also in the mix is the functionally immortal secret-Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the architect of basically every awful technology in the galaxy, who is about to unleash his secret weapon: another iteration of everyone’s favourite disgraced genius general…

New Shuos Jedao is, on the surface, a rather odd introduction, because this version has no memories beyond being seventeen, despite being born into a body with the age and alleged capabilities of his much older self. Turning the enigmatic, all-knowing general of the last two books into a naïve POV character in the third act (indeed, he’s the most used POV for what I believe is the first time in the novels) feels like a big risk from a narrative standpoint, but it ends up working on multiple levels. It fits in thematically with the other ways the trilogy has played with personal identity as well as leting the book explore the weight of Jedao’s actions from a new, heartbreaking angle (although thankfully it doesn’t spend too long going over Candle Arc), and the mechanics of his resurrection also fit neatly with the foregrounding of some of Kujen’s other technological horrors, particularly the creation of the Moth spaceships.

For me, however, the most effective result of baby Jedao was the introduction of a character with the urgent and visceral knowledge that the Hexarchate’s society is unnecessary and wrong. As an audience, we are aware at this point that the Hexarchate has become progressively more brutal and oppressive since his original lifetime, to the point where an entire ruling faction – the Kel – are now brainwashed into mindless obedience and the very basis of technological progress and social cohesion is likely to fall apart if they don’t conduct regular ritual torture sacrifices. Plenty of other characters also believe this is wrong, and the older iteration of Jedao (and later Cheris) also has memories of things being different, the vast majority of time we are seeing events from the perspective of characters who have never known anything different and have no sense of what the alternative would even look like. Young Jedao embodies the shift in narrative from the hopeless fight against an awful system with no clear alternative in the first two books, to a world where of course things don’t have to be done that way, because all he knows it a reality where they weren’t. Even without the details of the new calendar system which makes this revised reality possible (details which would be meaningless to the audience anyway), young Jedao does a lot of work in making the new perspective in this time skip plausible.

In terms of action and worldbuilding, Revenant Gun builds very well on the existing work done in the previous two books: if you liked those, you’ll like this. Alongside young Jedao, we also spend significant amounts of time with Brezan and Cheris, and while I was disappointed to not have POV chapters from the latter, we instead get her story through Hemiola, a Nirai-aligned servitor who ends up following them from a space station, who is a very welcome addition. Like Raven Stratagem, there’s not as much focus on the space-magic battle mechanics as there was in Ninefox, which I still miss, but I accept that the story has grown past those scenes and the wider focus on revolutionary change, as well as the continuing glimpses of life outside the top military and political echelons, are interesting in their own right. There’s also a strong presence from the servitors – the effectively invisible robot workers of the Hexarchate – and honestly I could read a series of just soap opera-loving robots (I mean I am, thanks to Martha Wells, but I could read one written by Yoon Ha Lee as well). Disappointingly my most pressing question about Servitor Hemiola, and whether she gets to watch the last two seasons of A Rose in Three Revolutions, was left unanswered, but perhaps this is making room for a sequel.

Despite throwing me in the deep end in terms of plot recall, Lee’s style makes this a very easy and enjoyable read once you’ve recalled all of the terms and factions. I certainly wouldn’t mind a handy glossary and character list in future editions of the books, but I did well enough on my own. With the landing successfully stuck, this series has firmly entrenched its spot on my favourite space operas, and I’m very glad I stuck out those first mildly confounding chapters of Ninefox Gambit to make it this far.

My rating: Nine gambiting foxes out of Eleven*

*minus one

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

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Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

2018, Orbit UK

I received an e-arc of Blackfish City from the lovely folks at Little, Brown UK via Netgalley in exchange for my review – thank you to the publisher and the author!

