Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

35659522

First off, while nothing I say here is going to spoil Mosca and Eponymous’ first outing, Fly by Night (my thoughts here), for anyone, I do feel that you should read that book before you tackle Twilight Robbery. The events in the first book have created the situation in the second, and, more importantly, Mosca and Eponymous’ relationship is more touching here if you see first how it began.

“They shared a love of words, a taste for adventure and a dubious relationship with the truth …”

This relationship is so very well written. It’s not something that Hardinge makes a big deal of, but Mosca and Eponymous have come to know and trust one another. Now, don’t get me wrong here, Eponymous Clent is still a silver-tongued, sticky-fingered, mastermind of misanthropic mischief and Mosca Mye is still his equal (and as wonderfully absorbent when it comes to bad language of all kinds – be it slang, criminal cant or expletives – as she ever was). And they continue to squabble like cats in a bag on occasion, but they also know each other’s strengths and weaknesses better, and under Mr Clent’s shabby waistcoat and Miss Mye’s faded frock there is a genuine concern and affection for each other. And this can be no better illustrated than by the fact that Eponymous, while ever hopeful of losing him, no longer actively tries to ditch Saracen, Mosca’s beloved and violent goose. (Ah, Saracen! Hardinge never overuses him, but some of the funniest moments in this book have a goose in them).

After their fairly neat escape from the town of Grabely, courtesy of Mosca’s flourishing skillset, the pair (plus goose) make their way to Toll, a town that sits upon a river and, as is suggested by its name, requires a fee upon both entrance and exit. Once inside Clent and Mosca have three days to find the money to leave and continue on their way, before Mosca gets relegated to the dark side of town. Because Toll is not one place, but two. Toll-by-Day is an apparently clean and pleasant place, but only one half of the story. Toll-by-Night emerges as the sun sets and is the darker heart of the town in many ways. The town changes its physical appearance at night, with the frontages of buildings being swung open or closed to reveal other establishments and routes of passage, and the townsfolk of the day ‘cease to exist’ during the night, as those of the night do during daylight hours. And the way in which it is decided who lives where? Names.

As we learned in Fly by Night the world of Mosca and Clent worships numerous gods, known collectively as the Beloved. Each god has a purpose, and an appointed time of either the day or night. Each person is named after the Beloved dominant at their time of birth, and nobody lies about their name. And in Toll each Beloved has been arbitrarily marked up as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as have the names associated with them. When visitors arrive they are issued with either a light or a dark badge to show whether they have a good or a bad name, so that people can treat them accordingly. By this system Eponymous is given a light badge, and Mosca a dark one.

The book turns out to be a fascinating exploration of ideas like nominative determinism, appearances being deceptive and fear as a method of control. Not everyone living in Toll-by-Day is actually a virtuous person, nor everyone in Toll-by-Night a criminal, but this is how they are treated. Mosca meets just as many characters who prove themselves well-named as those that aren’t, and finds that people can only ever be judged by their behaviour. She is also a budding atheist and radical, questioning both the superstitions surrounding the Beloved, and by what right some people hold power over others. She has become, in this book, one of my all-time favourite characters. Regularly described as ferret-faced and black-eyed, she is brave and resourceful and endlessly curious. Despite her association with the delightfully untrustworthy Clent, she also proves herself loyal to those she has befriended. I really do hope this is not the last Hardinge will write of the marvellous Mosca Mye.

“Having tasted Toll-by-Night’s moonlit stew of murder, menace, treachery and pursuit, she had fallen wildly in love with the six shabby bolts that held the door shut and danger out.”

It’s killing me not to talk about all the things that happen in this book, but I wouldn’t for the world ruin what’s in store for you if you choose to read it. The plot is fabulously knotty and flawlessly executed. There are characters with names like Paragon Collymoddle and Blethemy and Blight Crace, who go about swearing with words like “crabmaggots”, “oh, draggles” and “dungbuckets!” and calling each other things like a “smirking spit-gobbet” and a “pompous old pustule”. There are some truly terrifying moments, like the Pawnbrokers’ Auction and Havoc’s fate in Toll-by-Night. You will meet dastardly villains and daring radicals, brave smugglers and unlikely heroes. You will witness exhilarating escapes, thrilling thefts, multiple masquerades and kickass kidnappings. You will discover just what a person will do for some chocolate!

 

I recommended Fly by Night to a young reader in the library last week because, after establishing that she wanted SFF, I asked her what she was looking for in a book and she said “something weird”. It was like she had been sent to me, a gift from the universe! Because while I was reading Twilight Robbery I was thinking that the kids who love Hardinge with all her ideas and language-play are going to grow up to love Gaiman and Fforde, Peake and Miéville, maybe Barker, maybe VanderMeer, and that makes me grin from ear to ear to ear.

