How much did I love this book? Let me count the ways:
I loved it for all it’s playful revelling in language, celebrating words, communication, letters (in all their forms). And, as Red and Blue’s relationship developed over the course of their correspondence, I loved that they developed something of a common language, echoing each other.
I loved the two far far futures that Red and Blue represent, and the very paradox of their romance. As they both work for their own future’s success, they do so knowing that it will preclude the other’s existence. I was fascinated by all the hints and glimpses of Red’s technological world, in which a body is heavily augmented, minds ‘decant’ into bodies for sport and food is obsolete. Equally, I enjoyed exploring Blue’s super-biological future with its ‘neural pollen’ and ‘honey libraries’. The sheer alien-ness of these two futures is so frigging cool. Even more so the similarities between them.
I loved the humour. Most notable at the beginning as Red and Blue first start to work out a neutral space within the letters in which they can tease one another without teeth. I particularly enjoyed their references to Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence as they played with modes of address and postscripts. And Red’s response to Blue’s invitation to try out “scented inks and seals” had me howling with laughter, (I didn’t see it coming).
I loved, too, the ways in which the letters were transmitted. These are not letters as we think of them, written on paper, sealed and sent. They can’t be that. Instead they are mostly unkeepable, momentary, hidden within something else: in the growth rings of a tree or within a lava flow, in the swirl of loose tea leaves in tea or in the warp and weft of a cloth. It perfectly captures the hope and faith that letters require – writing from and in a particular moment in time, then sending your letter out into the world to find its intended recipient. Red and Blue’s letters feel even more like acts of faith – placed to be found as if by chance, potentially easily overlooked if the other wasn’t paying attention. (Steganography is a beautiful word – say it out loud, doesn’t it feel lovely? – that I’d never come across before reading this book, and that I now absolutely need to find out more about).
I loved the thousand sensory details that made the story real, when it could have been aloof in its very far-future-ness. Even the description of time as a braid, made up of strands, woven and re-woven by Red and Blue and other operatives of their kind, feels present and understandable.
I loved how, in such a short space of pages, the story built up from playful to intense as the stakes increased. The two come to face the possibility that they have been found out, and that they may lose one another. The Seeker’s ghostly presence seems ominous, although I have to say that I figured out pretty quickly who the Seeker actually was, if not why, but still the question hangs in the air: Is this whole thing a long-con after all? The book begins with Red taking a chance on a letter that could be a trap and ends with Blue having to make that very same decision. Faith is required in love as well as in letters. In books too.
And I loved that the novel reads like a sonnet almost, El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s writing being inherently poetic, the structure of the story following a strict pattern, and the conclusion making the required turn, or volta. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, and one that I am looking forward to reading again and again, so that I can re-appreciate sentences such as:
“Summer settles like a bee on clover – golden, busy, here then gone.”
“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? … You could leave me for five years, you could return never – and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.”
And most especially, this:
“I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves. In skies. In my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.”
I’ve been meaning to read this for as long as it’s been in the library, so naturally it went on my panic-borrowing pile when we learned that our library was closing for the time being due to the COVID-19 situation. Not that I don’t have plenty to read at home it’s just that panic is catching. Anyway, I picked it up over the weekend because I thought it would be a light and fluffy slice of escapism. And it was, although not quite in the way I expected.
Because for all the familiar ground this book covers – Regency era manners, balls and card parties; a typical love triangle; and the discovery of a paranormal world running parallel to the that of the everyday, and of powers and a destiny to fulfil – the way in which Goodman has written it breathes new life into it all. The Regency setting isn’t just a gloss for an otherwise generic storyline, actual historical events are woven into the plot and the level of detail is deeply satisfying. The love triangle doesn’t play out particularly predictably and the characters are well-written, distinct personalities and products of their time. And the paranormal world is introduced carefully and doesn’t jar against the period details in any way.
Lady Helen Wrexhall has just been presented at court and is experiencing her first London Season. With her parents dead, and her mother rumoured to have been a traitor to the crown, her Uncle and Aunt Pennworth have worked hard as her guardians to give her the best possible start. But now, Helen is learning that she is also a part of a much stranger world than the one she has been trained for, one in which she will be required to fight otherworldly creatures and save souls.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of this book, in which nothing much of a supernatural nature happens and we just get to hang out with Helen and learn her world. There are little hints and fleeting suggestions of the darkness to come. A friend of Helen’s suffers a fall from grace, the circumstances of which don’t quite make sense. A lady’s maid goes missing. Stories of the (very real) Ratcliffe Highway murders and the suspected killer’s suicide are making the rounds in drawing rooms and clubs. And by the time we meet our first demonic Deceiver Goodman has created a historical world with breadth, depth and believably murky corners.