Blackfish City is a post-apocalyptic tale with an unusual premise: it’s set on Qaanaaq, a floating star-shaped city in the Arctic, built by a coalition of nations with private sector investment to be a haven for those fleeing climate change related disasters in the rest of the world. In Qaanaaq, everyone is a refugee, and much of is culture is based on the many remnants of human societies bumping up against each other to create new food, music and art. The city itself was built to be administered almost exclusively by AI, with elections for largely powerless posts on each of its eight “arms”, but decisions otherwise made by infallible machine logic. Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea thirty years ago has turned out to be inadequate to the challenges Qaanaaq is now facing, and the city is decaying as its government fails to keep up with the impact of inequality, overpopulation and criminal extortion on its people. On top of this, a new epidemic called “The Breaks” is sweeping through the population, causing fear and stigma towards those it affects (it’s transmitted through body fluids, so sexual transmission is assumed to be the most common method of contracting it) and infecting its sufferers with strange delusions which appear to give them knowledge and memories from other places and times before inevitably killing them.

Into this city floats a woman, an orca, and a polar bear, representing the last of another strange technological experiment on humans. Her presence is the catalyst for events in the lives of other residents of the city: hapless rich boy Fill, coping with his new Breaks infection; Ankit, an election aide trying to understand the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance in the city’s prison-cum-psychiatric hospital; Kaev, a martial arts fighter who struggles with his own unexplained mental health issues; and Soq, a genderqueer teenager scraping together a living at the bottom of Qaanaaq’s socioeconomic heap. For the first half, Blackfish City reads rather like a fast-paced mosaic novel, with events and characters overlapping between the different stories, but no obvious whole. Things do coalesce in the second half, however, with a lot of new connections revealed between the characters which brings them together in a single story, though not necessarily on the same side. The narrative structure is mostly done very well, although there are elements from the characters’ individual plots which fall by the wayside as the group narrative overtakes the rest – most notably Ankit, whose political career and decisions get pushed quickly to one side as the plot to find her mother intersects with everyone else.

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Blackfish City’s greatest strength is its atmospheric worldbuilding, using its different points of view to bring an odd and yet, in many ways, familiar city to life. My favourite parts of this were the little touches: like calling the main public services are “Health” and “Safety”, reminding us that Qaanaaq is a corporate idea of how a perfect city would be run, or having Fill react to a public art installation which involves projecting living images onto street fog. There’s also the chapters involving a piece of media (something we in the early 21st century would most likely call a podcast) called City Without a Map, which is an entirely anonymous production where different people read out monologues about different aspects of the city, and its culture and history. The whole thing adds up to a fictional city with a strong sense of place, where its easy to sympathise with the characters as they go through various stages of nostalgia and frustration with their deeply imperfect home. We also build up a picture of what the rest of the world looks like from asides and the occasional character moment, providing a grim but necessary backdrop.

 

It’s interesting to contrast this realistic portrayal of a future city with the journey the characters themselves go on, which I felt took a lot of beats from less realistic, more mythological styles of storytelling. The mystery behind Masaaraq, the orca woman, is also technological in nature but the way its handled, and the cultural understanding that she brings to who she is, gives it a strong note of fantasy, as do the revelations behind the nature of the Breaks. I felt this blending of realism and science-indistinguishable-from-magic was very well done, adding another layer to the sense of culture and place which Qaanaaq evokes. (I should add the disclaimer that I’m not sure if Masaaraq’s culture is supposed to be based on any particular indigenous traditions, and if so how well the parallels were handled – it felt like it was supposed to be its own thing but it’s not my area of expertise.)
My main source of frustration with Blackfish City was its depth. This isn’t a particularly long book, and it uses its space to cover a great deal of worldbuilding ground, as well as bringing in four main characters, an occasional fifth perspective, and a number of interludes for the different City Without a Map monologues. Inevitably, this means that it touches on a lot of things briefly which then never come up again – Ankit’s aspirations to change the political narrative being one, Kaev’s participation in the intriguing martial arts spectator sport of the city another. I could easily have read another hundred pages in this novel bringing “side quests” to a more satisfying close (or integrating them into the whole), as well as fleshing out character relationships and diving deeper into their particular corners of the city. The ending also felt a little rushed, although it did leave the story on a note which is true to both the characters and the city itself: tentative hope in the face of a broken world.

All in all, Blackfish City is a very strong piece of speculative fiction, creating a fully realised fictional city whose problems provoke us to ask difficult questions about the present and future of our own world. While it didn’t do everything I’d wish for, what it does deliver is well worth anyone’s time, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Sam J. Miller’s work in future.