 

Anyhow, I shall leave you with a few of my favourite Beloved from this book:

Goodlady Blatchett – Lifter of the Stone from the Toad

Goodman Phangavotte – He Who Smooths the Tongue of the Storyteller and Frames the Legendary Deed

Goodlady Halepricket – She Who Keeps the Heads of Sheep from Getting Caught in Bushes

Goodman Trywhy – Master of Schemes, Sleights and Stratagems

Goodlady Adwein – Wielder of the Pestle of Fate

*happy chuckle*

 

 

Advertisements

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

23209965

This was both an astounding read, and a disturbing one. It’s not a book I can say I enjoyed wholeheartedly because it deals with some very serious stuff, and yet there were parts that were bewitching, and fascinating, and enticing. There was no point at which I felt I’d have to put it down, but there were points at which I wish I could have done. In case I’m not making myself clear, I feel very conflicted about this book.

I think, on the whole, it was good. Byrne’s two unreliable narrators, telling their stories a generation apart, are compelling, if not always 100% likeable. They are flawed and damaged individuals, whose storylines mirror each other in a satisfying symmetry, and who both have secrets that they are keeping from themselves as much as from the reader. We start our journey with twenty-seven-year-old Meena, living in India in the latter half of the 21st Century, who has just found a snake in her bed and fled her home believing herself to be the target of terrorists. It quickly becomes apparent that Meena is in the throes of a manic phase, possible triggered by this shock, and also that she talks to people who are not physically present (the best way to win an argument, I find). Her aim, at first, is only to get as far away from home as possible. Our second narrator, Mariama, a seven-year-old slave living in Africa in around the 2040s, has also just found a snake in the place that she and her mother live and has run away. It is less clear initially why she is so willing to leave her mother, not knowing where she is, but she seems as intent as Meena on getting far away from where she’s been living. The book then follows these two characters as they journey from East and West towards the same point in space, in Ethiopia.

And Byrne writes both journeys and environments really well. Meena’s Keralam and Mumbai and Mariama’s Dakar and Lalibela feel distinct and alive, bustling with people and smells, sights and sounds. Byrne actually travelled to Africa and India to research her book and it shows in all the wonderful details she’s able to incorporate into her story. She also writes these two traumatised psyches well. Both Meena and Mariama are telling their stories to phantoms from their past, haunted by the things that have happened to them and using unreality and avoidance to cocoon themselves away from the truth. If you’re looking for plot in this book it’s already happened, and it’s the revealing of secrets and the putting back together all the pieces that provides the momentum here. This is the appeal of the unreliable narrator though, isn’t it? Re-reading the first chapter after having finished the book was so cool because I could see just how much Byrne was revealing that I hadn’t picked up on, because, you know, first time round I was taking what the narrator said at face value. If it weren’t for all the more uncomfortable bits, I’d happily do a whole second read-through just to enjoy more of that cleverness.

But. Byrne is writing about a future world in which race and gender have become fluid, and people can alter both with genetic modification. A world in which venereal diseases are a thing of the past and contraception is perfect and administered automatically to both males and females upon reaching puberty. Yet, in this fluid environment, Byrne is still writing a story about sexual transgressions against women. Meena talks of being a part of a new sexual revolution in her teens, but I don’t see it, except that she sleeps around plenty. All the violence (bar one act) in this book is still performed against women. By both women and men, sure, but always against women. Both narrator’s stories are driven by this, and trauma begets trauma throughout, and I just don’t know how I feel about the frequent, visceral details of this kind of violence as they appear in this book, combined with all the other really awesome stuff.

Because this problem aside, The Girl in the Road has mystery, and some great technology, and a story of extreme survival, all of which I enjoyed a lot. The mystery I obviously can’t say anything about without spoiling everything, but I definitely want to talk about the tech. At the heart of the book is this future feat of engineering called the Trans-Atlantic Linear Generator, or the Trail, as it’s generally known. This is a pontoon bridge spanning the Atlantic Ocean that harvests wave energy. It’s smart and reactive to its surroundings and made out of the super-conductor Metallic Hydrogen (which is a real thing, because why make this stuff up when we have actual science). In a world where ocean levels are continually rising this is obviously the way to go. Meena chooses to travel to Africa via the Trail – all 3,188km of it – and needs a whole plethora of even cooler tech to survive the journey: from a camouflage-pod for sleeping in (inflatable, submersible, literally invisible from the outside, made of a polymer that can be cut open with a fingernail and sealed again with a pinch, and actually makes me mildly interested in camping), and a ‘solar kiln’ that can make a variety of dishes out of any biological matter; to the broad-spectrum nanobiotics in her medikit and a very clever diaper. There’s also the more usual future tech like hologram soap operas, retinal scanning, Byrne’s version of Star Trek’s Universal Translator, the glotti, automated taxis and rickshaws, wrist-worn mitters for making payments and a pretty cool thing called an aadhaar which sounds like a visual social media thing that floats round your head like a halo (at least that’s how I pictured it). (I’ve just googled the word ‘aadhaar’ and it is actually a thing in India already, a unique identity number based on biometric and demographic data that residents of India can obtain, voluntarily I presume. So, there, I learnt something today).