We have also gotten to know Lady Helen. She proves to be intelligent and funny, with a strong sense of honour. She isn’t just a modern girl in historical costume, and she enjoys her privileged life of social calls and parties and visits to the drapers and milliners. She reads a little more widely than her fellow females perhaps because she is curious and pragmatically minded. She chafes under the constant surveillance of her Aunt and her Uncle’s lectures on good behaviour and right thinking. Sometimes she feels an almost uncontainable restlessness and often wonders how much she has in common with her lost mother.
And when she learns just how much she has inherited from her mother, she doesn’t dive straight into demon slaying, but instead argues that, as a woman educated only to marry and run a household, she can’t be expected to do such a job no matter how gifted she may be. Most of the book is then taken up with her trying to get her head around the very dangerous new world she has suddenly learned about and her expected role within it. That she takes two thirds of the book deciding what is the right thing to do, says a lot about her character. And we’re there with her, every step of the way. The author gives Helen’s decision all the weight it deserves. She won’t be skipping off to slay Deceivers and back in time for the ball. Instead she will be required to lie and dissimulate, to hunt devious, centuries-old demons in full view of society without society knowing that that is what she does.
“Never before had such expectation been placed upon her, nor such an assumption of competence.”
Then there is the question of marriage. Whether she becomes a Reclaimer (official term for demon slayer, don’t ‘cha know) or not, Helen is still an early nineteenth century woman of means with all the expectations of such a position upon her shoulders. Her darkly handsome and dangerous mentor may be attractive, but he is most definitely off the table (married, wife missing presumed murdered by him); while the much cleaner cut if slightly less pretty prospect definitely appears to be interested, but what motivates that interest? Real regard, competition, or some strange displaced love? There are no easy decisions in this book.
My last thought is about the Deceivers themselves. They’re an awesomely creepy Big Bad with plenty of lore that Goodman has clearly given a lot of thought to. The couple of scenes in which Helen witnesses them ‘skimming’ crowds of people are especially shuddersome. But what is really bothering me is that I’ve seen/read about this kind of creature before and I just can’t think where. There is something very Resident Evil about them, but for all my Googling I can’t find anything that matches this very clear picture in my head. I don’t want to give away anything, so I won’t describe them. I just want it on record that I’ve met them before.
Now, of course, I have another ‘problem’. I thought when I started this that it was a standalone, but the ending (and a quick web search) tells me there’s more. It’s a trilogy. So I have an addition to my Great Series Read Project list when I’m supposed to be working on reducing the darn thing. And I really really need to know how it all ends! Previously to The Dark Days Club I read Goodman’s Eon and Eona duology (about ten years ago, now) and remember enjoying them a lot, which is why this book has been on my radar (albeit for so long). But honestly, I’d forgotten just how good a writer she is. This book fairly swept me along and I warmly recommend you make its acquaintance (if it sounds like your sort of thing). Two enthusiastic thumbs up.
(Finally, I have some Thoughts on trigger warnings:
I know this is a topic that everyone has an opinion about and I have always felt fairly relaxed about the whole subject. And it’s strange that this should be the book to needle me into having Thoughts because it’s not a book that I think many people would find problematic. Helen’s Uncle Pennworth, however, upset me over and above the usual irritation I feel towards characters with his set of opinions. The combination of physical description and situation that arose in this novel ‘triggered’ me. I know why. I understand, in my calm and collected brain, why I was so upset, and still am now. Unfortunately, that part of my brain wasn’t driving at the time.
There’s no way the author, Beta readers, or publishers could have foreseen my reaction. A trigger warning would not have been possible.
I understand the argument that I’ve seen put forward elsewhere that people need to face their triggers in order to move past them. But in their own time and with an element of control on their side, surely? Everybody experiences things differently, and there isn’t one perfect rule. So, I am pro trigger warnings. Knowing that something is coming means that you can choose to go carefully or choose not to face it if you don’t feel equipped to handle it. Fiction is a great place to explore issues because you can step in and out of a book at will. However, it is also a place where we are vulnerable because it all plays out inside out heads and our beautiful, inventive, wily imaginations don’t always stop toying with an idea when we want them to.
This is the beautiful brainchild of Caitlin over at Realms of My Mind. As it is both a list (squeee) and a project (double squeee) I was super-keen when I first read about it. But I procrastinated. People I admire jumped aboard and I procrastinated some more. Then I made my list. I was horrified. Here I am.