My rating: 8 out of 10 perfectly cooked street noodle bowls.

The Beautiful Ones by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

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I normally don’t make a fuss over using UK covers instead of US ones, especially where the latter is more recognisable, but look at how pretty the colours are on this!

 

The Beautiful Ones by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

2017, Innsmouth Free Press/Thomas Dunne Books

I have to preface this review by worrying that I’m not the right person to write it! I rarely read romances, and my knowledge of the Belle Époque period that The Beautiful Ones draws on for its setting and, I think, its style, is fairly limited – although I have read a passable cross section of other 18th and 19th century fiction including a fair number of gothic novels. Despite not feeling up to the task, I find a lot to recommend and to talk about in The Beautiful Ones, so I’m going to dial up my courage and engage with this book on its own merits.

The Beautiful Ones follows Nina Beaulieu, a woman who has travelled from her countryside home to the big city for her first ever Grand Season. Nina is, as befits this trope, somewhat overwhelmed by city life and bemused by the things the people surrounding her find important, and has unfortunately been left in the primary care of her married cousin, Valérie, who is equal parts vindictive and impatient towards her relative – having been left embittered by her own experiences of romance and marriage a decade earlier. To make matters worse, Nina has telekinetic powers, a rare gift in her world and a practice considered decidedly unsuitable for well-bred young women.

Enter Hector Auvray, a dashing performer renowned for his own telekinesis, who gets talking to Nina at a ball and soon falls into her orbit. Nina is initially keen to spend time with Hector in order to get him to teach her to control her powers – which, untrained, flare up when she gets emotional – but when he apparently begins to court her, her feelings quickly change into something more. We learn early on, however, that Hector is the very man who had his heart broken by Valerie a decade earlier, and that his scheme to get close to Nina may be no more than a ploy to get close to his old flame…

Given the conventions of romance novels, particularly the need for a “happily ever after”, I spent almost the first half of the book being deeply sceptical of the narrative, and particularly of Hector, a much older and more experienced man who is shamelessly using the affections of a young, inexperienced woman for completely pointless ends. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by how the second act was handled, with both Nina and Hector offered opportunities to grow and to re-establish a relationship in a way which felt much more “right”, despite the external obstacles placed in their way. Nina’s telekinesis, and her process of learning to use it, is utilised to great effect, particularly in the second act. This is the second of Moreno-Garcia’s books I’ve read with a magic system greatly affects the characters without impacting the setting (although Signal to Noise is urban fantasy, whereas the Beautiful Ones is set in secondary world – just an overwhelmingly mundane one) and once again I think its handled very well, with the disapproval of society towards Nina providing a perfect encapsulation of how disinterested these “Beautiful Ones” are in her true self, and how narrow and unsatisfying that definition of “beauty” is.

The Beautiful Ones keeps its main cast small: apart from Nina, Valérie and Hector, we also have Valerie’s husband Gaetan – who is nowhere near as boring and awful as Valérie makes out – and the siblings Luc and Étienne Lémy, who serve as complicating factor and friend of Hector respectively. I did feel the lack of a larger supporting cast made things quite claustrophobic at times, which heightened some of the melodrama but also undermined the feeling of being in a grand city full of societal intrigue. In particular, it’s a shame that Nina makes no female friends her own age, even in the second half of the book where she is less reliant on Valérie and the plot does not require her to be directly constrained. I also felt occasionally that the writing style muffled the more lurid plot elements – there’s a magical performance and a duel in this book, after all – and could have played with a less detached style, particularly at those more melodramatic points.

Despite those issues, the Beautiful Ones was gripping and didn’t feel slow to me at all, given the amount of both internal and external nonsense the characters have to wade through in order to get their HEA. I still don’t think romance is going to form more than an occasional (and usually accidental) part of my reading diet, but I was overall very impressed by this book, and it’s cemented Sylvia Moreno-Garcia on my ever-growing “author to watch” list. While I can’t analyse the Beautiful Ones against many other works of its genre, or the historical period it pastiches, it stands perfectly well on its own merits and I would recommend it as such.

