Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

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Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Random House, 2018

This is not fair. Not fair at all. Tess of the Road is as close to perfect as a book can be, and yet for some reason that perfection is making it harder, not easier, to write about it. I feel the absolute greatest of responsibilities to this amazing book and it’s amazing heroine, and it’s hard not to write a thousand words of “please read it please read it please read it” instead of putting together some coherent thoughts. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.

Set in the same world as Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, a duology about a half-dragon girl (the titular Seraphina) attempting to hide her illegal heritage and avert war while working as a court musician, Tess of the Road brings back the rich social and religious worldbuilding introduced in that series while shifting the focus to Tess Dombegh, Seraphina’s younger, human half-sister.  You don’t have to have read Seraphina’s books to jump into Tess’, but this volume contains spoilers for the ending of that series, and they are also excellent and worth enjoying unspoiled if possible.

Unlike her serious, talented older sister, Tess has been brought up to believe she has no particular talents or positive traits. Chafing under an emotionally abusive mother and a distant father, and constantly compared negatively to her compliant twin Jeanne, Tess is keen for new experiences and adventures. Instead she finds herself falling in with a nasty crowd and “ruining herself” at fifteen, undergoing a series of scarring, traumatic experiences which her environment gives her no tools or support to cope with.

By seventeen, Tess has helped Jeanne secure a good marriage but has no prospect of the same: her twin wants her to come live with her and become governess to her future children, but her parents are more keen to pack her off to a convent. By now desperate to escape by any means possible, Tess is finally given an escape route by Seraphina (who has gone into seclusion after becoming pregnant under what readers of her books will know are slightly complicated personal circumstances), and sets out on the road with only one goal – surviving each day as it comes.

Tess of the Road isn’t an unnecessarily dark read, but that doesn’t mean its not difficult. Tess carries her shame and trauma around with her every moment, and while they don’t affect her irrepressible personality, the audience sees first hand how often her exploitative relationship with an older boy and subsequent pregnancy come into her thoughts, often at rather inopportune moments. Tess’ shame is very much located in her body, with her mother’s strict interpretation of Goredd’s religion instilling utterly inflexible and misogynistic expectations about her purity and worth which allow no room for redemption or moving forward. For much of the first half of the book, Tess is explicitly struggling with suicide ideation, and her inability to find anything in herself to value is hard to read at times for anyone who has been through similar experiences.

Although its always present, however, this isn’t a book about Tess’ past – it’s a book about her journey, both literal and emotional. Like all good adventures of self-discovery, Tess of the Road is packed with a rotating cast of characters who appear at different points of her journey. Tess herself spends most of her time disguised as a boy, taking on several different identities as she believes the situation requires and apparently revelling in the freedom that a male disguise brings her (although we can’t help but notice that her strongest moments tend to happen when she isn’t acting a part, or when a sympathetic character sees through it). Her most constant companion is Pathka, who is a Quigutl: a misunderstood species of four-armed human-sized lizards, related to dragons but with their own highly distinct and alien culture. Tess first met Pathka when she was a child, and can understand and speak to them even though most humans never bother to learn their native language, an early sign that she is a far more generous and capable person than she gives herself credit for. Pathka’s quest to find a mythical world-snake called Anathuthia frames much of Tess’ quest, although there are plenty of sidetracks along the way – this is a book about the journey, not the destination.

While there are a few unpleasant characters on the road, they are by far outweighed by those who wish Tess well, even if they don’t have all the answers or make the right choices themselves. Some of Tess’ most profound moments come from characters – often adult women – who she assumes are going to be hostile or unpleasant to her, but who instead prove sympathetic, insightful, and help her overcome some of the internal prejudices that prevent her from processing what has happened to her. It is through these women, each of whom has had to deal in some way with the misogyny and prejudices which shape their expectations, that Tess realises the choices before her are much greater than her narrow, abusive upbringing gave her cause to believe, and that the traumatic events of her past, while they will never go away, will also never define her. Special mention also has to be given to Tess’ third-act romantic interest Josquin, a disabled man whose sexuality and desirability is presented as a complete non-issue, and whose relationship with Tess develops alongside a very sweet two-way bond of care without ever taking over the narrative.