Kage Baker – Lord Ermenwyr trilogy = 1 down, 2 to go (and then onto the Company series)
Iain M Banks – Culture books = 3 down (but so long ago that I’ll definitely have to start from scratch), 7 to go
Marie Brennan – Memoirs of Lady Trent = 2 down, 3 to go
Steven Brust – Vlad Taltos books = 4 down (and posts still not written), 11 to go (and series not finished yet)
Lois McMaster Bujold – Vorkosigan Saga = 5 down, 11 to go
Gail Carriger – Parasol Protectorate series = 1 down, 4 to go
Becky Chambers – Wayfarers trilogy = 2 down, 1 to go
Julie Czerneda – Web Shifters trilogy = 2 down, 1 to go
Jasper Fforde – Thursday Next series = 3 down, 4 to go
Dave Freer – Dragon’s Ring duo = 1 down, 1 to go
Ursula Le Guin – Annals of the Western Shore trilogy = 1 down, 2 to go
Robin Hobb – Farseer trilogy = 1 down, 2 to go (and then onto the rest of her Realm of the Elderlings books, with plenty of stops in between so my battered heart can take a breather)
Nina Kiriki Hoffman – Chapel Hollow books = 1 down, 2 to go
Mary Robinette Kowal – Glamourist Histories = 1 down, 4 to go
Mary Robinette Kowal – Lady Astronaut books = 1 down, 2 to go (last book to be published later this year)
Garth Nix – Abhorsen series = 2 down, 3 to go
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – Long Earth books (which I had forgotten about completely until I saw them on Annemieke’s list) = 1 down, 4 to go
Alastair Reynolds – Revelation Space books = (I was convinced I had read more of these that I have, so it’s a very shameful) 1 down, 3 to go
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough – Argonian trilogy = 1 down, 2 to go (this is just making me so twitchy because I read book 2 to fulfil a Book Bingo requirement without realising it was the middle book in a trilogy … soooooo upset when I found out!)
Andrzej Sapkowski – Witcher series = 1 down, 8 to go
V E Schwab – Villain’s duo = 1 down, 1 to go
Tade Thompson – Molly Southbourne duo = 1 down, 1 to go
Jeff VanderMeer – Southern Reach trilogy = 2 down, 1 to go
Chris Wooding – Tales of the Ketty Jay books = 3 down, 1 to go
John Allison, Max Sarin and Lissa Treiman – Giant Days = 2 volumes down, 12 to go (but an ongoing series, as far as I know)
Akiko Higashimura – Princess Jellyfish manga series = 6 down, 11 to go
Chihiro Ishizuka – Flying Witch manga series = 5 down, 3 to go (still ongoing?)
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda – Monstress = 2 volumes down, 2 to go (another ongoing series)
Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples – Saga = 2 volumes down, 7 to go (and then who knows? Vaughan and Staples having taken an indefinite break from the series)
I don’t think I have the self-discipline to dedicate a monthly reading slot to chipping away at this project, or to stick with one series until I’m through before moving onto another. So I will just pick them off as and when I’m in the mood. It feels pretty good to have them all written down in one place, though. And if anyone is up for buddy reading something on the list, or just wants some company along the way, I’d be happy to oblige.
As for candidate series, that I’d like to read but haven’t started yet, if I made a list of all of them there wouldn’t be enough space in this corner of the internet for anything else. Let’s just focus on one of my failures at a time, shall we?
My husband and I have been Studio Ghibli movie fans since we met each other and we’ve pretty much watched them all. Whether they’re telling fantastical or real-world stories the studio always seems to create something just a little bit out of the ordinary, and the number of great heroines whose stories they’ve told frankly just makes Disney look bad (even when they’re trying). So, shove over Ariel, Jasmine and Belle, these ladies can take it from here.
A strong female leader
Nausicaa is a princess in a post-disaster world. She is compassionate and brave, a daring explorer who is capable and selfless. (Technically not a Studio Ghibli film, but still marketed that way).
Harry from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.
Ah, Harry! I loved her from the moment I met her when I was a small and spotty teenager. When Homeland born and bred Harry is kidnapped by the King Corlath of the Hillfolk she gets the opportunity to learn sword fighting and horsemanship and appreciate the Hillfolk’s way of life. She becomes one of the King’s Riders, wields the legendary Blue Sword and eventually unites the Homelanders and the Hillfolk to defend Damar from a Northern invasion. I got a numb butt sitting in a too-small chair reading this book way back when, and while I haven’t revisited it in years (can’t find my copy) I have fond memories of Harry, who was one of my first badass girl warriors (along with Alanna and Aerin).
An inspiring member of royalty
Although Sheeta may have a quieter demeanour than other Ghibli heroines, she is not a damsel in distress. She’s royalty, but doesn’t stay on the side lines; she is involved, kind and, despite a sad past, hopeful.
The nameless narrator of A Thousand Nights by E K Johnston is not born into royalty, but marries Lo-Melkhiin to save her beautiful and beloved sister from that fate. In her selfless desire to protect at first her sister, and later all the women of the king’s qasr, she proves herself a queen. In her constant battle against the demon within her husband she proves herself a queen. In the faith and love she inspires in those around her, and in her ingenious final solution to the riddle of her husband’s curse she proves herself a queen. If you haven’t already met her, maybe it’s time you made a little room at your fireside for Scheherazade? She has a fabulous story to tell.