The actual journey across the Trail is pretty exciting too as Meena adjusts to multiple hardships, encounters both incredible weather conditions and other people living out on the Trail who all sit on a sanity-scale ranging from a bit odd to utterly batty, (my favourites being the group who want to prove that people can survive on seawater, and the man just a little further along the Trail who bears witness for empiricism – ha!).

My pattern-loving brain revelled in the many crossovers and parallels that occur in the two different storylines too. While separated by some thirty years, Meena and Mariama nevertheless share images, characteristics and experiences that read like echoes: The snakes that trigger their flights from home, eating sea-snake, feeling pain in the solar plexus, seeing ghosts of dead girls; the brief appearance of Fatima and Rahel in both timelines; the importance of languages, and the sea, sky and moon as first concepts at the beginning of both journeys; the importance and reoccurrence of names like Saha and Yemaya; the goddess in all her many forms, from Lucy the Australopithecus in Ethiopia, also called Dinkinesh, to the African goddess of the living ocean, and from Mohini the female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, to Durga the invincible.

I love that Byrne has written about a not-too-distant future in which the power of the West has collapsed and Africa and India have risen to prominence. I love that it’s neither utopian nor dystopian in its vision of a world in which sea levels have risen so dramatically that maps have changed and that further changes are happening as the story unfolds – that it’s not about one grand annihilating event that has occurred, but a series of ongoing changes that humanity may or may not survive. I love that for all India and Africa’s political squabbling, the real super power here is the ocean itself. There’s a fair bit I don’t love, enough that I don’t want to own or reread this book, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading it, or that I can’t appreciate everything surrounding the bits I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m probably all the more impressed with The Girl in the Road because it was able to keep me interested throughout the grimness. In summary: two enthusiastic thumbs up and a big fat trigger warning.

 

 

Chalice by Robin McKinley

2828595

After the utter grimness of A Clockwork Orange I needed to read something comforting, familiar and beautiful. And Robin McKinley will ever and always be the author I go to for that combination. The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Beauty, Spindle’s End, and Sunshine are some of my favourite curl-up books, but somehow I missed Chalice being published back in 2008 and bought it earlier this year to plug the gap.

The actual story is small – a young woman is unexpectedly given a significant responsibility she thinks she cannot live up to, but does it well (if unorthodoxically) despite herself. The end. But this is McKinley, and so the getting there is just delightful. She creates a fantasy world that runs along medieval lines, divided up into demesnes (domains) that are each looked after by a Master (lord), all united under an Overlord (king). The Master’s House (manor) is the centre of the demesne, and it is there that he and his Circle live – his eleven fellow wardens of the land, with titles such as Clearseer, Talisman, Weatherauger and Keepfast – including his Chalice, the second most influential person in the Circle after himself, always female, responsible for bring unity and peace to the Circle and the demesne alike.

The book is only concerned with one demesne, Willowlands (imagine a small English village where everyone knows one another and spend their days cutting firewood, tending beehives, growing vegetables and fruit and having children; better yet, imagine W B Yeats’ Innisfree). Willowlands lost its previous Master and Chalice violently in a fire, and the land has been thrown into chaos as a result. Only in this world the land reacts physically to the loss of these two symbolic people. Rifts are opening up in fields, there are earthquakes, and fires in the woodlands, the people and animals living there are more prone to sickness and accident. The earthlines are keening with distress. It has been divined (literally) by the Circle that the new Chalice is Mirasol, a beekeeper. Usually the current Chalice would have an apprentice to take the reins in the event of her death, but Mirasol’s predecessor had none and so Mirasol must learn her way on the job, feeling very much out of her depth.