Rating: 7 floating card shuffles out of 10.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

2017, Harper Voyager

 

City of Brass has been on my reading list since I saw the cover and blurb among a list of 2017 releases – gorgeous looking book with historical Middle Eastern influences? Sounds great! Alas, I did not get quite the experience I wanted from it, although some aspects are very good indeed.

The book primarily follows Nahri, a young woman working as a con artist on the streets of 18th century Cairo. Confusingly, despite having demonstrable magic healing and language powers, Nahri initially does not believe in magic, instead focusing on the more material things in life (like survival on the streets of 18th century Cairo). What finally makes this belief system unsustainable is her accidental summoning of a very attractive Daeva, or djinn, who promptly saves her from some marauding ghouls and whisks her away. She agrees to follow him on a trip to Daevabad, the titular City of Brass and home of the djinn, a journey which neither of them particularly want to take, but which Dara (the aforementioned attractive Daeva) says will be safest for someone of Nahri’s very special bloodline – because, of course, she is not a human but a shafit, part-djinn, and from an extinct royal line at that. Interspersed with Dara and Nahri’s journey, and blending with their narrative partway through, is the story of Ali, the younger son of Daevabad’s ruler, who is funding shafit rebels within the city to help improve their position.

Despite explicitly saying on the back cover that this is adult fantasy, I’ve seen City of Brass lumped in with YA numerous times (including on the Locus Recommended Reading List), and there’s certainly a few recognisable beats from YA fantasy – a love triangle, a “mundane” heroine who discovers she is actually the Special, and a vaguely unpleasant setting with a highly regimented and easy-to-learn caste system all make an appearance. With that said, this book is much richer than that summary would suggest, and I felt the worldbuilding was extremely detailed – and, I hope, well researched – and interesting, and certainly big enough to support more than this single story. It’s also very well-written, in a style which demanded and rewarded concentration – Chakraborty certainly knows what she’s doing.

So yes, I liked City of Brass, but I couldn’t help feeling that its content was always slightly too far from what I wanted it to do – I wanted more early character work and clearer motivation, especially for Nahri; and less of the intricate, racially-delineated political scheming – much of which I found hard to concentrate on or care about without the links to character motivation being clearly spelled out. The pacing also felt a little off, and I couldn’t help but feel that the second half of the book, where Nahri and Dara have arrived in Daevabad and are negotiating court politics, could have done with much more room to breathe. The second half of the book also laid bare just how little reason either of them had to go to Daevabad, a city now run by rivals of both Nahri and Dara’s clan, and who consider the latter to be an irredeemable war criminal. Neither character had anything to do when they got there besides “be safe”, except that they clearly aren’t safe. This constant meandering – which also happens to a lesser extent with Ali, who doesn’t seem to have a strong motivation to help the shafit, particularly when his own safety is on the line – makes it much harder to care about the situations the characters end up in, because the whole time you’re reminding yourself they don’t even have a reason to be there.

I’ll be watching how the sequels in this series pan out, and whether some of my concerns seem to be addressed in later books – there’s certainly enough exciting elements here that I’d love to see this series work out. For now, though, I’d recommend this mostly to people who want to experience a fascinating, intricate fantasy world, rather than those hoping for a particularly compelling plot.

6 out of 10.

Book Hauling and Chain Reading Part 2

Sooo I meant to get this done earlier, as part of a wider set of productive weekend plans, but all of those went out of the window when I sat down on Saturday morning to play Pyre, a 2017 video game about finding redemption and building a revolutionary movement through the medium of ritual basketball, and failed to get up to do anything more strenuous than heat food or pee for about 8 hours. This was not time wasted, because Pyre might be the best character-driven video game experience I’ve had since my heart was stolen by Mass Effect, but it does mean that I am behind on every aspect of my life relating to professional choices, connections with non-fictional people, and the conquering of the physical TBR. Shrug!

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Without further ado, here’s some more mini-summaries/reviews of the last couple of weeks of reading. This isn’t everything I’ve read, but it’s everything I feel compelled to tell you about to date, so… thumbs up for “completion”! Again, oddly categorised for your convenience. As you can tell from the numbers, I’m still having a mostly excellent time reading this year so far.