In the end, there’s no big emotional payoff to Tess of the Road; no clear opportunity to confront the villains of her past or radically shift her family’s thinking so they suddenly learn to value her for who she is. Instead, we follow Tess through the slow, messy, incomplete process of healing and forgiveness, as she grows past her family and finds a new sense of self-worth and belief in her own aspirations. It’s fitting that, in some ways, the plot comes full circle on Tess, giving her an option for a future that in theory she could have always taken. But, of course, it took the experience and maturity Tess earned on her adventures to see that opportunity for what it was and learn to accept it, and herself.

While I can only speak to my own reactions to what I think is quite a personal book (and I should note that my personal experiences don’t include any of the worst elements of Tess’ youth) Tess of the Road completely succeeded for me in every way I think it set out to. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Please read it.

Rating: Ten steps in sturdy new boots out of ten


A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: From Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given by Natasha Devon


A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: From Anxiety to Zero Fucks Given by Natasha Devon (illustrations by Rubyetc)

Published 2018 by Pan Macmillan

I received A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental from Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review.

I suspect many people like myself, who have had to confront mental health issues at some stage in our lives, will recognise the way in which tackling our problems can force us to develop a broader understanding of how human thoughts, feelings, physical needs and interpersonal relationships function, and what it means when things go wrong. A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental takes that basic package of insight, adds a ton of expertise from author Natasha Devon’s career as a mental health educator, mixes in additional knowledge from mental health professionals and people with lived experience, and packages it into a concise, accessible read. The result, while not a traditional self-help tool (or, obviously, a substitute for medical support), is an invaluable collection of wisdom and demystification on a subject where straightforward information can still be hard to come by.

As one should expect from the title, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental organises its material in an A to Z format, with one topic per letter. This is a cute tactic, although it leads to a couple of contrived chapter names, including the very unfortunate choice to name the self-harm chapter “Just Attention Seeking” and cross reference it using this stereotyped phrase in several other chapters. While the J chapter itself addresses the misconceptions of this phrase straight away, I still found it uncomfortable to have it peppered throughout the book, especially when so much care seems to have been taken elsewhere to avoid unnecessarily harmful language and content.

Devon covers a lot of ground within her twenty-six chapters, addressing common illnesses and symptoms, the influence of external factors like youth and gender, and the kinds of treatment available (including both medical services like drugs and therapy as well as different forms of self-care). She also covers some UK specific ground about accessing mental health services, and is open about the inadequacies and gaps in the current NHS system, and her experiences as a government advisor on mental health. I apparently missed all coverage of her eleven months in the post while I was abroad, but this might not be news to everyone – and it probably won’t be news to most of my readers that the Conservative government were less than excellent about using Devon’s considerable expertise to genuinely improve the system.

One side effect of the A to Z format is that it frontloads Devon’s personal experiences with mental illness (anxiety and eating disorders), strengthening the feeling that this book is from someone who “gets it” from multiple angles. The chatty, informal style also helps, and makes this a readable and at times very funny book. At the same time, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental feels carefully written (“J” chapter name aside) and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the content. Personal experiences are recounted where it may overcome taboo or help a reader to feel less alone, but the text avoids anecdotes that could be voyeuristic or, in the case of self-harm behaviours and eating disorders, contribute to “competitiveness” among those who struggle with these conditions. There is one section in an early chapter with some unpleasant medical details, and potentially triggering content about Devon’s experiences with bulimia, which is given a clear content warning; otherwise, this book should be accessible to anyone not in a state of immediate crisis.

sit down

To further sweeten the deal, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental is illustrated by Rubyetc, who I believe is literally the most relateable artist ever (certainly the most relateable artist on my Twitter feed in 2018). I am strongly considering buying a physical copy of this book when it is released on the strength of the illustrations alone – and, of course, because I think this is a very important and timely book that I would like to be able to pass on to other people in my life.