A pair of siblings (or two friends who act like siblings)
Before Anna and Elsa, before Lilo and Nani, there was Satsuki and Mei. Satsuki was incredibly young when their mother was hospitalized, and, with their father at work, she has to take care of Mei. And Mei is only four with a big imagination.
Constance and Merricat Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson might not be everyone’s first choice as an example of sisterly affection. Theirs is certainly a more tangled relationship than many enjoy, but I think an argument can be made for them. They rely on one another exclusively, Merricat on Constance for food and comfort, Constance on Merricat for bringing in groceries and for protection, of a sort. The book details Merricats continual efforts to defend Constance using her own strange brand of magic and at the end of the book we learn how Constance has unquestioningly protected Merricat in turn. For all their peculiarities they are deeply devoted to one another.
For a more … vanilla … example, friends Chito and Yuuri from the manga Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu have a lovely, sisterly relationship, complete with bickering and bellyaching. Across a world almost entirely empty of people these two travel together in their battered Kettenkrad, searching always for food and water and the occasional hot bath, and musing about life along the way.
A character who has supernatural gifts
Kiki has to go off on her own to live alone, as is the custom among witches. She goes through many things that newly independent young adults face, like money problems, finding a place to stay, searching for a job and loneliness, before finding her way, thanks to her special abilities.
Well, this just has to be Prunella from Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. She doesn’t experience anything like Kiki’s moments of self-doubt, but she is like Kiki in that she is completely and utterly herself. Powerful and talented in a world that certainly doesn’t want her to be either of these things, she manoeuvres herself into as safe a position as she can manage, isn’t afraid to do something difficult or heart-rending if it means achieving her goal and by the end of the book, has turned the world on its head. All the while being impossible to fall out of love with.
Two inspiring heroines, one who is unabashedly feminine and the other who is more of a tomboy
Gina and Fio are both heroines in this film, and they couldn’t be less alike. Gina is a young woman who is very feminine, a singer and a restaurant owner. However, she is very resourceful and capable. Fio is a teenage mechanic who is independent, goes against the flow, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She may be one of the best mechanics of her time.
This prompt immediately made me think of Dimity and Sophronia from the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger. There are more tomboyish characters in the series than Sophronia, for sure, (looking at your Vieve), but certainly no character more in love with sparkle and foof than Dimity.
Sophronia is the kind of girl who wants to know things – how something works, why something was said, where that door leads – and does the necessary to find out. She’s happy climbing around the outside of the airship school she attends and sneaking into teachers’ rooms and takes great delight in the freedom of movement afforded by more gentlemanly dress. Her best friend Dimity, on the other hand, loves the foofy-est fashions, wears the sparkliest jewellery, chatters endlessly and really just wants to get married and settle down. She is nevertheless a steadfast friend and has a “guileless craftiness” that she employs to great effect.
Your most relatable character
Shizuku is an eighth-grade student who can’t quite focus on school as much as on her favourite books. However, through encounters with an ambitious boy who seems to have a likely chance at meeting his goals, a cat who rides trains, an antique shop owner, and a cat statue called the Baron, Shizuku is determined to meet her own goal and become a writer.
(I love Shizuku, but I want it on record that I love Taeko from Only Yesterday just a tiny bit more. I watched it when I was the same age as she is in the film and I was in a strange in-between sort of place in my inner life and Taeko just epitomised all of that for me so perfectly. I still can’t watch Only Yesterday without sobbing buckets).
Pamela Dean’s Janet from Tam Lin immediately springs to mind here. I love Janet. I love her practical side and her poetic side and her curiosity. I love how she thinks about herself and about other people. I love her family and, while it is nothing like mine, I can imagine being a part of it, and I can imagine having her friends. She is so open to life that she makes me feel happy and hopeful even when I don’t want to, (which makes this a good book to read after watching Only Yesterday I’ve just realised!). Janet is a character that I have been and that I want to be, if that makes any kind of sense at all.
A female character who is physically strong
San has been raised by wolves. When humans begin to invade her home forest to make towns and use the resources for themselves while killing the spirits and animals within, San refuses to let it be. She takes a stand and becomes the village’s greatest obstacle. She is such a force to be reckoned with that they give her a name: Princess Mononoke.
Chava from The Golem and the Jinni by Helena Wecker is the golem of the title, and incredibly strong. She is unusual too. A female golem, crafted to pass as human, and intended as a wife for the man who commissioned her creation, she is gentle and curious and plagued by her ability to hear all the clamouring desires of the humans around her. She is taught that caution and propriety are things that will protect her and practices both with great care, but there is a moment, late in the book, where she displays her great physical strength. In any other book it would have been a ‘Hurrah!’ moment (‘Take that, you bounder! You cad!’), but Chava’s world is not prepared for such things.
A character who has a great character arc
At the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro starts off as a whiny, spoiled ten-year-old girl. However, during her time working at a supernatural bath house, she discovers parts of herself she didn’t know she had. The story is about her finding the strength she already had but was unaware of.