Cosy Winter Fantasy

9781618730947_big.gifDespite a long gap since reading the first book in the series, I greatly enjoyed Laurie J. Marks’ Earth Logic and Water Logic, which are books 2 and 3 of the Elemental Logic quartet. These books are notable for their very different take both on magical and political systems, where magic is bestowed through an elemental affinity which literally shapes one’s personality and viewpoint (hence the “logic” of the title), and the task of putting together the war-torn, divided land of Shaftal ends up in the hands of a non-traditional family group whose reluctant “leader” is a former drug addict. Having been invaded and subjugated a generation ago by the Sainnites, Shaftal now has to reclaim its cultural identity (which, to complicate matters, is highly pacifist) while reckoning with the remnants of the invading force, who have been cut off from their own culture and are now facing their own demise through starvation and attrition. What follows is a fascinating political fantasy with a very high proportion of cosy family fireside scenes and midwinter sledge excursions – and, in Water Logic, some time travel. I’m very excited for the final book, Air Logic, which is slated to come out later this year. 8 and 9 out of 10.

Cosy moments are few and far between in the Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, a fantasy set in northern Russia in which a girl must help the personification of Winter to fight an ancient rival, while reckoning with the influence of Christianity on her community’s support to the traditional spirits – which only she can see. In making her hero a talented young girl in a context where women’s life choices were extraordinarily constrained – either submit to an arranged marriage with a man whose idea of matrimony is almost certainly going to be abusive, or join a convent – Arden makes what is already a claustrophobic setting feel almost unbearably constrained, and I found this a page turner purely because I didn’t want to leave Vasiliya in any of the difficult moments which make up the majority of this book. That said, there are some touching family moments in here, and a lovely fairytale feeling which leaves me eager to pick up the sequel. 8 out of 10

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi also takes much of its inspiration from fairytale, drawing on Persian influences to tell the story of Laylee, a “mordeshoor” who is tasked with preparing her community’s dead for their journey to the afterlife. Once considered a noble profession, Laylee has been left effectively orphaned after her mother’s death and her father’s departure, and her community’s esteem for her work has “mysteriously” plummeted since it became associated with a lone girl. Embittered, burned out and literally working herself to death for an indifferent town, Laylee’s life takes a turn for the dramatic as Alice and Oliver, the protagonists of Furthermore, turn up so that Alice can fulfil the quest that her own (also not particularly sympathetic) town has sent her on. I love the worldbuilding and narrative voice in these books and am looking forward to more. 9 out of 10.

SPAAAAACE

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Space ladies with sentient hair: what could go wrong?

I didn’t read very much space-based sci fi in this batch – the exception being Julie E. Czerneda’s Reunification trilogy (titled This Gulf of Time and Stars, The Gate to Futures Past and To Guard Against the Dark respectively), which wraps up her 9-book Clan Chronicles series in a fast-paced finale sequence with some rather unexpected turns. While I enjoyed these books, I hesitate to call them a satisfying end to a series which has never given its characters easy answers to their questions about home and belonging. Most of the narrative involves the remnants of the alien Clan trying desperately to find safety as their numbers are being thinned out by both external threats and their own psychological struggles, and a game changer towards the end of book 2 leads to a resolution which is simultaneously a little too convenient and not what I was hoping for as someone who loves big found family narratives. As a side note, I was pleasantly surprised that the lack of queer representation in the series is addressed, although this still isn’t a series to pick up if you want lots of significant queer characters. Two 8s and a 7 out of 10

I also picked up Saga Volume 8, another solid entry in this weird space opera-slash family drama. I have to say, I’m much happier now that I’m not following this series month by month, as getting a single arc in a trade is a much better way for me to receive the story. This is too far through the series to summarise without spilling spoilers all over the floor, but while I wouldn’t call it my favourite volume I remain very invested in the adventures of Marko, Alanna and Hazel and their various other “family” members. 7 out of 10