Rating: Nine acts of radical self-care out of ten

Non-fiction: Sexism Ed by Kelly J. Baker


Hello lovely readers, from a jetlagged Adri who is back in the UK after 36 hours of ridiculous travel adventures. I have a couple of shorter non-fiction reviews lined up over the next few days while I recover, but I expect to be back on the fiction analysis very soon! In the meantime, please enjoy:

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(Yet another book I can’t find a large cover image for…!)


Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labour in Academia

2018, Blue Crow Publishing

I received Sexism Ed through the LibraryThing Advanced Reviewer Programme in exchange for Opinions.

This is a strong collection of essays with a varied set of themes, largely drawing on Baker’s personal experiences both as a fledgling academic trying and failing to get onto the tenure track. Baker later left academia to become a full-time writer, including becoming the editor of Women in Higher Education, and the material in this book was created over a series of years.

The material is divided into three sections. The first tackles sexist bias in academia from multiple angles, concentrating on the hostile environment which universities often create for women who do not fit our stereotypical white-man ideal of what an academic should be. This is all interesting, if depressing, stuff, and I was struck by how well the material flowed despite the fact that even though these were separately written essays – I don’t know whether this was a happy accident, or the result of careful and highly successful editing, but it’s worthy of note either way.

The second, contains essays about the working environment in academia generally, and the way in which the system has become increasingly exploitative and difficult to navigate especially for younger workers, women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. This section was the least relateable, as I’m not in academia and have no experience with the US schooling system, so I only have a weak grasp of what the tenure system entails and how widely the model is used elsewhere, and I did get close to skipping a couple of these. However, it’s all still well written and passionately argued and it ended up holding my attention to the end.

It was the third, sadly shortest, section which contained my favourite material. The essays here are mostly longer and tackle personal elements of Baker’s career and life, including her struggle to accept her high-pitched, accented, feminine voice (I can relate), getting to a stage in one’s career where you wonder where your ambition has gone (…yeah), and the struggle of being an expert on white supremacist movements in 2017 when your expertise becomes depressingly relevant and likely to make you a target for online hate (thankfully not in my range of personal experience, but powerfully written nonetheless). All of Sexism Ed feels personal in some way, but this was the section where I fell like Baker was able to cash in on all the more objective ground covered in parts one and two and really bring home what it feels like to navigate a career path in an industry that, on a fundamental level, wishes you weren’t so… you.

All in all, I was surprised and impressed by the ground which this collection covered, and how well the material in Sexism Ed cohered together despite its origins as separate essays over a period of years. I’ll definitely be looking out for more non-fiction work from Kelly J. Baker in future.

Rating: Nine elusive tenure-track positions out of ten

Non-fiction: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker


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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

2017, Scribner/2018, Penguin

This is a book I’d had my eye on for a while, having read author Matthew Walker’s interview in the Guardian, so when it popped up on offer on Netgalley I requested it without giving too much thought as to where it would fit into my reading schedule. Too many months later, I’m a reformed reviewer and finally ready to share my thoughts!

Why We Sleep is, as is probably obvious from the title, about the scientific and health effects of sleep, an area which Walker points out is still bizarrely lacking from our understanding of health despite the fact we all spend a quarter to a third of our lives in this state. The initial chapters of the book tackle what we currently know about the process and functions of sleep, including what REM and non-REM sleep do for us. The middle of the book, perhaps more relevantly for most of us, deals with the effects of a lack of sleep, considering both the acute effects of the occasional missed night (reduced ability to form memory, weakened immune system) and the cumulative impact of chronic sleep deficiencies and the long-term mental and physical problems these cause, as well as the effects of alcohol, caffeine, sleeping pills and the simple process of ageing (all bad) to get the eight hours of sleep we all (with very few exceptions) need every single night.