One of my favourite character arcs is that of Lola Hart in Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. The book takes the form of twelve-year-old Lola’s diary, and it tracks her progress from middle-class Manhattan schoolgirl to violent street-gang member as American society crumbles around her and her family. The single greatest thing about this book is the way in which Lola’s language changes to reflect this descent. It’s so smooth a transition that you find yourself reading her later blunt and slangy entries with as little difficulty as you read her earliest Standard English ones. And there is a creativity and a poetry to her later language that you can’t help but appreciate amidst the flames and rubble of the broken world she is left with.
A character who may not have supernatural abilities herself, but is memorable anyway
Haru is a typical high school girl: kind, clumsy, and a little forgetful. But she soon finds herself involved in events that are out of her control. In a way, it is because of her normalcy that she can find her way out of her situation and become stronger because of it.
I’m taking this prompt as an excuse to trot out my love for Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin books again. Cithrin bel Sarcour doesn’t have a magical bone in her body, but she’s a brilliant (underage) banker. I don’t know what witchcraft Abraham is gifted with, but through Cithrin he makes banking not only interesting, not only fun, but absolutely bloody fascinating. Cithrin herself is beautifully flawed, she makes mistakes, she has some complicated relationships, and she’s an alcoholic for much of the series, but her heart is that of a gambler and I found myself as swept up by her plots and ploys as I would have been by espionage or derring-do.
An emotionally strong character
Sophie doesn’t think much of herself for a lot of the story. She doesn’t think she’s pretty or memorable, especially when compared to her younger sister, Lettie. It gets even worse when she’s cursed to look like an old woman. When she finds a new life that involves the mysterious wizard Howl, a fire demon, Howl’s apprentice, and many others, she is shown to be resilient and intuitive.
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Ice Cream Star, but she popped into my head for this prompt. No other candidates need apply. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman tells the story of Ice Cream Star and her ‘Sengles’ a group of feral children in a world in which no one reaches adulthood any more because of a disease known as ‘posies’. Ice Cream Star loves fiercely and with abandon, it is her defining quality, and while the story had its flaws, particularly past the halfway mark, her voice and her heart kept me reading to the end. That she never loses hope, despite everything, makes for compelling reading.
A heroine who happens to be a child
Ponyo is one of the youngest Ghibli heroines at only five years old. But she still gets a lot done, including becoming human, discovering things, finding a best friend, and saving the world.
I couldn’t find a five-year-old (there aren’t as many kicking about as you’d think), so it’ll have to be twelve-year-old Mosca Mye from Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge instead. Mosca is sly and clever, loves language (and is terribly adept at insults), and is never afraid to rise to the challenge of lying her way into or out of a situation. That a grumpy goose named Saracen is her animal companion says as much about her as it does about the goose. That she has chosen to attach herself to conman Eponymous Clent is even more telling. She is far and away my favourite burgeoning criminal mastermind.
An unlikely heroine
Arrietty is a Borrower: she is tiny and survives by stealing small things that humans won’t miss. Yet she’s curious about the human world and does braver things than most humans would be capable of doing, despite her tiny size.
Eddi McCandry is not the unlikeliest heroine there is, but she’s certainly a reluctant one. War For the Oaks by Emma Bull tells the story of how musician and singer Eddi gets drawn unwillingly into a faerie war, just when she’s trying to start up a new band. She is one of those warm and inspiring people, always able to laugh at herself, never quite able to see how cool she is. She understands the importance of dressing for success (ah, the outfits … *swoon*), she’s able to roll with the punches, and, man, can she sing.
An inspiring character who overcomes an obstacle
Set during World War 2 this film tells the story of Jiro and Naoko. Naoko has tuberculosis. However, she doesn’t allow this to cripple her, and enjoys life in the fullest way, which includes painting and falling in love. Even being placed in a sanatorium doesn’t break her.
I’m torn between Mori from Among Others by Jo Walton and Connie from Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy for this one. Both have some pretty hefty obstacles to overcome. Mori is alone in the world after losing her twin sister, her mother is mad, and she’s just been shipped off to boarding school. She has also had to come to rely on a walking stick to aid her in getting about. You couldn’t create a character riper for ostracization. And that Mori finds solace in books and welcome in a library speaks to me more than I can say.
Then there is Connie. Connie is also alone, is poor and uneducated and seen as a second-class citizen and is incarcerated in a mental institution for a piss-poor reason. She has no power and no freedom. She does, however, have a connection to the future that allows her to see another world, to walk around in it and talk to those that live there. And from that connection she discovers that maybe she does have just a little power after all. Connie doesn’t get a triumphant ending in which she is able to overturn all the wrongs done her, but her capacity for love, despite everything, is truly inspiring.