And so the book follows her on her mostly inward journey as she learns to bring peace back to the land she lives on. For all her fears that she is not doing the best of jobs, she still has the gumption to get on with the doing instead of despairing, which is just as well because she has more than just her own role to worry about. Her new Master, also not an apprentice (don’t you hate predecessors that don’t prepare for the worst? Contingency plans people!), has been called home from the priesthood. Only in the world of Willowlands and its neighbours there’s no church, there are instead three Elements you can be dedicated to: Earth, Air and Fire, and the new Master was a priest of Fire. Priests of the Elements undergo physical transformation during their initiation, and so the Master is not quite human any more. His touch can burn flesh and he’s not quite corporeal any longer either.

It’s taken me three paragraphs just to try and give a sense of what the story is about, but reading this little 259-page book is more a process of absorption than slugging your way through an info-dump. And I don’t feel I’ve done the story much justice. It’s really beautiful, in all its smallness. Mirasol talks to the trees and to the land and to her bees and they listen to her. She notices the character of things, like bolshy, bragging lightning and sleepy, slow-moving pools of water. Her bees figure larger and larger in her life as they take to following her around the demesne when she is performing her duties, and producing so much honey for her that her cup literally overfloweth. And the honey they produce starts to take on different characteristics:

“There was a honey for stomach-aches and a honey for baldness; the stomach-ache honey was also good for bed-wetting and night-terrors in children, and the honey for baldness was also good for too-heavy bleeding during a woman’s monthly and for persuading a broody chicken to stop plucking her breast feathers and get back to laying eggs. (This particular combination made her laugh). And there was a honey that was particularly good for burns and wounds. There was also a honey to stop a well going dry, to stop a dog barking and to make fruit tress crop more heavily; and one that seemed to be to make the weather hold long enough to get the hay cut, dried and stacked.”

 

And the relationship between Mirasol and the Master is lovely too. It can’t quite be described as a love story, but is more like the prequel to their romance, something that will follow after the book is closed. They are two people who don’t think they can do everything that is expected of them, and they identify with each other and come to support each other as the story goes on. They sort of become each other’s anchors.

 

I can imagine people having lots of sarcastic things to say about Chalice in this age of the grimdark and the epic – and that’s too bad for them. I loved it for all its parochialism, descriptiveness and romance. I loved Ponty the pony, and the heart-breaking intervention by the bees, and the magic of Mirasol’s honey, and the moment with the beeswax candles, and learning how a priest of Fire sees the world through his black and red eyes. It’s all exactly what I needed. It was like being given some of Mirasol’s honey, reading this book; a warm, sweet, golden story that made me feel a whole lot better.

 

 

 

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

227463

The idea of censoring and banning books both flummoxes and fascinates me. The concept of protecting others from challenging ideas by denying them access seems odd to me because I associate challenge with growth – how can I become more than I am now if I am always given the easy path? Additionally, my job is all about making information freely available to all in the interests of empowerment. It is a job that rests upon the belief that to learn is to grow. There are some really crappy aspects to my job (contrary to the popular belief that library work is a bubble bath and a good book), and sometimes I have to remind myself really hard why I am doing it, but I do still believe that most people are basically good and that by talking about the challenging stuff instead of hiding it, we can reach greater understanding. (Here endeth the proselytizing of bkfrgr).

With this in mind, I found A Clockwork Orange a difficult book. It has been banned in some schools and libraries in the past for immorality and objectionable language, but the most controversial thing about it seems to be that it motivated Stanley Kubrick to make a film, which he then withdrew in the UK in 1973 amid fears that it was inspiring copycat behaviour among British teens. This ban wasn’t lifted until after his death in 1999, although plenty of illegal copies had made their way over here in the meantime. I have never seen the film. I remember it’s rerelease, but wasn’t overly interested at the time. My brother has since lent me a copy and it remains on the to-watch pile. Maybe having read the book and now knowing what to expect will spur me on to see it.

Yes, I found it difficult, but there was plenty in it I found interesting too: the fabulously slangy, guttural, stabby Nadsat language most of all; the world sketched in behind Alex and his droogs’ nightly crimes, where humanity has achieved space travel, television is not local or even national, but worldwide (‘worldcasts’), and yet the state seems to have a finger in every pie with its State Aid and State Jail or ‘staja’, Statefilm and Statemarts; and Burgess’ exploration of the question of whether it is a greater evil to remove free will in the pursuit of good behaviour, than it is to permit freely-chosen bad behaviour.