It all builds up into a pretty grim picture for any of us with a lifestyle that involves stress, late nights, weekend lie-ins, caffeine, alcohol and/or the looming spectre of a family history of insomnia. Indeed, reading Walker’s interview last year was one of those rare instances where information on health caused an immediate shift in my behaviour: I stopped charging my phone in my bedroom, ditched my alarm clock in favour of waking up naturally (which turns out to happen between 6:30 and 7:30am, although I haven’t tested this in a Northern European winter yet…), and am now in bed by 10pm a much higher percentage of the time. The book has definitely reinforced my commitment to those habits, although to be honest the effect of most of the additional information has been to wince and shrug – I’m probably not going to give up my moderate caffeine or alcohol consumption even now I know it’s probably lost me more memories than just the obvious ones. Still, it’s good knowledge to have even if it’s not the advice we’d want to have.

Walker’s style is highly readable for the most part, although it is science-heavy and there were a few more data rich parts that were slightly dry. The occasionally rather dire health warnings are balanced out with cheesy professorial humour which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not particularly overdone. There were also a few moments involving cross-cutting areas where I rolled my eyes at some of the biases within the text: for example, the segment on sleep and reproductive health fixated heavily on the relationship between sleep and low testosterone and how that would be the worst thing ever for men (Cordelia Fine might have a thing or two to say about that?) There’s also an early section on autism which describes autistic brain function as “inappropriate” and puts out a (hedged) hypothesis about the links between “deficient” REM sleep patterns and the cause of autism. I’m no expert on the science of autism, but I strongly suspect Walker is not either, and the casual way this was dropped in for a page apparently just to underscore how “autistic people do sleep wrong and that’s why us normals need to get it right” really rubbed me up the wrong way.

Regardless, this is recommended reading for the subject matter alone, dealing as it does with an area of health most of us underrate and know very little about. That it’s packaged in a decently readable book form is an added bonus.

Rating: Seven sleeping hours out of ten (decent for a book, not for a night of sleep – afternoon nap recommended!)

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

2018, Saga Press (Forthcoming in the UK from Corsair)

Rarely does a book come along which is as relevant to such a specific set of my interests as this latest from Fairyland and Radiance author Catherynne M. Valente, which reimagines the Eurovision Song Contest as an intergalactic tool for managing politics and resource allocations, and for deciding the sentience of newly discovered races by forcing them to sing for their survival.

Yeah, just let that sink in. (And if you don’t know what Eurovision is, this is a perfect time for Swedish hosts Petra Mede and Mans Zelmerlow to fill you in).

Now that’s out of the way, I can exclusively and unsurprisingly reveal that I loved this book – and not just because the sections are named after the Captain Planet elements, or because the chapters are named after Eurovision songs.

In Space Opera, humanity has just come to the notice of the intergalactic community, and has been given the rules of the Intergalactic Grand Prix: sing to prove your species is sentient, and the rest of the known universe won’t destroy every advanced life form on your planet and wait a few million years for evolution to make something better. Fortunately for Earth, the aliens have compiled a handy list of human musicians who could potentially avoid coming last in the contest (which is all they have to do to avoid destruction); unfortunately, the only one of these acts with members still living is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a briefly-famous three-person rock band with an aesthetic described in the text as “a continuously detonating carnival-cum-Bollywood dream-sequence in which you may, at any moment, be knocked sideways by a piece of dismembered French clown” . Even more unfortunately, frontman Decibel Jones and multi-instrumentalist Oort St. Ultraviolet have barely spoken since their third member, Mira Wonderful Star, died in a car accident following a disastrous interaction with Decibel, and they have just a few weeks to pull themselves together and somehow recapture the sound the band had on their single successful album, Spacecrumpet.