A character who challenges social norms
In a time where women were expected to follow social norms such as blackening teeth, shaving eyebrows, and being forced into arranged marriages, Kaguya refuses to play along. She would much rather be outside, enjoying nature and playing with friends.
The ‘social norm’ for Evangeline’s kind is to be enslaved by a parasitic Arthroplana. The Arthroplana see Beastships as dog-like: lesser creatures with moderate intelligence that are eager to please and therefore trainable. They use a carrot and stick method of training to cow a Beastship into service as a vessel and workhorse. But, as is often the case, while a Beastship can live without an Arthroplana parasite, an Arthroplana cannot live without its Beastship host. When Evangeline learns to exercise her imagination and discovers within herself a far greater intelligence than her parasite Tug would have ever given her credit for, she challenges the norm and ultimately wins her freedom.
Phew! This was a long one, wasn’t it? Great fun to do though. If you feel like having a go, tag yourself in! Even if you don’t – have you seen many Studio Ghibli movies? Which one is your favourite? (And that age-old question: dubbed or subtitled?)
I think I made it pretty clear when I wrote about the first volume of Monstress here just how impressed I was with both the incredible artwork by Sana Takeda and with the pulls-no-punches story by Marjorie Liu. If it’s possible, I am even more invested now. This second volume has fewer light moments (and there weren’t that many in Awakening) and continues its descent into the way-dark pasts of both Maika Halfwolf and her world, but, like some sort of complex puzzle box, the story keeps opening out in a way that has me absolutely hooked.
In this instalment Maika, Kippa and Master Ren must travel to the ominously named Isle of Bones in pursuit of the truth behind what Maika’s mother did to her daughter. Naturally the journey doesn’t go quite to plan, and more enemies are discovered along the way. Maika also confronts some of her memories of her mother and her upbringing. Maika is a difficult heroine (anti-heroine, I suppose) to outright adore. She is incredibly tough and determined and, at times, positively vicious. I don’t think there’s a heart of gold in there, but she is understandable. She is damaged, sure, brought up by her mother to kill and to withstand pain, but still she wonders privately if her mother ever loved her.
Kippa, on the other hand, is nothing but adorable. She is the embodiment of innocence and compassion, and that Maika protects her is a big part of what makes her such a compelling character. She is not yet so far gone that she cannot value genuine goodness. And that Kippa insists that Maika is not a monster, despite the Monstrum inside of her, says a lot. I’m putting a lot of faith in Kippa being a good judge of character.
I started to appreciate in this volume the various relationships between the many factions baying for Maika’s body and blood. With the many different races and the tangled politics between them all, it takes some time to begin to unravel it all, but what really hit me was how many of the people hunting and/or betraying Maika are her family. Her grandmother and her aunt. Her goddess-father. Her (I think) best-friend. Which then leaves me wondering about her father, of whom we’ve heard nothing at all.
And then there’s the Monstrum, Zinn. I am one hundred and ten percent here for Zinn. What on earth possessed Maika’s mother to use her daughter as a vessel for such a creature? What did she think to gain? Zinn seems to be getting stronger, or at least more aware of itself, and is starting to remember things after its long, long sleep. It remembers the Shaman-Empress, and its sister-brother Hajin from when the Monstrum first arrived on the world of the story. I want to know everything about where they came from, the argument Zinn and Hajin were having, Zinn’s relationship with the Shaman-Empress and how it came about. I don’t think I can even rationalise my need to understand all this. I just need to.
The other thing I noticed reading this second volume was just how intense an experience this story is. Some of that is down to trying to follow the narrative, which moves about a fair bit and doesn’t slow down so you can keep up; some of it is because of the beautiful complexity of the world Liu and Takeda have created, which takes some concentration; and a large part of it is down to just how dark it all is. As one of the characters says:
“The past is never dead. But that is why it is so perilous.”
And I feel that this is something Liu has sewn into the very bones of her tale. I had to sit for a while after I’d finished reading this and just … let it settle. It’s an incredibly immersive world.
So, as I did with volume one, and in the least spoilery way possible, let me share with you just a few of my favourite bits: The pirate city of Thyria! (I want to live here!) The brothers Imura! Bad-ass pirate Captain Syryssa! (I want the name of her wardrobe mistress!) Kippa learns to swim! Rift Hounds! Kippa’s mechanical knowledge! The ghosts and sea ghouls of the Isle of Bones! The Ferryman! The Blood Fox! Illusions! Zinn is hungry! One last memory!
And I shall leave you with a few of the questions that I’m left with:
What’s the significance of the Ghoul Killer in Thyria and what’s with the organ removal?
Who is the man in shadow?
Is Areka (the fish-boy from the photograph) dead?
Will there be more Master Ren in the next volume? (He was quite low key in this one and I want more).
I think I may be developing an addiction to tags, actually…
You have 20,000 books in your TBR, how in the world do you decide what to read next?