I found the patterns in the book interesting too. It opens with Alex and his droogs indulging in a night of drugs and ‘ultra-violence’. They attack an old man carrying a pile of library books, fight with a rival gang headed by a character called Billyboy, then steal a car and drive out to a house that they break into. Within lives a writer and his wife. The author is writing a book, A Clockwork Orange, the manuscript of which Alex destroys (very meta), before beating up the author and gang-raping his wife with his droogs. After being released back into society having received the Ludovico Technique treatment, Alex again meets the bookish old man, who beats him up; then he meets again with gang-leader Billyboy, now a policeman, who also savagely beats him, before driving him out of town and dumping him; finally, he finds himself again at the author’s house and is this time invited in, where he discovers that the author’s name is F. Alexander, (“Good Bog, I thought, he is another Alex”). Meanwhile, Alex’s three ex-droogs serve as examples of the choices available to him: Georgie dies while continuing in a life of crime; Dim becomes a policeman, a State-approved bully still revelling in violence; and Pete gets a job, a house, and a wife, Georgina, and slides into a conventional life.

Each section begins with the question “what’s it going to be then, eh?”, as does the final chapter (the controversial chapter 21; another pattern: three sections each with seven chapters, totalling twenty-one – twenty-one traditionally marking adulthood). This question begins each part with a choice. It is an ambiguous, open question, not signifying a choice between two things, between a right and a wrong, but just the presence of choice itself. Burgess argues again and again in the book that if there is no choice then a person is denied their humanity. The State already controls so much – what people buy, what they see on their screens – and the Ludovico Technique is just another step towards total control, and the reduction of humanity into mindless automata.

But humanity leans towards the violent. Not just the senseless violence of teenage gangs striking out at anyone weaker than themselves, but also the desire to punish. Alex and his gang commit appalling crimes against other people, but these victims, when faced with a reduced and enfeebled Alex, do not forgive. They exact revenge. They want to give back what they received. The old lady Alex attacks before he gets caught by the police is as violent as him, if less strong, and calls him a “wretched little slummy bedbug, breaking into real people’s houses” and one of the old men in the library tells Alex “you lot should be exterminated. Like so many noisome pests”. His victims don’t see the humanity in him anymore than he sees it in them. Even when he is being called “little Alex”, “son”, “my beauty”, and “good little 6655321” there is no human feeling behind the words. There is no affection. We are never shown love between any of the characters in this book.

And in the end I think that’s why I found it so difficult. There is not one redeeming relationship, not even a glimmer of hope. That last chapter, originally cut from the US edition of the book because the publishers felt that it was an unconvincing “Pollyanna ending”, (with Burgess’ agreement at the time – the controversy all seems to revolve around him later saying he was unwilling to have the chapter removed and the publishers WW Norton disputing this), doesn’t actually offer any light at the end of the tunnel, in my opinion. Alex discovers a desire to have a child, but he himself acknowledges that this hoped-for son “would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing … and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son”. We can assume that Alex will fall into the role his own “pee and emm” were in at the beginning of the book, tiptoeing around their child in the hopes of not setting him off. And this leaves me with the question: what then is the difference between Alex, stripped of his free will and prostrating himself before his would-be attacker because he is afraid of the newly-programmed and physically unpleasant consequences, and his parents similarly placating their son (albeit with less boot licking), trying to avoid violent reprisal? The motivator in both circumstances is fear, and if Frank Herbert has taught us anything it is that “fear is the mind-killer”, so where is the free will then? The few good deeds performed in A Clockwork Orange are done only to avoid punishment or for personal gain. It is a poor vision of humanity and one I simply don’t believe in.

 

I choose a different future for us.

The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding

9931820

“Welcome to the crew of the Ketty Jay … You ain’t a member till you’ve caused at least one major catastrophe.”

This is my favourite Ketty Jay book so far. It has more of everything I’ve enjoyed in this series and a whole lot less of the stuff that was irking me. After the fairly grim happenings in The Black Lung Captain the crew are back on form here, quipping their way through a fast paced adventure involving an ancient relic, a deadly curse and a lost city. It’s dieselpunk Indiana Jones all the way, baby.

What I liked most about The Iron Jackal is that the crew is a crew now and they’ve all realised it. We’ve learned enough about them, and they’ve learned enough about each other, that they feel solid. They, and we, know what the stakes are. They know who and what they’re fighting for when they wade in, and they care about each other. Not equally; they’re not all loved up or anything like that, there’s not much affection spared for Pinn, for example, or Harkins, but the group feels tight nonetheless. And when Frey falls into a life-threatening predicament, his crew are there, ready and waiting to help however they can.

There are three things, in my humble opinion, that Wooding does really well: he can write the heck out of an opening scene; he can create a creepy, horror-movie amount of tension out of thin air; and he provides his characters with brilliant banter. So from the get go – beginning with a lively chase across the sun-drenched rooftops of a Samarlan city – we’re thrown into a race against time to save Frey from a fate worse than de… yeah, OK, from death. That’s no small thing though, and we get to appreciate how much Frey has grown up in this book. He’s looking death in the face and deciding what kind of person he is, and even I, his least fond reader, have to tip my hat to him because he discovers reserves of mental fortitude he (and we) didn’t know he had. His crew too, in facing the possible end to their time on the Ketty Jay, are beginning to realise just how much they appreciate what their airship home gives them (freedom, protection, safe haven, escape). So everyone throws themselves wholeheartedly into the adventure this time round, even poor, nerve-shot Harkins.