There’s a lot of buzz going around comparing this book to Douglas Adams, which in some ways is very apt (and not just because both are written in a very British vernacular). Like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Space Opera runs with the idea that there’s nothing new under any sun: there’s an entire galaxy of alien people and places out there, but you won’t see anything particularly different to people watching in Peterborough city centre on a Saturday afternoon. Where the similarities stop, however, is in the very different conclusions Adams and Valente draw from this fact. Adams’ response to the mundanity of his universe seems to be embodied in the character of Marvin the Paranoid Android, who grumbles consistently through the best and worst of situations, greeting the myriad wonders and horrors of the galaxy with the same heavy sigh. For Valente, on the other hand, the underlying familiarity of even the weirdest alien culture is used as a device to build greater connection between the characters and their worlds, and while most of those connections are strained and imperfect, there’s still a sense that everyone in this enormous intergalactic community is trying to do their best. I suspect it is no accident that in Space Opera, humanity’s first contact isn’t from a species like the ultra-bureaucratic, destructive Vogons, but through the Esca, delicate aquatic flamingo-like beings who aren’t optimistic about our chances of survival, but are nevertheless keen for us to succeed.

This vision of the galaxy is brought to life by Valente’s gorgeous prose. In fact, she is one of the few authors who makes me outright envious when I read her books, which I suppose is why she is a highly successful author and I am an early career third sector worker with a review blog. The specific style here is probably best described as “relentless”: this did take me a little while to get used to, but it’s worth the effort to slow down and take it all in, as there’s rarely a word out of place. Valente is US American, but her aforementioned British vernacular is nearly flawless – the only stray reference I picked up on was a misuse of the word “Eurozone” (that’s specifically for countries in the Euro, for those who didn’t know, and alas not attributable to a pub landlord running “Pound a Pint Tuesdays” in Brighton). If I were to really start splitting hairs, I would point out that the level of reverence and awe attributed to successful Intergalactic Grand Prix acts is pretty far from the attitude most British people – even those like me who adore Eurovision – would have towards the contest, which tends to be a performatively begrudging love of the cheese and silliness rather than a direct acknowledgement of the contest’s moments of genuine musical brilliance. But this was the most miniscule of things to suspend my disbelief for, and in all other aspects I was utterly entranced by Valente’s reimagining of the Eurovision aesthetic and purpose.

The history of the Intergalactic Grand Prix is interspersed with Decibel and Oort’s story. It takes us through the contest’s highlights and lowlights and introduces us, in the process, to a bewildering array of alien species and planets. (Incidentally, you may want to take notes during these sections, as most of the races reappear during the “semi-finals” section, which left me rather confused – this is yet another SFF book that would benefit from some reference pages at the back for all of us with apparently inadequate memories). These are tales of song, scandal, political manoeuvring, favouritism and glory which, like Eurovision itself, make bizarre and yet somehow perfect sense. This is a galaxy of people who were embroiled in seemingly endless and unstoppable war within living memory, and yet now limit their squabbles the outcomes of a pop music contest. Except, just like Europe, they tragically don’t – but what’s the harm in pretending that might be all it takes, just for one night a year?

This is a rare book, one which captures the almost indescribable essence of a complex (and, to some, obscure) cultural event, and reproduces it as something that is not only recognisable to those of us who love said event, but also makes it universal and relevant to a much wider audience. The journey Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet undertake in this book is slight, messy, and leaves mountains of unfinished business; the galaxy they discover is packed with grudges and in-jokes and relationships that we barely begin to understand before the finale hits, far too soon. And yet, that too is somehow perfect. The more I think about Space Opera, the more satisfied I am with it as a whole, and the more impressed I am about the depth of feeling it has managed to evoke in me.

Now to listen to the hits of our own Musical Grand Prix on repeat until May 12, when we earthlings get a whole flamboyant, politically-charged musical spectacle of our own, no space travel required.


L’opéra spatial: Douze Points (Or nine out of ten.)

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang


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

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee


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