My favourite thing to do, and there’s rarely time these days, is to read the opening paragraph of a select pile of books that have caught my eye and see which book hooks me. Or, I like to scoop up something as absolutely unlike what I have just read as possible. Or, I read whatever I’ve promised to read next. Or, I read something because I’ve had an idea for a blog post … which doesn’t often come to anything because someone nearly always goes and writes the post I was thinking of writing before me (this literally happened a couple of weeks ago and I’m still bitter) and does it heaps better than I ever could have done, or I find that it’s not such a great idea after all and give up on the idea.
Did that even answer the question?
You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you put it down or are you committed?
This absolutely depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes I’ll put it down with the intention of giving it another go when I’m in a better frame of mind. Other times I’ll DNF and never think of it again. Because sometimes you’re just not loving what you’re reading right now, and other times you’re not loving what you’re reading full stop.
The end of the year is coming and you’re behind on your reading challenge, do you try to catch up? And if so, how?
I’m trying to stop this kind of behaviour because it gets me all worked up for no good reason. My own Book Bingo cards were stressing me out for Pete’s sake! I’ve taken a leaf out of my friend S’s book and now set my Goodreads challenge counter to one book. I therefore achieved my goal in the first week of January *bows with a flourish* and don’t have to get all messed up about it in December which, for the record, is NOT and never will be a great month for me.
But, yes, to answer the question I did used to try to catch up. I’d look for the slimmest volumes on my shelves, see if a graphic novel or three would fit the bill, and generally wangle and finagle my way to completion. I’d have counted cereal packets and food wrappers if Goodreads allowed it. I had no shame.
The covers of a series you love do not match, how do you cope?
I have no real problem with this. I kind of like things to be mismatched. As long as I like the covers, matched or unmatched, I’m good.
I did have a (financially comfortable!) period in which I started replacing all my most battered and beloved copies with hardback or beautifully illustrated copies instead, but then the replacement books didn’t have any of the feel or smell or memories attached to them that my battered copies had. And as I reread as much for the sensory pleasure of the remembered volume as for the joys of the remembered story, I’ve stopped replacing my books.
Everyone and their mother loves a book that you do not. Who do you bond with over your shared feelings?
Well before I started this bloggy business I just quietly seethed to myself.
Now I have all you wonderful people to share my booky thoughts with – hi peeps! *waves* – and you are all so fabulously diverse in your opinions that there’s always someone who’ll share a dislike for something that has otherwise been raved about.
So, the answer is YOU! *points at all of you*
You’re reading a book in public and you’re about to start crying. How do you deal?
If I’m going to cry nothing’s going to stop me! I do try to tuck into myself, pull my hood up, if I can. Thankfully, the general consensus in Britain is to leave others alone, especially if they appear to be in some sort of distress, so I usually pass unnoticed.
The sequel to a book you loved just came out but you’ve forgotten a lot of what happens. Are you going to reread it?
You do not want anyone to borrow your books, how do you politely say no when someone asks?
I don’t think anyone has ever asked to borrow one of my books. If I have it and I trust the person, I’ll offer it out, (I’ve done this a few times with longstanding customers when we’ve no longer had a copy of a book in the library and I’ve never yet had cause to regret doing so).
My husband, Thumbs, has loaned out a few of his own books and not got them back, however. He’s a lot friendlier than I am in general and I think he does it to increase friendship, like in a video game, which is where he and I differ. If we’re not already best buds I ain’t giving you squat.
You have picked up and put down 5 books in the last month. How do you get over this reading slump?
I struggle with the occasional Slump. And I don’t quite know how to get out of them – it just sort of happens. I try not to stress too much and tend to turn to binge watching DVDs or obsessive farming in Stardew Valley for a while. Then the hunger for stories just kind of creeps back and I’ll find myself sitting on the floor next to a pile of books somewhere and completely swept away by something. And that’s how I know the Slump is over.
There are so many books coming out that you are dying to read, how many do you end up buying?
As many of them as I can afford. Which right now, isn’t very many at all.
As it is I’m so behind on everything that it hardly matters.
After you purchase all of these books that you’re dying to read how long do they sit on your shelves before you get to them?
Anything between a day and … runs off to check … thirteen years. That’s how long Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill has been on my shelf. I bought it brand new in 2007. I remain unrepentant. There’s just so much to read, man.
Having mentioned recently that I’d like to do a post about the awesomeness that is Jo Walton I thought I’d better reread some of her books that I remember less clearly, as well as catch up on her most recent book Lent, which I have yet to read. So, with every intention of picking up her Small Change trilogy, naturally I started reading The Prize in the Game instead. A companion book to her The King’s Peace and The King’s Name, The Prize in the Game is a prequel for a handful of lesser characters from those first two books. I love Sulien’s world* so, so much (and blathered on about it here if you’d care to take a look), but I had forgotten just how much heartache this particular book gave me. It’s the kind of heart hurt that is beyond crying.