And Frey needs all the help he can get, because the Iron Jackal is a very real, very scary thing. Something that has impressed me about Wooding’s writing from the start has been how quickly he can move from banter and action to chills-down-your-spine scenes of daemonic meddlings. This is why I have enjoyed Crake’s portions of the books so much, I think, because he gets all the creepy, more-dark-than-light bits of storyline. And perhaps that’s why I found the Iron Jackal as deliciously spooky as I did. Frey is usually just a victim of his own stupidity, he’s good for a fight and a bit of repartee, and he’s fun to laugh at. But this time he’s being hunted by something from Crake’s world of daemons and monsters and it’s that bit scarier to read because, unlike his friend, Frey’s really not equipped for this fight. Our first meeting with the Iron Jackal is wonderfully atmospheric and it (mostly) gets better as the book goes on.

Wooding also introduces us to a new character, Ashua, who in many ways is Frey’s female counterpart. There’s some excellent dialogue between her and Frey, (Frey mostly coming out worse off), and she quickly gets the measure of the Ketty Jay crew (although I spent most of the book terrified she was being introduced to replace Jez), so that by the end it feels quite natural that she should stay on with them; (which will remain fine by me as long as Wooding doesn’t kill off Jez in the fourth and final book. He can kill off Pinn whenever he likes, or Harkins, but if he lays one ink-stained finger on Jez I’ll leave all four Ketty Jay books out in the rain). (OK, I wouldn’t do that. But I’ll definitely donate them to a charity shop. And I won’t have nice things to say about it at all). Anyway … we get introduced to a Yort explorer called Ugrik who also contributes plenty to the witty chitchat, (he and Frey come across a statue at one point and their exchange about the statue’s eye had me in stitches* … I guess I found my level right there), as does the dastardly Jid Crickslint, and the wonderful Samandra Bree, the Century Knight. And while the lingering impression I have of The Black Lung Captain is one of grimness it made The Iron Jackal all the more enjoyable – this is Wooding at his grade-A witty chitchat best.

” ‘Ashua, Pinn and Harkins are gonna keep the bad guys busy while we do, and – 

‘Aren’t we the bad guys?’ Pinn asked suddenly.

They all stared at him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I mean we’re robbing them, right?’

‘We’re never the bad guys!’ said Frey, horrified at the suggestion.”

Possibly the greatest thing about this third book however, is that Silo finally gets his story told in a heap more detail. I really loved Silo’s journey and I rejoiced wholeheartedly at the end which promises he will now always be more than just a shadowy presence in the engine room. And with that I’ll say no more, because, believe it or not, I really am doing my darndest not to spoil anything.

The Iron Jackal is another rip-roaring adventure packed with train heists, plane races, prison breaks, stolen treasure, a mysterious city with plenty of nasty surprises within its walls, and the mother of all narrow escapes. There are more great character names like Jid Crickslint, Jakeley Screed, and Maddeus Brink, and we finally learn that Malvery’s first name is Althazar, which kind of suits him. We learn more about the doctor’s past and Jez’s present. There’s plenty more Bess (I love Bess, did I mention previously?) If you enjoyed Retribution Falls (irrespective of how you felt about The Black Lung Captain) you’ll enjoy this instalment too. Maybe, like me, you’ll enjoy it more.

 

*Well, I have to share it with you in case you don’t get round to reading it yourselves – although taken out of context it might not give you quite as much of a chuckle as it gives me:

” ‘Is that an eye?’ he asked.

‘Aye.’

‘That’s what I said. An eye.’

‘And I said Aye.’

‘Yes! An eye!’

‘Aye! Aye meaning yes! Aye, it’s an eye!’

‘Oh.’ “

*snorting with laughter*

The Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti Trilogy Coverart

I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor back in 2014 when I read about her novel Lagoon. I was hugely excited at the prospect of a book in which aliens landed in Africa and immediately added it to my list. I am ashamed to say I then did absolutely nothing about getting or reading it. When people started talking about the Binti novellas I didn’t even connect Okorafor with Lagoon at first. This dreadful inability to retain stuff frustrates me more than I can say. I want to know and read everything, but as a result I end up knowing and reading far less than I would if I just got on with it, instead of bouncing about all over the place trying to find out all the things. Maybe I’ll learn, but it’s doubtful.