Past and Future

5136cHRwLuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAmberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, is set in a city inspired (but in many ways very different to) 1930’s Berlin, where a conservative anti-democratic government is about to manipulate its way into victory and threaten the diverse communities which make Amberlough their home. An interesting cross between Cabaret and a spy thriller, we follow three characters: washed up agent Cyril; his boyfriend, the sharp and stunning cabaret performer (and smuggler) Aristide; and Cordelia, a woman who has come from nothing to secure a place working in the same cabaret. When Cyril’s mission to a nearby state to watch the election goes terribly wrong, the three characters end up embroiled in machinations to protect the community they love against the rise of the One State Party – and, failing that, to protect each other. One can’t help but feel this latter mission would have gone better if any two characters could ever have a straightforward conversation with each other, but the lack of trust even between these people who care very deeply for each other underlines the claustrophobia and desperation which Amberlough creates, presenting a very dark view of the effects of creeping fascism and noting that, by the time most of us notice we are in danger, it is already too late to escape. The audiobook, read by Mary Robinette Kowall, is particularly recommended. 8 out of 10.

Where Amberlough holds a mirror to history through a secondary world, The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer weaves both Enlightenment sensibilities and a far future “utopia” which, by this third book in the Terra Ignota series, is starting to fall apart at the seams. Like the first two books in the series (and most of the actual Enlightenment philosophy I have engaged with), I found The Will to Battle both infuriating and fascinating – infuriating in that its global political machinations are entirely focused in on a few (mostly) “men”, that despite the very different conceptions of gender in the future where the book is set, it is told through the lens of a narrator who brings chauvinist 18th century ideals to the proceedings, and that the mystical and religious elements of the book often feel so left field and ridiculous (a character introduced in the last chapter of book 2 felt particularly absurd) that I’m sceptical about whether the plot elements that aren’t weird mysticism are ever going to come to a conclusion that I find satisfying. Despite all this, this is idea-driven fiction at its absolute peak, and while I wish I didn’t have to wade through the nasty mind of narrator Mycroft Canner to access it, the worldbuilding and political machinations here have really sucked me in. Alas, dear reader, that it is such a long wait for the final book in the quartet! Somewhere between a 6 and a 9 out of 10 depending on my mood (but you should try it).

Book Hauling and Chain Reading – a Three Week Wrap-up (Part 1)

So after several weeks without a review, I think I’ve identified at least one of the problems I have with scheduling (beyond laziness and poor time management): I tend to do the most reading and book buying when I’m on holiday, but I never review when I’m away, so I end up with huge intimidating backlogs which then stop me from reviewing any more recent stuff. As I want to do Hugo Roundups in the next week as well, I think another short roundup is in order!

I also do the vast majority of my book buying on holiday, especially when I pass through my favourite bookstores in Bangkok. I was there twice in a week at the beginning of February and, uh, this happened:

bookhaul Feb18.jpgNot a sensible move for someone who needs to figure out intercontinental shipping in the next two months, but this pile – and the other things on my Physical TBR, which is my current priority – has been very good to me so far!

Instead of going chronologically (you can read my Librarything thread for that, if you want), I thought I’d organise most of the last few weeks into thematic areas. It turns out I’ve read a ton of fantasy of all different stripes recently, from pure secondary world goodness to portal fun to the magic of our own planet. It’s mostly been very good, as the ratings attest:

Falling through doors

I picked up Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018, Tor.com) in audiobook and was not disappointed. This is the third in the Wayward Children series of novellas, which centres around a boarding school for teenagers who have returned from different magical lands and are unable to adjust back to the “real” world. Where the first book in the series was a murder mystery, and the second a horror story, BtSS is a straightforward quest narrative, involving a band of wonderful characters hopping through portals to try and resurrect a girl who died before her daughter could be born. Complicating this quest is the fact that the instigator, Rini, is the daughter, and exists anyway thanks to her belonging to a logic-free reality called Confection. I loved the musings on baking in this, as well as the viewpoint of Cora, a fat girl who fell into an ocean world and became a mermaid. The Wayward Children books can be read out of order, but be warned that this one contains spoilers for the first – start with Every Heart a Doorway if this series appeals. 9 out of 10.