This is Walton’s retelling of the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. The King books take place in Walton’s alternate Britain of Tir Tinagiri, so Prize is set in her Ireland of Tir Isarnagiri, which is similar to its neighbour in that it is divided into a number of smaller kingdoms whose kings spend a lot of time raiding one another and fostering each other’s children to keep everything from getting too out of hand. The gods, visitations and dreams, and small everyday magics are all par for the course in this world, and men and women are equals in all things. It’s a world you can smell it’s so beautifully written and without any heavy-handedness Walton shows how it all works – how the land and the kings and the lawgivers and the poets and the oracle-priests and the champions and the farmers all play their parts in making this world go round. I really can’t do justice to the effectiveness of Walton’s writing in bringing this world into being.
Structurally the story is told from four third-person points of view in a strict rotation, those of Conal, Elenn, Emer and Ferdia. The first three all then go on to appear in the King books, along with the characters Darag (Black Darag by the time we meet him again), Atha and Inis. We meet Darag, Ferdia, Conal, Elenn, Emer, Leary and Nid as teenagers doing what teenagers do best: pushing blindly towards adulthood. In this world that means taking up arms and so everyone, bar Elenn, go hunting and encounter a god, the Beastmother Rhianna, (who moves in and out of the story at significant points throughout), and come home adults in name and with a whole heap of learning still to do. The book then follows their various exploits on the road to the events in Tir Tinagiri. Prize could easily be read as a stand-alone novel, just as the King books can be read without Prize, but there is an added *snapping fingers for the word* something reading this book and knowing where these characters will eventually end up.
Thematically the story is all about choices and parents. Just as in the King books this world is just one of many alternate worlds in which some things always play out the same, while many other things differ. Oracle-priests like Inis can see across these worlds at the expense of their sanity and can sometimes predict or guide events. Darag (our renamed Cú Cuchlainn) feels most the hand of fate, or doom, in his life. He is a hero whether he would be one or not,
“It’s as if nothing of my life belongs to me and all of it is tied to something else. It’s as if I don’t have any choices. Everything I do is ringed around with strangeness.”
And his story unfolds with an inevitability that even the reader starts to feel. Yet of all of them he is perhaps the best able to cope with this sense of doom. When asked what he want from life for himself his reply is that he wants to survive whatever his doom will be so that he can go on to be a champion and a father and to have friends. They’re not unreasonable goals. Other characters struggle with their potential futures far more. Elenn and Emer in particular are used as pawns in their abusive mother’s constant manoeuvrings for more power and influence. Neither woman can completely escape Maga’s machinations or choose their own course and their individual plights, while very different, are both utterly heartrending. Elenn is a fascinating Guinevere in the Sulien story, but Prize really deepens the readers’ empathy for her. While Emer fights her mother openly (and gets nowhere), Elenn learns to always turn a placid face outward, to smile and appear open and biddable. Her relief when she finally escapes from Maga is palpable.
Conal is the other character who suffers real parent damage. As one of the three possible choices to be the next king of Oriel, he suffers not only from always being in second place to Darag, but from being such an obvious disappointment to his mother and father. He, like Elenn, has learned to wear a mask, a sardonic one in his case, against the petty slights of his parents, but he works so hard to change the course of fate that the reader can’t help but feel for him. Conal has convinced himself that nothing but the kingship of Oriel will do and seems destined for disappointment.
And then there is the romance. I love the Sulien books for avoiding any real mention of romance (and particularly for avoiding that blasted Lancelot-Guinevere thing that I really do not like at all). Similarly, I love this book for Ferdia and Darag. Sure, Conal and Emer’s romance is lovely, but Ferdia’s unrequited love for his foster-brother is just the most beautiful, soul-destroying and tragic thing. More so, I think, because Darag does love Ferdia, just not in that way. They are the closest of friends and Ferdia keeps it all inside himself, and yet, on that last night when he sleeps in the same bed with Darag and his wife Atha it is almost as though he is being shown another way that things could be. Ferdia’s chapters are possibly my favourite part of the whole story and that his last chapter closes the book is both perfect and utterly, utterly heart-breaking.
If you feel the need for a book in which the gods move through the world, in which characters become caught up in the underlying patterns that span the multiverse, in which fate plays a hand and yet you still root desperately for each character to be able to choose something for themselves, then this is the book for you. If you feel the need for your heart to be twisted about in your chest and to be denied the relief of having a good cry at the end, pick this up. While I don’t usually enjoy being made to feel too much by the books I read (because a person can only cry so much and I’ve definitely done more than my fair share already), I loved every second I spent rereading this. Dagnabbit.
* I mentioned in my post about The King’s Peace and The King’s Name that I’d have liked a map of Sulien’s Britain so that I could better picture where things were happening. I have since stumbled across such a map on Jo Walton’s website and you can find it here if such a thing would please you also. (Love a good map, me).