Anyhow, I read the Binti books back to back last week, and as a result finally ordered Lagoon (only four years late, I guess it could be worse). I really enjoyed Binti’s story. One of the things I love most about science fiction is its thought experiment nature: what would happen if X? If Y were true, how would we evolve? What if Z is out there? Okorafor’s novellas present a space-faring future world from the point of view of a young African girl from a very traditional, grounded, inward-looking people, and then gives her admission to the best university in the universe. It’s a lovely big ‘what if?’ and Binti herself is wonderful. She combines both the age-old traditions of her Himba people, a strong desire to become more and an adventurous/rebellious streak. She represents change, she suffers change, and she embraces change over the course of her story, and proves herself able to do so while still holding onto her selfhood.

These would be very different books if Binti weren’t such a great character. She perfectly captures what it is to be torn three different ways by the expectations of family, what she wants for herself, and the roles she finds herself thrust into by circumstance, and in all three books she struggles to reconcile these three things within her person. She is brave and intelligent, capable and practical, joyous and curious. I really did fall a little bit in love with her as she was singled out again and again, as a Himba in the Khoush-dominated launch station; as the only student to survive the bloodbath on Third Fish; as a part-Meduse ambassador-hero estranged from her fellow students at Oomza; as an ‘unclean’ outsider when she returns home; and as a ‘barbarian’ Enyi Zinariya when she embraces her paternal heritage. Her resilience and humour continue throughout her various trials and she overcomes by absorption – she accepts that she can be more than just one thing.

“Change was constant. Change was my destiny. Growth.”

At its most beautiful Binti’s story reads like an exemplum. On the one hand, we are shown Oomza University embracing all species who wish to learn, and Binti herself, able to accept so much change and roll with some real gut-punches; on the other, we are shown the Meduse and Khoush peoples unable to see past an old, old grudge, and humanity still desperately struggling to embrace diversity within its own species. Okorafor doesn’t pass judgement, but her message is clear: growth and change are fundamental to life.

In other places, things feel unresolved. Binti’s arguments with her family over her ‘abandonment’ of them and her very different nature on her return home never reach any conclusions, and the peace that she works so hard to forge between the Meduse and the Khoush doesn’t survive. Binti’s edan remains a partial mystery, and her journey to the rings of Saturn is oddly anticlimactic. But none of this really spoils her story. Instead it feels, to me at least, like the offshoots on a branch. Okorafor is exploring her character both as catalyst and embodiment of change within a fairly tight space. Some offshoots don’t go anywhere because their leaves haven’t unfurled yet. There’s only so much space to grow. It feels like Okorafor is writing the aspects that interest her and not worrying too much about tying everything off. Weirdly, (I’m a completionist by nature), I found I liked this. I heard enough of Binti and her family’s argument to know how everyone felt, but knew too that they all loved each other – there may never be an end to the disagreement, but they will see past it and move around it. The peace between the Meduse and the Khoush did succeed, ever so briefly, which means there’s hope that it will again given time and opportunity. Change happens and happens and happens.

I also lovelovelove Okorafor’s world, and that astrolabes are the very least of it. I love the Miri 12 ships (SHRIMPS IN SPACE!!) Third Fish and New Fish and their plant-filled breathing chambers; I love that 20-foot-tall golden aliens landed in the desert for some R&R; I love the zinariya technology dormant in the blood until activated; I love that the Himba are obsessed with technology and are master astrolabe builders, but have no urge to travel beyond their own lands; I love the glorious variety of life at Oomza University and that humanity is only one of the latest arrivals there. It’s all fabulously alien, and plausible, and wonderful and Okorafor achieves it without any info-dumping (these books are just too small for that). You learn more about astrolabes as the story goes on, but you never really know everything there is to know about them. The same is true about the Miri 12s, the golden aliens, and the zinariya. They are all just parts of this world and you accept them or you don’t.

And I also want to take a moment and ask you to appreciate with me the B.E.A.U-tiful cover art for the three volumes, done by David Palumbo. Not only does it make my heart glad to see an artist’s work rather than a designer’s on a book cover (there are brush strokes!), but the choice of image also pleases me greatly. Not a harsh alien landscape or spaceship in sight, just three very different, very lovely portraits. Mr Palumbo and Tor, I salute you!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

 

29475447

Reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was like reading a warm fuzzy hug of a book where the point was not to get into world-altering life-threatening situations but to make friends and find a place where you could be yourself. Like iyashikei manga it was a celebration of things that give comfort: companionship, food, and home (wherever that may be). Yes, there was drama, but really the reader knew everyone was going to be OK. Chambers is a glass-half-full writer, interested in the good that can be found in people and in life, and I enjoyed The Long Way because of that.