Another knockout success was In Other Lands (2017, Small Beer Press) by Sarah Rees Brennan, a story I found and lost again when she was self-publishing it on her LiveJournal a few years ago. This standalone follows Elliot Schafer, a prickly 13-year-old from our world who is brought over to the magical Borderlands and offered a place at an exclusive training camp for humans seeking to defend their territory from the elves, dwarves, mermaids, harpies, trolls and other peoples of this world. Despite being a resolute pacifist, Elliot joins the school’s (highly undervalued) diplomatic training course and proceeds to cause constant headaches for staff and other students alike, while navigating awkward teenage relationships with Serene, the female chauvinist elf girl, and Luke, the handsome, talented son of the Borderland’s most prominent fighting family. This setup could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but Brennan balances it all perfectly, lovingly eviscerating the tropes involved in fantasy teenage warrior school and foregrounding the personal development of a difficult and yet usually sympathetic main character, showing how we are all worthy of love without making excuses or rewarding the character for his more unpleasant moments. A glowing, borderline incoherent 10 out of 10.

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows (2017, Angry Robot Books) was more of an impulse buy, based on my desire to support the author after she became the focus point of some nasty internet attacks from right-wing morons. This is the sequel to an Accident of Stars, which I honestly didn’t love – I found the main character, a white Australian teenage girl called Saffron who falls through a portal to a country called Kena, too unrealistically “woke”, and some of the things that happened to her felt rather laboured. I’m happy to report, however, that I didn’t have the same problems with this sequel at all. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Saffron, who was sent back to our world at the end of the first book with some literally inexplicable scars and injuries, is forced to return to a school where her value as a young woman is being constantly dismissed or used to benefit other students above herself, and finds herself much less able to simply swallow the tiny injustices being perpetrated against her. I don’t know if I liked this more than its predecessor because the narrative is different, or because I look for different things in books now, but either way I liked all of the characters and their journeys here, and I appreciate why Meadows chose to have an open minded protagonist whose learning journey isn’t foregrounded relative to the struggles of the other characters around her. An enthusiastic 8 out of 10.

Not Quite Our World

Like the books above, Exit West by Mohsin Hamad contains doors through which the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, escape from their war torn Middle Eastern city into another world. Unlike the above, however, this other world is not a fantasy domain but other locations on our own planet – first Mykonos, then London, and then, eventually, something better. Using the speculative conceit of doors which proliferate throughout the world and cannot be controlled or policed, Hamad explores the experience of refugees and what might happen if more fortunate countries were literally unable to prevent them from entering. It’s a short book – basically novella length – and Saeed and Nadia’s relationship development suffers from the lack of space, but the political aspects of this are excellent, and I felt the worldbuilding was much more interesting than the similar conceit in the Underground Railroad, which also adds a fantasy touch to migration and escape but without changing the fundamental shape of the history it is telling. 8 out of 10.

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (2005, Small Beer Press), is a collection of short stories which mainly fall into the slipstream/magical realism category, where everything is 80% our world and 20% strange dreamlike happenings which still have a strange logic behind them. The stories in this ranged from fantastic – the titular Magic for Beginners, about a group of teenagers brought together for love of an odd fantasy TV show, was beautiful, and The Faery Handbag and Stone Animals were also very strong – to “yeah, OK” (the cannon thing…?) – overall, I was left with a strong positive impression. 8 out of 10.

I was, however, reminded that not everything in the magical realism wheelhouse works for me, when Frontier by Can Xue sadly left me behind. This is a series of interlinked “stories” – although there’s not much in the way of identifiable plot, to be honest – from the perspectives of people living in Pebble Town, a Chinese frontier town with a mysterious Design Institute, some weird animal interactions, a park (?) and not much else. There were some excellent images in this, and, having spent time in far west China, I did recognise the “we are trapped in a desolate corporate town without a purpose, while there are actual communities somewhere around here that ours knows nothing about” vibe. But although the imagery kept me going past the point I felt I should DNF, and I’d try Can Xue in short form if the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t recommend this to casual readers. A confused 5 out of 10.

 

(Stay tuned for part 2, in which I muse on the wintry books I read while bathed in tropical heat, apologise for not going to space enough, and attempt that rarest of feats (for me): reviewing non-genre books…) Edit: Part 2 is here! I do, uh, two of the things I promised…