Cracking the spine of A Closed and Common Orbit (Okay, I’ve never cracked a book’s spine, I don’t know why I said that) was more of the same in the best possible way. Roughly half the book, in alternating chapters, tells Pepper’s backstory, so you know everything turns out well in the end for her because she’s right there in the present of Lovelace-now-Sidra’s half of the book. And there are plenty of parallels to be made between the two character’s circumstances, so really you know that Sidra’s going to pull through too. Both Pepper and Sidra learn to appreciate and connect with the people they meet and the places they find themselves in. Pepper’s childhood was pretty grim, but I still can’t say that the book’s tone was anything but brim-full of hope. Even when Pepper is at her lowest she’s still a delight and even when Sidra’s at her grumpiest her friends are still there for her.

All of that said, I found A Closed and Common Orbit more thought-provoking than The Long Way. Sidra’s situation, finding herself in an illegal body kit having previously been a ship-wide AI with eyes and ears everywhere, is well described. This sudden constriction of her perception, the sensory overload she experiences in crowded open areas, her utter frustration at the limits of her memory storage, her inability to see ‘the kit’ as herself, is all fascinating: she feels reduced by her small and individual body, and yet it is that very small and individual body that gives her an autonomy she could never have had as a ship’s AI.

And this is the thing that got me thinking: Humanity may one day be faced with the question of whether an AI that can learn and expand beyond its originally programmed commands is permitted personhood. You know, after we’ve acknowledged the rights of all people, accepted that we share our planet with myriad intelligences (those we haven’t wiped out, anyway), learned to live in harmony and all that good stuff. There is no question for the characters helping Sidra that she is a person, entitled to privacy, autonomy and liberty, despite it being illegal for her to be housed in a human-looking body. They help her adapt to her very changed circumstances, try to make her comfortable, help her explore her new sensory world and discover her likes and dislikes. She is a growing personality over the course of the book, expanding beyond her core program, making choices, throwing tantrums, and, profoundly, coming to terms with the very human condition of having no clearly defined purpose. She struggles heroically with the sensory, emotional and psychological effects of this expansion, and reaches a lot of compromises in order to find a place in which she can be herself.

One interesting, albeit minor, parts of her adjustment, is the problem of Sidra’s honesty protocol. Unable to lie or successfully evade conversations that could reveal her secret, her honesty protocol has to be disabled, but this is not something she can do herself because she’s a tool, and a tool that tells lies is obviously a whole heap more threatening than one that has to tell the truth. While Chambers doesn’t dwell on it, there is even a moment when Tak appears to be uncomfortable with Sidra’ new-found ability to lie after he helps her achieve it. But the telling of lies is an aspect of choice and necessary to fitting in, and Sidra has gained an important social ability that will enable her to make others feel comfortable, or get out of situations she doesn’t want to be in.

“Sidra started to say the words ‘I’m fine’, but another possible response appeared, a far more tantalising one: ‘I don’t feel any different’. Her pathways buzzed gleefully. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. There was a difference in her – not a big one, but she could feel it. ‘I don’t feel any different’ was a nice colloquial way to reassure someone that she was okay, but an hour before, she wouldn’t have been able to say it.”

Pepper’s story is equally fascinating, especially in the way it’s cut with Sidra’s. One minute Chambers has you pondering the incredible amount of input Sidra is attempting to process just being out in the open, the next she has you reading about Pepper, when she was 10-year-old Jane 23, seeing the sky for the first time. In very different ways Pepper and Sidra both have to learn how to deal with the enormity of the world around them, and that just because they were made for a particular purpose doesn’t mean that they are then defined by that purpose always. I love that the vocabulary in Pepper’s chapters increases as she learns, and the lovely symmetry of Owl being there for Jane 23 and later Pepper being there for Sidra.

There were a couple of things I missed while reading this. I missed the crew of the Wayfarer and would have liked just a glimpse of how they were all doing even as I was impressed that here was a sequel that didn’t feel the need to just do over what had proved successful in book one. And I missed not seeing the wider universe as Chambers sees it. This was a much more grounded book based on Pepper and Blue’s awful planet of origin and in Port Coriol for the most part, (although I loved Port Coriol and have added it to my fantasy holiday destinations list). And I perhaps enjoyed this just a smidgeon less than I did The Long Way. But it’s still a keeper and something I will reread. It’s still a book with a squishy big heart. And I’m still going to recommend it to my nearest and dearest, and anyone else who gets in my way.

 

Incidentally, I’m claiming this for the AI category on my Book Bingo.